Millions of people are currently able to enjoy visa-free entry to the UK, with no need to make any declarations or applications to the Home Office. However, that is all set to change, with a new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) requirement due to be rolled out that will affect travellers from Europe, North America and beyond.

The system will be similar to the digital ESTA programme in place in the US, or the Australian ETA. The Home Office estimates there will be around 30 million applications each year once it has fully launched by 2025.

The government has said the introduction of the ETA will “digitise the borders” and “help to strengthen the UK’s border security and improve the travel experience”, though critics have questioned the decision to add hurdles for foreign visitors to gain entry to the UK.

The scheme officially launches this month, starting with Qatari nationals, and will be extended to other visitors over the next few years. Here we give an overview of the new scheme.

What is it?

The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is new a new piece of digital documentation granting people permission to travel or transit in the UK. It is an extra step of pre-clearance before travel, that does not replace travel documentation or guarantee right to enter the country. Visitors will still need to pass through border control and security as normal.

An ETA will be required for visitors travelling for tourism, visiting family or friends, business or short-term studies, or transiting, with stays allowed for up to six months. AN ETA will be required whether travelling via boat, plane or train, and boarding will be denied without an ETA. Visitors coming for other reasons, such as long-term work or study, will need to apply for the appropriate visa.

Who will need an ETA?

The ETA will apply to all foreign nationals who currently do not require a visa to travel to the UK, including children. This will affect millions of people who have previously had no contact with the Home Office, such as US, European, and Australian nationals.

Who will not need an ETA?

People with British or Irish passports (or who have legal residency in Ireland), permission to live, work or study in the UK, or those with visas to visit the UK will not need an ETA. Dual nationals should travel on their British or Irish passport.

When does it come into effect?

The roll out of the ETA system will be phased over the next few years. The new system will start with nationals from Qatar, who will need an ETA to travel to the UK from 15 November, 2023. Applications opened on 25 October.

This will next be extended to nationals from Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who will need an ETA from 22 February, 2024. Applications will open on 1 February.

More nationalities will be added to the scheme in due course, though the details have not yet been announced.

How do I apply?

Applicants can apply at or via the ETA app before booking travel to the UK. You’ll be required to enter your passport details and travel information, and will need to travel on the same passport used in the application.

Individuals can apply for an ETA on behalf of others, for example, office travel managers can apply on behalf of colleagues that will be travelling. Each traveller will need their own ETA.

How much will it cost?

A single application will cost £10.

How long does it take to process?

Successful applications are expected to take up to a maximum of three days to process. Applicants will receive an email confirmation and the ETA will be linked electronically to their passport. A paper copy is not required but can be useful as a back up in case of technical errors. Applications that require further investigation may take longer.

How long is the ETA valid for?

The ETA will last for two years, and can be used for multiple journeys. If your passport expires in that time you will need to apply for a new ETA.

What happens if I am denied an ETA?

If your application for an ETA is unsuccessful there is no appeal process. In such cases, the individual’s next port of call would be to apply for a Standard Visitor visa, which would require a more comprehensive overview of personal information/travel and immigration history. Alternatively, visitors may be able to apply for a Temporary Work – Creative Worker visa, or a transit visa.