To slow down the spread of coronavirus and protect the health and well-being of all Europeans, some travel restrictions have been necessary. The European Commission is doing its utmost to allow people to meet friends and family and to ensure free movement of citizens, goods and services – with full respect of health and safety measures.
Safely resuming travel
On 15 June 2020, the European Commission launched Re-open EU, an online platform that contains essential information about the safe relaunch of free movement and tourism across Europe. It provides information on
- available means of transport
- travel restrictions
- public health and safety measures, such as physical distancing or wearing of facemasks
- other practical information for travellers
Re-open EU also brings together up-to-date information from the Commission and Member States. It allows people to browse country-specific information through an interactive map, offering updates on applicable national measures, as well as practical advice for visitors in that country. Available in the 24 official EU languages, the platform is easily accessible on desktop and mobile by following and bookmarking the Re-open EU link: https://reopen.europa.eu/
A mobile Re-open EU application should launch in the coming weeks
Mobile contact tracing applications
Contact tracing and warning apps can be voluntarily installed and used to warn users if they have been in the proximity of a person who is reported to have been tested positive for coronavirus. In the case of an alert, the app may provide relevant information from health authorities, such as advice to get tested or to self-isolate, and who to contact.
Mobile contact tracing apps can help speed up traditional contact tracing and save precious hours of work for public health staff tracing the chain of infection.
A common approach to travel measures
On 13 October, EU Member States adopted a Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This Recommendation is based on the Commission’s proposal adopted on 4 September.
The Recommendation sets out four key areas where Member States will coordinate their efforts
- a common mapping system based on a colour code (green, orange, red, grey)
- common criteria for Member States when deciding whether to introduce travel restrictions
- more clarity on the measures applied to travellers from higher-risk areas (testing and self-quarantine)
- providing clear and timely information to the public.
The Commission calls on Member States to fully implement the Recommendation
Restrictions on travel to the EU
The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a Council Recommendation on 25 June to lift travel restriction for countries agreed by Member States. This was done on the basis of a set of principles and objective criteria including
- the health situation
- the ability to apply containment measures during travel
- reciprocity considerations
- data from relevant sources such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organisation.
The European Council has adopted a Recommendation on the gradual lifting of the temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU on 30 June. Travel restrictions were lifted for countries listed in the recommendation. The list is updated, in principle, every two weeks.
Based on the criteria and conditions set out in the Recommendation, and on the updated list published by the Council on 22 October, Member States should start lifting the travel restrictions at the external borders for residents of the following third countries:
- New Zealand
- South Korea
- China, including the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao, subject to confirmation of reciprocity
Residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican should be considered EU residents for the purpose of the recommendation.
While the restrictions on non-essential travel and their lifting depend on the traveller’s place of residence, the visa requirement continues to depend on nationality. If a traveller resides in a country where restrictions have been lifted, but is a national of a visa-required country, he or she must apply at the consulate of the Member State to which he wishes to travel to, in his or her country of residence.
For all other third countries not on this list, Member States and Schengen Associated countries are temporarily suspending all non-essential travel from those third countries to the EU+ area, meaning that only certain categories of travellers could be authorised for entry. The “EU+ area” includes 30 countries: 26 out of the 27 EU Member States as well as the four Schengen Associated States: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Ireland does not currently apply the travel restriction.
As the epidemiological situation inside and outside the EU evolves and travel restrictions at the EU’s external borders are gradually being lifted, visa operations have also resumed gradually. On 11 June 2020, the Commission published guidance for a phased and coordinated resumption of visa operations.
The rules for applying for a short-stay visa remain unchanged. Member States’ consulates and external service providers have however, adapted practical aspects of access management, hygiene measures, payment methods etc. Appropriate information on the procedure to follow for lodging an application should be provided to applicants.
Information on travel restrictions in place should be made available on the websites of the relevant national authorities (e.g. Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs). A daily summary of flight and passenger restrictions is available on the Eurocontrol website, titled ‘Covid Notam (notice to airmen) summary’.
Exemptions from restrictions on travel to the EU
The following categories of persons are exempt from the temporary travel restriction to the EU+ area from third countries that are not on the list agreed by the Member States:
(a) EU citizens and nationals of Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as their respective family members;
(b) third-country nationals who are long-term residents under the Long-term Residence Directive, or deriving their right to reside from other EU Directives or national law, or who hold national long-term visas, as well as their respective family members.
