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When Will We Be Able to Travel to Europe?

By Michelle Baran

Oct 22, 2020

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A potential travel corridor between New York and London could pave the way for a further opening of borders.

Photo by Shutterstock

A potential travel corridor between New York and London could pave the way for a further opening of borders.

Months after Europe first closed its external borders, many foreign travelers—including most Americans—remain banned from entering. There are some signs of progress, but when can we realistically expect Europe to reopen for travel?

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This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, visit the websites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

If you’re wondering when travelers from the United States are going to be able to visit Europe again, you are far from alone—last year 19 million Americans traveled to Europe, according to U.S. Commerce Department data. But rather than hop the pond these past several months, the majority of us have been staying closer to home and socially distancing as we do our part to help contain the spread of COVID-19. During this more sedentary time, we can’t help but ask ourselves when, and how, we’ll be able to travel to Europe again as we dream about sauntering along the Seine and tasting wines in Tuscany.

On March 17, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the continent, European Union leaders agreed to impose travel restrictions on most foreigners entering Europe for at least 30 days to limit the spread of COVID-19. Those restrictions were ultimately extended until July 1, 2020, when the European Union began welcoming back travelers from a list of countries that had been approved by its leaders.

The list was created on the basis that countries would be added or removed as their epidemiological situation improved or worsened. At first, there was some movement on the list. From the original 14 approved countries, the list shrank to 10 countries when the latest version was released on August 7—but there have been no updates since. Reports have emerged this week, however, that the list is being updated for the first time in more than two months.

The United States was never on the list. And conversely, the United States still has a ban in place on travelers from European Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, with the exception of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Why Are the Borders Between the U.S. and Europe Still Closed—and When Will They Open?

The 10 countries currently on the European Commission list are: Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay. This week, several news outlets reported that EU officials have confirmed that Canada, Georgia, and Tunisia are set to be removed from the list, while Singapore will be added. (Algeria, Montenegro, Morocco, and Serbia had been on previous incarnations of the list but have since been removed.) China could also be included at some point if it agrees to allow EU travelers to visit. Residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican are considered EU residents as part of the lifting of travel restrictions. There are also numerous exceptions to the ban on travel to Europe, including for family members, passengers in transit, and students.

It’s not a legally binding list, but EU leaders have agreed that member countries should not independently lift travel restrictions for unlisted countries before it’s been decided upon in a coordinated manner.

Nevertheless, there have been some deviances. For instance, on July 10, Croatia opened up its borders to all international travelers as long as they provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result procured within 48 hours of arriving at the Croatian border, or submit to an otherwise mandatory quarantine.

Additionally, anyone can travel to Ireland if they agree to quarantine for 14 days (they can skip the quarantine if the country they are arriving from is on what the Irish government calls “the Green List”). Similarly, the United Kingdom, which is not an EU member, requires a 14-day quarantine for any arrivals from countries that are not on a list of countries and territories that are exempted from the quarantine. Although the 14-day quarantine requirements are certainly not convenient, they do not constitute an outright ban.

A new system for travel within Europe

While the European Commission has been slow to update its position on foreign travelers who wish to enter from outside of Europe, it has been working hard to establish a better system for those traveling within Europe—a system that, if successful, could arguably be used as a model for travel from any country outside of Europe to any country within it.

European Countries Agree on New COVID-19 Travel Guidelines

On October 13, European Union countries approved a set of criteria that were established by the European Commission for countries to follow to determine how and whether to restrict arrivals. They include:

  • Coronavirus cases—Member states should not restrict travel from other countries with fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days.
  • Test positivity rates—Member states should not restrict travel from other countries with a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 3 percent provided that the weekly testing rate exceeds 250 tests per 100,000 people.
  • Reporting—Member states should supply the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) with their coronavirus case and testing data on a weekly basis to create a common database.

As countries furnish their coronavirus data, the ECDC will be able to produce a color-coded map (which will be published regularly on the European Commission’s Re-open EU site) that will allow for more informed and consistent decisions about travel restrictions across Europe.

A color-coded map of Europe with COVID-19 travel data will indicate:

  • Green—if the new case rate is less than 25 per 100,000 and the test positivity rate is less than 3 percent
  • Orange—if the new case rate is less than 50 per 100,000 but the test positivity rate is 3 percent or greater, or if the new case rate ranges from 25 to 150 per 100,000 but the test positivity rate is less than 3 percent
  • Red—if the new case rate is 50 or more per 100,000 and the test positivity rate is 3 percent or more
  • Gray—if there is not sufficient data or testing available

Each week, the ECDC will publish an updated version of the map. Countries will then be able to implement either a quarantine or a mandatory COVID-19 test for travelers coming from countries coded as red or gray. The European Commission is pushing for testing as a coronavirus control method over quarantines.

