Travel Guide

Travel to the UK during Covid-19: What you need to know before you go

If you're planning to travel to the UK, here's what you'll need to know and expect if you want to visit during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The basics

The United Kingdom has seen one of the highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world. Despite being the first country globally to start a vaccination scheme, the country experienced a deadly second wave over the winter months. A new variant, said to be much more infectious, was discovered in the UK, meaning that many countries canceled air links right before Christmas 2020.

In early January, the UK went into full lockdown. Although this lockdown is now being eased, some restrictions will likely be in place in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland until the summer.

In 2020, the UK has clamped down on international travel. Visitors from the countries on this banned list, sometimes called the “red list,” are barred from entry, unless they’re UK residents.

All travelers entering the UK, including British citizens, must present a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival. This policy has been in place since January 18, previously the borders had been open with no test requirements.

England announced mandatory hotel quarantine for travelers arriving from countries on the “red list” from February 15.

Scotland announced plans for a “managed quarantine requirement” for travelers from all countries from February 15.

What’s on offer

In London, the UK has one of the world’s greatest cities. But beyond the architectural marvels and nightlife of the capital, there is much to explore — the rugged peaks of the Scottish Highlands, distant Welsh lakes and the wide sweep of Cornish beaches, for starters, plus historic towns and cities such as Bath, Oxford and Harrogate.

Who can go

All travelers entering the UK, including British citizens, must present a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

All visitors must quarantine for 10 days on arrival. Depending on country of origin, this will either take place at a hotel or at your place of residence. Even those testing negative will still need to quarantine. See below for more quarantine information.

Since February 15, all international arrivals to the UK have had to take another Covid test on day two and day eight of their quarantine.

UK residents traveling from destinations on the “red list,” which includes South Africa, Namibia and the United Arab Emirates, can enter the country, but they must quarantine on arrival in a hotel. See below for further details.

England’s “travel corridor” scheme that had allowed visitors from countries on an exemption list to skip quarantine was scrapped on January 18.

The UK’s four nations have each implemented slightly different travel restrictions.

As mentioned, Scotland has also implemented a managed quarantine hotel system — but it’s for all arrivals, regardless of country of origin.

There are no international flights to Wales or Northern Ireland right now, travelers must transit through Scotland or England.

From February 15, the Welsh government banned travelers from the “red list” countries, stating that travelers arriving from one of these countries “must arrive through one of the designated ports of entry to the UK in England or Scotland” and then isolate “for 10 days in a managed quarantine hotel.”

People traveling from banned countries to Northern Ireland must also first quarantine in a designated English hotel.

(The Republic of Ireland has entirely separate entrance regulations, which are enforced when crossing the land border.)

What are the restrictions?

All arrivals must provide a negative test taken within the past 72 hours, and complete a Passenger Locator Form before arriving in the UK.

Arrivals from countries not on the UK’s “red list” must still quarantine for 10 days. This may be completed at a residential address.

Other members of their household do not have to quarantine unless they’ve also just arrived in the UK, or someone in the household develops Covid symptoms or tests positive.

If travelers are coming from one of the countries on the restricted list, they will have to quarantine in a designated hotel at their own expense. For these travelers, Passenger Locator Forms will also include details of their quarantine and testing package.

British people arriving home from countries deemed “high risk” — including South Africa and South American nations — must undergo the 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense. Portugal and Mauritius — which have been on the list for some time — were removed on March 19.

Non-UK residents from “red list” countries will be refused entry.

British citizens and permanent residents will be picked up straight from the airport and transferred to government-provided accommodation where they will begin their mandatory stay.

Before arriving in the UK, these travelers must purchase what the UK government calls a “quarantine package,” covering the stay in hotel quarantine and food and drink while there.

Bookings must be made through this online portal. When the scheme began, the UK government said sixteen hotels had been contracted, with 4,600 rooms set aside for these quarantining arrivals.

The charge for a single adult is £1,750.

If you try and dodge quarantine, fines will range from £5,000 rising to £10,000.

On February 2, Scotland announced plans for a “managed quarantine requirement” for travelers from all countries. This also came into effect on February 15 and also costs £1,750.

The Scottish government announced on February 9 that six hotels had been contracted, totaling 1,300 rooms. The hotels are all located near to to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports.

A “test to release” scheme came into force in England on December 15, allowing travelers to take a PCR test after five days’ quarantine and then go out into the community on the receipt of a negative result (although they must wait to receive the results before leaving their lodgings).

Travelers arriving from the “red list” countries and staying in a quarantine hotel are not eligible for Test to Release.

Travelers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also cannot take advantage of the scheme.

Travel between the four countries of the UK is also restricted. The Welsh government has prohibited travel to Northern Ireland and high risk areas of England and Scotland. Travel between Scotland’s high alert areas and the rest of the UK is prohibited unless travelers have a reasonable reason.

As part of the UK’s Covid-19 response roadmap, a Global Travel Taskforce is working with travel sector representatives to give “recommendations aimed at facilitating a return to international travel as soon as possible.”

The roadmap says the UK government will assess the taskforce’s findings to decide when international travel should resume, but that it’ll be no earlier than May 17.

On March 22, the UK government announced that British people attempting to go on vacation while travel restrictions are still in place could face a steep fine, under new government legislation.

Anyone traveling outside England “without a reasonable excuse” will face a fine of £5,000 ($6,932).

This law is set to be in place until June 30, suggesting non-essential travel out of the UK could be banned for another three months.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on April 5 the government was “hopeful” international travel will resume from May 17 — but that he doesn’t wish to “underestimate the difficulties that we’re seeing in some of the destination countries that people might want to go to.”

“We don’t want to see the virus being reimported into this country from abroad,” he added.

