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Travelling to the UK

If you're travelling to the UK, it's important to know which documents you will need and what to do when you arrive. We have all the information you need on your journey to the UK and what you will require.

A visa is not required to enter the UK as a visitor for those who are:

  • a member of the European Union (EU)
  • from a European Economic Area (EEA) country
  • a Swiss national.

Alternatively, there are four other forms of entry clearance available for entering the UK.

  • Clearance can be attained through a standard visa application for visa nationals; nationals or citizens of countries or territories stated in UK Visas and Immigration’s Appendix 1 of the Immigration Rules.
  • Non-visa nationals (those not listed in UK Visa and Immigration’s Appendix 1) can acquire entry certificates.
  • Those with EEA national family members can obtain a family permit.
  • Those exempt from Immigration Act 1971 requirements may enter the UK via an issued exempt vignette.

Operations of entry clearance are directed by visa services through sections most commonly ran within British diplomatic posts.

Clearance requirements

Clearance requirements will rely upon the nature of the visit into the UK, coupled with the nationality of the applicant. A visa enquiry form is made available through the GOV.UK website.

Separate immigration laws and policies apply to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; with the islands being disconnected from the UK an alternative visa will be required for entry.

Immigration entry generally comes under one of the two following subcategories:

  • visa national
  • non-visa national

Visa nationals require entry clearance in the form of a visa to enter the UK.

Non-visa nationals do not require entry clearance to enter the UK for anything under six months, unless their immigration category specifies otherwise. Any stay by a Non-visa national in excess of six months will require official clearance.

Transit rules for visa nationals differ from those set in standard visa national applications. In some instances visa nationals may transit the UK without a visa, however visa nationals travelling to the UK for the purpose of transiting, will need a visitor in transit visa, or a direct airside transit visa.


An applicant’s location must be external to that of the UK at the time of application; neither must they be within the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.

Visitor applications for clearance can be formed at any British diplomatic post offering a visa service. Other entry clearance submissions must be made to the British diplomatic post within the original country or territory. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website hosts a list of British diplomatic posts available for application.

Providing documentation to the carrier

In excess of 200 million passengers cross the UK border every year. An electronic system called e-Borders is used to ensure security measures are maximised in controls; carrying out checks on travellers prior to their journey. This process allows officials identification of those attempting to illegally enter into the UK, or intend harm to fellow passengers at an early stage.

Information is required for the carrier, in the form of passport or travel documentation prior to travel; in return the carrier will provide e-Borders with passenger and crew details for the departure.

The personal information stored by e-Borders, can be legally requested in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1988. In order to request a copy of records, a 'subject access request' in writing needs to be submitted.

Information for operators and pilots of general aviation aircraft entering the UK

The term 'general aviation' is used in reference to international and Channel Islands traffic, operating without a published schedule, travelling to and from UK.

A pilot or operator of an aviation aircraft, generally is legally required to produce prior notification of international or Channel Island journeys to or from the UK, with the exceptions of:

  • flights operating directly from the UK to a European Union (EU) target; or
  • an airport or airfield within the UK that is stated exempt from advance notification rulings

To provide flight notification (which is preferable regardless of specific rulings), operators and pilots are required to complete a General Aviation Report (GAR) form, made available through the GOV.UK website.

Notification requirements are made under the following acts:

  • section 35 of the Customs & Excise Management Act 1979
  • section 27 of schedule 2 of the Immigration Act 1971
  • schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000

Entering the UK

This subsection is to inform:

  • citizens of the EU, EEA or Switzerland; or
  • those travelling to or from Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man

on regulations concerning border control upon arrival at the UK.

Passport official’s cross-check passenger details and scan passports as a security measure, as to defend against illegal entry into the UK. Refusing entry to non-cooperative passengers, officers will also require passport or other travel documentation for entry checks regardless of the national’s passport origin.

UK, European Union (EU), and European Economic Area (EEA) passports all require inspection.

Upon border arrival, passports must be removed in preparation for inspection, along with any other relevant documentation required by the official.

For adult passengers travelling with a child that is not an official dependant of that concerned, a supplied written note of consent from the parent, guardian or affidavit, with full contact details is advised.

A landing card is required for those without a UK or Swiss passport, similarly to those with passports issued outside any another EU, or EEA country. Additional minor requirements may also be necessary.

Documents accepted at the border

Documents must be valid and legally owned, and must have been issued by a government or authority. The more frequently used travel documents are:

  • national passports; or
  • 1951 Convention travel documents for refugees

Also accepted are national identity cards in the instance of travel with EEA citizens.

Border waiting times

Peak times may differ standard approximated time allocations concerning border departures and arrivals. Scanners and trained officers are used to ensure passports, visas and other official documents are genuine.

Officers check passports and issue stay permissions where required, 45 minutes is the approximate waiting time for this stage of entry.

