JANUARY 1, 2021
After four years of confusion, it has finally happened.
The United Kingdom officially severed ties with the European Union last night, as the Brexit transition period ended at 11 p.m. UK time.
Brexit hasn’t been an easy road politically, and the UK — which voted 52-48 to leave the EU in 2016 — is going into the new year more divided than ever.
But what does that mean for travel?
It all depends on whether your passport is UK, EU, or from somewhere else — and what currency zone you’re coming from.
For some travelers, the tanking pound means a trip to the UK is looking very attractive.
But for UK and EU nationals, things are going to change.
Can UK nationals travel to Europe now?
Long-term, yes. Short-term — possibly, or probably, not. Most EU countries have borders currently closed to citizens from outside the bloc, due to Covid-19. Now that the UK has “third country” status, citizens have lost their right to travel freely within the EU. There’s technically no difference now between a UK citizen wanting to visit France, and an American citizen — who, of course, have been banned since March — hoping to do the same.
However, since EU states remain sovereign nations, each country has control over its own borders, and will be able to make an exception for UK citizens should it so wish. It might take some time to see how this pans out, since arrivals from the UK are currently banned from most of Europe, thanks to the new variant of Covid-19, which was first identified in the south of England.
Most EU countries have placed Covid-related restrictions on entry from the UK until at least January 6. It’s only after that that we might get some clarification on whether or not countries will make exemptions for Brits once the current health crisis begins to abate.
There might be some surprises. Germany, for instance, has already included the UK in its list of permitted travel (although entry from the UK is currently banned until at least January 6 due to the new variant of Covid-19.)
Greece is also currently allowing travelers from the UK, and has not indicated that this will change.
However, Britain’s historic ally, Portugal — which last year launched a “Brelcome” campaign, promising “Portugal will never leave you” — has announced that UK nationals will not be permitted from January 1, except for essential travel. Belgium and Norway have said the same.
France, Italy and Spain have not yet made any announcements, though non-resident travel from the UK is currently banned to all three, due to the Covid variant.
How about the other way round?
Sure. The UK has never closed its borders at any point during the pandemic. Anyone can enter as long as they have a visa or visa exemption — you just need to fill in a passenger locator form, and you should self-isolate for 10 days on arrival (or five days, if using the “Test to Release” scheme) unless coming from a country on the “travel corridors” list.
Will it be cheaper to visit the UK?
Probably, though of course it depends what currency zone you’re coming from. The pound crashed in June 2016 when the referendum was announced, and has yet to claw its way back to pre-Brexit levels against the euro and the dollar.
However, it’s not as bad (or good, depending on your point of view) as it was — following another historic crash in March, when sterling fell to a 30-year low against the dollar and an 11-year low against the euro at the start of the latest round of negotiations (compounded by the pandemic), the pound has regained slight value, and rallied again after a trade deal with the EU was announced on December 24.
On December 31, as the UK prepared to leave the EU, £1 was worth €1.119 euros or $1.367.
If you’re converting US dollars, however, that’s a vast difference from the heady days of 2007, when the conversion rate was $2 to £1. For many, the drop in sterling will make a UK trip finally viable.
I’m British. Once borders have reopened post-Covid, can I still travel freely to the EU?
Post-Covid restrictions, whenever that may be, you will still be able to travel visa-free. But you’ll only be allowed to spend 90 days out of every 180 days in the Schengen area (most EU nations plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). That means spending the winter in the Med is no longer possible. If you entered the EU on January 1, for example, you would need to leave on April 1 — you wouldn’t be allowed back until June 30, and then would have to leave before October.
Those allowances are cumulative — so you can’t spend three months in one country, go home, and pop back for a weekend city break.
The EU is introducing a visa waiver scheme, called ETIAS (similar to the US ESTA scheme), by the end of 2022. It is likely that UK citizens will be included in the scheme, which will cost around €7 for three years.
How about the other way round?
Visas are not needed for EU citizens visiting the UK at the moment. Currently you can spend six months in the UK without applying for a visa.
The UK is expected to include EU citizens in its ETA visa waiver scheme by 2025.
