Brexit: How travel to the EU has changed

Everything you need to know from passports to pets

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
,Maya Yagoda
Monday 19 April 2021 14:46 BST
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The UK has left the European Union, and the ease with which the British have holidayed, worked and lived in the EU for decades has ended. 

Back at the time of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, you might have inferred from the Leave campaign that not much would change for British travellers to Europe. 

Immediately after the vote to leave, 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 Great Britain and the island of Ireland, and the need for a “Green Card” to extend motor insurance cover to the Republic.

Between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, new controls include pet passports, currency controls and some food prohibitions applying for travel from England, Wales and Scotland to NI.

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 remains valid as a UK travel document. But it loses all its EU powers. 

Tough European rules on passport validity for “third countries" now apply. Unhelpfully, 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 three different interpretations of the regulations, only one of which aligns fully with the European Union.

Its basic online advice says that on the day of travel to the EU your passport must pass two tests:

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 reason appears to be: the passport will be deemed to expire on 30 June 2021 by the European Union, and there is not six months left on this definition of validity.

One British government web page, dating from 2014, states this rule correctly, saying: “Entry into the Schengen Area requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure.”

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

Duty-free at UK airports

At airports in Great Britain, travellers to all international destinations are now able to buy cut-price cigarettes and alcohol without paying tax or duty.

But the government has ended tax-free sales in airports on non-excise goods: electronics, clothing, cosmetics, etc.

Overseas visitors will still be able to buy items VAT-free in shops and have them sent direct to their overseas addresses.

From airports in Northern Ireland, duty-free is available only to non-EU destinations such as Switzerland, Turkey and the US.

Border formalities when entering the EU

EU fast-track lanes for passport control are no longer 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 UK citizens no longer have any guarantee of entry.

Until Brexit, all that an EU border official could do was to check the travel document was valid, and that it belonged to you.

Now the official is required by European Union 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.

Going into Europe, you face strict new limits on duty-free: no more than a litre of spirits and 200 cigarettes.

Careful with your snacks, sandwiches and other food supplies, too. The standard rule is: no “POAO”. This stands for Products Of Animal Origin, and the government specifically warns you cannot take food “containing meat or dairy (eg a ham and cheese sandwich) into the EU”. The same applies to Northern Ireland.

There is an exemption for powdered infant milk, infant food, and special foods required for medical reasons; they must weigh less than 2kg and be packaged, proprietary brand products.

Vegetables and most fruit are also banned – though bananas, coconuts, dates, pineapples and durians are permitted.

The rule for fish is easier: travellers are allowed to bring in up to 20kg.

Honey, too, is transportable to the European Union or Northern Ireland in quantities of 2kg or less.

Length of stay

Since the end of the Brexit transition phase, UK citizens hoping to travel to the vast majority of European Union countries face strict limits on the length of stay.

The rule is that for trips to the Schengen area – covering most EU nations plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and a handful of micro-states – you can stay a maximum of 90 days in any 180. That’s roughly three months in six.

This kind of restriction is fairly common across the world: countries generally don’t want people from foreign nations to be effectively living in their countries without formalising that position, paying appropriate taxes and health insurance, etc. So they restrict the length of stay.

It can look like a daunting system to understand, so I will do my best to explain it in a way which I hope is straightforward.

Just imagine a calendar that stretches back almost six months from today (D). What happened before “D minus 180” is completely irrelevant. What counts is the number of days you were either inside (I) or outside (O) the Schengen Area in the last 180.

You can easily keep count on a calendar yourself, either printed or digital.

If “I” hits 90, you must leave that day. That is exactly what happened to hundreds of Brits who began 2021 in the happy position of being in a Schengen Area country already, without restriction up to the end of 2020 thanks to the Brexit transition phase.

Ninety days in a row took them to the last day of March. Think about a calendar covering the first six months of 2021: they must now stay out for almost three months to the end of June, to accumulate 90 “Os” in a row.

By 28 June, each day one “I” disappears as time marches forward, and can be replaced by a new one for up to 90 days.

That means you could be in the Schengen Area from late June until 25 September – but you would then need to leave for another 90 days.

Looking ahead to next winter: if you are accustomed to going abroad for a good, long stretch, the best you can hope for is three months.

If you keep clear of the Schengen Area through September, October and November, you can enter on 1 December 2021 and remain there until 28 February 2022. Then you must leave for March, April and most of May.

Of course before Brexit you can spend as long as you wanted without any problem, and if you happen to have access to an EU passport (for example through Irish ancestry) than that confers continued freedom.

The European Union has a useful online “short-stay visa calculator”.

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 on breaking the 90-day limit. 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. For the avoidance of doubt, the 90-day limit is not per country. It 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.

I want to stay longer. Can I?

Many British people with second homes in France or a tradition of spending winter in Spain are in this position: they do not want nor need residence, but simply want to stay longer than three months.

The Schengen Area, representing the majority of EU countries does not have a centralised system – it is a matter for each sovereign nation.

For France, you can apply for a long-stay visitor visa valid for up to a year. It costs €99 (£89) and requires “proof of your socio-economic situation,” evidence of travel health insurance for the full duration of the visa’s entire validity period, evidence of your accommodation, your last three months of bank statements “proving that you have enough funds for the whole duration of the trip” or, quaintly, traveller's cheques.

