This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication.

Since 19 July 2021 most Covid-19 restrictions in England have been lifted, and society is gradually getting back to “normal”. But for international travel, the Government has said continuing restrictions are necessary to protect “domestic unlocking”. Restrictions may be needed well past Autumn 2021, the Transport Secretary told the BBC.

These restrictions involve not only travellers themselves, but travel operators, test providers and different parts of government.

This Insight explains the practical impact of current restrictions from the start to the end of a journey, and who is involved at each stage.

Leaving the UK: Check each country’s requirements

Since the official travel ban ended on 17 May 2021, it’s no longer illegal to travel abroad. However, other countries have different Covid-19 entry restrictions in place, as well as any usual visa rules. These range from outright bans on non-nationals to no restrictions at all, with a lot of variety in between.

Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination may mean someone can skip quarantine or testing after arrival in their destination. If they have been fully vaccinated in the UK NHS programme in England and Wales, then a growing number of countries will accept the NHS Covid Pass, either on the smartphone app or a paper version. Covid Pass equivalents are also available for GP-registered travellers from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Many countries still require airlines to ask passengers for a negative test result and/or completed forms before they can allow passage to their territory, sometimes even for transiting. Before booking any tickets, the FCDO travel advice pages are the best place to find up-to-date information for different countries’ rules.

Before returning to the UK

Under the UK Government’s ‘traffic light’ system, requirements on entry to the UK depend on the red/amber/green status of the country someone is entering from, and if and where they have been vaccinated.

The Department for Transport’s website lists all countries and the entry rules that apply under the traffic light system. The following table summarises these rules:

‘Traffic light’ requirements

Country of departure/


Passenger locator Form Pre-arrival Test Post-arrival test on Day 2 Post-arrival test of Day 8 Home Quarantine for 10 days Hotel Quarantine for 10 days
Amber (fully vaccinated in the UK/Europe/USA + children)

Passenger locator forms

All passengers need to complete a passenger locator form (PLF) before travelling to the UK. Regulations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland require airlines, ferry companies or Eurostar to notify passengers of their duty to complete PLFs, and to collect PLFs before travel to all four nations of the UK. Travellers will not be able to complete the PLF unless they have pre-booked post-arrival test(s), or, in the case of travel from a red list country, booked a 10-day hotel quarantine package.

Once these are confirmed, travellers will be given a ‘Covid test booking reference’ which is needed for the PLF (see image below).

Consent for sharing this redacted PLF was obtained from its owner

For those entering from green or amber countries, this testing package must be purchased before arriving in the UK, using the Find a coronavirus (Covid-19) travel test provider page. This lists providers that meet the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)’s minimum standards. Prices vary depending on test turnaround times, location, and whether it is self-administered or not.

In Parliament and beyond, there has been significant controversy about the quality and cost of some of these tests, and delays in receiving results. The Government has said it’s not appropriate for free NHS testing to be used for travel purposes, and that private test providers who consistently deliver poor service are given warnings and some have been removed from the DHSC list, after repeated poor performance.

The journey to the UK

All travellers coming into the UK need to take a PCR or lateral flow test within three days of travel. This is regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or what country they are travelling from. If someone arrives in the UK without proof of a negative test, they can be fined £500 (or £480 in Scotland).

Some countries may provide free testing for foreign travellers, otherwise travellers will need to find a private provider with tests that fulfil UK requirements. Tourist websites sometimes display local services, or airlines can give advice.

What happens at the airport, ferry terminal or Eurostar station?

Before leaving for the UK, the travel operator will check pre-travel Covid-19 tests, even for fully-vaccinated passengers. They may also check if passengers have been fully vaccinated in the UK, Europe, or the USA. It may be advisable to download or print off any evidence of vaccination, in case of poor internet connection.

The operator needs to be satisfied with vaccination evidence, negative test results, and the PLF, to allow passengers to board. If someone tests positive, then they may have to quarantine (or in some countries enter hospital) and reschedule their journey.

Entering the UK

Travellers may be required to show their PLF again to Border Force on arrival in the UK (or if they take the Eurostar or ferry this may happen before boarding). There have been reports that UK Border Force are not checking PLFs, and are relying on operators to do this pre-journey.

Back at home

After entering the UK, travellers may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace by call or SMS, using the contact number given on their PLF. They will check the person is quarantining (if required) and remind them not to leave quarantine until they receive a final negative test result. Breaking these rules can result in a £1,000 fine. As of 28 June, 687 such fines had been issued in England.

Covid-19 international travel restrictions are likely to keep changing. The Library briefing,  Coronavirus: International Travel FAQs for England is regularly updated to keep you up to date.

About the author: Roger Tyers is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in transport policy.

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

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