Travel Questions

Is a PCR test mandatory before departing the UK?

Simon Calder answers your questions on virus testing for overseas visits, grabbing a bargain on Turkish lira and negotiating the ‘green list’

Monday 17 May 2021 21:30
<p> You cannot use NHS Covid tests for international travel</p>

You cannot use NHS Covid tests for international travel

Q I am confused about the testing schedules that I read everywhere. Does a test before departure mean a test before leaving the UK or a test before leaving to return to the UK? Is a test needed to leave the UK regardless of the country of arrival?

Rob G, via the latest “Ask Me Anything” at

A Your confusion is both understandable and common. Let me see if I can clear up the widespread misapprehensions.

First, the UK government has nothing to say about testing before you leave the country. Unlike some nations, it does not require any form of testing or certification before you depart abroad by train, boat or plane. And the UK Declaration to Travel that has been in force for the past few months – the document that required you to explain why you had the temerity to want to leave the country is now dead and hopefully buried.

However, many destinations are very keen that you have a Covid test before they allow you to board a form of transport towards their borders. Typically this is a PCR test, taken in the 72 hours before you leave the UK or arrive at the destination – though other (cheaper and faster) variants of test may be allowed, and other durations stipulated.

For the avoidance of doubt, these must always be privately organised and paid for; you cannot use NHS tests for the purposes of international travel. Some locations allow people who have been vaccinated to swerve the testing requirement. And others will require you to have an additional test on arrival.

Coming back, the UK government insists on a test before you are allowed to travel home. It can be more or less any variety as long as it is written in English, French or Spanish, and certified by proper medical practice abroad. In the most popular locations, health industry folk are versed in the requirements and how to meet them.

In addition, on the Passenger Locator Form – a document that is still with us – you must show proof of one or more pre-booked PCR tests that you have arranged for after you arrive in the UK. Travellers from green list locations need only one, taken within two days of arrival, while those from amber and red places must pre-book a pair of tests – for days two and eight of quarantine.

I am writing from Portugal, where I am halfway through this bureaucratic tangle, and it does rather take the edge off a great escape.

The Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Q The Turkish lira is now 12 to £1. Would you say buy currency now, ready for when Turkey goes amber/green?

“Dipsya 1982”

A The trajectory of the Turkish lira has been interesting to watch. The current version of the currency originated in 2005 with the removal of six zeroes; prior to that you could become a Turkish lira multimillionaire by exchanging a pound.

For a decade until mid-2013, the currency was pretty stable against sterling – oscillating between around two to three lira to £1. Since then the value of the Turkish currency has fallen pretty steadily, and therefore the number of lira you get to £1 has risen.

The lira has had a pretty rocky few weeks since president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sacked the governor of the central bank and his deputy; they had increased interest rates in order to tackle inflation, but have been replaced by unorthodox economists who believe that high interest rates actually cause price rises. The markets evidently don’t believe that strategy, and that is why today you will get more lira for your pound than ever.

Exchange rates are based on an awful lot of parameters, but all other things being equal if inflation is 18 per cent in Turkey (as a number of economists are predicting) but only 2 per cent in the UK, then in the course of the year you would expect the Turkish currency to decline by about one-sixth.

I can see no evidence of inflation subsiding in Turkey this summer, and therefore I predict with a lot of confidence that if you can get 12 lira for a pound today, a month from now you will get 13 or 14. So please do not buy yet, and when you do travel, change little and often – on a two-week trip you might find the lira starts at 15 to £1 but by the end of the fortnight it could be 16 to £1.

Picture perfect: Carvoeiro, Portugal

Q I am a British resident in Portugal, where we are all excited about the “green list” because it will allow us to travel back to the UK without quarantine. There are some ridiculously cheap tickets in the next week, many of them at €10 (£8.60) one way on Ryanair. I assume that if I buy one I will be travelling back from a “green” country and so I won’t need to self-isolate. But one of my neighbours said that because I will have been in an amber country in the past 10 days, I will need to quarantine. Which of us is right?

Name supplied

A Portugal was on the UK’s “amber list” until 4am on Monday 17 May. Anyone arriving had to take a pre-departure Covid test, self-isolate for 10 days on their return and book two post-arrival PCR tests – one for day two of their quarantine, the other for day eight.

Portugal has now been added to the government’s “green list”. Until as recently as last weekend, the Department for Transport (DfT) was insisting that anyone who was in a country that joined the green list at 4am on 17 May would need to self-isolate on arrival in the UK unless they arrived after 27 May. The DfT has now reversed its position and says green list rules apply from 4am on Monday 17 May, regardless of time spent in a country before it became green.

Even when you can take advantage of green list status, you will still have to jump through a few hoops. In advance of your return home, you must complete the passenger locator form, find a medical centre in Portugal where you can take a test before departure and pre-book a single PCR test that you must take within two days of touching down back in the UK.

Good luck.

Email your questions to or tweet @simoncalder

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