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Moving to Germany: How I’ve kept my long distance relationship alive during the pandemic and Brexit

When Charlotte Hall first moved to Berlin, she thought her partner back in the UK would come soon after. But Covid-19 regulations and new post-Brexit laws have led to a more complicated situation.

Moving to Germany: How I've kept my long distance relationship alive during the pandemic and Brexit
Charlotte Hall with her boyfriend James in Berlin in January 2020 before the pandemic hit. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hall.

On a sunny day at the end of August 2020, I moved to Berlin from England for my year abroad. In the summer glow of buzzing streets and parks, Covid seemed like a fever-dream I’d woken up from as soon as I left the airport. 

Besides masks indoors and the clubs, which had opened as beer-gardens and pubs, it was more or less business-as-usual in the capital (at least, so far as a stranger to the city could tell). Perhaps this is what lulled me into a very – I repeat very – false sense of security concerning the pandemic. Though, perhaps I was just blinded by the excitement of being somewhere completely new after six months of being indoors. 

The plan was: I would move into my apartment in Neukölln, start establishing my life here, and a couple of months later, my boyfriend, James, would quit his job in the U.K. and move out to join me. I’ll admit right now that I was being naive. I just had no inkling, at the time, of exactly how naive. 

READ ALSO: Love in the time of Corona: How couples in Germany can connect during a time of flux

Of course, this didn’t happen. Within a matter of weeks, the infection, case and death rates were skyrocketing in both England and Germany. In the UK, numbers overshot the figures that had scared us in April by almost double, then triple – and that was just the beginning of October. England started going into lockdown and travel abroad was banned. 

Germany also began to think about tightening measures, and travel was strongly discouraged unless essential.

The combination of – and I emphasise, necessary, Covid-19 restrictions banning all international travel out of the UK and the final Brexit deadline coming into effect on December 31st 2020 has been a fatal one for our reunion. 

At Christmas, sandwiched between 10-day isolations either side and a relay race of Covid tests – I was able to go home and then return to Berlin a month later. The privilege of my German passport (thanks mum) and my Anmeldung (the crash-course in German bureaucracy most expats will experience upon first moving to the country) were what made this intra-pandemic round-trip possible and legal.

For James, it’s a different story. With no official registration in Germany, and no claim to EU citizenship, he’s not allowed to cross the border at the moment. 

READ ALSO: Post Brexit visa rules: How can Brits move to Germany in 2021 and beyond?

When he does, it will be on a 90-day visa-free visit. The pencilled-in date for lifting travel restrictions in England is May 17th – which will make it almost six months since I have seen my boyfriend in person and almost 11 months since I lived with him. 

Charlotte Hall and James. Photo: DPA

‘What if we just get married?’

Needless to say: it’s been difficult. 

We are, of course, not the only couple whose shared lives have been completely uprooted by the pandemic. Plenty of couples grappled with being thrown into, essentially, long-distance relationships, even when they just lived on opposite sides of town. The Brexit element just adds a prospective longevity to the situation that hangs heavy on both our hearts. 

During a phone call, James exasperatedly suggested “well, what if we just get married?” Which was, of course, a joke – not to mention the least romantic proposal I could possibly imagine. But it sums up the bizarreness of the situation pretty accurately.

Sustaining a relationship across Brexit-borders, during a pandemic, requires a lot of creativity, and above all, an openness to digital improv. Another delightful element of the post-Brexit world is the humongous VAT and import tax on mail. So you can go ahead and ignore the listicles online that advocate for love-letters and regular gifts-by-mail to spice up long distance relationships (unless you have some money to throw away). 

READ ALSO: How to cope with stress and anxiety during the corona crisis in Germany

From video-call Valentine’s brunch to (more-or-less) synchronised date-night cooking, arguing over text, simultaneous series-bingeing and sleepy late-night calls that end in one party snoring into the mic, my main advice is: fake it til you escape it. Simulate a life of togetherness as much as you possibly can. It’s a bittersweet loving, for now.  

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BREXIT

How roaming charges will hit travellers between the UK and EU in 2022

Trips between Europe and the UK and vice versa may well become more expensive for many travellers in 2022 as UK mobile operators bring back roaming charges. However there is some good news for all EU residents.

