Why do they ask for a landing card from non-EU citizens at UK passport control?

I read that you have to complete this card, and hand it over to the UK border control along with your passport and visa.

Please explain, what is the purpose of this landing card?

I see that in this 21st Century digital age, they still enforce this paperwork when landing.

Why not just abolish it, to make it easy for frequent travelers?

Even India requires a landing card from foreigners!

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    The paper card contains information that is not currently collected in any other way, such as the traveller's profession and the intended length of his stay in the UK. [If the traveller intends to exit the UK on a different ticket to the one on which he enters, the departure date cannot be reliably inferred from his arrival information.] – Calchas Jul 4 '16 at 12:52
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    Frequent travellers from some trusted countries can make use of the UK's Registered Travellers scheme, which allows them to skip the landing card, and to use the EU or electronic passport control lines to enter the UK. gov.uk/registered-traveller – Calchas Jul 4 '16 at 12:54
  • Because most travelers to the UK don't need to fill out one and changing the process for those who do would be too expensive. – JonathanReez Jul 4 '16 at 15:51
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Wikipedia gives the reason here.

The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument make provision for requiring passengers disembarking or embarking in the United Kingdom, or any class of such passengers, to produce to an immigration officer, if so required, landing or embarkation cards in such form as the Secretary of State may direct, and for requiring the owners or agents of ships and aircraft to supply such cards to those passengers.

Hence the reason at the moment is that it's the law, though the form of providing the information could be modified by statutory instrument at any time. The US did something similar with their I-94 forms a few years ago and made them all electronic. However, you still have to fill in a customs form when entering the US so it makes little difference unless you have Global Entry or use the mobile passport application.

You can read the whole act here and the specific section to do with landing cards here.

The purpose of them was explained in a freedom of information request:

Landing cards fulfil the following functions:

  • to provide statistical information for use both inside and outside the department;
  • to provide a record of the arrival in the UK of persons subject to control; and
  • To enable the immigration officer to record what a passenger has said to him/her on his arrival, the circumstances which led to the granting of leave to enter and any information which may be useful to caseworkers if the passenger subsequently applies for an extension of stay.
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    @pbu No, they aren't. If you want to know what the law says, you have to read the law, not third-party literature from obscure sources like government agencies... – Alexander Jul 4 '16 at 13:57
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    I-94 are not electronic if you enter by land and you don't have ESTA. – njzk2 Jul 4 '16 at 14:18
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    @pbu It's a bit difficult to parse but doesn't the phrase you quote mean the exact opposite? In any case, EEA citizens definitely don't have to fill in a landing card. As far as EU law is concerned (and in actual practice in my experience), they should generally have to answer any question (e.g. no question on purpose or length of the trip). – Relaxed Jul 4 '16 at 14:25
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    I last went to the UK a little over a year ago and I'm pretty sure I didn't have to fill out a landing card. The EU principle of nondiscrimination would allow the UK to require them of other EU nationals only if they were also required of British citizens. Or after the UK leaves the freedom of movement regime, of course. – phoog Jul 4 '16 at 17:59
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    @phoog You definitely don't have to fill in a landing card. I'm just wondering where it says it though. – Berwyn Jul 4 '16 at 18:00

Almost every country in the world requires a landing card. (Some also require exit cards.) One answer as to why might be "because it's the law" but an "ask why 5 times" spirit could ask "Why is it the law?" You seem also to be asking "why hasn't it been replaced with something electronic?"

Every country asks slightly different things. Some are questions that are important to protect the agriculture and economy of the country:

  • have you been on a farm recently? Are you planning to visit a farm?
  • are you coming here for business, tourism, or study?
  • what is the value of the goods you are bringing into the country?

Some are questions that can be used for statistical purposes:

  • what is your profession?
  • are you planning to (list of tourist activities)?

These are not things that can just be looked up in some giant online database of people and cross referenced against the plane's passenger list. If they don't ask you, they won't know. And they want to know.

I suppose you could try asking passengers to install an app and take a survey electronically, but airports especially are full of folks who left their phone behind because it won't work in the destination country, or who used up all their battery during the flight, or other issues that would no doubt require a paper backup anyway. Cards are easy to keep stacks of on planes and at counters in the airport, easy enough to fill out, and officers can add notations to them quite simply. In Canada the way they made it electronic is to write software that scans the cards, not to replace the cards with something electronic.

A tip if you feel pressured filling your card out - take a spare and take it home with you. Before your next trip you can fill out that vast majority of it in advance. When they hand you the blank one, that's for the trip after that - take out your prepared one and just fill in the last bits. I do this for US trips where I have to preclear in Canada - they don't give you the card until you're about to join the lineup so I like having one at home I can fill out in advance.

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    "Almost every country in the world requires a landing card." The Schengen area doesn't have one. – JonathanReez Jul 4 '16 at 15:49
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    It can depend where the flight is from, or even vary by passenger. Landing in Tahiti, those with EU passports didn't have to fill out landing cards (but they did have to do a mandatory survey that asked different questions), those without EU passports had to do the landing card and the survey. Also, there are over 300 countries in the world, so even if none of the 28 (for now) EU countries ever required landing cards, the sentence would still be correct at "almost every country". – Kate Gregory Jul 4 '16 at 16:47
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    @JonathanReez I thought the words “civilized countries” were also on the way out (or already though the door). – Relaxed Jul 4 '16 at 18:16
  • "These are not things that can just be looked up [...]" That's what you are supposed to believe. But not even asking would mean to admit that the question is moot. ;) – Alexander Kosubek Jul 5 '16 at 12:00
  • The USA State of Hawaii has its own landing card. No, not left over from when it was an independent country. It's about non-importation of flora and fauna. – Andrew Lazarus Sep 21 '16 at 0:30

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