Emiratis and other GCC citizens in visa-free access to UK

Electronic Travel Authorisation is a digital border for travellers who do not need visas for short stays

Abu Dhabi - July 2, 2008. Studio photos of United Arab Emirates passports. ( Philip Cheung / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  PC0038-passport.jpgna03 passport.jpg
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Officials in London have indicated that the Gulf Co-operation Council bloc of countries, which includes the UAE, is set to gain access to the UK's Electronic Travel Authorisation system when it is launched next year.

The new UK fully digital border system is designed for passengers visiting the UK or transiting through the country who do not currently need a visa for short stays and those who do not already have an immigration status before travelling. UAE travellers must currently apply for a standard visitor visa or obtain an electronic waiver.

Officials told The National that the UK will ensure UAE and GCC nationals can “access the system from early 2023, facilitating easier travel for business visitors and tourists”.

It has long been the goal of the UAE to match the visa-free access that citizens have been granted to the European Schengen zone — 26 countries that have officially abolished all passport and other controls at their mutual borders — with the same access to the UK.

Ending the cost and inconvenience of obtaining a UK visa before starting the trip would be a boon for bilateral travel and trade.

Emirati citizens can now gain visa-free entry to 172 countries and the passport has a high ranking in global mobility rankings.

The UAE and EU signed a Schengen Area visa waiver agreement in 2015 which allowed UAE citizens to travel through the Schengen countries without applying for visas, as well as eight non-Schengen states.

Launching the new digital border project, British officials said they expected the system to handle 30 million entry and exits every year, providing the country for the first time a comprehensive tracker of who leaves, as well as who comes into, the UK.

Hopes are high that bilateral travel ties can again reach the 400-plus flights a week between the UAE and UK.

There are an estimated 3,000 Emirati students attending UK education institutions. Many UAE citizens also visit the UK for business and leisure trips and for medical treatment.

The issue of dropping visa requirements has been raised regularly in the UAE-UK inter-government task force as well as the UAE-UK Business Council. Last year the UAE and UK sealed a Sovereign Investment Partnership worth $10bn and a wider Partnership for the Future, which commits billions of pounds to Britain’s technology, infrastructure and energy transition.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain joined other GCC countries in accessing the electronic visa waiver status for UK travel earlier this month. The announcement was seen as paving the way for the move on to the ETA in 2023, people close to the travel industry said.

The UK government is changing the law to ensure that a traveller’s authorisation to travel is checked by the carrier and confirmed before travel to the UK. It is not known if there will be an ETA when the system comes online.

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Updated: May 29, 2022, 1:59 PM