Last update: October 26th, 2020

As the end of the Brexit transition period approaches, talks between the EU and Britain are ongoing with several issues still to be resolved. Find out what Brexit means for travellers and how EU legal action against the UK could prevent a trade deal from being reached.

The UK left the EU on January 31st, 2020 with a Withdrawal Agreement signed between the 2 parties on January 30th, 2020. An 11-month transition period began at midnight (CET) on the 31st, during which time trade and travel will continue as before.

UK citizens have enjoyed freedom of movement in Europe ever since the country joined the EU in 1973 (known then as the European Economic Area), but this is set to end after the conclusion of the Brexit transition period in 2020.

UK travellers will still be allowed to visit for short trips. However, this is on the condition that the same rights are granted to EU citizens reciprocally.

The EU Parliament’s UK Coordination Group recently drafted a resolution mandating a reciprocal visa-free agreement between the two countries once negotiations begin. This would permit travellers from both the EU and the UK to continue to enter for tourism, study, research, training and youth exchange.

Therefore it is likely that UK citizens will not need to apply for a Schengen Visa like many other nationalities. On February 1st, 2019, the European Council said:

"EU ambassadors today agreed that, following Brexit, UK citizens coming to the Schengen area for a short stay (90 days in any 180 days) should be granted visa-free travel."

Details of additional requirements for UK citizens travelling to Europe have also been released, covering areas such as healthcare, driving, and mobile roaming charges. Further information can be found below.

Quick Guide Brexit

ETIAS for UK citizens travelling to Europe after Brexit

However, from late 2022 onwards, visitors from countries with visa-free agreements with the EU (including the UK)will not be able to enter the Schengen Area with only their passports. The EU Commission has confirmed that UK citizens will need to pay a fee to visit Europe and will need to complete the online ETIAS application form before setting off.

ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) is the name given to the new travel authorisation system required by British citizens and 60 other nationalities who can currently visit Europe visa-free.

ETIAS will be a visa waiver, meaning it will save travellers the hassle of obtaining conventional Schengen visas.

However, the implementation of the law is conditional. Members of the European Parliament also said this arrangement is subject to the UK granting EU nationals the same benefits. This means British travellers will only be visa-exempt as long as EU citizens can enter the UK without a visa.

The UK government has indicated that they intend to end freedom of movement in its current form after Brexit. Instead, it has been suggested by the UK Home Office that EU tourists will be able to travel to Britain and Northern Ireland with an eTA visa waiver in the near future. Until this is launched EU visitors can visit with passports as before.

While the UK is subject to its transition agreement with the EU, UK citizens travelling to Europe only need their passport to enter the other member countries. However, this will change after the Brexit transition period and, as of late 2022, ETIAS for British citizens will be a requirement.

The ETIAS visa waiver for Europe is being developed to improve the security and border control of Europe following concerns over terrorism and immigration. It will be similar to both the US (ESTA) and Canadian (eTA) models which have already been implemented.

When people apply for ETIAS, they will be screened using several European security databases including Interpol and Europol. Anyone who poses a security threat will be identified and prevented from reaching European soil.

Travelling to Europe from the UK: How does it work now?

At the moment, there is no need for a European visa waiver for British citizens. UK citizens can move freely and even work in other countries in the region. They only need to show their UK passport to be able to enter any EU country.

The free movement of people is one of the EU’s key principles. Once the UK is no longer a part of the union’s regulatory framework, British people will no longer be able to move around the continent as before.

ETIAS and Brexit are coincidental. ETIAS is not a consequence of Brexit. ETIAS is being introduced to improve the security of the region and the safety of its citizens. European Parliament representatives expressed the need for this system "By knowing who is coming to the EU before they even arrive at the border, we will be better able to stop those who may pose a threat to our citizens."

Further requirements for UK citizens travelling to Europe

Details regarding the additional steps British nationals will need to take before heading to EU countries from 2021 have recently been released. Areas covered include passport validity, healthcare, driving, and taking pets abroad.

Passport validity and expiry date requirements

On the date of travel, the UK passport must be:

  • Valid for at least 6 more months
  • Under 10 years old

Both these criteria must be met to be granted access to most EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Sweden.

British travellers should take out health insurance after Brexit

After Brexit, UK citizens will no longer be covered by their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which means that any medical care required whilst in Europe may need to be paid for.

It is advised to take out health insurance for a trip to an EU country, especially individuals with pre-existing health conditions.

Driving in European countries after Brexit

Extra documentation may be required to drive in Europe from 2021. An International Driving Permit (IDP) might be needed for some countries.

Motorists who take their own vehicle abroad may have to obtain a ‘green card’ and display a GB sticker.

Travelling from the UK to Europe with pets

The existing pet passport scheme will no longer be valid from 2021. A new process will be in place and will take 4 months to complete.

The new requirements include certain vaccinations and other checks, therefore, it is essential to begin the application well in advance of departure.

Mobile roaming charges for UK citizens after Brexit

Guaranteed free mobile roaming for British citizens will end from January 1st, 2021. Travellers should check with their mobile operator to find out how much they may be charged to use their phone abroad.

Users will be notified once they have spent £45 (€49), after which point they will have to opt in to continue using the internet.

What will ETIAS mean for the UK?

After ETIAS comes into effect, British citizens visiting Europe will have to apply online for an ETIAS visa waiver before departing. The ETIAS visa waiver for UK citizens will be valid for 3-year periods and will allow unlimited entries into the region.

Although British people will need an ETIAS travel authorisation, they will not need to apply for a visa like many other countries. The 61 nationalities which are currently visa-exempt, including the UK, will remain visa-exempt but will need an ETIAS visa waiver.