EU or EEA nationals may use the separate EEA/EU channel, which is usually more timesaving due to fewer checks.

IRIS can be a more efficient border barrier system and is recommended for more frequent travellers, with the automated system allowing those registered to cross the UK border more quickly.

Group travel schemes for large parties are also available for speeding cross border entry.

Biometric identification

Iris Recognition Immigration System (IRIS)

IRIS is a quicker border entry system available to frequent travellers making use of unique iris eye patterns. The technology enables passengers to be identified through a photograph of the eye taken by an optical camera at the IRIS barrier within the immigration arrival hall.

The IRIS system pulls information from the iris pattern within the photograph, and is then converted to a digital code that is then compared with that stored on a secure database. Registration is valid for as long as the iris pattern matches the corresponding database information.

Registration can be made available for passport holders of the UK, EEU or Switzerland, in addition to permanent residents, as well as other specified categories.

IRIS registration is approximated at between 5 and 10 minutes. A traveller once registered can cross UK border controls through an IRIS barrier in about 20 seconds.

IRIS is operating in the following airports in the UK:

  • Birmingham terminal 1
  • Four Heathrow terminals
  • Gatwick North and South terminals
  • Manchester terminals 1 and 2

Fingerprint checks

Fingerprint checks were introduced on the 30 November 2009 within UK border controls, for passengers with biometric UK visas, biometric residence permits (also known as identity cards for foreign nationals), and entry clearances.

These checks are also being introduced incrementally at UK ports nationally, and are free of charge.

The additional fingerprint measures are set out to ensure that the passenger entering the UK is the same applicant that applied for the visa, entry clearance or biometric residence permit.

Trained officers facilitate the checking of two scanned fingerprints on an electronic fingerprint reader at border control.  The thumb and first finger of the right hand are frequently used for this procedure, the scans checked against those stored on application. Fingerprint checks should not require any additional waiting time when compared to previous procedures. A electronic reader ensures that there is no ink or mess required within this process, however in the event of scanning difficulties border entry may be delayed.

All children aged six and above will be required to provide their fingerprints for checks.

Certain exemptions apply.

Finger printing is an additional verification tool, standard immigration-related questions will be asked, just as ordinarily required. In the event that a fingerprint check may reveal any queries regarding the identity of a passenger, the passenger will be taken to interview for questioning. Interviews however are not a routinely required procedure.

Refusal of fingerprint scanning will leave the passenger subject to further investigation, which may result in delays to travel.

Fingerprints are held for a maximum of two working days, and then are destroyed in line with the Data Protection Act. Fingerprints will be required for each travel to the UK with a visa, entry clearance or biometric residence permit.

 With recent policy in place authorising the conduct of biometric checks, fingerprint checks operate under the following legislation:

  • Immigration Act 1971
  • Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008

Transit through the UK

In the event that a non-visa national wishes to travel through to another country via the UK, a visa is not required for transit.

A visa national travelling to the UK in order to travel on to another country may find it possible to enter without a visa. This process is known as 'transit without visa concession', and is granted upon meeting the enforced requirements. The requirements set of by the immigration office are the following:

  • you are travelling to a country external to the UK, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland (known as the common travel area)
  • in the event that a departure from the UK by air is within 24 hours of arrival; and
  • you can continue to another country where you will be guaranteed entry

In the event that a passenger arrives within the UK in a port on a ship, the passenger must depart on the same ship within 24 hours for ‘transit without visa concessions’.

Visa concession does not apply to all visa nationals, only nationals from countries the listed under terms. Visas and their terms should always be checked prior to travel.

Required documents

The legislation regarding the following areas can be found at the UK Immigration and Visa’s official website:

  • countries to which the transit without visa concessions are not applicable
  • visitor in transit visas and direct airside transit visas
  • exemptions from direct airside transit visa

Non visa nationals will not require a visa, nor will visa nationals qualifying for transit without visa concessions, in addition to those eligible exemptions from direct airside transit visas.

Nationals or citizen of certain countries, are not able to transit through the UK under the 'transit without visa concession'.

Nationals from countries not covered in the transit without visa concession, will require application for a direct airside transit visa, or a visitor in transit visa, to transit the UK.

Passengers travelling on to the Republic of Ireland will need to pass through UK border control to take a flight to Ireland.  Visa nationals, or those qualifying for exemption from the need to have a direct airside transit visa, may be granted transit without obtaining a visa, as long as the relevant conditions are met, and documentations for entry into Ireland can also be provided.

Nationals of countries to which transit without visa concessions do not apply, when transiting to Ireland, a visit visa for the UK is required. Direct airside transit visa and visitor in transit visas can not be used for travel to Ireland.

Visa nationals passing through the UK border control stopping in the UK for a time in excess of 24 hours will require a visitor in transit visa or a visit visa.

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