[Update April 5, 2023 at 14:30 - The implementation of the Etias scheme is now expected to take place in 2024.]
The UK has announced plans for a “contactless digital border” that will likely mean EU and other citizens who have visa-free access to the country having to apply for permission to enter the UK before travelling.
This could involve travellers having to send a photo of themselves along with their personal and travel document details as well as pay a small fee in order to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA), as part of a “pre-screening” process.
They will then theoretically be able to pass through passport control without scanning their passport or being checked by border agents, with facial recognition technology potentially being used instead.
The measure is part of the UK’s ‘New Plan for Immigration: Migration and Border Control Strategy’ and was announced by the country’s Home Secretary Priti Patel earlier this week.
The system is similar to the EU’s planned Etias visa-waiver scheme, which should be fully operational by May 2023.
Irish passport holders are very likely to be exempt from having to apply for an ETA.
Is the UK definitely going ahead with this?
The exact specifics of the ETA system – including exactly who will be affected and how it will work in reality – are yet to be fully clarified, but the government has said that it is aiming to begin pilot testing from 2024.
Ms Patel has stated:
“As Home Secretary, I have been focused of [SIC] taking back control of our immigration system through my New Plan for Immigration.
“This includes ensuring we have a border that is fit for the 21st century which allows travellers to get a visa and pass through the border easily, while maintaining national security.
“I am also committed to ensuring our fantastic Border Force are given access to the most up to date automation technologies so they can use their specialised skills on protecting our border from those who seek to harm the UK.”
Who would be affected?
This system appears to strongly resemble the EU’s Etias scheme.
Under this, people who have visa-free access to Schengen member countries, future Schengen member countries, European Free Trade Association countries and European microstates will have to apply for entry permission before travelling.
This will mean UK citizens will have to obtain an Etias ahead of travelling to France and other Etias countries, which will cost €7.
If the UK’s system is a mirror of this, then it is likely that EU citizens – and other nationalities with visa-free access to the UK – will have to apply for an ETA ahead of travel.
The idea is that it will allow UK border authorities to do a security check on the person before they begin their journey, meaning no physical checks will be needed when they arrive in the UK.
This should in theory enable more non-British travellers to use e-gates and speed up waiting times in passport control.
UK and Irish passport holders would not need to do anything.
Would there be payment?
There will almost certainly be a payment to obtain an ETA, but how much is not yet known.
Euronews has reported £18 (around €21) and the Daily Mirror has reported £11. The British government has confirmed neither of these publicly.
Why is this being talked about?
It is one of Ms Patel’s post-Brexit ‘tough on migration’ measures, which involve plans for a ‘Permission to Travel’ scheme for all people arriving in the UK from 2023.
The government states:
“The future border will make it harder for those who pose a threat to enter the UK and make it easier for those who contribute to our economy to have a seamless experience through our border.
“Our ETA scheme will mean that it is easier for our friends to come to and contribute to the UK, but harder for those we do not want to come here.”
What is the EU's Etias scheme?
Etias is a ‘visa waiver’ and is similar to the US system ESTA. It will be required for travellers with visa-free access to all Schengen member countries, future Schengen member countries, European Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) and European microstates (Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Vatican City).
The Republic of Ireland does not fall under any of these.
Once in place, any British, American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese or other non-EU person with visa-free access to the Schengen countries travelling to France will have to apply for Etias approval in advance, costing €7.
An Etias authorisation remains valid for a period of three years.
“The [Etias] system will cross-check travellers against EU information systems for internal security, borders and migration before their trip, helping to identify ahead of time people who may pose a risk to security or health, as well as compliance with migration rules,” the European Commission stated on August 3, 2021.
It will work in conjunction with another digital security system - the Entry/Exit System (EES).
The EES is essentially an electronic passport check. It will record the details of non-EU citizens entering the Schengen Area, including name and passport details, entry and exit dates, a photograph and an image of the traveller’s fingerprint, and will replace the need for a passport stamp.
The EES is to start being rolled out from the end of September this year.
Then, from early 2023, non-EU travellers are also expected to have to apply online for travel authorisation under ‘Etias’.