Guide to Travelling to the UK

travelling to the uk

IN THIS SECTION

Issues at the UK border can be avoided if you’re well prepared and travel with the necessary permissions and documents.

In this article, we’ll explore how you can best prevent problems arising when travelling to the UK, as well as what to do if you are facing an issue at the border. We’ll cover:

 

a. Documents to Enter the UK: What you need to carry when travelling to the UK, including identity documents and other necessary paperwork.

b. Registered Traveller System: How it works, its benefits, and how to become a member to ease your travel.

c. Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA): Understanding the UK ETA, its application process, and who needs it.

d. Moving Personal Belongings: Guidelines on moving your items to the UK, including customs regulations.

e. Carrying Cash: Rules on bringing cash into and out of the UK, including declaration requirements.

f. Dealing with Customs Seizures: What to do if your possessions are seized by customs.

 

Section A: Overview of Entering the UK

 

Even with a valid UK visa, you are not guaranteed entry into the UK. UK Border Force officials have extensive powers to question travellers entering or leaving the UK, and they may request evidence from you before you are allowed to enter the country. Because of this, travellers to the UK should carry with them relevant documents proving their identity, immigration status and reason for travel.

Before you travel, check the expiration dates on your documents to ensure they remain valid throughout your visit. It is also advisable to carry photocopies and digital copies of important documents in case of loss or theft.

 

1. Required Identity Documents and Other Documentation

 

a. Basic Requirements for All Travellers

Your passport must be valid for the entire duration of your stay in the UK. Some countries require that the passport be valid for at least six months beyond the planned date of departure from the UK.

Depending on your nationality and the purpose of your visit, you may need a visa. Visitors from certain non-visa national countries can enter the UK for short stays without a visa, while others must apply for Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA).

Read more about ETA here >>

 

b. For EU, EEA, and Swiss Citizens

EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens can use their passport to enter the UK, or in some cases a national ID card if they meet certain criteria, such as holding settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

UK entry and travel requirements for travellers from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein have been subject to significant reform since Brexit. To avoid issues with gaining entry into the UK, take advice on your specific circumstances to ensure you are fully compliant with the latest rules.

Read our extensive immigration guide for EU, EEA & Swiss Citizens here >>

 

 

2. Additional Documentation Depending on Your Visit Purpose

 

Tourists and those travelling for family reasons should have at least the following to hand when travelling to the UK:

 

a. Return Ticket: Proof of your intention to leave the UK, such as a return or onward travel ticket.

b. Proof of Accommodation: Hotel bookings, a rental agreement, or a letter from friends or family confirming you will be staying with them.

c. Financial Proof: Evidence of having enough money to support your stay in the UK, such as bank statements or a letter from someone who is financially sponsoring your trip.

 

Those coming to the UK for work purposes should travel with the following:

 

a. Work Visa: Proof of holding the relevant work visa for your situation.

b. Employment Letter: A letter from your employer in the UK detailing the nature of your work, duration, and the company’s contact information.

c. Proof of Professional Qualifications: Any relevant diplomas or certificates.

 

Read our extensive guide to Work Visas here >>

 

Students coming to the UK should have with them:

 

a. Student Visa: Proof of a valid Student visa to study on a qualifying course.

b. Admission Letter: From the sponsoring institution confirming your acceptance and details of the course.

c. Proof of Financial Support: Such as scholarships, grants, or evidence of sufficient personal funds to cover your tuition and living expenses.

 

Read our extensive guide to the Study Visa system here >>

 

Those coming to the UK for medical treatment should have the following to hand at the border:

 

a. Visitor Visa: Required for those undergoing medical treatment under the provisions of the Standard Visitor Visa.

b. Medical Documentation: Letter from a doctor or consultant in the UK detailing the treatment plan.

c. Proof of Financial Provisions: For the duration of the treatment and stay in the UK.

 

Read more about the Visitor Visa for Medical Treatment here >>

 

3. Travelling with a UK biometric residence permit

 

If travelling with a BRP, your fingerprints will be taken again at the border and cross-checked against the information stored on your visa document.

 

Section B: The Registered Traveller System

 

The Registered Traveller System allows faster entry into the UK for qualifying frequent travellers to the United Kingdom.

The system allows vetted members to bypass traditional border controls and use dedicated UK passport entry lanes and ePassport gates (if you have a chipped passport) at major airports and some rail stations.

If ePassport gates are unavailable or unsuitable, members can use the lanes designated for UK and EU nationals.

Members generally do not need to fill out a landing card and face fewer questions about their visit at border control. They must, however, carry their visa or biometric residence permit if they have one.

