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Brexit: How travel to the EU from 2021 will change

Technically the UK has left the European Union. But from the traveller’s point of view, nothing significant has changed during the transition phase. This comes to an end at 11pm GMT (midnight Central European Time) on 31 December 2020.

From that moment, the ease with which the British have holidayed, worked and lived in the EU for decades will end. 

Back at the time of the EU referendum in June 2016, you might have inferred from the Leave campaign that not much would change in terms of our freedom to travel and spend time abroad.

Immediately after the vote, Boris Johnson reinforced that impression when he wrote: “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and settle down.” He also promised “access to the single market”. 

Those promises are long forgotten, and instead the UK government has chosen a course that brings a tangle of rules and restrictions for travellers.

One exception is for Ireland, where relatively little changes. Freedom of movement to and from the UK (and smaller islands) is guaranteed under the provisions of the Common Travel Agreement. The most significant effects involve taking pets across the Irish Sea, the reintroduction of customs controls between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, and the possible need for a “Green Card” to extend motor insurance cover to the Republic.

However, there are also important changes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with pet passports and currency controls applying for travel from England, Wales and Scotland to NI. Travellers from the European Union to Northern Ireland will face no customs limits on personal goods.

For everywhere else in Europe, the most critical changes are detailed below. For clarification, the Schengen Area comprises almost all the EU countries except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania – plus Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland and the Vatican City.

If you have a burgundy passport with “European Union” on the cover, it will continue to be valid as a UK travel document. But it loses all its EU powers. From the start of 2021, European rules on passport validity become much tougher – and there are several different interpretations of the rules.

The basic requirement from the European perspective is simple: “You will need a passport valid for at least three months after the date you intend to leave the EU country you are visiting, which was issued within the previous 10 years.”

The second condition is attached because the UK has traditionally given renewals up to nine months’ extra validity in addition to the normal 10 years. A passport issued on 30 December 2010 could show an expiry date of 30 September 2021, for example. While that was fine when the UK was part of the European Union, British travellers must now meet the strict rules on passport validity for visitors from “third countries”. In particular, passports issued by non-member countries are regarded as expired once they have been valid for 10 years. So a passport issued on 30 December 2010 with an expiry date of 30 September 2021 is regarded by the EU as expiring on 30 December 2020. Therefore if the holder attempted to board a plane to the European Union on New Year’s Day 2021, it would be considered to have expired, even though the passport has almost nine months to run.

Until September 2018, the UK government appeared unaware of the problem. Once the issue was identified, the practice of giving up to nine months’ grace ended abruptly. But tens of millions of passports valid for longer than 10 years are in circulation.

Confusingly the UK government has not one but two different interpretations of the regulations, neither of which aligns fully with the European Union.

1. Does it have six months’ validity remaining?

2. Was it issued less than 10 years ago?

The first condition is significantly more cautious than the EU’s actual validity requirement. For example, if you planned an Easter visit to Paris from 1 to 8 April 2021, the European Union says your passport must be valid until 8 July 2021 – ie three months after your planned departure. But the British government says it must be valid until 1 October 2021 – ie six months after your planned arrival.

It appears that the Home Office is assuming that each visit will be for the full 90 days, which is clearly unlikely. The Independent has asked the government to correct its information.

To complicate matters still further: the UK government’s online passport checker applies a stricter version still. 

Consider a passport issued on 30 June 2011 that expires on 30 March 2022 – a perfectly feasible duration for many holders.

For a journey on 1 January 2021, the passport appears to meet the conditions of both the EU and the British government. But the official checker declares: “Your passport won’t be valid for travel to Europe after 31 December 2020.”

The Independent has asked the main international travel providers which version they will adopt; most align with the UK’s requirements, but Ryanair – which is based in Ireland, reflects the European Union rules.

Border formalities when entering the EU

EU fast-track lanes for passport control will no longer be open to British travellers, although countries that receive a large number of visitors from the UK, such as Spain and Portugal, may make special arrangements.

But immigration procedures will be slower, and British travellers will no longer have any guarantee of entry.

At present, all that a border official can do is to check the travel document is valid, and that it belongs to you.

From 1 January 2021, the official is required by EU law to conduct deeper checks. They may ask for the purpose of the visit; where you plan to travel and stay; how long you intend to remain in the EU; how you propose to fund your stay; and whether you constitute a threat to public health.

Careful with your snacks and sandwiches: travellers will not be able to take meat, milk or products containing them  from the UK into EU countries from 1 January 2021.

There is an exemption for powdered infant milk, infant food, and special foods required for medical reasons, if they weigh less than 2kg and are packaged proprietary brand products for direct sale to the final consumer.

Length of stay

From 1 January 2021, as the UK chooses to become a third country, the EU’s long-standing “90/180 rule” takes effect for British travellers.

For holidaymakers and business travellers who normally stay a long time in Europe, it has significant effects. You may stay only 90 days (about three months) in any 180 (six months) in the Schengen area.

