The UK may be leaving the EU on Friday, but much confusion remains about what that actually means - especially for travellers.
The UK's ferry operators published a survey a few days which showed that 68 per cent of people were still uncertain about the situation after January 31. Perhaps that's not surprising.
Until this Tuesday, when it was rapidly changed after my inquiry, the page on the UK's official government website (gov.uk/visit-europe-brexit) which had the headline Travel in the EU after Brexit was still referring to the situation in the event of a no deal. It has now been updated so that the advice give gives refers to the potential situation after December 31.
In the meantime, as far as British passport holders travelling in the EU are concerned, absolutely nothing will change. All rights and privileges will remain the same until the agreed transition period ends. So, according to the Department for Exiting the EU, for the next 11 months, if you have a British passport and want to travel to the EU, you can relax and carry on as before.
Beyond the end of this year however, we are still in the dark. We don't know what arrangements will be agreed in a final withdrawal deal. In fact we don't even know if there will be one. The UK government has imposed a hard deadline and vowed not to extend the transition period, so if no final agreement about our future relationship can be reached and ratified by December 31, we may have to leave with no deal in place. Such vows have, however, been made and broken before.
Either way, we will have to wait and see what the longer-term implications for travellers are. Here are the key areas under consideration.
Passports and visas
As outlined above, nothing will change after January 31 – UK citizens' rights and privileges will remain the same until the transition period is over. The European Commission has said that from January 1, 2021, UK passport holders will need to apply for an ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) visa waiver - the same authorisation Australians and other non-EU citizens will have to apply for.
This is similar to an American ESTA, will probably cost around $A12 and be valid for several years. Despite this, we may well find – after December 30 – that it takes longer for British citizens to be processed at airports and other immigration points to the EU. The European Tourism Association has estimated that, even under the ETIAS scheme, additional checks could add an extra 90 seconds for each UK passport holder. That would mean in theory that it would take an additional five hours to process a 737 full of British passengers. In practice it seems likely that most airports will bolster immigration staff to reduce delays. Once we are inside the EU of course, we will be free to travel within the Schengen area (which comprises most EU countries) as there are no further border controls.
The other slight change is that, while they won't need a visa, it seems likely that British travellers will need to have a passport which has at least six months of validity left at the date of entry to the EU. So, if you hold a British passport that runs out before July next year, and you are thinking of travelling to the EU in the early part of 2021, you may need to apply to renew it at least three weeks before travelling – see gov.uk/renew-adult-passport/renew.
As for the highly publicised switch from burgundy passports to blue, it has been pushed back to "early 2020". New passports issued in recent months retain their previous colour but have had the words "European Union" removed.
Under the transition arrangements, British passport holders are still entitled to free or reduced-cost medical treatment in EU countries during 2020. A European Health Insurance Card (EHIC, formerly E111) is proof of this entitlement. The Government has indicated that it hopes to keep or adopt similar arrangements as part of the final withdrawal arrangements, but the details have yet to be confirmed and, in any case, will have to be agreed by the EU. Either way, even during the transition period, it is unwise to rely on an EHIC instead of a proper travel insurance policy, which covers many additional risks and costs.
Holiday protection and compensation
The EU Travel Directive, which guarantees financial protection against the failure of your holiday operator and which was so important to all those who got stranded or lost their holidays when Thomas Cook collapsed last year, is enshrined in British law. If the Government wanted to water down those protections – which seems unlikely – it would have to change the law. Meanwhile the remarkably high levels of compensation for delayed or cancelled flights which are covered under another EU directive are also part of UK law. British airlines are likely to lobby hard to get these watered down after we have left.
If you want to drive in the EU this year you just need to carry a full UK driving licence. From 2021 you may also need an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in some EU countries. This is obtainable through the Post Office (£5.50). Depending on the final agreement with the EU, if you take your own car abroad from 2021 you may also need to arrange additional cover with your insurer and carry a Green Card to prove that you have done this.
If you're using a UK SIM card, you will no longer be automatically entitled to free roaming after December 31. Vodafone, O2 and Three have indicated they will continue to offer it – but we don't know for how long or on what terms. The Government says it may cap automatic data charges at £45 ($86.50) a month for operators that do not continue free roaming. But that doesn't limit the rate at which you will be charged, just the total amount you can be billed automatically. So you could find that you reach the £45 limit rather quickly, then have to decide whether to stop using your phone or pay for more data.
Since some restrictions on freedom of work and movement seem inevitable as part of the final withdrawal agreement or in the event of no deal, it is almost certain that British citizens will no longer be able to work in EU countries without a permit. This may put British citizens on par with Australian passport holders - you'll need an individual visa in order to live and work in an EU country. From a travellers' point of view that is most likely to affect young people who might to fund a trip around Europe or learn a language by taking casual jobs, or work a ski season.
The UK lost the right to duty free when travelling between EU countries in 1999. But Brits gained the right to bring home virtually unlimited amounts of duty paid goods – good news because duty on wine in France is significantly less compared with the UK. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, the good news is that, presumably, the rules will revert to the same arrangements which apply to all other countries. Entering the UK, you will have a duty free allowance of 200 cigarettes, 16 litres of beer and four litres of wine, but above that you will have to pay about £2 ($3.85) for each bottle of wine we bring home.
Travel to the Republic of Ireland
Travel between the UK and Ireland is covered not by British membership of the EU but by separate arrangements for the Common Travel Area, which covers the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This stands to remain the same even after we leave the EU, the Home Office has said.
The Telegraph, London