Common Travel Area

The Common Travel Area (CTA; Irish: Comhlimistéar Taistil) is an open borders area comprising the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. The British Overseas Territories are not included. Based on agreements that are legally binding, the internal borders of the Common Travel Area (CTA) are subject to minimal controls, if any, and can normally be crossed by British and Irish citizens with minimal identity documents with certain exceptions.[1][2] The maintenance of the CTA involves considerable co-operation on immigration matters between the British and Irish authorities.

Common Travel Area
  covered315,134 km2 (121,673.9 sq mi)
  coveredc. 70 million (as of 2016)

In 2014, the British and Irish governments began a trial system of mutual recognition of each other's visas for onward travel within the Common Travel Area. As of June 2016 it applies to Chinese and Indian nationals and is limited to certain visa types. Other nationalities and those holding non-qualifying visas still require separate visas to visit both countries and may not avail of a transit visa exception if wishing to transit through the UK to Ireland.

Since 1997, the Irish government has imposed systematic identity checks on air passengers coming from the United Kingdom and selective checks on sea passengers, and occasional checks on land crossings.[3]


1923 agreement

The Irish Free State seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922 at a time when systematic passport and immigration controls were becoming standard at international frontiers. Although the British had imposed entry controls in the past  notably during the French Revolution[4]  the imposition of such controls in the 20th century dated from the Aliens Act 1905, before which there was a system of registration for arriving foreigners.[5]

Before the creation of the Irish Free State, British immigration law applied in Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. With the imminent prospect of Irish independence in 1922, the British Home Office was disinclined to impose passport and immigration controls between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which would have meant patrolling a porous and meandering 499 km (310 mi) long[6][7] land border. If, however, the pre-1922 situation were to be continued, the Irish immigration authorities would have to continue to enforce British immigration policy after independence. The Irish Department for Home Affairs was found to be receptive to continuing with the status quo and an informal agreement to this effect was reached in February 1923: each side would enforce the other's immigration decisions and the Irish authorities would be provided with a copy of Britain's suspect-codex (or 'Black Book') of any personae non gratae in the United Kingdom.[8]

The agreement was provided for in UK law by deeming the Irish Free State to be part of the United Kingdom for the purposes of immigration law.[9] It was fully implemented in 1925 when legislation passed in both countries provided for the recognition of the other's landing conditions for foreigners.[10] This may be considered to have been the high point of the CTA  although it was not called that at the time  as it almost amounted to a common immigration area. A foreigner who had been admitted to one state could, unless his or her admission had been conditional upon not entering the other state, travel to the other with only minimal bureaucratic requirements.

The CTA was suspended on the outbreak of war in 1939, and travel restrictions were introduced between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.[11] This meant that travel restrictions even applied to people travelling within the UK if they were travelling from Northern Ireland to elsewhere in the UK.

1952 agreement

After the war, the Irish re-instated their previous provisions allowing free movement[12] but the British declined to do so pending the agreement of a "similar immigration policy"[13] in both countries. Consequently, the British maintained immigration controls between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain until 1952, to the consternation of Northern Ireland's Unionist population.[14]

No agreement on a similar immigration policy was publicised at the time, but a year after the Irish Minister for Justice referred to the lifting of immigration controls between the two islands as "a matter for the British themselves", the British began referring to the CTA in legislation for the first time.[15] The content of the agreement is provided for in relevant immigration law.[16][17]

The CTA has meant that Ireland has been required to follow changes in British immigration policy.[18] This was notable in 1962 when Irish law was changed in response to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, which imposed immigration controls between the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, while in Ireland the Aliens Order 1962 replaced the state's previous provision exempting all British subjects from immigration control,[19] with one exempting only those born in the United Kingdom. The scope of the Irish provision was much more restrictive than the British legislation as it excluded from immigration control only those British citizens born in the United Kingdom, and imposed immigration controls on those born outside the UK. The latter group would have included individuals who were British citizens by descent or by birth in a British colony. This discrepancy between Britain's and Ireland's definition of a British citizen was not resolved until 1999.[20]

2008 proposal

In July 2008, the UK Border Agency (the predecessor of UK Visas and Immigration) published a consultation paper on the CTA that envisaged the imposition of immigration controls for non-CTA nationals, and new measures for identity checks of CTA nationals, as well as an advance passenger information system, on all air and sea crossings between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain.

