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What does UK’s new travel advice for Europe’s ‘amber’ countries mean?

As borders around Europe gradually open, travellers from the UK find themselves in the odd position of being allowed to travel but officially advised against it by the government. Here's what that means for people with family in different countries, second-home owners and tourists.

What does UK's new travel advice for Europe's 'amber' countries mean?
Can Britons travel to "amber" countries in Europe or not? (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP)

Who does this affect?

This covers all non-essential travel. Often couched in terms of tourists and holiday-makers, non-essential travel also includes visits by second-home owners and non-emergency visits to family and friends. People with family abroad who haven’t seen them for over a year might feel that their trip is pretty vital, but unfortunately not by the government definition.

Travel for essential reasons including work related motives, medical treatment or compassionate reasons is still allowed on the same terms as before.

The UK government’s rules concern England, so if you are travelling from or to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, check out the rules in place from the devolved governments.

What has changed?

On May 17th, the UK government lifted its ban on all non-essential travel abroad and replaced it with the traffic light system, where countries were awarded a ranking of red, amber or green based on a number of factors including their Covid rates and vaccination coverage.

For green countries travel is now allowed for any reason, but there aren’t many countries on this list and many of them are largely inaccessible (looking at you, South Sandwich islands). Portugal is currently the only European country on the green list.

EXPLAINED: The European countries on the UK’s ‘amber list’ for travel

What about amber countries?

Most of Europe including the nine countries covered by The Local is designated as amber and arrivals into the UK from amber countries (including UK nationals/residents returning from a trip to an amber country) face a host of rules.

  • A negative Covid test taken within the previous 72 hours. UK rules allow either a PCR test or an antigen test of more than 97 percent specificity and 80 percent sensitivity – the rapid-result antigen tests available at pharmacies or testing centres around Europe meet this specification but most home-testing kits do not. France has announced that tourists and visitors can access free tests this summer, but in most countries you will need to pay for a pre-travel test.
  • A contact locator form – this form must be filled in before you arrive at the border and you will need the order code from your travel testing kit (see below) – find the form HERE.
  • Quarantine – The quarantine period is 10 days long, but can be done at a location of your choosing including the home of family or friends. There is also an option to pay for an extra test on day 5 and, if it is negative, leave quarantine early.
  • Travel test package – you need to order this home-test kit in advance and take further Covid tests on day 2 and day 8 of your quarantine. These tests are compulsory (you will need the order code to complete your contact locator form) and cost on average an eye-watering £200 per person – you can find the list of approved providers HERE.

At present the rules around testing and quarantine are the same even for fully vaccinated people.

Find further information on UK travel rules HERE.

What about this new advice?

The UK government officially advises against non-essential travel to all amber list countries, with a spokesman for British PM Boris Johnson saying: “Our advice is that no one should be travelling to amber list countries, in the interests of public health.

“However there may be unavoidable, essential reasons for people to travel to amber list countries.”

However the Environment Secretary George Eustice, then said: “We don’t want to stop travel altogether”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The reason we have the amber list is there will be reasons why people feel they need to travel – either to visit family or indeed to visit friends.

“They can travel to those countries but they then have to observe quarantine when they return and have two tests after returning.”

“So people can travel to those areas, yes, but they then have to subject themselves to quarantine requirements on their return.”

Asked if this was confusing he said: “Because we want to give people that clarity we are taking things a step at a time.”

But that’s just advice?

Yes, the government is not legally preventing people from travelling abroad, as was the case before May 17th and people are free to ignore the advice, which minister or government spokesman you are listening to.

In the UK travel agencies are still selling holidays to amber list countries including France, Spain and Italy.

However, there is one important consequence of this type of official advice and that relates to insurance.

The UK government’s official travel page states that the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office position is “you should not travel to amber list countries” and this official advice will likely invalidate most travel insurance – despite what George Eustice said – so check your policy carefully.

Invalid travel insurance means you won’t be covered for things like cancellation costs but also, potentially more seriously, for health costs in case you become ill or have an accident while you are away.

The EHIC card, or its replacement GHIC, covers only some emergency medical care while travelling and there are many things that it does not cover, including repatriation costs if this is required. People who have travelled abroad against government advice could therefore be faced with a large bill for medical costs if they fall ill or have an accident while abroad.

There are some travel insurance companies that offer policies for travel against government advice (at a hefty price).

Is this likely to change?

The UK government has said it will review the designations every three weeks. If a country makes it onto the green list then travel is allowed and no quarantine is required on arrival in the UK.

Case numbers in most European countries are falling at present but the UK government has not published a definitive guide to the formula it uses to classify countries.

What about Brits living abroad?

