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What it was like navigating Covid travel rules to get home to the UK from Germany

Like many people, the Local Germany reader Michelle Jung, who runs a childcare centre, had lots of ups and downs while trying to visit her home country of the UK this summer. Here's how confusing Covid travel rules affected her plans.

What it was like navigating Covid travel rules to get home to the UK from Germany
Michelle Jung with her mum after managing to get home to the UK. Photo courtesy of Michelle Jung.

I have lived in Germany for 26 years but this summer has been the most difficult and complicated year to get back to the UK and visit family. My summer plans were a mixture of excitement, worry, frustration and hours and hours of scouring the net for information!

The original plan was that my husband, who’s a teacher, and I drive over to the UK for three weeks. We wanted to have enough time to visit relatives and also spend time sightseeing this wonderful island. These plans kept us going through a very challenging school year. April, May and June passed and regulations in the UK were still pretty tight not allowing visitors, even if they were fully vaccinated, to visit the country without going into self-isolation.

Unlike Germany, there were no “special” regulations for families to be reunited and I had to face the fact that I was being treated just like millions of other European tourists. My British passport seemed irrelevant. As July approached we started to get unrestful – the summer holidays were looming ahead and we had nothing booked. We set a deadline for ourselves and if nothing had changed by the end of July we would scrap our plans to go the UK. My poor family in England were left dangling – are they coming or not?

READ ALSO: Better than I could have imaged – how foreigners feel about being able to travel to Germany

‘Gave up all hope’

With no change of restrictions by the end of July we gave up all hope of traveling to Britain. Going into self-isolation was not an option for us. I was feeling pretty despondent and as a comfort we spontaneously booked a non-refundable holiday travelling in Austria and Italy. As fully vaccinated travellers living in Germany this was no problem. I had just started to get excited about our new holiday plans when the British government finally got round to changing travel restrictions at the beginning of August.

Now I was in a mess! How can I go round travelling in Europe when I haven’t seen my family for over a year? I decided to spontaneously slot in a week’s visit to the UK before going on holiday to Austria.

I quickly booked a flight before all seats were taken and started the process of wading through regulations.

Michelle reunited with her mum, brother and sister. Photo courtesy of Michelle Jung.

The tricky part was flying on a Sunday but having a PCR test not older than 72 hours. How do I get my results at the doctor’s surgery at the weekend? Then I had to order an expensive PCR test in the UK for day two of my visit. Before the trip had even started I had spent nearly 200€ on tests. Good that I was travelling alone and not with my husband and three children.

Just before flying off to UK and anxiously awaiting my PCR test results, I discovered that Austria and Italy do not allow anyone to enter the country if they have been in  the UK  in the past 14 days. Great… we had to cancel our holiday and lose money. The long awaited summer holidays were turning into a disaster and my stress levels were pretty high.

READ ALSO: How travel to England from Germany has become stricter

Reunion with family 

Yet the unbelievable seemed to happen – I arrived in the UK safely and had a lovely reunion with my precious family. Everyone was happy but the trip was over-shadowed by coronavirus. My day two PCR test results came through half way through the week. Fortunately they were negative and so now the holiday could really begin. A day later a family member announced that she was ill and had tested positive. The rest of the family appointments were all cancelled and everyone had to do a PCR test and wait anxiously for results. My biggest worry was if I could get back to Germany.

And something else happened – on my second to last day in England I happened to read the latest issue of The Local on my phone and with horror discovered that people vaccinated with two different vaccines (Kreuzgeimpfte) aren’t counted as fully vaccinated in the UK (note from ed – these rules have now changed).
The bizarre thing is that UK citizens living in the UK don’t have to go into self-isolation after returning to the UK if they have had two different vaccinations. There are some things in life which are totally incomprehensible – UK Covid rules included! So I spent the last two days in the UK lurking around trying to avoid any attention or contact with authorities. When I finally got to Manchester airport to fly home I saw two fully armed policeman patrolling the halls. I was that stressed that I genuinely thought for a moment that they had come to arrest me! Sitting on the plane flying to Germany, I let out one big sigh of relief.
Michelle Jung takes a trip down memory lane by visiting her old school. Photo courtesy of Michelle Jung

Week three of my summer holidays: sitting here in Germany  after getting back from UK without having caught Covid. Needed a couple of days to recover from all the stress whilst travelling. My husband and I have spontaneously booked yet another holiday but just locally in Germany. After the booking confirmation came through, I discovered that Austria have yet again changed their travel restrictions and I can now enter their country. It’s not even worth thinking “what if….”

This summer holiday has been pretty exhausting and as I approach the end of it, I am feeling pretty drained when it comes to travel. I am almost looking forward to just getting back to work. As I write these lines I realise that I am complaining on a pretty high level and my problems are luxury problems. My family and I are all well and have managed to see one another. We have a house, plus work and peace in our country. Maybe my chaotic summer was there to teach my what really counts in life.

Member comments

  1. I shared some of Michelle’s worry and frustration but did have a rather easier ride over to UK, after postponing twice earlier in the summer. My ten-day trip at the beginning of this month was to visit family and friends for the first time in over a year, especially to see how my 97-yo mum was faring. As it happens, I saw everyone I wanted to except mum. After dodging the virus for eighteen months, it finally broke through the defences of her care home. Most of the residents and staff were infected and were forced to adopt a strict isolation policy with no visitors allowed. Fortunately, they’d all been double vaccinated and have recovered remarkably well, but the curfew was only lifted on the day after my return to Germany.

    I did have a momentary wobble when the passport officer at Frankfurt airport asked the purpose of my visit. My reply “I live here” brought a request to see my ID card and Covid-pass, swiftly flashed and sailed through to get back home.

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TRAVEL NEWS

‘Double processing time’: Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Germany, Austria and another of other countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

'Double processing time': Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors. EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 member states to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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