 

1. Eligibility Criteria

 

To be eligible for the Registered Traveller System, applicants must:

 

a. Be 18 years or older. Younger travellers can be added to a family member’s application in some cases.

b. Hold a passport from a qualifying country. Check the Home Office website for an up-to-date list of eligible countries.

c. Hold a valid visa or entry clearance.

d. Have visited the UK at least 4 times in the last 24 months. This is to establish a frequent travel pattern necessary for eligibility.

 

Nationals of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States can no longer apply for the Registered Traveller Scheme, although they may be eligible to use the ePassport gates.

 

2. How to Apply

 

To apply for Registered Traveller System membership, you’ll need to complete the online form. You’ll be asked to provide your passport number and expiry date.

Membership costs £70 and lasts 12 months.

Processing typically takes up to 10 working days. If accepted, the next time you travel to the UK, you should use the “other passports” lane, where an immigration officer will determine if you meet the membership criteria.

 

Read more about the Registered Traveller system here >>

 

Section C: Applying for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA)

 

The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is a new entry requirement that enhances border security by pre-screening individuals before they travel to the United Kingdom.

 

1. Who needs an ETA to come to the UK?

 

The ETA is required for certain visitors to the UK, including those coming to the UK for permitted paid engagements, to transit through the UK and for Creative Worker visa holders.

An ETA is also needed by certain ‘non-visa nationals’ from countries who do not normally need a visa for short stays, including tourists and business visitors coming to the UK for up to 6 months.

As of May 2024, nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates must secure an ETA prior to travelling to the UK as visitors. The ETA scheme will eventually apply to all non-visa nationals, but the specific roll-out details and affected nationalities are subject to change, so travellers should verify their requirements before travelling.

 

2. How to Apply for an ETA

 

The application process for the ETA is relatively straightforward. You can either use the UK ETA app or apply on the Home Office website.

You’ll need to have to hand the passport you will be travelling with and your payment method. It costs £10 to apply for a UK ETA. You will be asked to upload a photograph of your passport and yourself.

Most ETAs are processed within 72 hours, but it is recommended to apply at least a few days before your intended travel date to account for any potential delays.

 

Read our extensive guide to the Electronic Travel Authorisation here >>

 

Section D: What You Can Bring with You

 

The UK operates certain rules on what travellers can and cannot bring with them into the country. There are also set allowances for different types of goods that may be exempt from tax or duty.

When you arrive in the UK, you have to go through Customs. Most will pass through the green ‘nothing to declare’ lane. However, you will need to make a customs declaration if you have exceeded any of the relevant allowances if you have brought in prohibited or restricted items, or if you are bringing goods for commercial purposes.

Customs officials have powers to stop travellers at the border, to ask questions and search luggage. Anyone caught bringing items into the country that should have been declared face potential prosecution and imprisonment, as well as the items being seized.

While mistakes can happen, it is preferable to avoid any issues or delays at the border, so it is best to check the latest rules before you travel.

 

1. Luggage and Personal Items

 

a. Luggage

Airlines have their own specific baggage allowances, which you should check before you travel. Generally, checked luggage should not exceed 20 kg, and carry-on luggage should fit within the overhead locker or under the seat in front of you.

Pack essentials such as medications, a change of clothes, and important documents in your carry-on in case your checked luggage is delayed or lost.

 

b. Personal Items

Carry valuables, including electronics and jewellery, in your carry-on luggage.

If you are carrying medication, keep it in its original packaging and bring a doctor’s note or prescription for it.

 

2. Prohibited and Restricted Items

 

a. Prohibited Items

The UK has strict regulations on items that are not allowed to enter the country. Prohibited items will be seized by officials. These include:

 

1. Illegal and controlled drugs: All forms of illegal narcotics are strictly prohibited.

2. Offensive weapons: This includes flick knives, butterfly knives, disguised blades, and other items considered offensive weapons.

3. Obscene material: Such as indecent images or extreme pornography.

4. Endangered animal and plant products: Items made from endangered species listed under CITES include certain furs, skins, and ivory.

5. Rough diamonds

6. Personal imports of meat and dairy products: From most non-EU countries.

 

b. Restricted Items

Certain items can be brought into the UK but are subject to restrictions and may require licenses or permits:

 

a. Firearms and ammunition: A valid license and special declarations are required.

b. Alcohol and tobacco: There are limits on the amount of alcohol and tobacco you can bring into the UK without paying tax.

c. Certain food and plant products: Products of animal origin from outside the EU are generally not allowed. Certain quantities of fruits, vegetables, and other food items may be restricted.

d. Pets: Dogs, cats, and ferrets must comply with the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), be microchipped, be vaccinated against rabies, and have a valid pet passport.

 

3. Pets

 

The UK operates a framework to bring pet dogs, cats and ferrets into the country. Different rules and procedures apply to other types of animals.

