Currently, under the transition arrangements, British travellers are exempt from Covid-19 restrictions which ban non-essential visits to the EU from most countries in the world.
This exemption would automatically cease from January 1, so that, theoretically, all current travel corridors from the UK to Europe, Madeira and the Canary Islands would be closed, and it might be months before the infection rate falls sufficiently for normal arrangements to resume.
This would almost certainly put paid to the ski season in the Alps – Switzerland might be the only feasible destination to visit – and jeopardise Easter holidays in the Med.
Hopefully, some countries would allow exemptions – in winter, British tourists are vital to the economy of the Canary Islands and Madeira, for example. But it will be another heavy blow to airlines and the travel industry, which is desperate for certainty after nearly a year of cancellations.
It looks as though we won’t know the full implications until the final decision of deal or no deal is made on Sunday. In the meantime, here are the other changes – some certain, some still uncertain – which are relevant to British travellers after December 31.
Passports and visas
Currently, anyone visiting an EU country only needs a passport that is valid for the proposed duration of their stay. From January 1, however, they will need to have at least six months of validity on their travel documents.
Millions of Britons whose passports are due to expire in the next year are being urged to apply for a new one now, a situation which is likely to cause a stampede of renewals at UK passport offices. 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 now.
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.
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 – after December 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 during 2020. A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC, formerly E111) is proof of this entitlement. This will no longer be valid after December 31 – you will need to buy travel insurance instead and the cost of this will probably rise during 2021.
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 last year, 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 will not change from 1 January 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.”
If you want to drive in the EU from 2021 you may need an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in some member countries. This is obtainable through the Post Office (£5.50). If you take your own car abroad from 2021 you may also need to arrange additional cover with your insurer and carry a Green Card to prove that you have done this.
UK mobile users will no longer be automatically entitled to free roaming after December 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 says 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.
Some restrictions on freedom of work and movement are inevitable even in the event of a deal, and it is almost certain that British citizens will no longer be able to work in EU countries 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.
From 1 January 2021 you will not be able to use the existing pet passport scheme. Instead you may need to follow a different process, which takes four months. The final arrangements remain uncertain, but the Government will update its advice here: gov.uk/guidance/pet-travel-to-europe-after-brexit.
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. From 2021 the Government says that we will be able to buy duty-free tobacco and alcohol when travelling to the EU but it is still unclear exactly what the allowances will be and whether there will be changes to the duty paid arrangements.
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.