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Everything you need to know about the new traffic light system for international travel

The UK government has formalised its traffic light system, which categorises travel destinations based on their coronavirus risk. How does it work, where can you go and will it bring a return to international travel this summer?

By Sarah Barrell
Published 12 May 2021, 16:26 BST
Currently, just 12 countries and territories are on the ‘green list’, which has been devised, the ...

Currently, just 12 countries and territories are on the ‘green list’, which has been devised, the government says, using coronavirus health metrics, including vaccination numbers, infection rates and prevalence of variants.

Photograph by Getty Images

International leisure travel is finally set to resume from 17 May, led by the government’s traffic light system, which ranks countries based on their risk of coronavirus risk, with ‘green’ countries deemed low risk, ‘amber’ medium risk and ‘red’ high risk. The government has said people shouldn’t travel to ‘amber’ and ‘red’ countries for leisure, although it remains unclear if or how this would be checked, and travellers falling into either category will still require coronavirus tests and quarantine on return to the UK. So, how does the system work? We break down the regulations and answer your questions. 

What do the travel traffic light colours mean?

Green list destinations: No quarantine on return to the UK unless you test positive for coronavirus. A pre-departure PCR test, up to 72 hours before return travel, and a single PCR test on or before day two of arrival into England.
Amber list destinations: You must quarantine at home for 10 days on return to the UK, in addition to paying for tests before you travel and on day two and day eight of your return. You shouldn’t travel to amber list countries or territories for leisure purposes.
Red list destinations: You must quarantine for 10 days in government-managed hotels, at a total cost of £1,750 per person, in addition to paying for tests, as with visiting ‘amber’ destinations. You shouldn’t travel to red list for leisure purposes.

Where can I travel on the green list?

Currently, just 12 countries and territories are on the ‘green list’, which has been devised, the government says, using coronavirus health metrics, including vaccination numbers, infection rates and prevalence of variants. These are Portugal, Israel, Gibraltar, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Brunei, the Falkland Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Plus, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha and St Helena, along with South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

When might more destinations be added to the green list?

The government’s next review, in early June, is expected to include Morocco, Malta, Finland and much of the Caribbean. Mainland Europe, including holiday hotspots like Spain, France, Italy and Greece are expected in subsequent reviews before peak season. There’s continued speculation over the US, currently on the amber list, despite its falling coronavirus rates and rising vaccination numbers. 

Read more: Which countries are welcoming UK travellers this summer?

How do I book a coronavirus test?

Tests, for leisure travel, must be booked through private providers, with costs varying, so shop around. And note: the country you’re travelling to will likely ask for proof of a negative coronavirus test and may stipulate the type of test it requires.

Is a trip to a ‘green’ destination guaranteed?

Not necessarily. Some green list countries, including Australia and New Zealand, remain closed to British travellers, and many will continue to place restrictions, including quarantine measures, and proof of negative tests and/or two coronavirus vaccination doses. Check current travel advice from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), both before booking and again before departure and return.

What happens if my destination changes from green to amber?

Lists will be reviewed every three weeks, rather than weekly, as it was last summer, and the government has said it will produce a ‘watchlist’ to identify countries and territories that are at risk of moving from green to amber, giving travellers a little more time to plan. But there is, of course, still a chance that your destination is downgraded, so budget accordingly for additional tests or quarantine, and book smart. Should FCDO advice change after you’ve booked, travel insurance can prove redundant and airlines often still serve ‘banned’ destinations. Package trips entitle you to a date or destination change, or a refund. But as we saw last year, some operators make this easier than others.

Should I consider travel to amber or red list destinations?

The government is discouraging this, plus it requires costly tests, and quarantine measures. Countries recently added to the 43 destinations on the red list include Maldives, Nepal and Turkey. Of course, as we’ve seen, people have avoided quarantine by travelling via indirect routes, or using stopovers in amber- or green-listed destinations, a key reason that critics of the traffic light system believe it won’t prevent coronavirus, including ‘variants of concern’ from crossing borders.

What can I expect at ports and airports? And how do I get a vaccine passport?

You can expect increased paperwork and delays. The government has warned passengers to expect longer queues at the border as additional checks are made. Along with your passport, and comprehensive travel insurance, those who’ve had two doses of a coronavirus vaccine should carry a ‘vaccine passport’ — now accessible through the NHS App. You can also request a paper version from the NHS by ringing 119. Certain destinations require arrivals to show proof of a negative coronavirus test, as does the UK on return, along with information required by quarantine measures, including government hotel booking references (for red list destinations) and/or proof of your home address.

Read more on travel insurance, flight vouchers and bookings during the Covid-19 pandemic

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