Pets entering the UK must comply with the rules under the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), managed by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Pets usually enter the UK via air, and specific approved routes and carriers must be used to ensure compliance with the regulations. The requirements include:

 

a. Microchipping: All pets must be microchipped.

b. Rabies Vaccination: Pets need to be vaccinated against rabies, with a 21-day waiting period after the primary vaccination before they can enter the UK.

c. Tapeworm Treatment: Dogs (not cats or ferrets) must be treated for tapeworm 24 to 120 hours before arrival in the UK.

d. Pet Passport or Other Relevant Document: The required document depends on where you are coming to the UK from. Countries are categorised as ‘part 1’ listed, ‘part 2’ listed, or not listed.

 

Pets will be subject to document checks on arrival into the UK and may need to undergo quarantine if they do not meet the health requirements.

It’s advisable to check the latest guidelines on the UK government website or consult with a vet well in advance of travel.

 

Section E: Moving Personal Belongings to the UK

 

If you’re moving belongings to the UK, you’ll need to meet the relevant rules and regulations that may apply to move the items or objects in question through customs.

In addition to customs clearance, you will also need to comply with any applicable tax and duties requirements.

 

1. Shipping Personal Items to the UK

 

To bring items into the UK, you’ll first need to arrange shipping. The options include air freight, which is suitable for fast delivery of smaller items but is typically the most expensive option; sea freight is suited to larger shipments, and while more cost-effective, takes longer; and international courier services are generally for sending small packages or important documents.

When packing, use sturdy, high-quality packing materials to protect your belongings during transit, and label each box clearly with your name, destination address in the UK, and a list of contents for easy identification and customs processing.

You may want to purchase insurance to protect your belongings during transit against loss or damage.

 

2. Taxes, Duties, and Exemptions

 

Tax considerations will be a factor when relocating to the UK. Taking specialist advice from a tax adviser will help ensure you are meeting your obligations and avoid potential issues.

As a general overview, personal belongings that you have owned and used for more than six months are exempt from duty and VAT when moving permanently to the UK, while new items or goods purchased less than six months before your move may be subject to VAT and duty.

If you’re looking to claim relief from certain taxes and duties when moving to the UK, you’ll need to fill out a Transfer of Residence (ToR) form to declare that you are relocating your place of residence and that the items are for personal use.

 

Section F: Taking Cash In and Out of the UK

 

There is no limit to the amount of cash you can bring into or take out of the UK. However, certain rules apply when larger amounts are concerned.

If you know you’ll be carrying large amounts of cash, prepare the necessary documentation in advance to expedite the declaration process.

It’s advisable to carry proof of the source of your money, such as withdrawal slips, sales receipts, or documentation of a financial gift and your reasons for carrying it with you.

If you’re unsure about the declaration process, it’s advisable to check the latest rules on the HMRC website before you travel.

 

1. Cash Threshold and Declaration

 

Any amount of cash over £10,000, or its equivalent in other currencies, being brought into the UK must be declared to customs either before you travel or as soon as you arrive in the UK.

‘Cash’ includes notes, coins, travellers’ cheques, cheques and bearer bonds.

You can make a declaration using the HMRC form either online or at the point of entry. The declaration should include details of the origin of the cash, its intended use, and your personal information.

 

2. Consequences of Non-Compliance

 

Failing to declare cash over the threshold may result in the cash being seized by customs officers. You may have to prove the legality of the cash in order to get it back, which can be a lengthy and complicated process.

Beyond the immediate seizure of your cash, further penalties can include fines of up to £5,000 or even criminal charges if it is believed that the money is related to illegal activities, such as money laundering or financing terrorism.

Border Force are permitted to retain the case for up to 48 hours. They need to apply for a court order to keep the cash for longer.

 

Section G: What to Do If Customs Seizes Your Things

 

If your belongings are confiscated at the UK border, you’ll need to act quickly to understand your options and decide your next steps.

 

1. Common Reasons for Seizure

 

Bringing prohibited or restricted items, such as certain drugs, weapons, or products derived from endangered species, can result in their seizure by authorities.

Failing to declare items that exceed allowances for alcohol, tobacco, or cash can also lead to confiscation.

If there is any suspicion that the items are connected to illegal activities, such as money laundering or smuggling, they may also be seized as part of criminal investigations.

 

2. If Your Belongings Are Confiscated

 

Any items that are confiscated by customs will be destroyed unless you request to get them back.

You can do this in one of two ways. You can make a ‘restoration request’, even if you agree that customs were correct in seizing the items. To do this, you will need to write to Border Force. Use Notice 12A for guidance about what to include. If accepted, you may have to pay a release fee and any duty owed.

If you believe customs were wrong to seize your property and that you did not break the law, you will need to go to court for a hearing to challenge the decision.

 

Section H: Summary

 

When travelling to the UK, you can avoid issues at the border by being prepared.

Complete any necessary applications, such as those for visas or Electronic Travel Authorisations (ETAs), well ahead of your intended travel date. Also, check that all your documents are current and readily accessible while you are travelling.