And: “If you are financially sponsored by your spouse/partner : marriage certificate and bank statements of your spouse/partner.”

Spain has a similar “long duration” visa, price €60 (£54), for which you have to submit a medical certificate showing you pose no threat to the Spanish people, an official document confirming you have not been in trouble in the past five years and evidence of at least £2000 per month for your intended stay.

You have to attend an interview at a Spanish consulate general – in London or Edinburgh.

Other nations have similar opportunities. The consulate in London should be able to help.

Note that a long-stay permit for a specific EU country does not mean that you are entitled to spend more than 90 days in 180 in other Schengen Area nations.

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 need not 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

Previously there were no limits on the value of goods you could bring in from European Union nations. Now, the EU is treated the same as the rest of the world – with strict limits for people returning to Great Britain (though not to Northern Ireland). 

For alcohol, the amounts are generous: 4 litres of spirits or 9 litres of sparkling wine, 18 litres of still wine and 42 litres of beer, which should see you through at least an evening.

Arrivals to the UK are allowed to bring in 200 duty-free cigarettes. But the previous practice of buying large quantities of cheap tobacco products in countries such as Portugal, Spain or the eastern European states is no longer legal unless you pay heavy duty.

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

Travellers between the EU and Northern Ireland remain unrestricted in what they can carry for personal use – whether across the land border from the Republic or by air from Continental Europe. 

The only stipulations are that items are imported in luggage for the traveller’s use (or intended as gifts), and that any duty or tax has been paid in the country where they were bought.

People travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland cannot carry meat or dairy products.

In addition travellers must declare any cash, cheques or banker’s drafts they are taking in excess of €10,000 (£9,100) – and explain in advance where the money came from, to whom it belongs and how it will be used. They must also provide their passport number and travel details. “If you are travelling from a private airfield or port, you must tell us,” says the government.

The government insists that re-routing to avoid duties in this manner would break UK law.

A spokesperson said: “We are clear that we will continue to tackle smuggling and illegal activity in all circumstances.”

Health care

UK citizens continue to benefit from free or very low-cost medical treatment in the EU – which is valuable for many elderly travellers, and/or people with pre-existing medical conditions. But reciprocal treatment has ended between the UK and Switzerland plus the EEA trio of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The UK plans a new Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic); details are sketchy. 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 such as the Falklands, Gibraltar and St Helena.

Treatment that needs to be pre-arranged – for example kidney dialysis, oxygen therapy and chemotherapy – will continue.

If you have a European Health Insurance Card (Ehic), it continues to be valid until its expiry date if you’re travelling to the EU.

When yours runs out – or if you have never had one – you can apply for a UK Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic) on the NHS portal previously used for Ehic applications or by calling on 0300 330 1350.  The card is free. Do not use any third-party sites: they are likely to charge a fee. 

If you do not have a card, you can ask the NHS for a “provisional replacement certificate”. 

“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.”

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.


UK motorists do not need an International Driving Permit to drive in the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein. But if your driving licence was issued in Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey or the Isle of Man, you may need an IDP to drive in some EEA countries.

Motorists taking their car from the UK into the European Union must show a GB sticker – though this does not apply to trips to Ireland.

EU nations are able to pursue UK drivers for offences committed on their roads, 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. That benefit of membership has ended.

You now 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. 

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 can continue to fly to the European Union and vice-versa, but they have lost the freedom to operate routes within the EU. 

That is why easyJet set up an Austrian subsidiary known as easyJet Europe: to allow the airline to continue to fly intra-EU links.

European air passengers’ rights rules continue to apply, offering compensation for flights that are overbooked, cancelled or arrive more than three hours late.


Ships continue to sail and Eurotunnel vehicle shuttles continue to run.

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 – and that queues could be “much longer” in summer.

Congestion may also build up at Welsh, English and Scottish ports en route to the island of Ireland. 


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

Fears that the London-Brussels link might be pared back still further because of the lack of EU traffic have been allayed by the vast number of issues that will still need to be discussed over the coming months and years between the UK and the European Commission in the Belgian capital, requiring many thousands of journeys between the two cities.

Mobile phones

The EU-wide ban on roaming charges for phone calls and internet use no longer applies to people with UK mobile phones. Providers are 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 for UK residents have now expired, making journeys with pets to the EU more complicated. 

For the first time, taking a pet – or an assistance dog – to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will involve red tape due to the “border in the Irish Sea” that the British government has created.

The animal must be microchipped and have a valid rabies vaccination. At least three weeks must elapse between the rabies jab and travelling.

For each journey, the pet must have an EU animal health certificate (AHC) confirming the microchipping and the vaccination.

For dogs, tapeworm treatment must be administered between one and five days before entering the European Union or Northern Ireland.

The certificate must be issued within 10 days of entry to the EU or Northern Ireland. Vets are expected to charge around £100 for the certificate. A new one is required for each journey.

Travelling with a pet from the European Union or Northern Ireland to Great Britain has not changed. 

Pet owners in Northern Ireland continue to have access to the EU’s pet passport scheme, but they will need a new “UK (NI) branded" document. This is not yet ready and vets are temporarily extending existing pet passports.

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