The temporary travel restrictions should also not apply to people with an essential function or need, including
- healthcare professionals, health researchers, and elderly care professionals
- frontier workers
- seasonal workers in agriculture
- transport personnel
- diplomats, staff of international organisations and people invited by international organisations whose physical presence is required for the well-functioning of these organisations, military personnel and humanitarian aid workers and civil protection personnel in the exercise of their functions
- passengers in transit
- passengers travelling for imperative family reasons
- persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons
- third-country nationals travelling for the purpose of study
- highly qualified third-country workers if their employment is necessary from an economic perspective and the work cannot be postponed or performed abroad
On 28 October, the Commission adopted a Communication offering guidance on persons exempted from the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU. With this document, the Commission intends to help Member States in ensuring a more consistent approach as regards the implementation of Council Recommendation 2020/912 of 30 June 2020.
The Commission encourages Member States to facilitate the reunion of people in durable relationships who can provide evidence of their situation.
Passenger and traveller rights
Passengers and travellers can be assured that their rights are protected. The European Commission has published interpretative guidelines on how certain provisions of the EU passenger rights legislation should be applied in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. This is to ensure clarity and legal certainty in the application of passenger rights.
At the same time, the guidelines clarify that the current circumstances are “extraordinary”, e.g. compensation may not be paid in case of flight cancellation less than two weeks before the departure date.
Under EU rules, passengers and travellers have the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for cancelled transport tickets (plane, train, bus/coach and ferries) or package travel. While reaffirming this right, the Commission recommendation of 13 May 2020 aims to ensure that vouchers become a viable and more attractive alternative to reimbursement for cancelled trips in the context of the current pandemic, which has also put heavy financial strains on travel operators.
You can find a list of all the national authorities that issue travel advice here.
Advice for consumers in Europe
The European Consumer Centre Network provides advice and assistance to citizens on consumers’ rights on cross-border issues. This includes hotel or travel bookings affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Information on resolving consumer disputes is also available here.
EU consumer law does not regulate the conditions for, and the consequences of, cancellation of events or individual services (sports and cultural events, car rentals, accommodation arrangements, etc.). Therefore, your rights as a consumer depend on the respective national contract law and the type and terms of your contract, including the stated cancellation policy of the service provider (e.g. refundable or non-refundable booking).
Standard contract terms used by traders have to be transparent and must not unfairly limit the rights of consumers under the relevant national contract law.
Consular assistance for EU citizens abroad
Under EU law, citizens are entitled to seek help from the embassy or consulate of any EU country other than their own if they find themselves in a situation where they need assistance outside the EU, with no available embassy or consulate from their own Member State.
The European Commission and the European External Action Service help in bringing home stranded EU citizens from all over the world, while Member States issue advice about how to handle the travel restrictions. EU citizens in need of assistance outside the EU are encouraged to contact their Member State.
Overstay caused by travel restrictions
In the context of the coronavirus outbreak, visa holders present in the Schengen area who could not leave before the expiry date of their short-stay visa have had their visa extended up to a maximum stay of 90/180 days by the designated Member States’ authorities. If the visa holders were compelled to stay beyond the extended period of 90/180 days, a national long-stay visa or a temporary residence permit should have been issued by the national authorities.
Member States are encouraged to waive administrative sanctions or penalties on third-country nationals who during the period of travel restrictions were unable to leave their territory due to travel restrictions. Overstays due to the temporary travel restrictions should not be taken into account during the processing of future visa applications.
Nationals of visa-waived third countries who have remained in the Schengen area beyond the permitted 90-day stay
For nationals of visa-waived third-countries who are compelled to stay beyond the extended 90/180 days, the competent national authorities should extend the validity of the authorisations for legal stay, issue a new one or take other appropriate measures that ensure a continued right to stay on their territory. Information is available on the websites of Member States’ national authorities.
Expired travel documents due to an unexpectedly extended stay abroad
EU citizens and their family members who are not in possession of a valid passport and/or visa should be allowed to enter the EU territory, if they can prove by other means that they are EU citizens or family members of an EU citizen. Possession of an expired passport should be deemed to constitute proof by other means in the current situation. Family members should always be able to prove that they are family members of the EU citizen.
Exemption categories as concerns travel to the EU
Critical and seasonal workers
Temporary travel restrictions should not apply to people with an essential function or need, including seasonal workers.
