The U.K. government has revealed new details about its pending visa-free entry system, Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), which will apply to many travelers arriving and transiting the country from next year.
Under the new system, modeled on the United States Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), travelers who don’t need a visa to enter the U.K. for short stays will now need to apply for online permits to step foot in the country, including its airports. That includes travelers from the U.S., Australia, and most European countries.
Applications for Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) can be filed through the U.K. government website or an ETA app for £10 ($12.74 per person). As part of the application, they must provide biometric details and answer questions about their suitability to enter the U.K.
“This will ensure we have information on those seeking to come to the U.K. helping to prevent dangerous individuals, such as criminals, entering the U.K.,” the British government says.
A decision on each application will “usually” be made within three days, although based on the example of the ESTA program, it could be made much more quickly.
Once issued, each ETA will be valid for two years and can be used on multiple trips to the U.K. However, the U.K. government clarifies that “an ETA does not guarantee entry,” and the U.K. Border Force will still question travelers upon arrival.
Who needs to obtain an ETA?
ETAs will be required of travelers entering the country on planes, trains, and ferries, and operators of those services will be expected to verify that passengers have the appropriate authorization before departure.
The ETA system will be gradually rolled out over the next 18 months, with Qatari nationals the first to need ETAs from November 15, 2023.
On February 22, 2024, the program will be extended to nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
By the end of 2024, all travelers who qualify for visa-free entry to the U.K., except for U.K. and Irish nationals, those with U.K. settled status, and those with “permission to live, work, or study” in the U.K., will need to apply for ETAs.
That includes travelers who are merely catching connecting flights in the U.K. and don’t intend to leave the airport.
Pushing Away Traffic?
That strictness is causing worry in the travel industry, which warns that travelers could be discouraged from passing through the U.K., harming British airlines and airports, especially London Heathrow (LHR).
Around one-third of passengers at Heathrow are simply making connections. Experts warn that having to shell out £10 each and fill out ETA applications to switch terminals could push them to use other European hubs.
A spokesperson for the airport said: “Heathrow is a strong hub and Europe’s largest airport. Transiting passengers play a key role in supporting routes to many long-haul destinations boosting trade, tourism, and investment opportunities.”
“The government should ensure visa and border policies do not generate any competitive disadvantage for the U.K.,” the spokesperson stressed.
There is a possibility that British carriers will experience an impact as well. Paul Charles, a former communications director of Virgin Atlantic and current director of The P.C. Agency, disclosed this information. According to his statement to The Independent, potential consequences may arise.
“British Airways and Virgin Atlantic rely on transit passengers to fill their long-haul flights, make a profit and employ more people. Taxing transit will turn away tens of thousands of people who will find an easier hub,” Charles said.
If the numbers of transiting passengers fall, airlines could also be pushed to cut flights to the U.K., harming British passengers.
The U.K. government has defended requiring ETAs for transiting travelers. A spokesperson for the Home Office said, “Strengthening our border remains one of the government’s top priorities, and the introduction of the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme will enhance our border security by increasing our knowledge about those seeking to come to the U.K. and preventing the arrival of those who pose a threat, including those transiting through the U.K.”
“Requiring transit passengers to obtain an ETA will stop transit being a future loophole for people to use to avoid needing an ETA.”