On 15th November 2023, the new Electronic Travel Authorisation UK will start to be rolled out. Airlines and other travel carriers will need to update their processes to comply with the ETA UK requirements.  

Key takeaways:

  • Learn what the new Electronic Travel Authorisation UK is
  • Find out what ETA UK means for travel operators
  • Understand what this means for your passenger check-in processes

Over the past few decades, a growing number of countries have launched electronic travel authorisation (ETA) programmes. Australia was a frontrunner here, launching its ETA in 1996. Then the US followed in 2008 with its ESTA, and Canada introduced its eTA in 2016. In November 2023, the United Kingdom will become the latest country to launch such a system with the ETA UK. ETIAS will then be the next one for EU / schengen zone. 

The Electronic Travel Authorisation UK will come into effect in November 2023, with an initial trial for Qatari travellers, followed by citizens from several Middle Eastern countries in February 2024. Then, the ETA UK will be rolled out to travellers from the rest of the world by the end of 2024. 

The ETA UK will affect airlines of all sizes, as well as other travel operators (sea, rail and road), so it’s essential to learn what it is, and how it will affect your processes. 

Introduction to the Electronic Travel Authorisation UK

The UK ETA is part of a wider plan to digitise the country’s borders, and make travel safer and more efficient. Below you will find an overview of the ETA for the UK. We then look at what it means for airlines and other travel operators. 

What is an electronic travel authorisation (ETA)?

An ETA is a form of travel authorisation for people who wish to travel to a country where they don’t need a visa. Many countries have agreements with other nations whereby their citizens don’t need to apply for a full visa when visiting for shorter periods of time, or for certain kinds of travel. An ETA provides a way of monitoring those non-visa travellers. 

An ETA is different to a visa. A visa is a document that allows an individual from country X to stay in country Y and partake in certain activities (e.g. to study; to start a company; to do temporary seasonal work, etc.). An ETA is a method for checking the identity of people who are travelling to a country where they don’t need a visa to visit. It’s mainly, but not exclusively, for people travelling for tourism, visiting friends/family, or business. 

When an individual plans to visit a country where they don’t need a visa, they must apply for the ETA via an online portal where they share information about themselves. This information includes things like their passport details, address, contact information, travel plans, and a photograph of their face. They then pay a small fee. 

The purpose of an ETA is to:

  • Screen non-visa travellers in advance of travel
  • Prevent people who shouldn’t travel from trying to do so
  • Gather more data about non-visa travellers, patterns and behaviour

What is the Electronic Travel Authorisation UK?

The UK’s ETA is similar to the electronic travel authorisation systems already in place in countries like Australia, the US and Canada (as well as the EU’s ETIAS which is expected to come into effect in 2024). 

As noted above, the roll out of the UK ETA will be gradual, beginning with Qatari nationals in November 2023, followed by citizens of several Middle Eastern countries in February 2024. It will then be rolled out to citizens from the rest of the world. Having an ETA UK (or a visa) will be mandatory for all travellers to the UK, except for British and Irish nationals. 

To receive Electronic Travel Authorisation to the UK, visitors will need to apply on a smartphone app or via the ETA UK GOV website (these had not yet been launched at the time of writing). The system has been described as ‘light touch’, so visitors should normally be able to fill in all the required data quickly and easily. They should then receive an ETA within three working days, and it will be valid for two years. Their ETA will be linked to their passport and their email address. 

The British authorities have not yet specified how much the UK ETA will cost, but have indicated it will be similar in price to systems run by other countries. One newspaper reported it’s likely to cost around £9 ($11.21 or €10.24). 

What is the ETA UK process?

When people wish to travel to the UK, they will need to take the following steps:

  • Visa or ETA? 

The travellers must find out if they are eligible for the ETA, or if they must apply for a visa. 

  • ETA application

The traveller will complete the ETA UK application via the official smartphone app or the ETA UK GOV website. They will fill in a form containing contact information, travel plans and biometric data, plus some eligibility questions, then pay a fee. 

  • ETA screening

The UK authorities will screen the traveller’s application. Some people may be barred from travel if they have breached immigration rules in the past, have a criminal record, or for some other reason. If their ETA application is rejected, the individual can still apply for a visa. 

  • ETA UK approval

Most travellers will have their ETA for the UK approved within three working days. 

  • UK ETA renewal

The ETA for the UK will last for two years, or until the traveller’s passport expires. They will then need to apply for a new Electronic Travel Authorisation for the UK and pay the fee.

What does ETA UK mean for airlines and other carriers?

All airlines (and other carriers) which fly to Great Britain and Northern Ireland will need to begin preparing for Electronic Travel Authorisation UK as soon as possible. Although the change to processes should not be too onerous, it will require airline staff to check travellers’ ETA UK validity and send this information to the UK’s border authorities. 

To comply with the ETA for the UK, carriers will now need to:

  • Provide customers with reminders and information about the ETA UK during the online booking process for booking flights (travel agencies will need to inform passengers of this too). 
  • Check that each individual traveller (including children) has received their ETA approval before departure, to do so :. 
    • This request needs to be sent alongside advanced passenger information (API) to the UK’s ETA system.
    • The UK’s ETA system will return a single electronic message to the carrier, telling them if an individual has permission to travel. 
    • If the traveller doesn’t have either an ETA or a visa, or the UK tells the carrier this person doesn’t have permission to travel, then they should not board the aeroplane (or ferry/train/bus). 

If airlines and other carriers fail to check that an individual has an ETA, then they are likely to face a penalty (specific details have not yet been announced). 

Benefits of the UK ETA for carriers

Although the Electronic Travel Authorisation UK will require a change in processes, it also brings certain advantages to carriers:

  • Less liability: So long as the airline checks the traveller’s ETA and sends this to the UK authorities, carriers have less responsibility for checking passports and travel documents themselves. 
  • Saves times: Since airline staff no longer need to verify all physical immigration documents, the process of checking passengers in and getting them onboard should be faster. 
  • May save money: If immigration refuses entry to a traveller at the border, then airlines/carriers are often forced to transport them back to their country of origin at their own expense. By preventing people from travelling in the first place, the system means airlines avoid the potential cost of flying someone for ‘free’. 

Helping you comply with ETA UK

Complying with the new Electronic Travel Authorisation UK rules will require airlines and other carriers to change their processes when collecting and sending data to the British border force.

And this is where Streamlane helps. Our platform connects your passenger management systems with the UK’s ETA, ensuring that all the correct data is sent in the right format, to ensure smooth processing before departure. Contact us today, and learn how we can help you get ready for the new ETA UK rules.