“Wherever possible, the possibility to undergo tests for COVID-19 infection instead of quarantine should be the preferred option,” the European Commission stated. The Commission said that member countries had agreed to recognize the use of tests and will continue to work together to create a standard for testing and quarantine requirements.

With the help of COVID testing, some progress has been made

One of the more advanced plans for opening up travel between the United States and Europe is a COVID-19 testing program that could help pave the way for an “air bridge” between London and New York, which could be up and running before the end of the year.

London’s Heathrow Airport is offering rapid-result COVID-19 testing to travelers, and the process is being analyzed and shared with British government officials. The hope is that the testing could provide a safe alternative to the 14-day quarantine requirement currently in place for travelers arriving in the United Kingdom from numerous countries and territories, including from the United States.

Additionally, passengers on a United Airlines flight between London and New York recently took place in the first transatlantic trial of a new digital health “passport” that allows travelers to provide certified COVID-19 test information to border officials upon arrival.

The digital health pass, called CommonPass, was developed by Swiss-based nonprofit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum; it is being presented to 37 governments (and counting) as a way to help facilitate the reopening of borders and travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“In 2020, we may be able to see, I hope, progress made towards . . . how best to proceed with a broader reopening,” Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the Washington, D.C.–based U.S. Travel Association, which represents the U.S. travel and tourism industry, recently stated. Barnes said that she doesn’t see a ban on travel between Europe and the U.S. being lifted this year.

Other travel experts and insiders have indicated that they, too, don’t see the ban on travel being lifted—or a more widespread opening up of travel—in either direction before the end of the year.

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“The consensus really amongst everybody is that there will be no volume [transatlantic] travel before a vaccine is widely distributed and recognized as working. I don’t think we’re going to have any confidence back in the market before then. When that will happen? Well, we just don’t know,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the U.K.-based European Tour Operators Association (ETOA).

Luís Araújo, president of the European Travel Commission (ETC), also doesn’t see travel across the Atlantic returning until after a vaccine becomes widely available, hopefully sometime in the first half of next year. ETC is a Brussels-based collection of national tourism organizations that promotes travel to Europe; it has been working with European governments to find ways to reopen Europe to more international travelers.

“The only thing that we could hope for in the short term is more flights from the U.S. to Europe [for those visiting] friends and relatives. Moreover, adding business travel to the list of essential travel will also be a positive development for the wider tourism industry,” said Araújo.

Araújo’s advice to Americans: Don’t stop dreaming about traveling to Europe. “Very soon we will be launching communication campaigns to invite American citizens to come back to Europe.”

A country-by-country guide to travel restrictions and policies in Europe

Until European countries unilaterally implement the new color-coded map system—and it isn’t clear exactly when that will be—the existing situation for travel in Europe is a bit of an ever-evolving puzzle. Here’s a brief summary of how some countries are approaching it as of October 20. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it serves as an example of just how different all the rules and regulations have been within Europe. It remains vital that travelers crossing borders within Europe are up to date on the latest coronavirus-related travel restrictions because they are constantly changing.

France is welcoming travelers from the EU and from countries on the European Commission list

A bar terrace is closed to meet the curfew in Paris.

As of June 22, France lifted its travel restrictions for those coming to the country from within Europe. Those who enter France from the European Union, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom can do so sans any COVID-19-related restrictions or paperwork, according to the French government.

On July 1, France opened its doors to visitors from outside Europe who are traveling from any of the countries granted access to the EU by the European Commission. As long as their country remains on the list, travelers from those nations (including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand, among others) will be able to enter France, stay in hotels, eat at the country’s restaurants, and visit museums and tourist sites around the nation. 

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Throughout France, museums and landmarks are open with masks required; bars, cafés, and restaurants are open with public health measures in place. On October 17, France instituted a 9 p.m. curfew in Paris and eight other French cities, including Marseille, Lyon, Lille, and Toulouse, that was scheduled to last at least four weeks.

Italy has reopened to travelers from the EU and some additional countries

Rome’s Ciampino Airport and the Vespucci Airport in Florence reopened on May 4.

On June 3, Italy became the first country in Europe to reopen its international and regional borders, but only to those arriving from member countries of the European Union, countries within the Schengen Zone, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the microstates and principalities of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican.

