Europe’s borders are closed to foreign travelers, including Americans. This post covers when travel will reopen to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the European Schengen Area (including Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Austria, etc.) based on EU Commission criteria, plus the likelihood of vaccine passports to lift the travel ban. (Updated April 14, 2021.)
Back when all of this began one year ago, European Union leaders agreed that travel lockdowns and other coordinated restrictive measures were necessary to save lives. This was pretty consistent with the rest of the world, and what amounted to more or less an across the board travel ban on most foreigners entering Europe remained in place through summer.
On July 1 of last year, the European Union began welcoming back travelers from a list of countries approved by its leaders. This list has subsequently been updated with countries both added and removed based on the criteria and conditions set out in the recommendation. The only countries on this list are Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and China (subject to confirmation of reciprocity) as of April 2021.
This list of approved countries will continue to be reviewed by the European Commission and, as the case may be, updated every two weeks. Additionally, residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican should be considered European Union residents for the purpose of the recommendation to lift travel restrictions.
The European Commission has proposed that EU Member States apply a well-coordinated, predictable, and transparent approach to travel restrictions in the European Union. This includes a color-coded mapping system that provides for travel restrictions based on common criteria.
While the express purpose of these common criteria is to provide predictability for European Union residents to understand limitations on the restriction of free movement within the EU, they will also be used as the basis for travel restrictions on arrivals to the European Union.
Accordingly, they are useful but still inconclusive metrics for determining what’s necessary for the United States to be added to the aforementioned list of countries whose residents are allowed to resume travel to Europe.
The European Commission has proposed that each Member State takes into account the following criteria when putting in place or lifting any restrictive measures for residents other countries:
- Not more than 25 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days
- A stable or decreasing trend of new cases over this period in comparison to the previous 14 days
- More than 300 tests per 100,000 people in the previous 7 days
- Not more than 4% test positivity in the previous 7 days
- The nature of the virus present in a country, in particular whether variants of concern have been detected
Note that these criteria were originally established last summer, revised in October, and most recently updated again in February 2021.
Additionally, the European Council recently agreed that in locations where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly, and “in particular, where a high incidence of variants of concern of the virus is detected,” travel restrictions may be rapidly reintroduced.
In the same circumstances, member states may also limit temporarily the categories of essential travelers. Travel justified by compelling reasons should still remain possible.
Beyond that, countries should require persons traveling for any essential or non-essential reason to have a negative PCR test taken at the earliest 72 hours before departure. Self-isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing, as well as further testing, may also be required for a period of up to 14 days after traveling. as needed during the same period.
In particular, quarantine and additional testing upon or after arrival should be imposed in particular to those travelers arriving from a third country where a variant of concern of the virus has been detected.
Let’s start with the good news: the United States numbers are improving across the board. After almost a year of being among the worst developed nations in the world, the United States is benefitting from accelerated vaccine rollout and high population immunity thanks to prior infections. Vaccinations in the United Kingdom are also moving swiftly, which bodes well for a resumption of UK-USA travel.
Unfortunately, that’s not the scenario that’s playing out in much of Europe. Countries throughout the EU are now experiencing a third wave of the pandemic. New restrictions have been implemented or are under consideration, with some countries planning national lockdowns through Easter. This is due to a mix of more transmissible variants and vaccination rates that lag significantly behind the United Kingdom.
While the immediate future isn’t so bright, the European Union still has plans to move forward and reopen. Last month, EU leaders backed a proposal for “Digital Green Certificates” to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the European Union that will be valid in all member states.
These vaccine passports will be valid for those with approved vaccinations (Pfizer/BioNtech, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson), those who have tested negative, or have immunity after contracting the disease and recovering.
The vaccine passports will be available in digital and paper-based format, with QR codes utilized so that personal data is safe and secure. The Digital Green Certificates will be free of charge, and issued in national languages and English. National authorities are in charge of issuing the certificate in each country, meaning they could be issued hospitals, test centers, or health authorities.
The goal of these vaccine passports is to help smooth a return to air travel and avoid another disastrous summer holiday season, as the tourism industry and European economies suffer from restrictions.
It’s important to note that the Digital Green Certificate is to facilitate travel within the European Union, not into it.
However, EU officials have also stated that they plan to publish a proposal in the next few weeks for lifting restrictions for travelers entering from outside the bloc. The specifics are still up in the air, but they’re widely believed to entail a vaccine passport approach similar to the Digital Green Certificate.
The European Travel Commission has expressed optimism about the return of international traveling, stating that they expect the United States and European Union to reach a reciprocity agreement to recognize vaccine and testing status. This would first require vaccination rollout improvements and a lifting of lockdowns, as tourism is not feasible until internal movement is allowed.
Some travel companies are even more optimistic. For example, easyJet anticipates that most of Europe will be open for travel this summer, and has announced plans to operate significantly increased flights from late May 2021 onwards. Travel operators believe it will be necessary for numerous countries to reopen for summer travel as their economies are dependent upon it.
Ultimately, there is no definitive answer to the question: when will Europe reopen to American tourists?
Right now, the target date for rolling out vaccine passports within Europe is June 2021, in time for summer vacation season. Our expectation at this point is that vaccine rollout continues to proceed on its current trajectory in the United States, while improving throughout the European Union as supply ramps up. Accordingly, it seems possible that vaccine passports could also be figured out for international travel by June 2021–maybe July 2021 if it takes longer to iron out reciprocity agreements.
However, a lot remains to be seen with regard to subsequent waves or spikes, ongoing vaccination rollout, whether variants undermine progress, and more. That applies to both the United States and the European Union. If countries there see a spike, a tightening of travel restrictions could occur. If the EU further improves, greater loosening might happen.
Our optimistic expectation is continuing improvements for the United States, with Europe lagging a couple of months behind. This is already what has happened in the United Kingdom and Israel, where high vaccination rates have proven effective at reducing case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. The vaccines should effectively bring about an end to the pandemic.
Ultimately, while it’s unlikely Americans will be allowed to reenter the European Union before summer, there are a variety of destinations to which we can travel, both with and without restrictions. Moreover, other countries will likely open sooner rather than later depending upon a mix of their tourism dependence and vaccination numbers. The best prospect there is the United Kingdom, but now it’s looking increasing likely that the rest of Europe won’t be too far behind.
Our expectation at this point is that Americans probably will not be able to resume travel to Europe until June 2021 at the earliest due to the trajectory of the pandemic in those countries and slower rate of vaccinations. By that point, we’re hopeful that cases will have sufficiently declined, vaccines will have been sufficiently distributed, and vaccine passports will be rolled out to ease up travel restrictions. More pessimistically, some borders could remain closed until 2022 if resuming travel normalcy is not a priority or variants continue to raise red flags. Of course, time will tell!
If you’re planning a visit to Europe, we recommend a comprehensive guide, such as Rick Steves’ Best of Europe. Additionally, check out our Ultimate Guide to Paris, France or Ultimate French Riviera Vacation Guide if you’re heading to those destinations.
Would you consider visiting Europe in Summer 2021 if it’s an option? Do you think international travel will resume once vaccine rollout sufficiently reduces case numbers, or will countries wait until herd immunity has been achieved? Are you reassured at all by the declining case numbers and positivity in the United States and United Kingdom? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!