The Home Office has introduced a new system for visitors to the UK who do not currently require a visa.
The new system is called the Electronic Travel Authorisation Scheme (ETA Scheme). Under the new ETA rules, ''non-visa nationals'' wishing to visit the UK will need to apply online for permission to travel to the UK in advance of check-in and arrival in the UK.
The ETA Scheme is being introduced in stages, and most non-visa nationals will not be required to apply until 2024.
Who is a ''non-visa national''?
Nationals of countries who are required to apply for visitor visas before travelling to the UK are known as ''visa nationals''. A list of ''visa national'' countries can be found here.
Any nationality not included in the visa national list (except for British and Irish citizens) is known as a ''non-visa national''. Individuals from non-visa national countries do not ordinarily require a visa prior to travelling to the UK as short-term visitors. It is to this group of people that the ETA applies.
The ETA does not apply to visa nationals, and there is no change to the visitor visa process they must follow. As such, visa nationals must continue to apply for and be granted a visitor visa under the current rules for visitors prior to travelling to the UK.
Why is the ETA being introduced?
The Home Office aims to have an end-to-end digital service for UK visitors to streamline travel and enhance UK border security. In the wider context of legal migration, the ETA Scheme will enable the Government to assess and have prior knowledge of individuals planning to enter the UK, with the aim of preventing individuals who pose a threat to the UK from being able to travel here.
The ETA Scheme is not a new concept, and in fact similar schemes operate in many other countries. For instance, visitors to the US must apply for permission to travel to the US under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization ("ESTA") visa waiver programme, and in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, visitors must already obtain an ETA prior to arrival. The EU will also be launching a similar scheme called the European Travel Information and Authorisation System ("ETIAS") in 2024.
It is important to note that the ETA grants permission to travel to the UK, but does not guarantee that entry to the UK will be granted. Non-visa nationals may still be required to demonstrate to UK Border Force that they are genuine visitors to the UK upon arrival at a UK port.
Who will need to apply?
Every traveller, including children of any age, will be required to apply for an ETA if they are a non-visa national and seeking to enter the UK as a visitor for up to six months for the purpose of for tourism, visiting family and friends, business, or short-term study.
It does not apply to British or Irish nationals (provided they are traveling to UK on those passports) or to non-visa nationals who have a valid visa for the UK. It is important to note that ETA holders will need to travel to UK on the passport through which they made their ETA application.
Additionally, any non-visa nationals who are transiting through the UK will also need to have ETA authorisation, even if the transit period is short.
Non-visa nationals coming to the UK for three months or less as a Temporary Worker (Creative) migrant and who will be seeking entry permission at the UK border with a valid Certificate of Sponsorship will need to apply for an ETA prior to travelling to the UK.
Visa nationals who are legally resident in Ireland do not need ETA pre-authorisation to travel to the UK as a visitor. This is provided that they are traveling to the UK directly from within the Common Travel Area. Such individuals may be required to provide evidence of their legal residence in Ireland at the UK border.
When must I apply?
While the ETA scheme will eventually apply to all non-visa nationals, it will be introduced in stages. In the first instance, it will apply only to nationals of Qatar seeking to travel to the UK on or after 15 November 2023. Any Qatari individual who requires an ETA can make an application from 25 October 2023.
The scheme will then extend to nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from 22 February 2024 with online applications being made available from 1 February 2024.
More countries will continue to be added to the scheme as time goes by and EU and EEA nationals are likely to be included in the scheme by the end of 2024.
It is advisable to apply for an ETA before booking any travel. Upon application, the Home Office aims to process applications in three working days. However, there may be circumstances whereby the application will take more than three working days. As such, applicants should apply for ETA authorisation in good time, giving sufficient leeway to apply for a visitor visa in case ETA authorisation is refused.
How do I apply and what are the costs?
Applications can be made online ETA application on the Gov.UK website or an application using the UK ETA app. It is possible for a third party to apply on behalf of others. If the applicant is not physically with the person assisting to make the application, it will be necessary to apply online rather than through the app.
The cost of the application is £10 and to apply it is necessary to have the passport of the traveller, a photograph of the traveller (unless applying using the app in the traveller's physical presence, in which case it is possible to take a photograph directly of the traveller using the app). It is not necessary to provide any travel details as part of the application.
How long are ETAs valid?
ETAs will be valid for two years and will be linked to the passport of the applicant. During the two-year validity period, the non-visa national may travel to the UK any number of times, provided their travel meets the wider requirements of the UK immigration rules including those in relation to visitors.
If anyone who has been granted an ETA subsequently renews or changes their passport, they will need to apply for a new ETA to be linked to their new passport.