What would it be like to cross the border with England if Scotland leaves the UK?

Nicola Sturgeon said this week that she has the answer:

“Scotland will remain in the Common Travel Area with the rest of the UK and Ireland. That means any talk of passports to visit relatives in England is utter nonsense. Free movement of people across our islands will continue as before.”

But legal experts – and the Scottish government itself – acknowledge that these issues would still have to be negotiated as part of a Scottish exit deal.

Let’s take a look.

What is the Common Travel Area?

The Common Travel Area (CTA) is a set of arrangements between the UK, Ireland, and some Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man).

It allows British and Irish citizens to live and move freely between the two countries. It’s not set out in a single treaty, but evolved after Ireland gained independence from the UK in 1922.

Would an independent Scotland be in the Common Travel Area?

The CTA covers the territory and people of Scotland, but does not treat Scotland as a separate entity because it’s currently part of the UK.

If Scotland became independent, the arrangements for crossing into what remained of the UK would have to be negotiated as part of an exit deal with Westminster.

In a paper published this week setting out the case for independence, the Scottish government acknowledges this. It says: “As an independent country, and a member of the EU, Scotland would make arrangements for its border with the UK on the basis of EU law and a negotiated agreement with the UK.”

Later, the paper says “it would make sense for all parties” if the CTA arrangements covering Ireland were “to apply to Scotland in the event of independence”.

In other words, whether or not Scotland is part of the CTA – or some other “arrangements” that replicate the CTA – is still up for discussion, despite the First Minister’s comments this week.

Now, it’s very likely that the UK would want to keep travel across the Anglo-Scottish border as easy as possible.

FactCheck spoke to Professors Nicola McEwan and Katy Hayward of the UK in a Changing Europe network at King’s College, London.

“There is no indication that Scotland would be prevented from staying in the Common Travel Area after independence”, they told us in a joint statement.

“Scotland staying in [the CTA] would be in the interests of both sides.”

But they also noted that, “as with all border-related matters, it takes two sides to keep a border open or soft and only one side to harden it.”

“So […] the Scottish government could not unilaterally decide to stay inside the CTA, but another government could unilaterally decide to effectively exclude Scotland from it.”

Though they stressed “the negative consequence of doing so would affect all parties.”

Would passports be needed at the border between Scotland and England?

The Scottish government says an independent Scotland would want to join the EU. New EU member states are required to sign up to the Schengen Agreement.

On paper, this means removing border controls between Scotland and the other 26 members of the EU – as well as obliging Scotland to control the flow of people across the border with the UK because the latter is no longer in the trade bloc.

A recent UK in a Changing Europe report explains: “Thus, if Scotland joined the Schengen area, it would imply the need for passport controls between Scotland and its nearest neighbour.”

“However,” the authors continue, “given its unique geographic and historic circumstances, most specifically the existence of the Common Travel Area (CTA), most experts assume that Scotland would most likely seek and be granted an opt-out from the border control elements of the Schengen Agreement during membership negotiations with the European Union.”

Though, as Professor Imelda Maher of University College Dublin told FactCheck, there would still be “a bit of negotiating required if Scotland wanted to opt out of Schengen and have something like the CTA”.

Professors McEwan and Hayward told FactCheck: “we are as confident as it is possible to be that, in the event of independence, there would [be] no requirement for passport checks at the Anglo-Scottish border.”

So again, it’s likely that Scotland would be able to secure passport-free movement with England – but not guaranteed until deals are struck with the EU and UK.

Would free movement ‘continue as before’?

If an independent Scotland also managed to join the EU, it would create a new external border for the trade bloc in the middle of the British Isles.

And it’s worth pointing out that the CTA only applies to citizens of the countries that are part of it.

So, even if Scotland joins the CTA, the arrangement would only cover British, Irish and Scottish nationals.

Unless Scotland manages to negotiate some additional terms, that would mean people from other EU countries, and the rest of the world, who want to cross the Anglo-Scottish border may face new constraints or paperwork.

Professor Colin Murray of the University of Newcastle told FactCheck: “Just as with the NI/Ireland land border post Brexit, […] there will need to be travel authorisations or visas for non-CTA member citizens.”

He notes that “the UK Government has already legislated to introduce [Electronic Travel Authorisations] which look set to apply to border crossings in Ireland for non-CTA member citizens from next year.”

So, while the Scottish government would not want to introduce any new requirements on citizens from beyond the CTA area crossing the border, it can’t control what the UK government might do.

Scotland’s Europe minister Neil Gray issued this statement to FactCheck via a spokesperson:

“The economy paper clearly sets out proposals for Scotland to re-join the EU whilst remaining part of the Common Travel Area (CTA). Ireland is both an EU member state and is in the CTA – this is a longstanding arrangement that is recognised in EU treaties.

“Scotland will remain in the CTA because it makes sense for all parties. Rights to travel, live, work and access services would be protected and would continue for British and Irish citizens in Scotland, and for the citizens of an independent Scotland in the UK and Ireland.

“Becoming an independent country and re-joining the EU would ensure the free movement of people and goods to the 27 EU member states.”

FactCheck verdict

Nicola Sturgeon said this week that an independent Scotland “will remain in the Common Travel Area”, that there will be no passport checks to cross into England, and that free movement of people “will continue as before”.

Given the political, economic and practical implications, it’s likely that the UK, Ireland and Scotland would agree to Scotland participating in the Common Travel Area after independence, which should facilitate travel across the Anglo-Scottish border. But, despite the First Minister’s comments, this is not guaranteed and would require negotiation with all the parties. Scotland cannot decide this unilaterally.

Similarly, it’s very likely that Scots would not face passport checks when crossing into England – but again, this would need to be agreed as part of an exit deal and is therefore not something the First Minister can yet guarantee.

Whether free movement of people would continue as before is complicated by the Scottish government’s ambition for Scotland to join the EU. It is possible that people crossing between the Anglo-Scottish border who are not citizens of either country would need to complete travel documents, just as the UK government is set to require of non-British-or-Irish citizens crossing the Irish border.

Ultimately, Scotland will have to negotiate all of these issues if it secures independence from the UK. As with Brexit negotiations, all parties will have to make compromises.

Scotland’s Europe minister told FactCheck: “Scotland will remain in the CTA because it makes sense for all parties.”