Entering the UAE: What do the ICA immigration changes mean?

The relaxing of rules to re-enter the Emirates has implications for UAE visa holders stuck abroad - and for residents looking to travel overseas on holiday

Federal rules on entering the UAE were relaxed from Wednesday, August 12.

Changes allowed residents with valid visas to re-enter without the need to apply for permission from the country's immigration service.

Due to border restrictions that began in March, at least tens of thousands of UAE residents remain stuck abroad. Under the previous system, only a handful were able to return at a time.

That is expected to change with many thousands attempting to book flights home in the coming days.

Here we break down the new process, run by the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship (ICA), and explain the rules that remain unchanged.

What has changed?

A new version of the ICA immigration system makes it easier to re-enter the country if you are abroad, officials said. The previous system rejected large numbers of applicants, some due to visas and documents being expired, and deferred others for months.

The process is for people on Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain visas. There is a separate system for Dubai visa holders, run by Dubai's local GDRFA immigration authority.

Following this link takes you to a new version of a portal the ICA uses to manage numbers of residents coming home.

You enter your Emirates ID, passport number and nationality.

You will receive one of two messages instantaneously.

One reads: "You fulfil the requirements to enter the country and you can proceed with the completion of your travel procedures, wishing you continued health and wellness."

The other rejects the application and says it will be reviewed within 60 days.

On Wednesday, the portal was down several times, possibly due to demand, but several travellers told The National they had managed to get approval.

Others said they received a rejection notice without further explanation.

Do I need a document or code to book a flight?

In short, no. If you try to book an Etihad flight from London to Abu Dhabi today, which we tested on Wednesday, you would not be asked to enter an approval number.

But the authorities urged the public to ensure you apply before booking and it seems advisable to do so.

Some returning residents described problems at check-in desks abroad - although this was mostly due to problems with testing certificates - and were unable to board their flights in some cases.

Do I still have to get tested before I fly?

Yes, every Emirati, tourist and resident travelling to the UAE must be tested before they fly.

This has not changed since last month, when federal authorities said every arriving passenger must have proof they are Covid-free.

Testing can be carried out at any reputable clinic or hospital abroad that is recognised by their local health authority.

When else must I get tested?

If you are travelling from the UAE to the UK or European Union you must get tested 96 hours before your flight. This means showing a certificate proving you are negative at Dubai, Abu Dhabi or any other airport when you check in.

If you are travelling elsewhere you should check whether your destination requires you to get tested and bring proof in advance.

In addition, Etihad Airways now requires all passengers to carry proof of a negative test before boarding their flight.

Tests must be taken in advance at a clinic or hospital days before. They are not performed at Abu Dhabi airport.

Why are the changes being made?

According to the UAE government, at least 200,000 UAE visa holders were outside the country when the country closed its borders on March 19.

This included people on holiday, families with student children at universities abroad and those on business trips.

Since April, immigration authorities have made people abroad apply for permission to return, providing proof that they had a valid visa among other documents.

All precautionary measures will be applied to residents upon arrival to the UAE, which include a lab Covid-19 test and to abide by quarantine rules

The new system is expected to speed that up and allow people abroad to finally return.

The National Crisis Emergency Management Authority (Ncema) said that "all precautionary measures will be applied to residents upon arrival to the UAE, which include a lab Covid-19 test and to abide by quarantine rules, plus downloading Al Hosn app, in order to preserve their health and safety".

Is Dubai affected by this decision?

No, Dubai has its own immigration service and has had various exemptions related to travel and testing.

The General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA) introduced its own system to bring residents stuck abroad home.

Dubai visa holders were required to apply for permission before they booked their flights under the system.

But many returning residents found their permits were waived through without delay.

Despite those differences, Dubai's travel rules have broadly come into line with the rest of the country in the past month.

Travellers to Dubai must under go a PCR nasal swab test in their home country and show their negative test to check-in staff and when they land in Dubai.

Residents of certain countries are tested on arrival at Dubai airport, in addition to the test they would have undergone in their home country.