The EU and the UK announced a trade deal on Dec 24, which Boris Johnson said will bring “a new stability, and a new certainty in what has sometimes been a fractious and difficult relationship.”
Since Jan 1, the UK left the single market and the customs union, EU law no longer applies in the UK, and travellers will notice a few changes when visiting the Continent.
These changes are complicated by the new virus variant found in the UK, which led to tight domestic restrictions and dozens of European countries closing their borders to British arrivals or requiring them to take a Covid-19 test before departure or on arrival.
Here, Nick Trend examines what we know so far about travelling to Europe after Brexit.
Passports and visas
Previously, anyone visiting an EU country only needed a passport that was valid for the proposed duration of their stay. From today, Jan 1, however, they need to have at least six months of validity on their travel documents.
The Passport Office turnaround time is already approximately three weeks for online applications, according to the Home Office. This means that those hoping to travel in early 2021 with an expiring passport will need to renew it as soon as possible.
To complicate matters further, some people whose passports do not expire until the end of 2021 or even the beginning of 2022 may also be turned away when entering the EU. Some UK passports have up to ten years and nine months of validity, but the EU will now ignore the additional nine months. This means some people will be refused entry to the EU, even if they have 15 months left on their passports.
Those who do not renew in time will not be able to travel to most EU countries as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. These rules do not apply to travel to Ireland. You can continue to use your passport as long as it’s valid for the length of your stay.
The Government says tourists will not need a visa for short trips to EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. “You’ll be able to stay for up to 90 days in any 180-day period,” it adds. “You may need a visa or permit to stay for longer, to work or study, or for business travel.” Note that that separate trips to separate EU countries will count towards your 90-day limit. This limit has been highlighted as a major problem for second home owners who are used to travelling more regularly to their European bolthole.
The European Commission has previously said that, after Brexit, UK passport holders will need to apply for a new ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) visa waiver. This is similar to an American ESTA, will probably cost around £6 and be valid for several years. However, its introduction was recently postponed until 2023.
Despite this, we may well find – since Dec 31 – that it takes longer for British citizens to be processed at airports and other immigration points to the EU. The European Tourism Association has estimated that, even under the ETIAS scheme, additional checks could add an extra 90 seconds for each UK passport holder. That would mean in theory that it would take an additional five hours to process a 737 full of British passengers. In practice it seems likely that most airports will bolster immigration staff to reduce delays.
The Government adds: “At border control, you may need to show a return or onward ticket, that you have enough money for your stay, and you may need to use separate lanes from EU, EEA and Swiss citizens when queueing.”
Once we are inside the EU, of course, we will be free to travel within the Schengen area (which comprises most EU countries) as there are no further border controls (Covid restrictions notwithstanding).
The highly publicised switch from burgundy passports to dark blue has also started, with the new documents receiving a mixed reception on social media.
Health and EHICs
Under the transition arrangements, British passport holders have been entitled to free or reduced-cost medical treatment in EU countries until 2020. A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC, formerly E111) is proof of this entitlement. Notably, European Health Insurance cards issued before the end of this year will remain valid until they expire. Those without an EHIC will need to buy adequate travel insurance instead and the cost of this will probably rise during 2021.
On Dec 17 the Government announced it would cover the cost of EU holiday healthcare for people who require routine hospital treatment (such as dialysis and chemotherapy), in place of the European Health Insurance Card.
Holiday protection and compensation
The EU Travel Directive, which guarantees financial protection against the failure of your holiday operator and which was so important to all those who got stranded or lost their holidays when Thomas Cook collapsed, is enshrined in British law. If the Government wanted to water down those protections – which seems unlikely – it would have to change the law. Meanwhile, the remarkably high levels of compensation for delayed or cancelled flights which are covered under another EU directive are also part of UK law. British airlines are likely to lobby hard to get these watered down after we have left.
The Government says: “Some travel insurance policies only cover certain types of disruption. Check your provider’s terms and conditions to make sure you have the cover you need if your travel is cancelled or delayed. Your consumer rights have not changed since 1 Jan 2021. This means that if your travel is cancelled or delayed you may be able to claim a refund or compensation. Check your booking’s terms and conditions to find out more.”
Under the agreement of Dec 24, British citizens will not need an International Driver Permit to drive in EU countries. However, if you take your own car abroad from 2021 you may need to arrange additional cover with your insurer and carry a Green Card to prove that you have done this.
UK mobile users are no longer automatically entitled to free roaming since Dec 31. Vodafone, O2 and Three have indicated they will continue to offer it – but we don’t know for how long or on what terms. The Government had previously said it will cap automatic data charges at £45 a month for operators that do not continue free roaming. But that doesn’t limit the rate at which you will be charged, just the total amount you can be billed automatically. So you could find that you reach the £45 limit rather quickly, then have to decide whether to stop using your phone or pay for more data.
The trade deal brokered on Christmas Eve does not carry over the ban on roaming charges, but does say both sides must encourage providers to have “transparent and reasonable rates”. Government guidance tells British travellers to check with their mobile provider to see what charges they will face.
Some restrictions on freedom of work and movement are inevitable even with the EU-UK deal. UK nationals will no longer have the freedom to work, study, start a business or live in the EU without a permit. From a travellers’ point of view that is most likely to affect young people who might to fund a trip around Europe or learn a language by taking casual jobs, or work a ski season. It was confirmed that the UK will not participate in the Erasmus programme.
Since Jan 1, 2021 you are not be able to use the existing pet passport scheme. Instead you will need to take the following steps:
- Have your dog, cat or ferret microchipped
- Vaccinate your pet against rabies
- Wait 21 days after primary vaccination before travel
- Visit your vet to get an Animal Health Certificate (AjaHC) for your pet no more than ten days before travel to the EU
Your pet will need to enter the EU through a designated Travellers’ Point of Entry, where you will need to present proof of your pet’s microchip, rabies vaccination and tapeworm treatment. You will need a pet passport to bring your pet back into the UK.
We lost the right to buy duty free when travelling between EU countries in 1999. But we gained the right to bring home virtually unlimited amounts of duty paid goods – such as wine from France, where it is significantly cheaper than in the UK.
Now, new allowances will restrict how much alcohol and tobacco can be brought from the EU to the UK for personal consumption without having to pay duty.
The limits on alcohol are 42 litres of beer, 18 litres of still wine and four litres of spirits or nine litres of sparkling wine, fortified wine or any alcoholic beverage less than 22% strength.
For tobacco the limit is 200 cigarettes.
Travel to the Republic of Ireland
Travel between the UK and Ireland is covered not by British membership of the EU but by separate arrangements for the Common Travel Area, which covers the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This stands to remain the same even after we leave the EU, the Home Office has said.