ETA - ETIAS - ESTA … Immigration theory and ethos Vs. recent border control measures … acute or chronic?

Share This page: 
Thursday, September 14, 2023

By Muhannad Samara, RCIC
Amman, Jordan (September 11, 2023 / 08:23 GMT)

Ever since the United Kingdom decided to break-up with the European Union, the concept of free movement around the planet’s nations started taking a turn to tough’s-ville. A sense of applying more control on free movement was felt after September 11, 2000, events in New York, but nowadays, additional measures are being deployed on an almost daily basis. 

What is an ETA? 

Canada defines an ETA: An Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) is an entry requirement for visa-exempt foreign nationals travelling to Canada by air.

The United Kingdom defines an ETA: An Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is a new requirement for people who do not need a visa to come to the UK. It gives you permission to travel to the UK, and it is electronically linked to your passport.

The USA defines an ESTA: ESTA is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.

The European Union Defines the ETIAS: ETIAS travel authorisation is an entry requirement for visa-exempt nationals travelling to any of the participating 30 European countries.

If country “A” is good friends with country “B” and where due to this warmth, countries A and B have waived the visa requirement for their citizens to travel between the two countries, citizens of A and B, who used to hop on a plane and arrive at country A or B without having to worry about applying for visas or any form of permission before they fly out, will now have an exercise to do before flying out. Citizens of country A and B will now require a permission prior to travelling between the two countries. The UK calls it an ETA, Europe calls it the ETIAS, and ESTA for the USA.


Electronic travel authorization for friendlies? Why?!

Each country has its reasons; but the two main reasons that concern most of the world’s advanced and prosperous nations, are security and labour markets.

Basically, destination countries want to know who is arriving at their borders from those nations they are friendly with. Perplexing?! Well, if you do not know the motives behind it, yes. This article will unearth the roots and the cause of this massive new protocol, which is aimed at safeguarding borders and minimizing illegal activities by visitors, who once were allowed to “come and go as they please”.

So, Nation “A” who is friendly with Nation “B”, and by virtue of this warmth, visas were waived between “A” and “B”, but now a mini visa is being required? Yes! Precisely.

Not all nationals of any given country are law abiding citizens. If a national of country “A” wants to go to country “B” and where this national has malicious intent to bypass any of country “B’s” laws, country B would only have the passport control desk at the point of entry, as the frontline of defence to deny this person entry. In many instances though, those individuals with agendas, would slip through the cracks of border control. Hence the need for a mechanism to vet visitors from friendly countries.


Difference between a Visa and a travel Authorization 


A visa application is a formal application submitted to the immigration authority of the country you, as a foreigner, wish to visit. A visa could be intended for short visits, work, medical treatment or a myriad of other reasons, A visa application is usually supported by documentation that are aimed at convincing the immigration officer of your intentions to arrive in the country for the purposes you declared on your application. Visa applications are normally processed by real persons and decisions could be as fast as 1 working day and as long as 12 months.

A travel authorization is normally an electronic application that is evaluated and decided upon by an algorithm or a miniature artificial intelligence system. Results of a travel authorization application are almost instantaneous.

Is a visa more powerful than an ETA? Yes, it is. A visa granted to a foreign national is a confirmation from the immigration authorities of the country that this individual has been carefully vetted and his relevant documentation was carefully considered before allowing them to arrive at the border.

Does a visa stamp on my passport guarantee admission to the destination country? No, it does not. The final admission test is always administered by the border control officers at the point of entry (airport, harbour, train stations, land border, etc).

Does an ETA guarantee its holder entry to the destination country? No, it does not.  The final admission test is always administered by the border control officers at the point of entry (airport, harbour, train stations, land border, etc).

The above creates the sense that a visa is more powerful to have than an ETA, is that correct? So why don’t I just go ahead and apply for a visa instead of a travel authorization? Yes, a visa is more powerful than a  travel authorization. Many reasons, firstly, the time to process an ETA is usually hours, whilst visas could take significantly longer. Moreover, fees for obtaining an ETA are considerably less than visa fees. 

If a visa waiver agreement exists between the USA and the UK for instance, can a UK citizen apply for a visa to the US?! And vice versa? If yes, why would someone go through the cumbersome visa process whilst they can get an ETA?! Yes they can; a visa waiver agreement entered into between the US and the UK does not mean that applying for an ETA is the only way. Citizens of the UK and the USA can apply for USA and UK visas if they so choose. Why would someone do that? Well, the shortest answer would be “minimizing (not eliminating) border control questioning”.


Visa waivers explained

Why would nation “A” waive the visa requirement for all nationals of nation “B”? to illustrate an answer, we will take a look at the visa waiver agreement between Canada and Mexico that was announced on 2016-June-28.

In 2009, Mexican nationals were required to apply for visas before they depart to Canada. In 2016, despite some hard-lined criticism, Prime minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada is opening its doors to Mexican nationals to come into Canada without a visa.

In the government’s view, a visitor from Mexico, after June 28, 2016, would no longer pause a risk of breaking any of Canada’s laws. A myriad of factors was considered before lifting this 7 year long visa requirement. Canada, however, continues to require a visa from a national of Venezuela before they come to Canada. Why is that? Is a Mexican national a lower risk than a Venezuelan? The answer is yes and no. A collective assessment of the risks of breaching immigration rules, employment laws, national security are all weighed against the interests of Canada and decision is made to either keep or lift visa requirements. If the scale tips in favour of the interests, many of the risks are over looked.

