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Travelling to Europe after Brexit: how will it affect holidays?

A little less than four years after the referendum, the UK finally left the EU at 11pm on January 31, 2020 and entered a transition period, during which the final details of Brexit were negotiated. That transition period ended on December 31, 2020, and the UK officially left the EU single market and customs union.

From that point on, the UK became what’s known as a “Third Country”, one that’s defined by the EU as “a country that is not a member of the European Union as well as a country or territory whose citizens do not enjoy the European Union right to free movement”.

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There have been wide-ranging implications for travellers as a result of these changes, including updates to passport validity, increased roaming charges and of course how long you can stay in an EU country without a visa.

Here’s what you need to know.

Main photo: p assport control at Athens airport (Getty Images)

Will I need a visa to travel to the EU?

For tourists, there are minimal travel restrictions at the moment. However, at border control, you may be asked to provide evidence of a return or onward ticket, and that you have sufficient funds to cover your stay.

The one key change is that if you visit any country in the Schengen area (this includes most EU countries, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) on holiday, you can only stay for a maximum of 90 days in a 180-day period. This is a cumulative number across member states — so if you spend 90 days in France, you may need a visa if you want to enter another Schengen country. Alternatively you can wait as the 180-day period is rolling, so your allowance is increasing all the time.

Each country has its own rules on extended stays (beyond the 90 days), so you should double check with the Foreign Office and the embassy of the country you’re travelling to. Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania have their own 90-day limits, which means you can visit these four countries without adding to your total stay across Schengen states. Travel to Ireland is exempted as it’s part of the Common Travel Area with the UK.

There are plans to introduce the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) from November 2023 for citizens of countries that currently enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, including British passport holders. It will work in a similar way to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (Esta) that is used to enter the United States and is expected to cost €7 (£6). The system is not live yet but it’s expected that travellers will have to apply for it online.

What are the new passport rules?

The rules around passport validity have also changed since the UK became a “Third Country”, which means you can no longer use your passport until the day it expires — unless you’re travelling to Ireland. The government now advises renewing your passport if it is more than ten years old (even if it’s valid on paper for longer), or if less than three months remain on your passport on the day you leave your intended EU country.

For passports that are more than ten years old, it is crucial to check. Traditionally in the UK, up to six months of validity on your current passport is added to your new passport when you renew — but the EU doesn’t recognise this extra validity for Third Countries, so you’ll need to renew your travel documents before they expire.

Can I use my mobile phone abroad?

When the UK left the EU, the guarantee of free mobile phone roaming in EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway ended. Before Brexit, all major mobile phone network providers promised to keep free roaming in place, but all have since updated their policies by either introducing new charges or reducing usage allowance.

You should check with your provider on exactly what applies to you as different mobile networks have different policies for different tariffs. The government has introduced a law to cap mobile data charges to £45, though, so if you accidentally switch on roaming, you won’t be charged more than this unless you opt in.

Do I need an international driving licence for the EU?

If you have a photocard driving licence issued in the UK then in most instances you won’t need an international driving licence (IDP) to drive in EU countries, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein. However, you may need one if you have an older paper driving licence, if you plan to stay for an extended period (for example, over 30 days), or if your licence is issued in Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey or the Isle of Man.

If you do need an IDP, there are actually three different versions — 1926, 1949, or 1968. Which one you need will depend on the country you’re travelling to; the government provides a list of these. Alternatively, you can check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting, or the car hire company you’re using.

If you’re travelling through multiple countries, you may need to have more than one IDP. And if you’re taking your own car, make sure you have valid insurance and your car has a UK sticker on the rear. Different versions are accepted, but you should check the details for the country or countries you’re travelling to as the rules may be different.


State healthcare is still available for UK citizens in Europe, but the system has changed (Getty Images)

Can I get healthcare abroad?

British citizens can get free healthcare cover for travelling to EU countries, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, or Switzerland. It doesn’t replace travel insurance, but it does entitle the holder to the same state healthcare that locals are entitled to, which will either be free or discounted. This system was previously known as the European Health Insurance Card (Ehic).

Since Brexit, two free alternatives have been introduced. Which one you’re issued will depend on your eligibility, and their validities are slightly different. Both of these will cover emergency treatment, visits to A&E and routine maternity care, unless you’re going abroad to give birth.

The UK Global Health Insurance Card (UK Ghic) is the one that’s issued to most people and it works in the EU and Switzerland, but not in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The government says more countries may be added to this list in future.