The UK government’s advice is around travel from the UK, if you are British and live in another European country there is nothing to stop you travelling to the UK, as long as you follow the rules on testing and quarantine.

You are then free to return to your country of residence.

However, you also need to check your home country’s rules on travel from the UK. Concerns over the Indian variant of Covid currently circling within the UK could lead to countries imposing extra restrictions on arrivals from the UK and Germany has already reclassified the UK as a risk area for this reason.

Your travel insurance situation will depend on which country you bought the policy in, its policy on government travel advice, and the official position of the country that you live in on travel.

Member comments

  1. I don’t quite agree with the analysis. If you own a ‘holiday home’ in Switzerland and do not have full residency rights, you still pay Swiss taxes and have legal and maintenance responsibilities. If a visit to Switzerland is necessary to meet these obligations, it is surely legitimate to make the journey, providing you can meet Swiss border entry requirements.

  2. This whole covid malarky is a money making farse! How is it that the UK charges an “eye watering” £200 for a covid test and France does it for free?

  3. Typical of a government in the UK that can’t wean itself off the control teat. 75% of adults with at least one vaccine isn’t enough for this lot to allow me to see my kids even though I’ll be fully vaccinated long before I want to travel.
    Yesterday’s report that Pfizer and AZ both produce very strong antibody responses after two doses in almost 100% of cases in all age groups has also been loudly ignored.

  4. Irrespective of what the UK recommends, it is my understanding that Germany’s not currently open to UK tourists? Or have I missed something?

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DEALING WITH BREXIT

Why some Britons will have to leave EU countries by March 31st

There have been a lot of Brexit deadlines over the last four years - many of them missed - but March 31st is an important one for some UK nationals if they don't want to end up in trouble with immigration authorities.

Why some Britons will have to leave EU countries by March 31st
For some Brits in the EU, it's now time to head home. Photo: AFP

Who does this affect?

This is for UK nationals who don’t have permanent residence in an EU country and don’t intend to become residents. All Brits who live full time in the EU need to gain residency status via their country’s national system if they have not already done so.

If you are a permanent resident of an EU country and covered by the Withdrawal Agreement you can travel (Covid rules permitting) but will need to show your residency card at the border. Those resident in countries like France or Italy where many people have not yet been issued with cards can show an acknowledgement of their application for residency or, if they do not have that, proof of their residency such as utility bills or a work contract.

This also doesn’t apply to dual nationals who don’t live in the EU but do have an EU passport, so if you’ve been lucky enough to secure an Irish/French/Italian etc passport then you can stop reading.

When is the deadline?

Wednesday, March 31st, marks 90 days since the end of the transition period, the date when the UK effectively left the EU and therefore the last day that UK nationals who were in the country before January 1st can stay in the EU without taking up residency or having a visa.

Why is this date significant?

It’s because of the 90-day rule.

This rule, already familiar to non-EU nationals like Americans or Australians, has applied to Brits since January 1st 2021 and limits stays in EU countries.

You can find a full explanation of the rule HERE, but in outline the rule says that non-EU citizens can only stay in the EU for 90 days out of every 180. If they want to stay longer they need to either apply for residency or get a visa.

The 90-day limit is a rolling one and the 90 days can encompass one long trip or multiple short ones, so long as the total number of days doesn’t exceed 90 in each 180-day period. To help work out your allocation, check out the Schengen calculator HERE.

It’s important to point out that this limit is for the whole EU and Schengen zone, so you need to calculate your total time spent in any EU/Schengen countries.

So for any Brits who have been in the EU since the New Year, it’s now time to head home if you don’t want to risk overstaying your 90-day allocation.

Anyone who has been here for less than 90 days since January 1st can stay until they reach their own 90-day limit.

Citizens’ right groups across the EU are concerned that some British nationals who have been living off the radar have still not caught on to the post-Brexit residency requirements and may be caught out by this date.

There may be others who want to stay longer in EU countries but not become official residents and intend to ignore the date, but are not aware of the implications this may have.

Kalba Meadows from citizens’ rights group France Rights and British in Europe said: “March 31st marks an important date for some of you.

“If you’ve been in France since January 1st but you’re not legally resident here – maybe you prefer to keep your country of residence as the UK, or you don’t meet the conditions to apply for a residence card under the Withdrawal Agreement – that date marks the end of the 90 day period that you’re allowed to stay in the Schengen area as a British citizen.

“You’ll need to make plans to leave France on or before that day, either returning to the UK or moving on to a country that isn’t part of Schengen. If you don’t do this, you will be clocked as an over-stayer when you do leave, which comes with penalties and may make it difficult for you to return or involves fines.

“This is a big change for many of you, especially those with second homes here who are used to spending longer than three months at a time in France – but thanks to Brexit, it’s the new reality for Brits, as we’re now third country nationals with no special treatment at borders.”

