When the United Kingdom was part of the European Union taking a short trip or holiday in any of the EU countries was simply a matter of turning up at the airport or seaport with a valid passport. A British passport was sufficient to gain access to any of the EU member states as well as those Schengen countries that are not EU members. This situation still exists today but it is nearing an end as the EU prepares to roll out the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) in 2023.
Before EU Membership
Although the United Kingdom enjoyed strong trading links with the EU (or EEC as it was then called), its citizens were “outsiders” and could not simply enter or travel through the EU zone as they wished. Any European holiday, school excursion, business trip or family visit required a British visitor to possess not just a valid passport but also a visa. Applying for a visa was (and remains) a somewhat complicated and tedious procedure involving lots of form filling and collection of relevant documentation.
This European visa requirement remained in place until 1973 when the U.K. formally joined the EU as a member after a number of failed attempts in the previous decade. EU membership was not only a huge commercial success for Britain but it eliminated the need for its citizens to apply for a visa which made European travel more accessible and easier.
The EEC Years
Having joined the European Economic Community (EEC), Europe opened up to British business people and casual visitors. Although the United Kingdom never adopted the common currency unit of the EEC it was a full member and enjoyed all the advantages that entailed including visa-free travel within the European zone. A valid passport was sufficient proof of identity and this was only required at the points of departure and arrival within the EU.
Visa-free access to the vast majority of European countries brought about a significant increase in the number of British passport holders choosing to holiday in popular tourist destinations such as Spain, France, Greece and Cyprus although not all European countries allowed visa-free entry.
Four countries in Europe were signatories of the Schengen Agreement but had not signed up to join the EU. The four were Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein and, as the U.K. was not in the Schengen Zone, a visa was still a requirement for visiting these countries.
Brexit and Today
The British exit (Br-exit) from the European Union came into effect in February 2020. Since that date, EU laws no longer took precedence over British law and trade and travel agreements have had to be renegotiated. After Brexit, the U.K. became what is known as a “third country” and this has an impact on ordinary British citizens and how they can enter and travel through the remaining European Union member countries. Under EU laws, third country nationals (which includes most of the world) must possess either an ETIAS or appropriate Schengen Visa before even embarking on any trip any of the EU member states.
In theory, British passport holders wishing to visit the EU, for whatever reason or length of time, should be required to possess a visa (or some form of approval) to do so. As part of the Brexit agreement, however, the U.K. was granted a transition period and the situation regarding European travel has not changed from what it was when Britain was a member of the European Union.
As things stand all that is required for entering the EU is a valid passport and British passport holders are still entitled to remain within the EU for a maximum of 90 days in any given 180 day time frame. This rule applies to tourists and people visiting for holidays or on business trips. It is no longer possible for British citizens to simply move home and take up employment in the European Union unless the correct form of visa and documentary approval has been applied for and secured.
The Future and ETIAS
The benefit of visa-exempt travel to the European Union is soon to be a thing of the past as the EU prepares to roll out ETIAS = the European Travel Information and Authorisation System. ETIAS will be a mandatory condition of travel for approximately sixty countries who have previously enjoyed (or currently enjoy) visa-exempt travel to the EU. These sixty countries include the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
ETIAS was first set to come into force in 2021 but has been delayed and deferred on a number of occasions. It now seems the EU is determined that the system will be up and running in 2023 and come fully into effect in November of that year.
From this point on it will no longer be possible for British citizens to enter the European zone without ETIAS approval. Applying for an ETIAS can only be done online meaning that applicants without access to a computer and an email address are instantly facing a problem.
An ETIAS is not issued in paper format but is an electronic form of approval which is digitally linked to the applicant’s passport which can be accessed when scanned at any European border. However, before even getting to Europe, the passport will be checked at the point of departure in the United Kingdom and no ETIAS means no travel is permitted. For those who somehow avoid detection at the departure point there will be a second check on arrival in the EU where the lack of an ETIAS will be quickly detected and the passport holder promptly returned to the point of origin.
In short, from November 2023, European travel will not be possible for Britons who have not applied for (and received) an ETIAS. This is not just an inconvenience but can be a somewhat complicated process entailing filling out a very detailed questionnaire and tracking down personal documents pertaining to a medical or criminal history.
Another problem for Britons is the fact that an ETIAS is only valid for a period of three years and is currently set to cost €7.00 (£6.00).