The United Kingdom Unveils Digital Visa Process

Annie Erling Gofus - Sep 12 2023
Published in: Public Policy
| Updated Sep 12 2023
From electronic passports to visa overhauls: unveiling the digital transformation of immigration processes and its impact on mobility professionals.

Navigating immigration procedures in a foreign country hasn’t always been a simple task. Historically, it entailed extensive paperwork, manual identity verification, and extended waiting periods at border checkpoints. Nevertheless, as technology has progressed, the immigration process has evolved into a smoother, more efficient, and more accessible journey for international travelers. The contemporary landscape of immigration technology has transformed and streamlined the experience for individuals aiming to relocate globally.

Governments globally are embracing digital solutions to simplify travel document processing. For example, the United Kingdom is poised for a major border policy overhaul, requiring digital travel authorization for visa-exempt travelers. Mobility professionals should be prepared for this transformative change.


The U.K.’s Electronic Travel Authorisation

Individuals planning to travel to the United Kingdom will soon encounter a new procedure as the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) visa waiver takes effect. Set to be fully operational by the conclusion of 2023, the U.K.’s ETA system mandates that all non-visa foreign travelers, including those from the United States, must apply online and make the necessary payment before their arrival, as outlined on the government’s official ETA website.

Individuals possessing passports that currently grant them entry without prior scrutiny, including European Union citizens as well as nationals from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, will all be required to apply for and pay for the ETA. However, British and Irish passport holders, individuals with U.K. settled status, and those possessing “permission to live, work, or study” will be exempt from this requirement.

This strategic move is in alignment with the U.K.’s larger goal of achieving full border digitization by 2025.

According to the U.K. government, the ETA initiative aims to enhance border security and is on par with systems implemented in countries like the U.S. and Canada. Previously, the U.K. acknowledged that its existing regulations lack precise data regarding the inflow and outflow of individuals into and out of the country.

“Our No. 1 priority is the security of the U.K. border, and by launching ETAs, we can ensure that everyone wishing to travel to the U.K. has permission to do so in advance of travel and refuse those who pose a threat,” the U.K.’s Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement.

This development unfolds in parallel with Europe’s impending launch of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) in November. ETIAS will involve a €7 fee and extend to foreign visitors aged 18 to 70. Similarly, travelers heading to the U.S. are required to seek a comparable authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a process applicable to citizens from countries granted visa waiver program privileges. Notably, the fee for ESTA was raised from $14 to $21 last year, as confirmed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.


How the U.K.’s ETA Works

This change will herald a significant shift for numerous frequent travelers originating from Europe and other regions, who presently bypass the need for pre-approval. The application process will take place online or through a designated app. Those with biometric passports will be able to scan them using their smartphones and might need to capture a “dynamic selfie” involving movement to provide a facial image. They will also need to respond to a set of questions.

During the application submission, travelers will need to provide personal information, passport details, and security-related data. Following submission, applications will undergo automated processing, with travelers typically receiving a response within 48 to 72 hours. While the exact application fee remains undisclosed, details are expected to be unveiled later. If approved, the ETA will be valid for multiple visits over two years.

The government anticipates handling around 30 million ETA applications annually. The U.K. aspires to eventually mandate fingerprint biometrics from all travelers before travel, working on a smartphone-based system for their submission.


EU Digital Visa Scheme

Worldwide ERC® reported in May about the European Union’s (EU) digital visa plans. The European Union Council is poised for a transformative shift—digitizing the Schengen visa process. Presently being discussed within the EU Council, this idea aims to bring together the application process onto one digital platform, making it easier for people to apply for Schengen visas. Approval would lead to all Schengen visas adopting a digital format with a cryptographically signed 2D barcode, reflecting the EU’s dedication to technological advancement and improved visa application accessibility.

This innovative platform diverges from the present process wherein Tourist Schengen Visa applicants must physically submit documents and biometrics. The proposed online process eliminates most embassy appointments, simplifying travel procedures for applicants, particularly those with limited travel privileges.

“Half of those coming to the EU with a Schengen visa consider the visa application burdensome; one-third have to travel long distances to ask for a visa. It is high time that the EU provides a quick, safe and web-based EU visa application platform for the citizens of the 102 third countries that require a short term visa to travel to the EU,” said Margaritis Schinas, a European Commission vice president.

