ETA Unknown: Electronic Travel Authorisation

Among election proposals this week were Conservative plans to introduce a new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) for travel to the UK – a concept already familiar to anyone who has travelled recently using the USA’s ESTA or Canada’s eTA. It will apply to all travellers to the UK who do not already have an appropriate visa, including EU citizens after Brexit.

Key themes

The current system for travelling to the UK divides into two basic groups – people are either “visa nationals” or “non-visa nationals”, depending on their citizenship.  Visa nationals need to have been granted a visa before travelling to the UK in any capacity – whether to work or study, join family or just on vacation.  Non-visa nationals still need a visa before travelling for most of these but if they are only coming on vacation or for specific business-related activities, they don’t need to get a visa in advance – they just land at the airport or get off the ferry in the UK and seek entry permission on arrival.

The proposal for the future requirement is that no-one should just be able to show up at the port of entry and seek permission on arrival, even non-visa nationals.  Visa nationals would still require a visa but non-visa nationals would be expected to apply online for Electronic Travel Authorisation before travelling.  This is supposed to be a “light touch” form but one that allows the Government to conduct additional security checks in advance of travel and make more informed decisions at an earlier stage.

The UK already introduced a similar system called the Electronic Visa Waiver (EVW) in 2014 for citizens of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  The two big differences are that the EVW system is a narrow exemption allowing certain visa nationals to apply in place of getting a visa, and that each EVW only permits a single trip to the UK.  The new ETA is supposed to be valid for a longer time and permit multiple journeys.

Although the ETA is being raised now as part of Conservative plans to enhance border security, it should be noted that this is not a new policy.  It was previously included in the immigration White Paper, published 12 months ago.  It is also a reflection of plans already held by the EU to introduce their own version, named ETIAS.  Just as the ETA is expected to apply to EU citizens after Brexit, ETIAS is expected to apply the British citizens travelling to the EU after Brexit.  Discussions to come about the “future relationship” may still change both of these plans, however, and there remains the question of how this will affect the Common Travel Area (which currently allows borderless travel between Ireland and the UK and islands). 

For now, the proposals don’t appear to have progressed beyond the White Paper a year ago.

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of December 5, 2019.