In Norway, you can use your UK passport to gain medically necessary healthcare but for Iceland and Liechtenstein, you’ll need to make sure you have suitable travel insurance, especially for pre-existing conditions.

The second alternative is the UK Ehic, which can be used in the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

You’re only eligible for this if, before Brexit transition ended, you were a citizen of the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein living in the UK; a British state pensioner, or family of one, living in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland; or a UK student living and studying in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland.

You can check your eligibility and apply for both documents for free via the NHS website.

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How Brexit will change travel

Brexit won't just change how people live and work in the UK and EU -- but it will change travel, too.

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.

It all depends on whether your passport is UK, EU, or from somewhere else — and what currency zone you’re coming from.

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?

EU citizens can travel to the UK without too many problems. 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.

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 and Schengen-wide — 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.

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 states that it 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.

And Ireland?

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 with Northern Ireland, 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.

Any upsides?

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.

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How will travel to the EU change for Britons after Brexit?

Rows of empty sunloungers on a beach in Gran Canaria, Spain.

T he impact of Brexit on European travel after 31 December 2020 is going to be a complicated one. A recent survey by Discover Ferries, which represents ferry operators in the UK and Ireland, reports that only one in three people felt confident about travel changes after the end of the transition period. Only 6% of respondents were aware of all the changes affecting EU travel in 2021.

Passports, healthcare, pets, driving and duty-free shopping were some of the topics causing confusion. Recent Covid-related travel restrictions have made things even less clear.

A fifth of those surveyed were planning European summer holidays in 2021; others were waiting to see how Brexit and Covid-19 play out. Discover Ferries director Abby Penlington said that because of 2020’s disruptions, operators were expecting passengers to book closer to their departure date than usual. She was optimistic about travel opportunities opening up, but said: “Amid UK lockdowns and the festive period, updating travel documents may not be at the forefront of the public’s mind.”

People need to plan ahead to do things like renew passports and update insurance, pet documents and driving permits. Here is what we know so far about travelling to EU countries in 2021.

Will Britons be able to travel to EU countries at all?

Travellers, wearing protective face masks, at Orly airport, France, on 1 August, 2020.

Travellers, wearing protective face masks, at Orly airport, France, on 1 August, 2020. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

With the new coronavirus variant spreading, some countries have suspended travel from the UK, and people in tier 4 areas are banned from travelling abroad except for work purposes. EU Covid-19 guidance recommends that member states restrict non-essential travel from outside the EU – unless visitors come from countries with much-lower rates of infection, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, representing the travel industry, pointed out that the European council’s guidance is only a recommendation. “Individual EU countries are still able to implement their own measures, considering options such as travel corridors and testing,” he said. He thought it would still be some weeks before the full position was clear.

An Abta spokesperson added: “Obviously, it’s subject to infection rates, but it’s a matter of common sense. British holidaymakers are very important for a number of EU countries. Several destinations will be desperate for us to come back.” According to Abta, UK travellers took more than 66 million European trips in 2019.

There was a less sanguine view from the travel trade union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA). Its general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said early in December: “Just when we’ve had some good news from the vaccine rollout, this news about post-Brexit European travel restrictions could sound the death knell for the travel trade.

Are our passports still valid?

Photo of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland passport against a map of Europe.

Photograph: Richard Gardner/Rex

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new dark blue one or an old burgundy one, UK passports will need to have at least six months’ remaining validity before the holder can travel to Europe. Passports also need to have been issued less than 10 years ago, which is generally not a problem. There is a government passport checker here.

Travel to the Republic of Ireland will generally stay the same. It is part of a common travel area that existed before we were members of the EU, so UK visitors will still be able to enter Ireland with any valid passport or photo ID, such as a driving licence.

Will we need visas to visit the EU?

Not for stays of less than 90 days. The European freedom of movement we’ve had for decades will end on 1 January 2021. But UK travellers will, for now, still be allowed to visit EU countries visa-free for up to 90 days in any 180 days.

From 2022, under the new European Travel Information and Authorization System (Etias), nationals from previously visa-free third countries, including UK citizens, will need to pay for a visa-waiver to visit Schengen-area countries. We will also need to fill in an Etias application form before setting off.

Will border control be different?

Gates, passport control and toilets signs are seen at Lisbon’s airport, Portugal.

Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

The UK government website says British visitors to EU countries may need to prove they have enough money to support themselves for the whole of their stay. They may also need to get their passport stamped and show a return or onward ticket. They will probably need to wait in a different queue from EU citizens, too. And (with a few exceptions) they won’t be able to take meat, dairy and certain plant products with them.




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