This innovation simplifies the process of applying for visits to multiple European countries in a single trip, reflecting the EU’s commitment to technological progress and efficient global visa applications. As this digital evolution continues, a streamlined, secure, and comprehensive visa acquisition process beckons on the horizon.


Global Digital Visas

Around the world, many new and creative digital projects have appeared to solve problems with immigration and visas. These changes can be seen in how people enter countries, how documents are handled, and how immigration applications are done. The shift toward better security and efficiency can be seen through things like electronic passports and e-visas, which are changing how immigration documents are shared securely.

Moldova, India, the Republic of Georgia, and Australia have emerged as leaders in the realm of electronic visa systems, offering a range of options from comprehensive digitalization to simplified online applications. Notably, the Australian eVisitor visa exemplifies complete digital efficiency. Meanwhile, the Japanese government’s recent provision allows foreign nationals to acquire a digital version of the Certificate of Eligibility (COE), streamlining the process and reducing costs associated with traditional paper submissions. And in Germany, authorities have embarked on a trial run of an online submission platform designed for EU Blue Card and pre-approval applications.

The way immigration works worldwide is changing a lot because of technology. These evolutions are making procedures more secure and efficient. For example, electronic passports and e-visas were introduced to fix delays in processing and getting visas. This change is also happening in other areas, like how work permits and documents are handled, which is changing how people work. As countries adopt these changes, using technology to make things easier and safer is becoming more popular, which will lead to smoother processes and better protection for important documents.


Digitizing Immigration Processes Impacts Global Mobility

As technology and immigration converge, a world of limitless possibilities emerges, prompting a transformative revolution in global immigration. This evolution emphasizes efficiency, security, and seamless experiences for all stakeholders. Immigration processes are rapidly digitizing, enabling swift procedures with heightened security measures, exemplified by the Schengen visa’s encrypted digital form. 

For professionals in global mobility, understanding this shift is crucial for streamlined compliance and relocation strategies. Digital visas are not just for short-term visitors; they may also soon apply to people who want to live and work in different countries. This shows how much the industry relies on new technology. Investing in the right technology helps both mobility professionals and transferees and business travelers. As more countries use digital visas, traveling internationally will become easier.

To prepare for the global digital transformation of immigration processes, global mobility departments can take proactive measures. First, staying updated on immigration policy developments, especially regarding digital visa systems, is essential through monitoring official sources and industry publications. Second, investing in technology for streamlined visa applications, such as digital platforms and automation tools, is recommended. Collaboration with immigration technology providers can be advantageous. Lastly, prioritizing data security and privacy by complying with regulations and implementing strong cybersecurity protocols is crucial due to the sensitive nature of digital processes.

By staying well-informed, embracing technological advancements, prioritizing data security, seeking expert guidance, effectively communicating with employees, and maintaining flexibility, global mobility departments can effectively prepare for the digital evolution of immigration processes worldwide.


UK Plans Immigration Fee Hikes to Fund Public Sector Pay Raises

Before ending this article, it's important to note that UK immigration fees are scheduled for an upcoming increase. The UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has unveiled a plan to raise immigration fees to finance salary increases for public sector workers. These fee hikes are substantial and are expected to take effect later this year, as confirmed by the UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI).

Under these changes, visa application fees will see a 15% increase. Additionally, fees for certificates of sponsorship, including those for Skilled Worker applications (currently £199), will experience a 20% rise. This 20% increase extends to non-work category visa fees for applications submitted both within and outside the UK, settlement applications (indefinite leave to remain), British citizenship applications, and priority visas.

Moreover, the Immigration Health Surcharge, which contributes to the NHS, will also undergo an increase. Currently set at £624 per year for adults, it will elevate to £1035 annually, covering the main applicant and their dependents. There are, however, discounted rates available for students, participants in the Youth Mobility Scheme, and individuals under 18, which will increase from £470 to £776 annually.

These impending fee increases could translate to a substantial cost for a family of four relocating to the U.K. under the Skilled Worker category, potentially exceeding £30,000 in government charges over a five-year period when factoring in other visa fees. This significant financial burden poses challenges for businesses that had not anticipated such an expense. Consequently, companies may explore options to shift these costs to employees through modifications to employment contracts.