UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) are turning the UK’s immigration system digital through the introduction of eVisas. eVisas will replace physical UK visa documents such as Biometric Residence Permits (BRPs), Biometric Residence Cards (BRCs), passport endorsements and vignette stickers in passports. The process started in 2018 with the EU Settlement Scheme and UKVI states it will be completely rolled out for all visas in 2024. Those with physical visas will be contacted when they need to register for a UKVI account, which they will be able to use to view their eVisas.
Every visa holder’s UKVI account will give them access to their eVisa, which will function both as an online record of their immigration status and contain the conditions of their permission to enter and stay in the UK. eVisas will not act as a straight digital replacement of people’s previous physical visas but rather will generate each time the visa holder accesses their account, meaning it will give real-time updated immigration statuses of immigrants.
In order to gain access to view and prove their visa status, the visa holder will have to first enter their credentials into the UKVI online portal, after which a one-time password will be sent to their email or phone number, which can then be used to generate the biometric, biographic and immigration records of the visa holder.
The system will then examine each of the visa holder’s previous and current applications and determine which immigration status to show for the individual applying.
UKVI argue that a digital immigration system has several advantages.
Firstly, eVisas are more secure than physical documents as they cannot be lost, stolen or tampered with.
When a BRP is lost it will cause a lot of stress and inconvenience to the visa holder, as its loss must be reported to the police and a replacement ordered from UKVI. Not having a physical document will mean it will be impossible to lose an eVisa, as well as preventing lost or stolen BRPs from being used as fakes for those trying to cheat the immigration system.
Secondly, applicants for visas will no longer have to wait for their physical documents to be delivered or be ready for collection – once their application is approved their eVisa will be instantly generated and available.
Thirdly, UKVI argues that it will be easier and quicker for a visa holder to prove their status when entering the UK.
Another advantage of an eVisa is that it can be used by a visa holder to share relevant details about their immigration status with their employer or their landlord through the use of a share code, which can be generated by the visa holder and sent to the relevant third party, who will be able to access the immigration status of the visa holder for a limited time. This will be a more simple and trustworthy way for the third party to check the visa holder’s immigration status.
The introduction of eVisas does bring several potential downsides.
Even if the idea is sound in theory, there will inevitably with teething issues as it gets rolled out to all visa holders in 2024.
Hundreds of thousands of visa holders will have to be contacted and told to register for their online UKVI account. There will almost certainly be those who do not get contacted or do not do the steps in time to secure their eVisas. As it quite a complex system, visa holders will have to be told how eVisas work.
Another potential problem is that Border Force officials will also have to be trained on how eVisas will work when people enter the UK.
There is also the risk of technical problems. When UKVI introduced online-only immigration statuses with the EU Settlement Scheme, which was created after Brexit in order to allow EU nationals to apply to remain in the UK, several glitches in the system became apparent. These included applicants losing their existing pre-settled status when applying for settled status, the incorrect visa appearing when they logged in, successful appeals not showing on the system, corrupted digital statuses, and entangled digital statuses (where a person would login and see someone else’s immigration details). The latter of these was a serious data protection problem, and with millions of visas granted each year, this could be a huge issue if the same glitch occurred when eVisas are implemented totally. Some of these glitches took months to resolve, causing a lot of stress and inconvenience to the affected visa holders.
All of these glitches highlight the major problem with the actual concept of eVisas – as soon as something goes wrong and the candidate cannot access their correct visa, then they suddenly have no tangible proof of their legitimate immigration status in the UK. BRP would have always been there for the candidate to access as long as they are careful with it; whereas, through no fault of their own, someone with an e-visa may not be able to show a Border Force employee or potential employer that they are legally allowed to be in the UK after eVisas are made mandatory.
The very nature of digital status not being an object that is retrieved but rather a status that is generated each time a visa holder accesses their account means an eVisa is not tangible and reliant on IT systems working correctly.
This leads to the huge problem of visa holder’s legal rights being placed in doubt when IT systems fail.
In a sweeping change to the UK’s visa system, by the end of 2024, physical documentation will no longer be used by UKVI to ascertain someone’s immigration status.
Instead, eVisas will contain all of a visa holder’s immigration information. A visa holder will have to have registered for a UKVI account and linked their passport to said account. The potential disadvantages are numerous, and those affected by technical problems could lose proof of their legal rights, thanks to the online-only nature of eVisas. However, in theory, there are several advantages, including ease of use and security, that will surely bear out in practice over time.