One of the main catalysts behind the United Kingdom’s Brexit initiative was border control. Nationals of European countries would flood the UK labour market, and by virtue of the UK’s membership in the EU, those European nationals have the right to work in the UK without going through the proper immigration channels of the country. The problem, in the UK’s view, was so severe were exiting the EU was the most viable solution. So yes! Illegal overstay and unauthorized employment are a major concern when allowing people to come in to the country or not. Illegal employment is one of Canada’s biggest concerns as well. An illegal alien who engages in unauthorised work in Canada would have bypassed systems in place that were designed protect the rights and interests of the citizens and permanent residents of the country in securing employment. The Canadian Economic Skills Development Canada department has designed a robust labor market impact assessment process that vets foreign nationals’ employment in Canada. If a determination was made that this foreign national’s employment would undermine the chances a Canadian has in engaging this particular job, the foreign national would be denied a work visa. And bypassing this process is extremely frowned upon in Canada.


No visa waiver arrangement is permanent

If you allow the good citizens of a nation with unemployment, financial, economic problems, to come to your prosperous country without a visa, at one point you will have allowed many trouble makers from that same nation to come in along with those bringing interests to the country. At one point, and when trouble makers actions outweigh the interests, or in some extreme cases, other problems evolve such as employment, security and other fundamental issues, the free ride is over and visas are imposed again.

This is the trend, and this is the cycle which has been going on for decades. Visa restrictions are Anti-Business. Loose border control rules are a risk to national security and the integrity of an immigration system.

Because you see, there will always be abusers to any system that is implemented. If you can guarantee the good nature and intentions of all nationals of any given country, A visa waiver is indeed the best thing to go by to enhance business and trade, but, we do not live in a perfect world.

ETA’s are trying to create a balance. But the equilibrium will not easily be struck. You see, when you ask nationals of a friendly country to apply for an ETA, then you surely have a level of doubt or concern that you wish to eliminate. If you trusted any given nation fully, you would not ask them to apply for an ETA.

Nationals of friendly countries who are denied an ETA, will be invited to apply for a regular visa, if they so choose to come to the country. So now, visa processing posts, who are only equipped to process visas from None-visa-waived nations, will have to also process visas for those citizens of friendly nations who were denied an ETA. Do visa processing centres have the capacity to do this? Let’s take a look at the numbers from UK:

In 2022, 104.9 million passengers arrived in the UK outside the Common Travel Areas “CTA”. In 2022, only 2,836,490 visas were granted to foreign nationals who need a visa to come to the UK. A quick consideration of those two statistics shows the massive contrast between those vetted to arrive and those who arrived without vetting. Now there are returning citizens of the UK, Permanent residents, students, and workers, but those do not fill the entire gap. Many of those arrivals are individuals who arrive on the basis of the visa waiver agreement between the UK and those nations. The UK has multiple visa waiver agreements in place as of 2023.


412,564 applicants were denied a visa to come to the UK in 2022;
Impacts of visa tightening and the implementation of ETAs


  1. Governments are getting ahead of themselves and are overreacting in the face of minute findings that do not really warrant this kind of reaction.
  2. The concepts of visa waiver agreements have been evolving and have been used as the foundation of a much bigger base to build bilateral relationships between nations. It is simply too big of a deal to impulsively the announce revocation of visa free access to one nation.
  3. Replacing the visa free access with the electronic travel authorization is in no way a viable means to maintain the visa waiver agreement between two countries.
  4. ETA’s are automatic. And if history has taught us anything, you simply cannot fully rely on artificial intelligence and overlook the human touch. Errors, technical glitches, algorithm failures, etc.
  5. Since ETA’s are automated, violators will develop ways around them. The question that begs itself, will the government of one specific country be fast enough to adapt and evolve its algorithms? The answer is surely not!
  6. If anything, the implementation of an ETA, in my view will only result in the granting more wrong access to the wrong people as opposed to actually controlling visitors.
  7. The ETA was implemented to screen those who can arrive in the destination country without the need to have a visa prior to their arrival. So, in essence, if the electronic ETA system detects that the visitor might be in breach of any of the country’s immigration laws, the ETA will not be approved, and this person who previously enjoyed visa free access to the same country they are trying to visit now, will not be allowed to board the flight or, if they manage to make to the boarder, will not be allowed in.


Impacts on Visa systems

  1. A massive influx of visa applications for those who were refused an ETA
  2. Much longer visa processing times.


 Impact on trade and tourism until the ETA process is streamlined

  1. Million tourists every year, with an average revenue of USD$3 Billion every month. When the ETA is enforced on US citizens for instance, the refusal rate of ETA’s, if conservatively measured will be around 25%; this will yield a proportional loss of revenue that US tourists bring in to the UK every month/year.
  2. Impeded business transactions. If we look at the relationship between the UK and the US, the average annual volume of business dealings is USD$110 Billion (). When business persons who used to travel between the two nations used to do so without the need for an approval, trade was at those levels. Now with the hypothetical example of 20% ETA refusal rate, this will result in the potential of a 20% loss or delay in revenue.
  3. The UK does business with the entire world. If this ETA refusal percentage was applied to trade figures with all nations that used to visit the UK without visa requirements, the impact will be proportional.
  4. Total visa applications to the UK in Sep 2022 were 1,669,562. The applications that received a positive decision and where a visa was in fact granted were 1,256,998.






  General notes:

  •  An ETA does not guarantee admission.
  •  An ETA is binding. If you say that you are coming to visit, then you cannot work! And if you do, you will have committed a misrepresentation of the declarations you made on your   ETA application.
  •  False statements on ETA applications would hinder a future visa application.
  •  An ETA is rendered null and void if the visa waiver agreement the two countries is nullified.


   Muhannad Samara, Immigration Consultant


Read More