To allow for continued professional activity despite the temporary travel restrictions, the Commission has issued guidelines concerning the exercise of the free movement of workers during the coronavirus pandemic to facilitate border crossings of essential workers, particularly in the health care and food sectors, and other essential services (e.g. health care professionals, personal care workers, food manufacturers and seasonal workers).
In addition, to ensure that the rights, health and safety or seasonal workers are protected, on 16 July the Commission presented Guidelines on seasonal workers in the EU in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The document provides guidance to national authorities, labour inspectorate and social partners, and helps ensure that seasonal workers across the EU know their rights.
Temporary travel restrictions should not apply to people travelling with an essential function or need, including healthcare professionals, health researchers, and elderly-care professionals.
The temporary travel restriction must exempt all EU citizens and nationals of Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as their family members.
According to the Council Recommendation on the temporary restriction of non-essential travel into the EU, the restrictions must exempt nationals of all EU Member States and Schengen Associated States and third-country nationals with a right of residence, as well as their family members.
Member States can require such persons to undergo quarantine upon return from a third country that is not on the list of Annex I to the Council Recommendation, provided they impose the same requirements on their own nationals.
For family members of EU citizens who have exercised their right to free movement, in particular those who reside in a Member State other than that of their nationality, the Council Recommendation’s definition of who is a family member must correspond to the definition in the Free Movement Directive.
According to the Free Movement Directive, a Member State must facilitate entry of unmarried partners with whom EU citizens “have a durable relationship, duly attested”. Member States are required to confer a certain advantage on applications submitted by such partners compared with applications for entry for other third country nationals.
Such unmarried partners may be required to present documentary evidence that they are partners of an EU citizen and that the partnership is durable. Evidence may be adduced by any appropriate means.
National rules on durability of partnerships can refer to a minimum length of time as a criterion for whether a partnership can be considered as durable. However, in this case national rules need to foresee that other relevant aspects (such as for example a joint mortgage to buy a home) are also taken into account.
Members of a registered partnership that is equivalent to marriage in the country where it was registered must be treated like spouses.
For family members of EU citizens who have not exercised their right to free movement, the definition of a family member in the Free Movement Directive does not apply. However, according to the information available to the Commission, many Member States intend to adopt a similar practice for unmarried partners of EU citizens who have not exercised their right to free movement.
The temporary travel restrictions should not apply to transport personnel. This category should be interpreted broadly.
Persons claiming asylum/ Asylum seekers
The temporary travel restrictions should not apply to travel by people with an essential need, including persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons.
Students who are third-country citizens
This exception covers third-country students starting or continuing their studies in the EU in the academic year 2020/2021. This exception must cover students who are defined as “a third-country national who has been accepted by a higher education institution and is admitted to the territory of a Member State to pursue as main activity a full-time course of study leading to a higher education qualification recognised by that Member State, including diplomas, certificates or doctoral degrees in a higher education institution, which may cover a preparatory course prior to such education, in accordance with national law or compulsory training.” The exception may also cover third-country nationals coming for the purpose of study but who do not fall under this definition (for example, pupils or students attending secondary schools, language schools, boarding schools or vocational schools, exchange pupils, etc.).
Workers who are third-country citizens
This exception covers workers who are third country citizens and who are needed to contribute to the EU’s post-coronavirus economic recovery due to their high level of skills and knowledge. It may include those whose application for permits as researchers, or under a national scheme for skilled migrants was approved, but who were until now prevented from entering the EU due to the entry ban.
Irish citizens (and residents)
Although Ireland is not a member of the Schengen area, all EU citizens and their family members must be exempt from the temporary travel restriction.
United Kingdom citizens
United Kingdom nationals are to be treated the same as EU citizens until the end of the Brexit transition period (31 December 2020). Therefore, during that period United Kingdom nationals and their family members are exempt from the temporary travel restriction.
Transit through other EU Member States (road transit or airport transfer)
EU citizens entering the EU from a third country, as well as their family members, irrespective of their nationality, are exempted from the travel restrictions regardless of whether or not they are returning to their country of nationality or residence.
Transit through airports located in an EU Member State or Schengen Associated States
Passengers travelling from a non-EU country to another non-EU country may transit through the international transit area of airports located in the Schengen area. Rules regarding airport transit visa requirements continue to apply.