The future is digital for the
UK's new points-based
immigration system

In July, the Home Office published further details on the UK’s new points-based immigration system which will come into force on 1 January 2021.

The government has previously expressed a vision to implement a “fully digital end-to-end customer journey” for overseas citizens arriving in the UK to work, study or visit.

The latest update states that the new immigration system will bring with it a suite of changes to strengthen the security of the UK border, to protect the public and enhance prosperity. The ‘border of the future’ will utilse the latest digital technology to improve customer experience, increase security and detect abuse, whilst facilitating the passage of legitimate travelers through the border.

Following the government’s pledge to invest in border processes, biometrics and technology as part of the new system, we expect to hear more about future plans on how this will work in practice from January 2021. In this article, we explore what we know so far about the technologies that will be involved in the the UK’s new points-based immigration system.

A move towards digital documentation

As we have seen with the EU Settlement Scheme and the new Hong Kong BNO Visa, the government is increasingly utilising digital technology for visa application processes and immigration status records.

EU citizens who have secured settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme will not get a physical document and instead will be able to view or prove their status online. Employers, landlords and public service providers will continue to accept EU citizens’ passports and identity cards as evidence of their immigration status until 30 June 2021. Non-EU citizens will continue to use a physical document to evidence their status.

Similarly, EU nationals applying under the new rules will receive a digital immigration status which will be accessible online, whereas non-EU applicants will continue to be issued with biometric residence permit cards.

This move towards a digital only system without any physical documentation has sparked fears among some MPs and migrants’ campaign groups however, who have warned that a lack of paperwork may affect a migrant’s ability to evidence his or her immigration status when it comes to right to work checks or renting a property in the UK.

Biometrics enrolment

The current global pandemic and the subsequent backlog of pending visa applications has highlighted the need for advancements in technology in visa application processes.

Implementing an end-to-end digital procedure for processing visa applications would reduce the need for applicants to personally attend appointments at visa centres, improving the customer experience and reducing wait times.

From January 2021, most EU citizens applying for a visa will be able to provide facial images using a self-enrolment application form on a smartphone and will not need to attend a Visa Application Centre (VAC). Non-EU citizens on the other hand, will still be required to attend an in-person appointment at a VAC to submit their biometric data.

The Home Office has stated their long-term aim is for all visitors and migrants coming to the UK to provide their biometric facial images and fingerprints under a single global immigration system. Although this will take time to implement, the Home Office will increasingly look to maximise customer convenience and security by offering solutions for biometric self-enrolment within a wider digital application process.

E-passport gates

Automated e-gates at UK airports are self-service barriers operated by the UK Border Force which offer an alternative to desks staffed by immigration officers. The gates utilise facial recognition technology to verify an individual’s identity against the data stored in a chip in their biometric passport.

Under the new rules, citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan New Zealand, the USA, Singapore and South Korea who hold biometric passports will be able to continue using e-gates to pass through the UK border on arrival. EU citizens will also be allowed to continue using e-gates, but this policy will be kept under review. Citizens from other countries will need to see a Border Force officer.

The use of e-gates has increased in recent years, and although this technology can make crossing the UK border quicker and easier, there are some concerns surrounding the use of the gates and an individual’s ability to prove their immigration status in the UK.

Due to the increasingly stringent documentary requirements for people needing to demonstrate their right to live, work and access public services in the UK, those crossing the border without a physical stamp in their passport on arrival may face difficulties when asked to evidence their status.

In response to the concerns, the government’s immigration watchdog is currently calling for evidence to support an investigation into how visa-free entry to the UK has affected people’s ability to prove their right to be in the UK and access services.

Electronic Travel Authorisations (ETAs)

Longer term, a key change set to be introduced for travelers arriving in the UK is a new universal ‘permission to travel’ requirement, which will be a phased programme to 2025. Under the new scheme, everyone wishing to travel to the UK, except British and Irish citizens, will need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) prior to arrival.

The ETA system will involve a light-touch application process to allow security checks to be conducted and more informed decisions taken as to whether individuals should be allowed to travel to the UK. Once granted, the ETA will act as the individual’s permission to travel, although all arrivals into the UK will still be required to provide a passport at the border.

Be Aware, Be Prepared

With less than five months to go until the UK implements its new points-based immigration system, employers and individuals should be aware of how the new rules will impact their immigration goals.

Smith Stone Walters is experienced in helping businesses and individuals in a wide range of immigration and visa application services. Our consultants will work closely with you from initial consultation to delivery, to ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible.

For a friendly discussion about your requirements, please contact us today to find out how we can help. We look forward to hearing from you.

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