Why the Government is making it harder and more expensive to visit the UK

The Government has given the green light to the new ETA scheme
The Government has given the green light to the new ETA scheme - Oscar Wong/Moment RF

From next month, Qatari passport holders will need to obtain an ETA (electronic travel authorisation) to visit the UK. It’s nothing personal, says the Government. As of February 2024, residents of other Gulf states will need one, and the scheme will be rolled out to residents of all countries by the end of 2024.

Like the US ESTA, launched in 2008, and the EU’s forthcoming ETIAS, the UK’s ETA is described as a “visa-waiver scheme” and affects nationals of countries that can currently visit the UK as a holidaymaker without a full tourist visa.

In 2019, 146 million passenger arrivals were recorded at the UK border (both visitors and returning Britons). Only a small percentage of travellers arrive with a visa. The Government says the ETA scheme will improve border security because it will collect more information about non-visa visitors and allow more time to screen them. Advance screening will, according to the Home Office, reduce the number of people denied entry at the border (for example, those with a criminal record) as they will not be permitted to travel in the first place.

The visa waiver was first announced in 2021 by then Home Secretary Priti Patel, who vowed to create “a new system that works for the law-abiding majority and against those who hope to abuse our hospitality and generosity.”

Critics of the scheme are concerned it could deter tourists from Europe, Canada, the US and Australia – all of whom currently visit without a visa.

The ETA scheme will affect tourists flocking to London and other UK destinations
The ETA scheme will affect tourists flocking to London and other UK destinations - Hollie Adams/Getty

What is the ETA?

ETA is a registration scheme for people who do not need a visa to come to the UK. It will give them permission to travel to the UK and will be linked electronically to their passport.

It will be required for tourist visits of up to six months, arrivals on the Creative Worker scheme (designed for actors, dancers, musicians and film crew members sponsored by firms) for up to three months, and to transit through the UK, even if not passing through border control.

If an individual’s ETA application is refused they will need to apply for a full visa (which costs from £100).

Who does it apply to?

ETAs are for those who do not need a visa for short trips to the UK.

Qatari visitors will need one from November 15, 2023; they can apply from October 25.

Nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – the other members of the so-called Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – will need it from February 22, 2024; they can apply from February 1, 2024.

From the end of next year, nationals of other visa-waiver countries, including Europeans, Canadians and Australians, will be required to apply.

How does it work?

The ETA application will be online. Individuals will need to provide contact details and biographic and biometric data (a photograph of their face) and answer a set of suitability questions.

Travellers, like these queuing at Heathrow, will have to apply for the ETA online
Travellers, like these queuing at Heathrow, will have to apply for the ETA online - Carl Court/Getty

The ETA will be valid for two years or until a passport expires, whichever is sooner.  Possession of one will be confirmed at airport check-in; they are tied to passport numbers and no hard copy will be required.

Each traveller must get their own ETA, including children and babies.

The Government says most people will get a decision within three working days. It has produced a video to explain the process.

How much does it cost?

£10 per applicant, subject to review; £15 is already being mooted as a possible future charge. For comparison, the US ESTA costs $21 (£17).

What will the money be spent on?

The Home Office estimate for net income ranges from £180 million to £400 million per year. It hasn’t announced how the money will be spent. Set-up and IT costs for public and private sectors will be well into the millions.

The US channels US$100 million annually from the ESTA into the Travel Promotion Fund, a public-private partnership that promotes the sector. In 2018, an excess of US$60 million went directly to paying the foreign debt.

The European Union is expected to introduce a similar visa-waiver called ETIAS
The European Union is expected to introduce a similar visa-waiver called ETIAS - Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty

What will happen to the data collected?

The UK Borders Agency says it will keep information “for as long as it is necessary for permitted purposes… At the border, passenger name records data is retained for up to five years. Advance passenger information may be retained for 10 years.”

Other, more sensitive data can be held for between six and 25 years.

Fingerprints are typically held for 15 years. An individual can request the Secretary of State to delete their facial photograph.

Why are so many governments rolling out this electronic red tape at once?

The ETA scheme, like the ESTA, is intended to tighten border controls and enable the Government to gather data about visitors to the UK. The Home Office calls it “digitising the border” and believes that between 16 to 32 per cent of current refusals at the border could be prevented by the ETA scheme.

The European Union is expected to introduce a similar visa-waiver called ETIAS in 2025 for all travellers to the EU, including UK nationals. The ETIAS will require an address, passport details, current occupation, and information about past travel to conflict zones or criminal convictions. No biometric data, such as fingerprints will be collected on application, but on arrival at the border, travellers will have to provide a facial image and fingerprints as part of a separate scheme called Entry/Exit Systems (EES).

The EU says: “By providing vital information on security, irregular migration and public health, ETIAS will significantly contribute to closing existing security information gaps.”

ETIAS is expected to cost €7 and last for three years. There isn’t a confirmed date yet for the introduction of the scheme.

The Government estimates a maximum of 1.4 million visitors annually could be deterred by the ETA
The Government estimates a maximum of 1.4 million visitors annually could be deterred by the ETA - Hollie Adams/Getty

Will it deter visitors?

A case study undertaken by the UN World Trade Organisation and World Travel and Tourism Council found that the introduction of the US ESTA program did not negatively impact tourist arrivals. The Government estimates a maximum of 1.4 million visitors annually could be deterred by the relatively small fee and bureaucracy.

Joss Croft OBE, CEO of UKinbound – which represents 400 UK-based tour firms, says: “Our country is already at or near the bottom for international price competitiveness due to the plethora of taxes and costs, such as the high rates of VAT on hospitality, and the removal of tax free shopping for our international visitors.

“We are keen to see certain adjustments to the scheme such as reversing the decision for those visitors who are only transiting through the UK’s airports and other transport hubs to hold an ETA, which will put us at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of Europe; and rolling out the ETA scheme to EU nationals – who are our biggest inbound market – after the traditional summer season next year.”

Sacha Schoenfeld, an immigration lawyer at Fox Williams, added: “It’s safe to say that the ETA requirement will add to red tape, and statements from the travel industry have warned that it will disadvantage UK airports, airlines and tourism, with the possibility that the long queues in evidence at ports and terminals over recent months could also worsen – not least because the Government has confirmed that ‘an ETA does not guarantee entry to the UK’: visitors could be stopped and questioned upon arrival, whether they are coming to the UK to visit or are simply in transit.  So – it’s just yet another hurdle being faced by already burdened travellers, carriers, ports and airports.”

Long queues at ports like Dover could worsen
Long queues at ports like Dover could worsen - Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty

Rob Russell, CEO of AC Group, a destination management company that specialises in bringing international visitors to the UK and Ireland, comments: “My main concern about the introduction of the UK’s new electronic travel authorisation scheme is that we will be out of sync with the European Union which will also be rolling out a similar system in the near future for its international visitors.

“The UK’s scheme will have different terms and conditions, be more expensive and is currently only available in English. This just adds another layer of complexity for our visitors, many of whom combine a trip to the UK with travel to Ireland or France – London and Paris, for example, is one of our most popular packages.”

Due to the absence of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, some politicians in Northern Ireland have deemed the ETA “unworkable”. Calls to exempt tourists visiting for a week or less have been rejected, with warnings coach tours to the north from the south could be axed.


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