While passport controls were proposed to be applied to travellers between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, the nature of possible identity controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not clear. This led to controversy because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, with a prominent Unionist describing the proposed arrangements as "intolerable and preposterous".[21] The nature of identity checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was characterised by the British government as follows:

Section 14 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 introduced a new power that will allow the police to capture passenger, crew and service information on air and sea journeys within the United Kingdom. ... It is expected that this police power will only apply to air and sea routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Passengers will not be required to use passports, but may be required to produce one of several types of documentation, including passports, when travelling, to enable the carrier to the meet the requirements of a police request.

Liam Byrne, Minister of State for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, House of Commons Debate, 14 January 2008.[22]

As far as the land border is concerned, the proposal indicated that the border would be "lightly controlled"[23] and a joint statement in 2008 by both governments confirmed that there are no plans for fixed controls on either side of the border.[24]

On 1 April 2009, an amendment moved by Lord Glentoran in the House of Lords defeated the British Government's proposal and preserved the CTA.[25] The relevant clause was re-introduced by Home Office minister Phil Woolas in the Public Bill Committee in June,[26] but again removed in July after opposition pressure.[27]

2011 agreement

2011 marked the first public agreement between the British and Irish governments concerning the maintenance of the CTA. Officially entitled the "Joint Statement Regarding Co-Operation on Measures to Secure the External Common Travel Area Border"[28] it was signed in Dublin on 20 December 2011 by the UK's immigration minister, Damian Green and Ireland's Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter. The two ministers also signed an unpublished memorandum of understanding at the same time.[29]

In common with its unpublished predecessors the 2011 agreement is nonbinding, with its eighth clause stating that the agreement "is not intended to create legally binding obligations, nor to create or confer any right, privilege or benefit on any person or party, private or public".[30]

The agreement commits the two governments to continue their co-operation through the CTA, to align their lists of visa-free countries, to develop "electronic border management system/s",[31] to engage in data sharing to combat the "abuse" of the CTA,[32] and to work toward a "fully-common short stay visit visa".[33]

2016–2017: Brexit

The UK voted to leave the European Union in a referendum on 23 June 2016. Their withdrawal would make the Republic of Ireland–United Kingdom border on the island of Ireland an external border of the European Union.[34] However, the Irish and UK governments and the President of the European Council have stated that they do not wish for a hard border in Ireland, taking into account the historical and social "sensitivities" that permeate the island.[35] In September 2016 the British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, stated that the UK government would not seek a return to a "hard border" between the UK and Republic of Ireland.[36]

In October 2016, the UK and Irish governments considered in outline a plan entailing British immigration controls being applied at Irish ports and airports after Brexit, so that Britain might control migration by EU citizens (other than Irish nationals) across the open border into the United Kingdom. This would avoid passport checks being required between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.[37] However, this agreement was never finalised and was met by opposition from political parties in the Republic of Ireland.[38] On 23 March 2017, it was confirmed that British immigration officials would not be allowed to use Irish ports and airports.[39]

In June 2017, the UK government's policy paper on the position of EU citizens in the UK stated a desire to "protect the Common Travel Area arrangements", stating that "Irish citizens residing in the UK will not need to apply for 'settled status' to protect their entitlements".[40]

2019 agreement

On 8 May 2019, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and UK Cabinet Office minister David Lidington signed a memorandum of understanding in an effort to secure the rights of Irish and British citizens post-Brexit.[41] The document was signed in London before a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, putting the rights of both countries' citizens, that are already in place under the Common Travel Area, on a more secure footing.

The agreement, which is the culmination of over two years' work of both governments, will mean the rights of both countries' citizens are protected after Brexit while also ensuring that Ireland will continue to meet its obligations under EU law.