Her words were echoed by Sue Wilson, chair of Bremain in Spain, who said: “We have been advising visiting Brits of the fast-approaching deadline and reiterating advice given by the British Embassy.

“The clock is ticking, yet there are still Brits deliberately planning to overstay their welcome. They are burying their heads in the sand and assuming we’ll be treated differently from other third country nationals, simply because we are British.

“I fear many that have ignored the warnings of the consequences of exceeding a 90-day stay are in for a rude awakening. The time to act is now, before it’s too late.”

What if I’m resident of another EU country? 

Officially the 90 day rule also applies to Britons who are resident in one EU country but who have been living in another. So for example if you are a resident of France but have been living at your second home in Spain or with family in Italy since January 1st you are in theory supposed to return home before 90 days.

The big difference of course with those non-residents who have to leave the block is enforcement and the chances of ending up in hot water with immigration authorities given the lack of controls at Schengen borders.

While it seems unlikely people would be caught they should be aware that while residents of EU countries won’t be subject to the same passport checks and stamping as people entering the Bloc, that doesn’t mean there are no passport checks.

Controls can still be carried out at Schengen borders if, for example, there is a security alert or border restrictions are tightened due to the pandemic.

READ MORE: Can Britons living in EU spend more than 90 days in another Schengen country?

Can I get an extension because of the Covid situation?

Each EU country has its own immigration rules, but in the countries covered by The Local most national authorities have said there will not be extensions given purely because of the overall health situation or travel restrictions – you may be able to appeal any penalties if you can show that you had Covid at the time your 90 days expired and so you were unable to travel.

The EU has issued some general advice on this, encouraging member states to grant visa extensions where necessary and to waive sanctions on people who have overstayed due to travel restrictions.

As ever, though, decisions on border issues remain with national governments within the EU.

No EU countries currently have completely closed borders so it is possible for UK nationals who have their main residence in the UK to return there (although you will need Covid tests and to quarantine on arrival).

A spokesman for the British Embassy in Spain added: “There is no hard deadline to register for residency, however UK nationals in Spain have always had to apply for residency in Spain if they intended to live here beyond three months. This applies equally to nationals of other countries, including EU countries.”

What if my spouse has an EU passport?

Having a spouse or registered partner with an EU passport can be handy, but unfortunately not in this situation.

If you are the spouse/registered partner of an EU national you can apply for a spouse visa, but all types of visa have to be applied for from your home country so you will still need to return to the UK and then make the visa application.

What happens if I stay longer?

If you spend more than 90 days in the EU or Schengen zone without a visa or residency permit then you are officially an over-stayer. And unlike the pre-EU days when passport control consisted of a man in a booth with a rubber stamp, scanning of all passports on entry/exit of the EU makes it pretty easy to spot over-stayers.

Exactly what happens if you are caught over-staying varies from country to country.

In theory, all countries have the same penalties at their disposal, but in practice some are more likely to issue fines while others prefer to issue bans on re-entry.

There is some anecdotal evidence that some countries, including France and Spain, take a slightly more relaxed view if the over-stay is only a couple of days while others, notably Germany, are stricter – but we would advise readers not to rely on this.

Anyone who over-stays can be subject to the following penalties;

Deportation – if you are found to have over-stayed, countries are within their rights to either imprison you and deport you, or give you a certain number of days to leave. In practice, deportation is rare for people who aren’t working or claiming benefits in an EU country

Fines – fines can be levied in addition to other penalties and vary according to country

Entry ban – countries can impose a complete ban on re-entry, usually for three years although it can be longer. A complete ban is usually only put in place for people who have over-stayed for a significant amount of time

Difficulties returning to the Schengen area – even if you avoid all of the above penalties, the over-stay alert on your passport will make it more difficult for you to return to the EU, and this applies to any EU or Schengen zone country, not just the one you over-stayed in. People who have this alert on their passport are likely to face extended checks at the border and may even be turned back. You will also likely encounter difficulties if you later apply for a visa or residency 

People who simply stay in an EU country without securing residency become undocumented immigrants and will not be able to access healthcare or social security provision. If caught, they face deportation.

This sucks, can’t we do anything to change it?

It really sucks, and unfortunately this is only one of the many ways that Brexit is negatively impacting the life of UK nationals. Indeed, the 90-day rule has long applied to citizens of other non-EU countries.

There are several campaigns running to relax these rules for UK nationals including a push to change the rules to 180 days in total in a year – which don’t have to be broken up into blocks of 90 – as is the case in the UK for EU citizens. However nothing has been agreed yet and with the many other post-Brexit problems – not to mention the little matter of a pandemic and looming recession – it may not be at the top of any government’s to-do list.

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