As of October 14, travelers coming to Italy from EU countries must simply fill out a health form, unless they are coming from an evolving list of countries that requires providing proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours prior to arrival in Italy. Those arriving from Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Romania, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay must quarantine for 14 days. The latest information is available on the Italian Foreign Ministry travel site.

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Those traveling from any other country or territory can only enter Italy if they are traveling for work, health reasons, for study, “absolute urgency,” or are returning to one’s home or dwelling. Travel for tourism purposes is not allowed from any countries or territories not listed in the paragraph above.

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The United Kingdom’s mandatory quarantine doesn’t apply to all travelers

The United Kingdom is frequently adding and removing countries from its list of nations exempted from the quarantine requirement.

Nonessential travel to and from the United Kingdom is not currently recommended but it is not forbidden either.

Anyone who arrives in the United Kingdom from one of the countries or territories on a list of exempted nations is not required to self-isolate for 14 days. Those coming from countries that are not on the list will still have to abide by the 14-day quarantine rule that was put in place on June 8, including travelers coming from the United States. The list is being amended regularly.

People traveling from countries and territories that are not on the list, including both international visitors and British nationals returning home from abroad, will have to provide U.K. border control with their contact details, including their phone number, and the address of their U.K. accommodation where they will self-isolate for two weeks. Failure to self-isolate can result in a hefty fine.

As mentioned above, a COVID-19 testing program is being trialed that could reopen travel between London and New York by the end of the year. 

As of July 4, the majority of U.K. businesses were allowed to reopen as long as they follow COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. That includes hotels, vacation rentals, retail stores, restaurants, and pubs (with outdoor seating), museums, galleries, cinemas, theaters, and concert halls.

How to get there: United is currently flying from Newark and Chicago O’Hare International Airport to London Heathrow Airport. American has service to London Heathrow from Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Los Angeles, Chicago O’Hare, Philadelphia, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Raleigh-Durham, and New York (JFK).

Anyone can travel to Croatia if they present a recent, negative coronavirus test result

Dubrovnik is within reach for any traveler willing and able to take a COVID-19 test.

On July 10, the Croatian Institute for Public Health came to the decision that non-EU citizens, including those from the United States, who enter Croatia as tourists, business travelers, or as students can do so freely as long as they provide evidence of a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostic test (also known as the nasal swab test) for COVID-19. The result must have been procured within 48 hours of arriving at the Croatian border. Otherwise, there is a mandatory 14 days of self-isolation (at travelers’ own expense), which can be shortened to one week for travelers who take a COVID-19 test within 7 days after entering Croatia and who receive a negative test result. COVID-19 testing in Croatia costs about $230 and the results can be expected in 1 to 2 days, according to the U.S. Embassy in Zagreb.

The embassy also cautioned travelers that Croatian health authorities are monitoring and enforcing quarantine orders, and they are authorized to fine individuals who violate the orders anywhere from 8,000 Croatian kuna (about US$1,200) for a first violation up to 120,000 Croatian kuna (or US$18,000) for repeat offenders.

Prior to arrival, visitors must fill in a travel form that is available online.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Croatia, but there are connecting flights from the United States to Zagreb available on American, Delta, United, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, and other carriers. The European Union’s travel restrictions include an exception for passengers in transit. U.S. citizens and permanent residents are allowed to enter the United States from European Schengen countries.

Germany requires travelers from a long list of countries and regions to quarantine

Travelers to Germany from a list of “international risk areas” must quarantine until they produce a negative COVID-19 test result.

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Germany maintains a list of countries—and even specific counties and regions within countries—that it deems as “international risk areas,” or countries that it deems as presenting an increased risk of COVID-19 infection. Travelers from these risk areas must quarantine until they produce a negative coronavirus test result. The United States is on Germany’s list of international risk areas.

The list is being updated regularly and includes countries, counties, and provinces within Europe.

Further complicating matters is the fact that in Germany, each individual länder, or state, dictates its own quarantine regulations, so the rules could be slightly different depending on which state you are entering. Nevertheless, the general rules are that following entry into Germany you proceed directly to your quarantine location until you can provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test to local health authorities, according to Germany’s Federal Foreign Office.

How to get there: United is flying daily service between Newark (EWR) and Frankfurt (FRA) and between Washington Dulles and Frankfurt. American offers flights between North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) and Munich (MUC) and between CLT and Frankfurt (starting October 25). American resumed service between Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Frankfurt on June 4.

Spain has reopened, but only to European travelers and to those on the European Commission list

For the time being, Spanish cities such as Bilbao are only available to travelers from within Europe.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Spain, Spain is allowing in travelers who are Spanish nationals, legal residents of Spain, long-term visa holders, or those who are coming from the European Union, Schengen associated countries, Andorra, Monaco, the Vatican, and San Marino. Spouses, parents, and descendants (those under the age of 21 or who are still supported by their parents) of Spanish nationals are also being permitted to enter the country, as are essential workers, students, and passengers in transit.