In a review to the roadmap published April 5, the UK government also announced plans for a risk-based “traffic light” system to guide the return of non-essential international travel.

On April 9, the Global Travel Taskforce issued its report advising how to recommence international travel.

The report clarified how the traffic light system will work: destinations would be grouped into “red,” “amber” or “green” categories depending on their vaccination roll-out and infection rate.

The report said destinations will be also be categorized based on “the prevalence of variants of concern” and “the country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.”

Travelers arriving or departing from a “green” destination will have to take a pre-departure test, as well as a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival back in the UK. They will not need to quarantine.

People traveling from an “amber” destination will have to quarantine for 10 days, take a pre-departure test and also get a PCR test on day two and day eight of their quarantine. “Amber” travelers can still make use of the test to release scheme.

Arrivals from “red” destinations will have to check in at one of the UK’s quarantine hotels, as well as follow the same testing requirements as “amber” arrivals.

There will also be a “green watchlist” which countries could end up on if they’re at risk from moving from “green” to “amber.”

“At this point, it is too early to say which countries will be in the green category this summer,” reads the Global Travel Taskforce report. “These decisions will be driven by the data and evidence at the time. The UK government will set out an assessment of which countries will fall into each category ahead of reopening international travel.”

The UK government has also said that travel certification — AKA vaccine passports — could be part of the route out of travel restrictions, coming as the UK announces plans to roll-out a NHS app that can be used to show vaccination status.

The guidance says travel restrictions will be reviewed on June 28, and again no later than July 31 and October 1, 2021.

What’s the Covid situation?

After a devastating first wave and troubling winter — on January 26, the UK government said over 100,000 people have died from Covid-19 and this death rate is the highest in Europe and the fifth in the world — cases are now going down in the UK.

The UK was the world’s first country to begin a vaccination program, which has lessened the burden on the National Health Service.

There have been over 4,300,000 Covid cases and over 127,000 deaths in the UK as of April 13.

After an initial UK-wide lockdown in spring 2020 in response to the first wave of Covid-19, for the second wave, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland developed their own region-specific measures.

The announcement of a new variant of Covid-19 right before Christmas led cases in the UK to rise quickly, with many hospitals becoming over capacity. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” on January 8.

Cases are currently under control in the city — on March 29, London recorded zero Covid-19 daily deaths for first time in six months.

Over 39 million people have had their first vaccination in the UK as of April 13, with 11.23% of the population fully vaccinated.

What can visitors expect?

On January 4, England entered its third national lockdown, which lasted for three months.

All nonessential shops were closed. Schools were largely shut. Social contact was curtailed, although preformed support bubbles could meet. People were only allowed to leave the house for essential reasons, such as outdoor exercise with one other person, or visiting a place of worship.

At the end of February, Boris Johnson set out his four-step roadmap to move England out of lockdown.

England has successfully passed the first, second and third step. Since March 8, schools have been open and people have been able to arrange a social meet-up outside in a park with one other person.

As of March 29, outdoor gatherings of six people or two households are now permitted. England’s Stay at Home order has also formally ended, although strict restrictions remain. Swimming pools and tennis courts have reopened, and outdoors sports can recommence.

On April 12, non-essential retail opened up. England’s museums and theme parks have opened their doors.

Many restaurants, bars and pubs have also reopened for outdoor dining only.

While international travel is still off limits, England residents are now permitted to stay overnight elsewhere in the country (with their own household) in self-contained accommodation, such as private holiday lets.

The hope is by May 17, hotels, hostels and B&Bs will reopen. Pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers indoors, although customers must only gather groups of six or less. In parks or private gardens, up to 30 people will be able to gather together.

June 21 is scheduled as the point when people in England may return to more of a pre-pandemic life — with nightclubs potentially reopening, and larger events returning — although it’s all subject to change and worth keeping an eye on updates.

Wales has also been in lockdown for the past few months. The rules were largely the same as England, but you could not mix with anyone outside your household.

On Saturday March 13, these restrictions were lifted to allow people to meet no more than four people from two households from their local area outdoors, such as a private garden or park.

Schools and hairdressers reopened on March 15.

Wales recommenced non-essential retail on March 22 and reopened self-contained holiday accommodation for one household on March 27.

Since March 27, six people from two households in Wales can meet outdoors. Some Welsh outdoor attractions have reopened. Travel outside of Wales without a reasonable excuse is still forbidden.

On January 4, most of Scotland moved to “enhanced level 4” regulations — essentially lockdown. People must stay at home except for essential reasons, and travel between other parts of the UK is banned.

Regular level 4 is also essentially a stay at home order, with nonessential shops closed.

All islands except for Skye, Bute, Arran and Gigha remain in level 3. Travel in and out of the area is banned, and restaurants are open until 6 p.m. but must not serve alcohol.

On March 16, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out a timetable for reopening. Stay at home regulations subsequently lifted April 2 and were replaced with stipulations to stay local.

While the Scottish government was aiming to lift restrictions on journeys within mainland Scotland by April 26, this date has now been brought forward to April 16.

From this date, people will be allowed to meet in groups of up to six adults from six households.

April 26 remains the date when Scottish museums, galleries and tourism accommodation will likely reopen and restaurants will recommence outdoors service for alcohol, and potentially open indoors for non-alcohol service. Up to four people from two households should be able to socialize indoors in a public place — like a cafe or bar — and six people from up to three households should be able to meet outside, in a park, for example.

Northern Ireland entered a six-week lockdown on December 26. That lockdown was extended until April 1. All nonessential shops are closed, and restaurants are open for takeaway and delivery only. Liquor stores must close at 8 p.m.

From April 1, up to six people in Northern Ireland from two households can meet outside in a garden or public place. Since April 12, this has been upped to 10 people.


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