People look at their mobile phones.
How travellers between the EU and UK could be hit by roaming charges in 2022 (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

EU ‘roams like at home’ at least until 2032

First the good news. The European Union is set to decide to extend free roaming until 2032, so if you have your phone contract registered in an EU country you don’t have to worry about extra charges.

In addition to waiving the charges, the new regulation aims to ensure that travellers benefit of the same quality of service they have at home when travelling within the EU. If they have a 5G contract, for instance, they should also get 5G through the EU if possible. 

Under new rules, travellers should be given information about access to emergency services, including for people with disabilities.

Consumers should also be protected from prohibitive bills caused by inadvertent roaming on satellite networks when travelling on ferries or aeroplanes.

The final text of the new regulation was provisionally agreed in December. The European Parliament and Council will formally endorse it in the coming weeks.

UK companies reintroducing roaming charges this year

And now the bad news for travellers to the EU from the UK

Customers of UK mobile phone operators face higher fees when travelling in Europe this year, as some companies are bringing back roaming charges for calls, text messages and data downloaded during temporary stays in the EU.

This is one of the many consequences of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s “roam like at home” initiative which was designed to avoid shocking bills after holidays or business trips abroad.

The EU’s roaming regulation allows people travelling in the European Economic Area (EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to make calls, send texts and browse the web using their regular plans at no extra cost. Switzerland is not part of the scheme, although some mobile phone providers offer roaming deals or special prices to cover travel in Switzerland.

Under EU rules, if the plan’s allowance is exceeded, the roaming fee is also capped at €0.032 per minute of voice call, €0.01 per SMS and €2.5 + VAT per gigabyte downloaded in 2022 (it was €3 + VAT in 2021). The wholesale price networks can charge each other is capped too.

The regulation was adopted for an initial period of five years and is due to expire on June 30th 2022. But the EU is preparing to extend it for another ten years. This time, however, the UK will not be covered. 

Which UK companies are reintroducing charges?

Three major UK network operators this year will reintroduce roaming charges for travels in the EU.

As of January 6th 2022, Vodafone UK will charge customers with monthly plans started after August 11th 2021 £2 per day to roam in the EU. The amount can be reduced to £1 per day by purchasing a pass for 8 or 15 days. Free roaming continues for earlier contracts, Data Xtra plans and for travels to Ireland.  

From March 3rd 2022, EE will also charge £2 per day to roam in 47 European locations, Ireland excluded. The new policy will apply to plans started from July 7th 2021. Alternatively, EE offers the Roam Abroad Pass, which allows roaming abroad for a month for £10. 

Another operator that announced a £2 daily fee to roam in the EEA, except for Ireland, is Three UK. The charge will apply from May 23rd 2022 for plans started or upgraded since October 1st 2021. The data allowance in monthly plans that can be used abroad is also capped at 12 gigabytes. 

O2 already introduced in August last year a 25-gigabyte cap (or less if the plan’s allowance is lower) to data that can be downloaded for free while travelling in Europe. Above that, customers are charged £3.50 per gigabyte. 

Other mobile operators said they have no intention to bring back roaming charges in the short term, but if won’t be surprising if they do so in the future. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at UK consumer organisation Which? was disappointed at the changes and urged the UK and EU to “strike a deal on roaming charges” to stop companies “chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to” and “prevent the return of the excessive charges people used to encounter.” 

By law, charges for mobile data used abroad remain capped at £45 per month and consumers can only continue data roaming only if they actively chose to keep spending. 

What about EU residents travelling to the UK?

In the EU, most mobile phone operators seem keen to continue free roaming for travels to the UK, but some have announced changes too.

In Sweden, Telenor aligned UK’s prices to those of non-EEA countries on May 1st 2021 while still allowing free roaming for some plans. 

Another Swedish operator, Telia, ended free roaming with the UK and Gibraltar on September 13th 2021 giving customers the option to access 200 megabytes of data for SEK 99 per day. People travelling to the UK can also buy a weekly pass allowing to make calls, send texts and download 1 GB of data. 

In Germany Telefónica Deutschland and 1 & 1 have extended current conditions for the UK until at least the end of 2022. However companies may keep other options open depending on negotiations with roaming partners. 

A1 Telekom Austria brought roaming charges back for the UK last June. Customers now have to pay €2.49 per minute for outgoing calls and €1.49 per minute for incoming calls if they are in the UK or Gibraltar. An SMS costs 99 cents and each 100 KB of data €1.49. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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