According to Spain’s national tourist office, travel to Spain is also allowed from Australia, Canada, China, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay. 

With a recent resurgence in coronavirus cases in Spain, the government has issued renewed health and safety advisories. Face masks are required for everyone age six and older when they are in enclosed spaces and in areas where it is not possible to maintain six feet of distance between one another. Gatherings are limited to six people.

Greece remains off limits to travelers from the United States

Hopes of a summer in Greece have come and gone and Americans are still not allowed to travel to the Mediterranean country.

This past summer, Greece had been evaluating whether or not it would open up to more travelers this year, including to those from the United States, but those plans never materialized.

In addition to EU citizens and residents, the only travelers who are allowed to enter Greece are citizens or residents of Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay, and the United Arab Emirates.

Travelers entering Greece must complete a passenger locator form online, which includes the address of their stay while in Greece. Upon completion of the form, they will be provided with a unique Quick Response (QR) code via email on the day of their scheduled arrival in Greece, according to the Greek government.

Passengers arriving from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates, Malta, Belgium, Spain, Albania, North Macedonia, Russia, or Israel will be required to produce a negative molecular test (PCR) result for COVID-19 taken within 72 hours prior to entry into Greece.

Flights from Turkey and from Catalonia, Spain, were off limits as of October 21.

Portugal has reopened for travel from within Europe and from a handful of non-European countries

Hotels and tourism establishments in Portugal sporting a “Clean and Safe” label have verified health and hygiene measures in place.

Currently, travelers from EU countries, as well as Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, are allowed entry by air, according to information posted at Portugal’s Immigration and Borders Service website. Travelers from the following countries are allowed to enter as well: Australia, Canada, China, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay.

Hotels are open, and visitors to Portugal can look for the blue and white “Clean & Safe” label that verifies that hotels and other tourism businesses are respecting public health and hygiene measures. 

Elsewhere in Europe

Sweden is scheduled to open to travelers from outside the EU on October 31.

The ban on nonessential travel to Sweden from non-EU countries is scheduled to end on October 31, and Sweden does not require approved inbound travelers to quarantine. Travel to Sweden from EU countries and Switzerland is currently not restricted.

Denmark has an evolving list of countries that are either considered “open” or “banned” from entry into Denmark. The list is based on the number of infections in each country and is updated weekly. Countries on the “open” list outside of the EU are the ones approved by the European Commission. The United States is on the banned list.

Iceland has reopened to travelers from beyond Europe coming from the European Commission’s approved list of countries. Travelers will be given three choices upon entry into the country: Get tested for COVID-19 upon landing at Keflavik Airport (if the results are negative, they may continue with their travels); go into a two-week quarantine; or provide proof that they recently tested negative for COVID-19.

Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that is actually already following a system that’s in line with the European Commission’s guidance. It has identified a list of countries deemed lower risk based on data provided by the ECDC, and travelers from those countries do not need to quarantine (all other arrivals do).

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta has developed a “green list,” an “amber list,” and a “red list” classification for countries, according to Visit Malta. Travelers coming from countries on the green list will have a temperature screening at the airport and will be asked to fill out a health form. Those coming from amber countries must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR test carried out within 72 hours of boarding their flight to Malta. Random swab tests are being conducted upon arrival at the Malta International Airport. Travelers coming from countries on the red list, which includes the United States, must spend 14 days in a green or amber list country prior to arrival and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test as well.

On June 12, Turkey lifted its coronavirus travel restrictions entirely. International travelers can visit Turkey and will simply be subject to a medical screening upon arrival. Turkish Airlines currently offers flights to and from New York (JFK), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Houston.

The key takeaways

As avid and responsible travelers, we’re all worried about the same things above all—the safety and health of the global village that has become inextricably linked by this international public health crisis. As we wait and watch to see how different governments respond to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s also important for travelers to be real and honest with themselves regarding what they are comfortable with and the ways in which they can and would travel that would minimize their impact when moving through the world.

Perhaps the question isn’t when we will be able to travel to Europe, but when should we? And that is one that will in some ways remain in the hands of the pandemic itself and how it continues to play out, as well as with public health experts, government officials, and private enterprises all working together to find ways to help us live—and ultimately travel—safely in the age of coronavirus.

This story originally appeared on May 6, 2020, and was updated on October 21, 2020, to include current information.

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