Offshore work and the digital dimension: keeping pace with travel requirements

Kelly Hardman, solicitor at Fragomen

By Kelly Hardman, solicitor, Fragomen

THE roll-out of a new scheme which helps to digitalise the UK’s border is already under way – and energy sector companies which deploy workers from overseas need to pay heed to its implications. The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) initiative – broadly akin to the ESTA scheme applied by the USA authorities – has been introduced as a further security-enhancing measure and is likely to become fully operational during 2024. 

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Nationals of Qatar were the first to require an ETA for travel to the UK after 15th November. From February 2024, this will also apply to nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – Other nationalities will be able (and required) to apply later in 2024.

In essence, an ETA confers digital permission to travel to the UK but it’s not a visa. And it’s a highly pertinent topic for the offshore energy industry because all Europeans and other non-visa nationals either travelling to or transiting through the UK will need an ETA in due course. 

The granting of consent for the Rosebank oilfield and the more recent award of 27 new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea suggest a ramping-up of offshore activity in the years ahead. The offshore jobs implications associated with these remain unknown for now, but nevertheless these developments signal that companies potentially associated with these need to start assessing their manpower strategy against the backdrop of the ETA scheme.

Similarly, the exponential growth of offshore wind – the massive Seagreen wind farm off the Angus coast is the latest example of a development to go fully live – should also be signalling to supply chain businesses that they should be factoring workforce resourcing considerations, and the related immigration issues, into their growth plans.

To cite a couple of examples in the context of ETAs:

  • If an individual needs to come to the UK to work on rotation outside of UK territorial waters for over six months, the recommended route is a Continental Shelf Worker (CSW) visa for both non-visa and visa nationals. There would be no requirement for an ETA because the worker would have CSW status. In other words, they would not be seeking entry at the border as a visitor.
  • For someone on rotation for fewer than six months (outside of UK territorial waters), if they are a non-visa national (i.e Canadian, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, American) they may seek entry at the UK border as a visitor with the relevant paperwork. An ETA will now also be an additional consideration (for the relevant nationalities) in this scenario, because these non-visa nationals can seek entry to the UK as visitors.
  • ETA obligations would not apply to visa nationals (i.e Chinese, Filipino, Russian), who will still need to obtain a visitor visa prior to travel.

In a wider context, seafarers who are also non-visa nationals and rely on entering the UK using a Seaman’s Book will also likely be subject to ETA requirements.

To ensure compliance with the new ETA regulations, businesses should be preparing themselves and their employees now. Firstly, they should be communicating the introduction of ETA to employees and business partners to help avoid the potential for travel problems and the consequent business disruption.

They could also be considering how much help and support they provide to employees to obtain an ETA for business travel, such as making adjustments to their travel expenses policy, for example. Above all, they need to acquaint themselves with the new requirements, affected populations, possible implications, and plan accordingly. 

The digital border is the shape of things to come – several other jurisdictions have introduced a similar scheme or have plans to do so – so keeping employees travel-ready across multiple permissions means keeping pace with change in the digital age.

Edinburgh-based Kelly Hardman is a solicitor (senior manager) with Fragomen, the world’s leading provider of immigration services. She advises Scottish companies on immigration strategies and issues. Kelly is also responsible for co-ordinating and managing Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) immigration programmes on behalf of some of Fragomen’s largest clients.

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