People who organise school trips to and from the European Union say it has become more difficult since Brexit. Official data is limited, but organisations in the education and travel sectors report that fewer such trips are taking place even with Covid-19 restrictions lifted. This Insight looks at why.

End of passport-free travel for schools

EU citizens do not need visas to visit the UK. Nor do British children need visas for short visits to the Schengen Area, which covers most of the EU plus several other countries. The UK has been added to the list of countries whose citizens are visa-exempt for 90 days.

But not all pupils will be covered by such waivers. For example, a German class considering a trip to the UK may have Turkish pupils who do require visas to enter the UK. Similarly, British schools may have non-European pupils who would need a Schengen visa to enter the EU.

That was not the situation before the UK left the EU. Children on a school trip from one EU country to another can travel without a visa or a passport no matter their nationality.

This is because of the ‘list of travellers’ scheme that forbids EU member countries to require visas for non-European children on a “school excursion”. It also allows a list of pupils to serve as a group travel document instead of individual passports.

UK school trips to the EU

The UK is no longer involved in the list of travellers scheme. In July 2020, the European Commission announced that British schools “will no longer automatically benefit from visa-free access”.

Some EU countries do now offer their own visa exemptions for UK school trips, including France (PDF). There is a list of country-by-country schemes on the European Commission website (under “exemptions Article 6(2)”) but this is difficult to find and may not reassure schools that the party will be admitted at the border in practice.

EU school trips to the UK

The British Government ended the list of travellers scheme for EU-to-UK school trips from 1 October 2021.

In addition, the Home Office now requires non-resident EU citizens to show a passport to enter the UK. Previously, they could use an ID card.

Organisers say school trips are now more difficult

The tourism and English language teaching sectors warn that the change in passport requirements is having a negative effect on school trips to the UK. They say this is because:

  • the requirement that all children have a passport increases costs for parents
  • the possible requirement for some children to have a visa increases the administrative burden

The Tourism Alliance says these “organisational problems” mean that European schools are choosing to visit English-speaking countries in the EU. Parents do not need to buy their child a passport for a trip to Ireland or Malta, and non-European children can be included without visas.

Some areas of the country have been “absolutely decimated by a lack of school visits” (PDF), according to Patricia Yates of VisitBritain.

Similarly, the School Travel Forum says UK-to-EU school trips are more difficult now that there is no automatic visa waiver for the whole class. It also says airlines and ferry companies are reluctant to accept UK collective passports.

Measuring the decline in school trips

School trips abroad largely ceased in 2020 and 2021 because of pandemic restrictions. There is also limited official data on the number of trips in the first place.

The Tourism Alliance has surveyed 235 European companies that organise trips to the UK for under-18s. According to a summary of the results published in June 2022 (PDF), the survey found:

  • In 2019, the 235 companies sent 524,000 children to the UK
  • In 2022, they expected to send 82,000 children to the UK, an 84% fall
  • That compares to a 29% fall in students expected to be sent to Ireland and Malta in 2022 compared with 2019
  • Respondents cited “the requirement for all students to have passports to enter the UK” as the most important factor in this decline

The School Travel Forum has provided some statistics for overseas visits by state schools and academies in England (ie excluding private schools). It says the numbers remain low in 2022 because of passport rather than Covid issues.

Overseas visits by state and academy schools in England

Source: eduFOCUS data provided to the Library by School Travel Forum. Data covers most but not all such schools.
Year  Number of visits Number of pupils
2019 13,058 522,320
2022 (January to August) 2,527 101,080

The Government’s position

Explaining why EU citizens now require passports to enter the UK, the Home Office said ID cards were “notoriously insecure”. As of 11 October 2022, the department had “no plans” to exempt school parties from passport or visa requirements.

Ministers have highlighted the benefits of UK collective passports for UK-to-EU trips. These can be used as a group travel document for up to 50 children with British nationality. They can be used to enter eight European countries, including France, Spain and Italy, although several other countries have stopped accepting them.

About the author: CJ McKinney is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in immigration.

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash

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