Those who travel to the UK frequently should consider applying for the Registered Traveller System. This programme can significantly streamline your entry process, allowing quicker access through UK borders.

If you’re moving personal property or belongings into the UK, again, ensure you have secured all the necessary permissions and have followed the relevant rules and procedures to avoid problems. Have all related documents, such as receipts or certificates, on hand, in case you are questioned by customs officials.

Given that regulations can change, check official UK government websites or consider consulting with an immigration expert before your journey.

 

Section I: FAQs on Travelling to the UK

 

What documents do I need to enter the UK?

To enter the UK, you typically need a valid passport and, depending on your nationality, a visa or an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA). Ensure your passport is valid for the entire duration of your stay.

 

Can I use the ePassport gates at UK airports?

ePassport gates can be used by those who are over 12 years old and hold a passport from the UK, EU, EEA countries, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, or the USA. This facility allows for quicker entry into the UK.

 

How do I apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) to visit the UK?

You can apply for an ETA through the official UK government website. The process involves filling out an online form with your personal and travel details and paying a fee.

 

What are the limits for bringing cash into the UK?

There is no limit to the amount of cash you can bring into the UK. However, you must declare any sum over £10,000 to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) upon arrival.

 

How can I bring my personal belongings to the UK if I am moving there?

You should choose a reputable shipping company and ensure all items are properly declared, especially if they are subject to taxes and duties. Complete a Transfer of Residence (ToR) form if applicable to qualify for tax relief.

 

What should I do if customs seize my items?

Request documentation that details the reason for the seizure. You have the right to appeal the decision by contacting the authority listed on the seizure notice. It is advisable to seek legal counsel if the situation is complex.

 

Are there any items I am not allowed to bring into the UK?

Yes, certain items are prohibited, such as illegal drugs, offensive weapons, and endangered animal and plant species. Restrictions also apply to certain foods, plants, and large quantities of alcohol and tobacco.

 

What are the benefits of the Registered Traveller System?

The Registered Traveller System offers quicker passage through UK borders via access to ePassport gates and UK/EU lanes, reduced scrutiny, and no need to fill out a landing card.

 

How do I handle my medication when travelling to the UK?

Medications should be kept in their original packaging with clear labels. Carry a copy of your prescription and a doctor’s note, especially for medicines that contain controlled substances.

 

What is the best way to ensure a smooth entry into the UK?

Prepare all necessary documents in advance, check the latest travel advice from the UK government, declare any items or cash that may be subject to customs controls, and consider registering for expedited services like the Registered Traveller System if you travel to the UK frequently.

 

Section J: Glossary

 

Biometric Passport (ePassport): A passport that includes a digital chip containing biometric information about the holder, used to enhance security and expedite border control processes.

UK Border Force: A part of the Home Office responsible for securing the UK borders and controlling immigration and customs at airports, seaports, and rail terminals.

Customs: The government authority responsible for regulating the goods entering and leaving a country, ensuring that laws and regulations regarding importation and exportation are followed.

Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA): A required document for visa-exempt foreign nationals travelling to the UK, pre-screening travellers for eligibility before they arrive in the country.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC): The UK government department responsible for tax collection, the administration of other regulatory regimes such as customs, excise duty, and the national minimum wage.

Registered Traveller Programme: A programme that offers faster and simpler entry into the UK for approved frequent travellers by allowing access to ePassport gates and use of EU/UK lanes.

Transfer of Residence (ToR): A relief procedure for those relocating permanently to the UK, potentially exempting them from customs duties and import VAT on personal belongings if certain conditions are met.

Visa: A document or stamp placed within a passport that permits the holder to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period within a country.

Prohibited Items: Goods that are not allowed to enter the country, such as illegal drugs, offensive weapons, and endangered animal species.

Restricted Items: Goods that can enter the country but with specific restrictions or authorisations, such as certain food products, plant materials, and some medications.

Declaration: A formal statement made at the border declaring goods that may be subject to duties or need to be inspected by customs officials, especially when exceeding allowable limits or carrying restricted items.

 

Section K: Additional Resources

 

UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI)
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/uk-visas-and-immigration
Official resource for visa applications, immigration rules, and guidance on moving to the UK.

 

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/hm-revenue-customs
For information about customs regulations, duties, and allowances when entering or leaving the UK.

 

Gov.uk – Entering the UK
https://www.gov.uk/uk-border-control
UK government portal for information on entering the UK, including passport and border control procedures.

 

UK Border Force
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/border-force
Information on what to expect at the border and the roles and responsibilities of the Border Force.

 

Travel Advice – GOV.UK
https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
Official UK government site providing travel advice and alerts about traveling abroad, including safety and security, entry requirements, and travel warnings.

 

Registered Traveller Programme
https://www.gov.uk/registered-traveller

 

Author

Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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