A series of new UK visa regulations comes into force this month, as a result of an extensive review by the UK’s Borders and Immigration Agency. Several countries that until now have enjoyed visa-free travel to the United Kingdom will have visa requirements imposed upon them, most controversially South Africa.
The visa requirement, which became effective today for visitors from South Africa, hits almost 300,000 South Africans who come to Britain each year, and will make make their visits more expensive. In 2007 there were 297,000 tourists from South Africa visiting Britain, a dip from 351,000 in 2006. The total estimated spend by South African visitors was £232 million in 2007 compared with £261 million the year before. Incoming visits from South Africa have averaged between 260,000 and 319,000 every year since 2000.
The changes to the visa regime are part of the biggest shake-up of immigration and border security measures seen in the UK in over 45 years, including measures to fingerprint all visa applicants and the operation of electronic identity checks at ports and airports in the UK. A key aim is to count in and count out all short-term visitors to the UK – including tourists – with accuracy.
Britain’s tough border means that nationals of 133 countries – which number three-quarters of the world’s population – must apply for a visitor visa to come to the UK. According to the Home Office, over 99 per cent of foreign nationals from outside the EEA will be tracked in and out of Britain by 2010, through targeting of countries deemed higher risk because their own borders are not secure.
Government officials in London fear that South Africa is a staging post for terrorists intent on getting into the UK. They believe it is too easy for non-South Africans to obtain a South African passport allowing them to enter Britain, or the Common Travel Area which includes Ireland and the Channel Islands, without further checks.
VisitBritain said they would be keeping a close eye on the effect of the visa requirement to spot any downward trend resulting from it. “We want to make sure the right people visit Britain by means that are affordable and accessible. We are concerned that Britain’s competitiveness as a destination should not be damaged by new visa requirements. South Africa is an important market for us,” said Elliott Frisby at VisitBritain.
As of today, 3rd March 2009, visitors to the UK from South Africa need to apply for visas; the full visa regime will come into effect by mid-2009. Visa regimes are being introduced also for visitors from four other countries: Bolivia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Venezuela, following concerns about the security of border checks operating in those countries.
Anyone wishing to travel from these five countries via the UK en route to a third country will also now need a transit visa. The same transit visa requirements have also been extended to Jamaican nationals wanting to pass through the UK.
In the case of Venezuela, visitors who have the new biometric fingerprint passports issued by Venezuela since 2007 will be exempt and allowed to enter the UK without applying for a visa. At the same time, the visa requirements are being eased for Taiwanese nationals visiting the UK.
Taiwanese visitors to Europe as a whole last year numbered about 260,000 trips. Following the UK’s move to ease visa requirements, the issue of visa-free travel to Schengen countries was raised during a visit to the European Parliament by the Speaker of the Taiwanese Parliament, Wang Jin-Pyng. “Visa-free treatment from the EU member states will help promote bilateral trade, cultural exchanges and investment and tourism, thereby generating jobs for both sides,” he said.
The German MEP, Georg Jarzembowski, who chairs the EP’s Taiwan Friendship group, said lifting the visa requirement for Taiwanese visitors to all European Union states would help trade and tourism links. “Taiwan should be treated in the same way as many other countries, particularly as it is one of the EU’s biggest trading partners,” he said.
The new UK visa regulations affect ordinary visitors and tourists, coming to the UK for less than six months. Nationals from these countries already need a visa to work or settle in the UK, as do the nationals from all countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA), which covers the European Union member states plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
All travellers affected by the new regulations will need to provide fingerprints as part of the visa application. The Government’s electronic border system – e-Borders – will see every passenger being counted in and out of Britain and checked against immigration and security watch-lists by 2014. So far, the e-Borders system has screened 50 million passengers travelling to Britain, leading to more than 2,000 arrests, including murderers, drug dealers and sex offenders. The UK Border Agency has drawn up ‘no fly’ lists with passengers flagged up by e-Borders barred from flying with airlines into the UK. The Agency says nearly 500 cases of identity swapping have been spotted already through the tougher fingerprinting of visa applicants.
In 2009-10 the UK Government plans to spend over £2.2bn (€2.5bn) on securing borders and managing the immigration system, and aims to recover about 30 per cent of this spending through fees for visa applications and immigration services, so that the full cost does not fall on UK taxpayers. In the financial year 2006-07 the UK raised an income from visa fees of about £190 million (€215m).
New types of visa are being introduced and fees for existing visas are going up. Some fees will continue to be set at or below levels that reflect the administrative costs of visa processing. Other fees are set at levels above the normal administrative costs. This generates revenue which is used either to set certain fees below cost recovery or to deliver the Government’s wider objectives such as the doubling of resource for enforcement.
The fee for a normal visitor visa for entry into the UK is going up from £65 to £67 and for a direct airside transit visa from £45 to £46. The Agency estimates that the cost of processing a six-month visitor visa is about £101 and a transit visa £70. Transferring a visa vignette to a new passport, up to now a free service, will be charged £75 when the new scale of fees comes in.
The UK is introducing a new type of visa for business travellers. Visa nationals visiting the UK on business will have to provide evidence of the purpose for the visit against a list of ‘qualifying activities’, such as attending meetings or conferences, arranging deals, negotiating or signing trade agreement or contracts, undertaking fact-finding missions, checking details or goods, or conducting site visits and promotional activities.
“These changes will help create a fairer Britain with fair treatment for those who play by the rules, but tough action against those who break the law,” said Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas MP. “We want the United Kingdom to stay open and attractive to both business and visitors. At the same time we are determined to deliver a system of border security which is among the most secure in the world.”
New visas are coming in for sportspeople and entertainers, recognising a concession which allowed them to come in to the UK for a short time without a work permit to take part in specific events.
A dedicated new grade visa will apply to sportspeople and support staff coming for specific events, such as Wimbledon, amateur sportspeople joining United Kingdom amateur teams for up to six months, professional entertainers coming to the United Kingdom to take part in music competitions, amateur entertainers travelling to the United Kingdom for a specific engagement, professional entertainers coming to take part in a charity show or where they will receive no fee and professional and amateur entertainers taking part in a ‘permit-free festival’ such as the Edinburgh Festival.
The new visa categories for sports and entertainment have been welcomed by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, which has policy responsibility for tourism in the UK Government. “If we are going to make the UK the world’s best cultural and sporting nation by 2012 then we need to make sure that talented sportspeople and entertainers from all over the world come here to take part in the many sporting events, festivals, and shows we have on offer. Their presence makes our country a richer, more inspiring place to live and encourages more tourists to visit. We want next year to be a golden decade of sport, so it’s good news that sportsmen and women competing in events here will keep the concessions that they previously enjoyed.”
New sanctions are being introduced for families in the UK who invite relatives from abroad. The resident family will have to apply for a licence to sponsor a relative visiting from a country where a UK visitor visa is required. Sponsors must ensure that their visitors leave before the visa runs out and could face a fine of up to £5,000 or a jail sentence if they fail.
The Home Office said the changes will help create a fairer Britain with fair treatment for those who play by the rules, but tough action against those who break the law. “We want the UK to stay open and attractive for both business and visitors. But at the same time we are determined to deliver a system of border security which is among the most secure in the world.”
The UK Border Agency was launched in April 2008 and brought together the Border and Immigration Agency, UK Visas and customs at the border.