Will things get more expensive for UK citizens?
Exchange rate aside, probably. Leaving the EU means that UK phone companies can now charge roaming fees once more while you’re traveling there (they were previously abolished under EU rules). The UK’s major providers have said that they won’t be introducing them, but check with yours before you go.
Conversely, EU residents could be charged roaming fees when using their phones in the UK. Again, check with your provider.
How about health care?
UK citizens will need travel insurance, according to the government — even though the December 24 deal says that European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) cards (which provided health coverage on a par with what locals receive) will be valid until their expiry date. Note that they will not be valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland.
Regular treatment for chronic conditions — like dialysis, or chemotherapy — will continue cross-border, with pre-booking.
Meanwhile, the UK has stated that it will create a “global health insurance card” for its citizens, although details (and timing) have yet to be released.
Expect there to be a lot of confusion over the coming months — when CNN called the EHIC inquiries line on December 31, a call handler advised that the cards would no longer be valid from January 1, and we should call back in two weeks to find out if the government had arranged an alternative.
Will we need new paperwork?
UK citizens will now need six months’ validity left on their passports to enter the EU (technically the EU requires three months’ validity but the UK is advising its citizens to have six months remaining). EU residents can use identity cards to enter the UK until October 1, 2021. After that you will need a passport, unless you’re a UK resident.
Speaking of paperwork, you may need to bring a lot more with you. Pandemic aside, Spain, for instance, reserves the right to refuse entry to tourists — even those with valid visas, or who qualify for visa-free travel — if they cannot provide proof of where they will be staying, a documented itinerary or a round-trip flight. In addition, anyone wishing to enter Spain “must demonstrate that they have sufficient means of support available to enter Spain” — that means at least €90 per day of your trip, and a minimum of €810 for your entire trip (even for a cheeky weekend city break). The days of freewheeling around Europe as the mood takes you may be over for the Brits.
How about driving?
Last night, just four and a half hours before the transition period ended, the UK government confirmed in a tweet that its citizens will be able to drive in the EU without International Driving Permits — UK licenses will be recognized as they were pre-Brexit.
Will that be reciprocal? We’re not sure yet. The relevant page on the UK government website is out of date.
If taking a British car into the EU, it must have a GB sticker on display, and you must have a “Green Card” detailing your insurance in multiple languages.
What happens at the border?
Officially, UK nationals are no longer entitled to use the EU passport gates at border control. However each EU country will be able to decide whether or not to grant an exception. With the UK banned from most countries at the moment because of Covid, the situation will probably become clearer in a few months.
The UK has confirmed that EU citizens can continue to use the UK/EEA channels, and ePassport gates, at UK border control. These are also open to citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the US, as before.
What about pets?
Taking your dog on your summer holiday is a rite of passage for many Brits. Now that the UK is no longer part of the EU pet passport scheme, you’ll need to get an animal health certificate at least 10 days before traveling. These are obtainable from your vet. Note that you’ll also need a certificate when traveling from England, Wales or Scotland to Northern Ireland.
How about moving abroad?
There is no longer freedom of movement between the EU and the UK. Anyone wanting to move between the two will now need to apply for a visa.
What about Gibraltar?
In an 11th hour deal on December 31, it was announced that Gibraltar — the UK territory on the southern tip of Spain — will become part of the Schengen area, as an entry point to Spain. However, the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, has confirmed that only the territory will be part of the Schengen area — not the people. In other words, UK nationals will not be able to use it as a back-door way into Spain.
There will be two entry points: one for Gibraltar, and one for Schengen. The airport will be in the Schengen area, so there will be no immigration checks for intra-Schengen flights.
The Republic of Ireland is exempt from the 90/180 rule for British citizens. And there is no limit on items you can take across the border, as long as they are for personal use or for gifts.
There will be no border checks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; however, you cannot take meat or dairy products from England, Scotland or Wales into Northern Ireland, and if traveling with a pet, it must have a certificate — even if you are not planning to cross into the Republic of Ireland.
Duty free shopping will now return for journeys between the EU and UK, although the UK has ended duty free on non-excise goods — electronics and cosmetics, for example.