The ETIAS application should not take longer than 10 minutes to complete and the process will be straightforward. Applicants will have to fill out a short form with personal information, details of their passport and answer some security questions. They will then have to pay a fee.

The confirmed travel authorisation should be available to the applicant within a few minutes and the whole process is likely to take a total of 15 minutes although this may vary as the final details have yet to be clarified.

Obtaining an ETIAS visa waiver to travel to Europe will not be optional

ETIAS will be highly regulated. Airlines, ferry firms, train operators and coach companies will check that travellers have a valid ETIAS visa waiver before departure. All operators will be required to verify, “that travellers are in possession of a valid travel authorisation” Without a valid ETIAS, the visitor will not be able to board their transport to Europe.

If a British person travels to a Schengen country without an ETIAS visa waiver, they will not be allowed to enter the country. The EU said:

"At the request of the authorities competent to carry out the border checks, the carriers shall be obliged to return the third-country nationals to the third country from which they were transported or to the third country which issues the travel document."

Claude Moraes, rapporteur for the most recent proposal waiting for approval, said: "With the Brexit clock ticking, it is important to press ahead with this measure exempting British citizens from a visa requirement when travelling to the EU. This will go some way to clarifying EU visa policy after Brexit".

Visa-free deal conditional on UK reciprocity

The European Commission said British citizens will not need visas to visit the European Union for short-term stays. However, this policy recommendation is dependent on the UK continuing to offer reciprocal visa-free access to European Union citizens.

On February 1, 2019, the European Council stated: "According to EU rules, visa exemption is granted on condition of reciprocity. The government of the United Kingdom has stated that it does not intend to require a visa from EU citizens travelling to the UK for short stays".

"In the event that the United Kingdom introduces a visa requirement for nationals of at least one member state in the future, the existing reciprocity mechanism would apply and the three institutions and the member states would commit to act without delay in applying the mechanism", they said.

This means that the current proposals could change depending on the UK’s position regarding the rights of EU nationals. The UK Government has said that freedom of movement will end at the conclusion of the transition period. However, it has mooted a visa-free travel scheme for EU tourists which should ensure travel continues very similarly to how it does today.

Questions over UK access to EU data systems in 2021

The negotiations on the future relationship between Britain and the EU are still ongoing. However, a major sticking point appeared to arise between the two parties over access to European data systems.

British access to the Schengen Information System (SIS II)

A recently leaked document indicates that the UK wished to remain part of EU data sharing operations such as Europol’s Central Intelligence (EIS) database and Schengen Information System (SIS II). The UK currently has full access to the Europol data and only partial access to the Schengen systems (as it is not a member of the passport-free zone).

However, the proposal for the continued use of these systems by the UK in 2021 has been met with a negative reaction by EU member states. The biggest criticism of the plan is that it would allow Britain to effectively retain membership rights without the responsibility of actual membership, a position that the EU has repeatedly stated would be unacceptable.

It has even been suggested that the UK’s access to SIS II criminal suspect database could even be blocked completely prior to the end of the transition agreement. The British government has indicated that only receiving basic permissions to the information within SIS would be insufficient and that the country must have a similar level of access as before.

The British police and border guards are the third-highest users of the database according to the EU’s own information. Therefore the loss of access to SIS could greatly weaken crime data sharing between both the UK and European countries in both directions.

A draft EU resolution in January, made before the UK had officially left the European bloc, suggested that the UK’s access to SIS should end before the transition period expires. This is due to Britain’s status as a “third country” in the EU.

Christian Petry, the European Affairs spokesperson for the German Social Democratic Party accused Britain of “cherry-picking”, whilst the German Green Party explained that the UK’s continued participation in these schemes would depend on accepting the EU data protection standards and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

UK faces legal action for breaching the withdrawal agreement

The EU has started legal proceedings against the UK in response to sections of the Internal Market Bill which go against international law. Boris Johnson refused to drop the legislation overwriting the withdrawal agreement that was put forward at the beginning of September.

The Internal Market Bill would give UK ministers the power to pass regulations, in particular on state and trade, even if they went against the withdrawal agreement. UK ministers claim that the measures are needed as a safety net in the case that the EU was to act unreasonably.

The European Union had given the British government until the end of September to retract the controversial bill. A letter has now been sent to the UK government to indicate the start of the legal process.

The UK government could be taken to court by the Commission at the European court of justice, it is unlikely that the issue would be resolved by the end of the transition period.

Although both sides had hoped to reach a deal on trade in the coming weeks, the EU has said it will refuse to sign any deal unless the UK rectifies the Internal Markets Bill.

Brexit deadline “impossible to meet”

This is not the only issue limiting progress. A letter from the German ambassador for the EU was leaked detailing the extent that the European Council’s operations had been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe.

It indicated that the December 31st deadline for an agreement between the UK and EU to be struck would now be almost impossible to meet.

In the meantime, however, the UK government’s official position is to refuse an extension to the transition period that is due to expire at the start of 2021. Whether these changes due to the development of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe is yet to be seen.

UK Registration of EU/EEA Citizens Under the EU Settlement Scheme

As of May 2020, the UK has registered the data of 3.5 million EU/EEA citizens under the Government’s EU Settlement Scheme. This has been created to allow nationals from EU 27 countries who are currently living in Britain to settle permanently in the UK after the transition period ends.

The British parliament has also made moves to widen the scheme to ensure that vulnerable residents would be adequately protected. This is hoped to make it easier for victims of domestic and familial abuse to have their residency approved.

Furthermore, the recent modifications also make it easier for the family of UK citizens to register for settled status under the scheme.

Eligible citizens have until June 30th, 2021 to apply for the settlement scheme. It is also possible for any EU national to register for the programme when arriving to live in Britain before the transition period ends.