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Thought you didn't need to show ID in the UK? Wrong

Your papers please. NOW

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One of the first things Britain's home secretary Theresa May did on taking office was to abolish the previous government’s identity cards scheme. But while she made ID cards history, she is in the process of extending Britain’s range of identity document checks.

The "sample" UK ID card from the previous
government's 2008 effort: The National
Identity Register, abandoned in 2011.

Britain may be a country without ID cards, but British officialdom has plenty of reasons for requiring your papers, please – usually a passport or a driving licence – other than for crossing a border or driving a vehicle.

May’s immigration bill, published in October, will among other things, require private landlords to check whether prospective tenants are allowed to live in Britain, on pain of £3,000 fines.

According to the Residential Landlords’ Association, which says 82 per cent of its members oppose the measure, it will mean everyone renting will have to show papers, including Britons – with landlords having to learn to recognise the 404 types of European ID documents that legally entitle someone to live in the UK. The association argues that many illegal immigrants will get around such checks by subletting, or renting from those in the hidden economy.

If the bill makes it into law, this measure will be introduced in only one area by 2015, following the intervention of the Liberal Democrats. Even so, it will extend a substantial list of situations when, despite Britain not having an all-purpose identity document, you still need to show one – although don’t expect much consistency or logic as to why.

Taking a domestic flight

British and Irish travellers do not need passports for either domestic flights or those within the Common Travel Area shared by the two countries and the UK’s various dependent islands. This apparently leaves airlines to make up their own rules as to what locals require to get on a domestic or UK-Eire flight.

All airlines will accept passports to show you are who you say you are, and all but one accepts driving licences. But for British and Irish travellers British Airways will accept its own Executive Club membership cards or company ID cards, and says you do not need any ID to fly within the UK at all if you don’t check in a bag – although it adds “it is always advisable to have some form of identification with you”.

FlyBe accepts a wide range of documents for UK and Irish travel by locals, including recently-expired passports, armed forces ID cards, student cards, senior citizen bus passes, company photo ID cards (but only for a “nationally recognised company”), photographic firearms certificates and even non-photo bearing pension books.

BMI has a shorter list of acceptable forms of photographic ID but includes armed forces, police and airport staff cards, while easyJet simply wants to see “photographic ID”. All four airlines let children under 16 travel ID-free within the British Isles if accompanies by an adult who can vouch for them.

However, one airline requires a passport for all flights – not even a driving licence will cut it – and that goes for children, too. Readers may be unsurprised to hear that the name of this airline is Ryanair.

Offered the chance to comment on why it will only accept passports, the airline said: “In accordance with Ryanair's terms and conditions it is each passenger's personal responsibility to ensure they have valid travel documentation which meets the requirements of Ryanair, immigration and other authorities at every destination. Ryanair does not accept driver licences, residence cards, seaman books, a police report (issued in the event of travel document loss/theft), military ID cards etc.” That doesn’t answer the question why, but given the airline’s punitive policies on pretty much everything else, ‘because we can’ springs to mind.

Checking into a hotel, if you’re an alien

Much of Britain’s ID-related legislation dates from the last decade, but you can’t blame Tony Blair and colleagues for the Immigration (Hotel Records) Order 1972.

Under this, every provider of accommodation has to retain for 12 months the name and nationality of all adult guests – and, if you are from outside the UK, Ireland or Commonwealth (which as far the original order is concerned makes you “an alien”), it also requires passport or ID card number, place of issue and the next place you plan to stay. The order requires these records to be open for inspection by the police, or anyone else authorised by the home secretary.

This order has been in force since 1 January 1973 – which means that it has been four decades since you could legitimately check in to a hotel as ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’, unless your names are both Smith, and it’s not as if there are any document checks unless you are, well, aliens. In 2011, as part of a contribution to the government’s Red Tape Challenge, travel association ABTA described the order as “an obsolete piece of legislation originally borne out of Cold War security concerns”. When contacted for this article, ABTA said its position is unchanged. So is the order.

Having initially claimed this was a HM Revenue and Customs matter, and after HMRC pointed out it wasn’t, the Home Office simply said it has no plans to change the regulation.

Getting in to high-security locations (most of the time)

Some high-security buildings and areas impose identity checks before allowing access, with passports, driving licences or government-issued identity cards being the norm. You will also need strong identification to get into a royal event such as a Buckingham Palace garden party – Palace police are quite strict on checking ID, as Prince Andrew found out not so long ago.

But rules vary. Getting into the Palace of Westminster requires rigorous airport-style physical checks, but visitors do not need to provide identification. And it is possible to bend the rules elsewhere, as William Heath, co-founder of personal identity management firm Mydex, found in 2008 when invited to a reception at 11 Downing Street. The invitation arrived with 30 hours to spare, and required “photo id (e.g. driving licence or passport)”.

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