Identity and immigration checks

Channel Islands

Immigration checks are carried out by the Guernsey Border Agency and the Jersey Customs and Immigration Service on passengers arriving in the Channel Islands only from outside the CTA.[42]


In 1997, Ireland changed its immigration legislation to allow immigration officers to examine (i.e. request identity documents from) travellers arriving in the state by sea or air (from elsewhere in the CTA) and to refuse them permission to land if they are not entitled to enter.[3] Although formally this applies only to people other than Irish and British citizens, both of the latter groups are effectively covered as they may be required to produce identity documents to prove that they are entitled to the CTA arrangements.[43] while targeted controls are conducted along the land border in what are referred to as "intelligence driven operations".[44] Air passengers arriving at Irish ports/airports from elsewhere in the CTA are no longer channelled separately from those arriving from outside the CTA;[45] consequently all sea and air passengers must pass through Irish immigration checks, administered by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB). While British citizens are not required to be in possession of a valid travel document as a condition of entry, they may be required to satisfy immigration officials as to their nationality.

The nature of the Irish controls was described by an Irish High Court judge, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, in the following terms:

The practical result of this is that all persons arriving by air from the United Kingdom face Irish immigration controls. While in theory both Irish and British citizens are entitled to arrive here free from immigration control by virtue of the common travel area, increasingly in practice such passengers who arrive by air from the United Kingdom are required to produce their passports (or, at least, some other form of acceptable identity document) in order to prove to immigration officers that they are either Irish or British citizens who can avail of the common travel area.[45][46]

In 2012, a pilot project was set up to use civilian staff from the Immigration section of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) to work with GNIB staff at immigration control at Dublin Airport. INIS staff will be responsible for performing all "in-booth" duties (including examining arriving passengers), but will not take part in any matters related to restraint, detention or arrest.[47]

Transit Without Visa for Irish biometric visa holders

UK visa requirements published in July 2019 allow certain travellers to transit without visa "landside" (i.e. those who need or wish to pass through the UK border and enter the UK).[48] They must arrive and depart by air; and have a confirmed onward flight that departs before 23:59 hrs the following day; and hold the correct documents for their destination (e.g. a visa for that country if required).

Nationals of all countries need a visa to transit landside unless they hold a valid Irish biometric visa, endorsed BC or BC BIVS, and are travelling to the Republic of Ireland. Therefore a holder of a biometric Irish visa does not require a separate UK visa if transiting landside through the UK border on their way to Ireland.

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man government reports that "on-entry Immigration Control is rarely undertaken in the Isle of Man as there are very few transport services entering the Isle of Man from outside the CTA."[49] As of April 2018 the only regular commercial air service between the Isle of Man and an airport outside the Common Travel Area is Geneva in Switzerland.[50]

The Isle of Man is considered a part of the UK for customs purposes, and so there are no routine customs checks on travellers arriving from the UK.[51]

United Kingdom

The UK Border Force does not carry out routine immigration checks on travellers (regardless of nationality) arriving in the UK from another part of the CTA.[51] However, because the Channel Islands have VAT free status, the UK carries out selective customs checks on travellers arriving from there.

Travel within the UK

There are no border controls between the four constituent countries of the UK, and consequently the land frontiers between England, Scotland and Wales are completely open. However, section 8[52] of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 provided for temporary powers to examine persons travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.[34] Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 provides for similar powers and remains in force.[53]

According to the Home Office, with regard to the legal basis for identity screening and immigration checks at airports and sea ports, as carried out on passengers travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,[54] "Immigration Enforcement officers may arrest without warrant anyone they have reasonable grounds to suspect has committed an immigration offence and/or may be liable for removal directions." Section 31.19.3 of the Enforcement Instructions and Guidance (part of the visas and immigration operational guidance),[55] relating to the case law Baljinder Singh v. Hammond,[56] said "Any questioning must be consensual. The paragraph 2 power to examine does not include a power to compel someone to stop or to require someone to comply with that examination. Should a person seek to exercise their right not to answer questions and leave, there is no power to arrest that person purely on suspicion of committing an immigration offence."