Example: if you spend January, February and March in the Schengen Area (totalling 90 days), then you must leave the zone before 1 April and cannot return until 30 June.

You will then be able to spend the summer in Europe until 27 September, when you must leave again. You may not come back until Boxing Day.

Any time spent in the Schengen Area up to the end of 2020 does not count. So if you spend December in Spain, the clock does not start ticking until New Year’s Day.

The UK government says: “Different rules will apply to Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania. If you visit these countries, visits to other EU countries will not count towards the 90-day total.”

British citizens can stay as long as they like in the Republic of Ireland.

People who have a work or residential visa for a specific EU country will be treated differently.

What happens if I overstay?

In general travellers are given three days’ grace. Any longer than that and they are likely to be handed an entry ban for one year. This applies throughout the Schengen Area – not just the country in which you overstayed.

Can’t I just nip across a border and ‘re-set the clock’?

No. The 90/180 rule applies to the entire Schengen Zone. If you leave the zone (for example by returning to the UK or crossing from Slovenia into Croatia) that exit will be recorded on the central database.

When you return, the frontier officials will check to see how much of your allowance has been used and calculate how much remains.

Business travellers

People travelling to attend meetings, trade fairs, etc can continue to travel to most EU countries without additional paperwork – bearing in mind that any time spent in them will be subtracted from the “90 days in any 180” total. 

But each nation is able to impose its own stipulations on business travellers from third countries.

For trips to Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary and Malta, you will need a business visa or work permit “in case the short-term business visitor supplies a service”.

Other EU countries, too, will take an interest in the reason for your business trip. If they deem it is to “supply a service” then they may also require you to apply for a permit or visa.

Tour guides

Each EU member makes its sovereign decisions about people from “third countries” (now including UK) working as tour guides in their country.

In key nations including Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, and Spain, it appears they are simply not permitted.

In Greece, they are allowed to guide if they hold a diploma from the Tourist Guide Schools of the Greek Ministry of Tourism. In Italy, the question of permission is devolved to each region.

Initially British travellers will not need to apply in advance for permission to enter the EU. But from 2022 (or possibly later) British visitors will need to register online and pay in advance for an “Etias“ permit under the European Travel Information and Authorisation System. This is a relatively light-touch visa, akin to the Esta used by the US. It will cost €7 (£6) for a three-year permit. The 90/180 rule will continue to prevail – limiting the amount of time that can be spent in the Schengen Area.

Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

Returning to Great Britain

For alcohol, the amounts are generous: 4 litres of spirits or 9 litres of sparkling wine, 18 litres of still wine and 16 litres of beer, which should see you through at least an evening.

Arrivals to the UK will also be allowed to bring in 200 duty-free cigarettes. “Anything that increases the availability of tobacco is a negative step for public health,” the British Medical Association says. 

But the previous practice of buying large quantities of cigarettes or tobacco in countries such as Portugal, Spain or the eastern European states will cease.

If you exceed any of these limits, you will pay tax on the whole lot.

There is a limit of €430/£390 – for all other goods, from Camembert to clothing.  Unlike travelling from the UK to the European Union, there are no restrictions on meat and dairy products in the other direction.

Travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain

It is not clear yet what, if any, restrictions on personal goods will apply between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland). On the subject of “Moving personal goods in your baggage from Northern Ireland to Great Britain,” HM Revenue and Customs says: “More guidance will be published about this as soon as possible.”

The same uncertainty applies for travel to Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Travellers between the EU and Northern Ireland remain unrestricted in what they can carry for personal use.

People travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must declare any cash they are taking in excess of €10,000 (£9,100).

They must explain in advance where the cash came from, who it belongs to, how it will be used, and provide their passport number and travel details. “If you are travelling from a private airfield or port, you must tell us,” says the government.

Health care

For more than 40 years, British travellers have benefited from free or very low-cost medical treatment in the EU and its predecessor organisations. The European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) and the document it replaced, the E111, have proved extremely valuable for many elderly travellers, and/or people with pre-existing medical conditions.

The agreement allows the arrangements to continue, with the UK planning a new card; details are sketchy.

Meanwhile your Ehic will continue to be valid if you’re travelling to the European Union, but the card will no longer apply among the EU hangers-on (Switzerland plus the EEA trio of Norway, Iceland and plucky Liechtenstein). But elsewhere, in the 27 nations of the European Union, holders will continue to be able to get free or reduced-rate health care into the future.

The government now says: “Your Ehic will continue to be valid if you’re travelling to the EU.”

The card will no longer apply among the EU hangers-on (Switzerland plus the EEA trio of Norway, Iceland and plucky Liechtenstein). But elsewhere, in the 27 nations of the European Union, holders will continue to be able to get free or reduced-rate health care into the future.

Annoyingly, the NHS says: “Unless you’re eligible for an Ehic from 1 January 2021, we are not currently issuing new cards.” Instead, if you need treatment abroad you should get a provisional replacement certificate (PRC).

“This is a certificate that is issued by us,” says the NHS. “The certificate is required when a customer is abroad requiring treatment but has not applied for an Ehic or does not have a valid Ehic card with them at the time of treatment.”

To get one, you, or a companion or family member, must call NHS Overseas Healthcare Services on +44 191 218 1999 during working hours (Monday to Friday, 8am-6pm). You must have your National Insurance number and the name of the hospital or other medical facility that is currently treating you.

The UK government is promising a “Global Health Insurance Card” (Ghic) from an unspecified date in the New Year. It may also cover the hangers-on and other countries, and there has been speculation that it may live up to its word and be worldwide – or at least intercontinental.

The Independent is trying to find out more, including when the scheme will start and how it will work. The Ghic will presumably cover the EU 27 plus other nations with which the UK already has reciprocal agreements: basically Australia, New Zealand, the non-EU countries of the former Yugoslavia and a scattering of UK territories.

EU nationals in the UK will be able to apply for a British-issued Ehic card, as will UK students studying in the European Union – and some British pensioners who live in the EU, plus their families.

Medical care that needs to be pre-arranged will continue, for treatment including kidney dialysis, oxygen therapy and chemotherapy.

EU nations will be able to come after UK drivers for offences including speeding, failure to wear a seatbelt, failure to stop at a red light, not wearing a motorbike helmet or using bus lanes.

Motor insurance

Under the European Union 2009 motor insurance directive, any vehicle legally insured in one EU country can be driven between other European nations on the same policy.

From 1 January, you will need a “Green Card” – an official, multilingual translation of your car insurance that demonstrates you meet the minimum cover requirements for the country you’re visiting. 

The UK government says: “You should plan to carry one for the vehicle you’re driving in the EU, EEA, Switzerland, Serbia or Andorra, from 1 January 2021. This includes driving in Ireland.” 

If you are towing a caravan, you will need an additional Green Card and possibly extra insurance.

The government warns: “You must carry a physical copy of your Green Card when driving abroad. Electronic versions of Green Cards are not acceptable.

“If you need a physical copy of your Green Cards, contact your vehicle insurance provider at least six weeks before you travel. Or, you can now print green cards yourself.”

UK airlines will be able to continue to fly to the European Union and vice-versa. But the EU brochure on the agreement says: “British carriers will no longer be able to fly on routes within the EU.” That is why easyJet set up an Austrian subsidiary, to allow the airline to continue to fly intra-EU links.

Some airport disruption may occur if significant numbers of British travellers are denied boarding due to the changed passport rules. But the collapse in air travel triggered by the widespread restrictions on UK flights means very few passengers will be flying early in the New Year.

Ferries/Eurotunnel

Ships will continue to sail and trains will continue to run, but the National Audit Office (NAO) warns that motorists taking their cars to France on ferries from Dover or Eurotunnel from Folkestone face waits of up to two hours once the Brexit transition ends – and that queues could be “much longer” in summer.

Passenger trains linking London St Pancras with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will continue to run – but because of travel restrictions applied in response to the coronavirus pandemic, services are currently extremely limited.

Mobile phones

From 1 January 2021, the EU-wide ban on roaming charges for phone calls and internet use no longer applies to people with UK mobile phones. Providers will be free to impose whatever fees they wish.

But all the big providers have told The Independent they do not intend to bring back roaming charges.

O2 says: “We’re committed to providing our customers with great connectivity and value when they travel outside the UK. We currently have no plans to change our roaming services across Europe, maintaining our ‘Roam Like At Home’ arrangements.”

3 says: “We’ll give you free EU roaming just the same.”

EE says: “Our customers enjoy inclusive roaming in Europe and beyond, and we don’t have any plans to change this based on the Brexit outcome. So our customers going on holiday and travelling in the EU will continue to enjoy inclusive roaming.”

Vodafone says: “We have no plans to reintroduce roaming charges after Brexit.”

Should these or other providers introduce roaming charges, the government says it will cap the maximum for mobile data usage while abroad at £49 per month unless the user positively agrees to pay more.

For many years British travellers have been able to take a cat, a dog or even a ferret abroad with minimal formalities. But pet passports will run out at the end of the year, making journeys with cats, dogs and ferrets to the EU more complicated. 

And for the first time, taking a pet to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will involve red tape – and a rabies vaccination for the animal – due to the “border in the Irish Sea” that the government has agreed to. 

While animal owners from Northern Ireland will continue to have access to the EU’s pet passport scheme, those in England, Wales and Scotland will need to obtain an “animal health certificate” in advance of every visit to the European Union and Northern Ireland, showing their pet has been vaccinated against rabies.

In addition, for entry from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and the republic, as well as to Finland and Malta, pet dogs will have to be treated against Echinococcus multilocularis – an especially unpleasant tapeworm.

After the Brexit transition phase ends, owners in Great Britain taking their pets to Northern Ireland will need to get an animal health certificate issued by an official vet attesting to a rabies vaccination.

Coming home will be the same as now. “There will be no change to the current health preparations for pets entering Great Britain from the EU from 1 January 2021,” says the UK government.