As in most countries, airlines may require photo identification (e.g. a passport or a driving licence) for internal flights between destinations within the UK.[57][58]

Common visa system

In October 2014, the British and Irish governments signed a memorandum of understanding paving the way for mutually recognised visas allowing visitors to travel to Britain and Ireland on a single visa. Chinese and Indian nationals were the first and, as of 2018, the only nationalities to get the benefit of the scheme. It was proposed to conduct a review of the scheme in 2015 with a view to expand it to all other countries by the end of that year,[59] but no such review took place, and the scheme has not been extended to other nationalities. The scheme exists in parallel to the Irish visa waiver programme which waives the visa requirement for the nationals of 17 countries if they hold valid UK short-stay visas and enter Ireland directly from the UK.

While the CTA has, for most of its history, involved an open or relatively open border, since the Second World War this has not meant that someone who legally entered one part of the CTA was automatically entitled to enter another part. Unlike the Schengen Agreement, the CTA currently provides no mechanism for the mutual recognition of leave to enter and remain, and the UK and Ireland operate separate visa systems with distinct entry requirements. In general, a UK visa will not allow entry to Ireland nor vice versa.

The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man allow entry to holders of UK visas (with some exceptions). Bailiwick of Guernsey and Jersey immigration authorities routinely check non-EEA nationals seeking to enter the UK to ensure they have valid UK permissions.

In July 2011 Ireland introduced a limited pilot visa waiver programme under which the normal requirement for certain nationalities to hold an Irish visa is waived for visitors to the UK who hold valid UK visas.

Nationalities that are visa-free in the UK but not in Ireland:

Nationalities that are visa-free in Ireland but not in the UK:

Irish visa-waiver nationalities

Freedom of movement

While British and Irish citizens enjoy the right to live in each other's countries under European Union law, the provisions that apply to them are generally more far reaching than those that apply to other European Economic Area nationals. There now are identity checks at least for air travel, and British and Irish citizens may be requested to produce a valid identity document when crossing the border.

British citizens in Ireland

Under Irish law, all British citizens  including Manx people and Channel Islanders, who are not entitled to take advantage of the European Union's freedom of movement provisions  are exempt from immigration control and immune from deportation.[61] They are entitled to live in Ireland without any restrictions or conditions.[62] They have, with limited exceptions,[63] never been treated as foreigners under Irish law, having never been subject to the Aliens Act 1935 or to any orders made under that Act.[62] British citizens can thus move to Ireland to live, work or retire and unlike other EU citizens, they are not required to demonstrate having sufficient resources or have private health insurance in order to retire. This is due to the fact that British citizens are also entitled to use Irish public services on the same basis as Irish citizens in Ireland.[62]

Irish citizens in the United Kingdom

Before 1949, all Irish citizens were considered under British law to be British subjects.[64][65] After Ireland declared itself a republic in that year, a consequent British law gave Irish citizens a similar status to Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom, notwithstanding that they had ceased to be such. Thus, much like British citizens in Ireland, Irish citizens in the United Kingdom have never been treated as foreigners. Irish citizens have, however, like Commonwealth citizens, been subject to immigration control in Britain since the enactment of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Unlike Commonwealth citizens, Irish citizens have generally not been subject to entry control in the United Kingdom and, if they move to the UK, are considered to have 'settled status' (a status that goes beyond indefinite leave to remain). They may be subject to deportation from the UK upon the same basis as other European Economic Area nationals.[66] In February 2007 the British government announced that a specially lenient procedure would apply to the deportation of Irish citizens compared to the procedure for other European Economic Area nationals.[67][68] As a result, Irish nationals are not routinely considered for deportation from the UK when they are released from prison.[69]

Other European Economic Area nationals

Nationals of member states of the European Economic Area other than British and Irish nationals have the right to freely enter and reside in the UK and Ireland under European Union law. They are required to carry a valid travel document, a passport or a national identity card, for entering the CTA and for travelling between Ireland and the UK.[70]

Citizens' rights


British or Irish citizens can work in either country, including on a self-employed basis, without needing any permission from the authorities.[71]

In support of this, the UK Government is committed to ensuring that, after the UK leaves the EU, appropriate and comprehensive provisions continue to be in place for the recognition of professional qualifications obtained in Ireland. The Irish Government has also committed to working to ensure the provision of arrangements with the UK to recognise professional qualifications.[71]


British and Irish citizens have the right to access all levels of education in either state on terms no less favourable than those available to the citizens of that state. Both Governments have committed to taking steps to ensure that this continues after the UK leaves the EU.[71]

Both Governments have also committed to taking steps to ensure that British and Irish citizens pursuing further and higher education in the other state will continue to have the right to qualify for student loans and support under applicable schemes and eligibility conditions.[71][72]

Social security benefits

British or Irish citizens residing or working in the other’s state, working in both states or working across the border are subject to only one state’s social security legislation at a time. They can access social security benefits and entitlements, including pensions, from whichever state they are subject to the social security legislation of, regardless of where they are living.[71][73]

When working in the CTA, workers pay into the social security scheme of the state where the employer is 'based for tax purposes' (Multinational corporations may have such a base in each state). They are entitled, when in the other state, to the same social security rights, and are subject to the same obligations, as citizens of that state.[71]

Workers also have the right to access social security benefits on the same basis as citizens of the state where they are employed. The UK and Irish Governments have concluded a bilateral agreement to ensure that these rights will continue to be protected after the UK leaves the EU.[71]


British and Irish citizens have the right to access healthcare in either state. When visiting they also have the right to access needs-arising health care during their stay. Both Governments have committed to taking steps to ensure that this will continue after the UK leaves the EU.[71][74]

Social housing support

British or Irish citizens residing in the other state have the right to access social housing, including supported housing and homeless assistance, on the same basis as citizens of that state. Both Governments have committed to taking steps to ensure that this will continue after the UK leaves the EU.[71][75]

Voting rights

British or Irish citizens living in the other state are entitled to register to vote with the relevant authorities for local and national parliamentary elections in that state on the same basis as citizens of that state. Upon reaching voting age, they are entitled to vote in those elections on the same basis as citizens of that state. Both Governments have committed to ensuring that these arrangements will continue after the UK leaves the EU.[71][76]

Schengen Area

In 1985, five member states of the then European Economic Community signed the Schengen Agreement on the gradual dropping of border controls between them. This treaty and the implementation convention of 1990 paved the way for the creation of the Schengen Area. Implemented in 1995, by 1997 all European Union member states except the United Kingdom and Ireland had signed the Agreement. The Amsterdam Treaty, which was drafted that year, incorporated Schengen into EU law, while giving Ireland and the UK an opt-out permitting them to maintain systematic passport and immigration controls at their frontiers. The wording of the treaty makes Ireland's opt-out from eliminating border controls conditional on the Common Travel Area being maintained.

The British government has always refused to lower its border controls as it believes that the island status of the CTA puts the UK in a better position to enforce immigration controls than mainland European countries with "extensive and permeable land borders".[77] While not signing the Schengen Treaty, Ireland has always looked more favourably on joining but has not done so to maintain the CTA and its open border with Northern Ireland,[78] though in 1997 Ireland amended its Aliens Order to permit identity and immigration controls on arrivals from the United Kingdom.[3]

Identification requirements

Most transport operators permit passengers to travel within the Common Travel Area without a passport, although Ryanair require all passengers to carry a passport or a national identity card. In 2014 a private member's bill was put before the Irish parliament which proposed to prohibit transport operators from requiring the production of a passport for travel within the Common Travel Area, but it was not passed.[79] Photo ID is required for Irish or British citizens travelling by air at the minimum. The Irish government in October 2015, started issuing passport cards and are the same size as national identity cards from other EU countries, which are accepted by all transport operators but the issuing of a passport card requires the holder to already have a conventional passport book.[80]

See also


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  10. Respectively by the Aliens Order 1925 (Ireland) and the Aliens Order 1925 (UK).
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Further reading

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