Many aspects of the UK and the European Union’s future relationship remain uncertain – but we already know some things will change from 1 January 2021.
Here are some of the most important things for individual citizens to think about, and others which still remain unresolved.
1. European trips will need more planning
From January, to visit any EU country – or Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – make sure you have:
- At least six months left on your passport – except for trips to Ireland, which is part of the
- Travel insurance with health cover, because the European Health Insurance Card will no longer be valid as things stand
- Any extra driving documents you might need – depending on where you’re going. This could include a “green card” from your insurer to prove your car is covered for driving abroad
- Checked with your vet – four months before you travel – for the latest guidance about taking your pet or assistance dog abroad. The current pet passport scheme in England, Scotland and Wales – and Pet Travel Scheme in Northern Ireland – will no longer apply
- Checked with your mobile provider. The guarantee of free roaming will end, but no UK mobile firm currently plans to bring back the charges
2. You’ll stand in a different queue at borders
At border control, you should use separate lanes from EU, EEA and Swiss citizens. Be prepared to show your return ticket and prove you have enough money for your stay.
Tourists will be able to travel without a visa to Schengen area countries – which includes most EU nations and Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein – for up to 90 days in any 180-day period.
So, a four-day long weekend in Portugal at Easter, followed by a fortnight in France in June, would count as 18 days towards your 90-day limit.
From 2022, UK nationals must pay for an electronic authorisation to travel to the Schengen area – similar to the ESTA system in the US.
For countries outside the Schengen zone, the rules are similar – but check with the individual country.
Business travellers will have more to do and may also need a visa.
3. Duty-free shopping will return
Duty-free shopping will be available if you travel to the EU from 2021.
When the UK was an EU member, you were allowed to bring unlimited amounts of alcohol and tobacco back from an EU country without paying any duty at the border as long as duty had been paid in the country where you bought it and you could prove it was for your own use.
There will now be limits to the amount you can bring in duty-free from the EU, as there are for arrivals from non-EU countries.
But that amount of tobacco and alcohol will increase, so you will be able to bring 18 litres of still wine and 42 litres of beer, for example.
However there will no longer be tax-free airport sales of goods such as electronics and clothing.
VAT refunds for overseas visitors in UK shops will also be removed.
4. Moving to the EU? Expect more paperwork
From 1 January, free movement of people between the UK and the EU will end.
If you’re already living in an EU country, you will have certain protections under the withdrawal agreement.
But even then, you should check that country’s specific rules. You may need to register or apply for residency, get new documents, or meet specific requirements – like having a job.
For example, UK nationals living or planning to live in France will need to obtain new residents’ permits.
If you plan to move to the EU in 2021, check the rules for each country.
People planning to move to Ireland will be largely unaffected, but rules on driving with a UK licence there may change if there is not a deal done with the EU.
5. New rules for EU citizens living in the UK
If you’re an EU citizen living in the UK by 31 December 2020 – or from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland – your rights will remain the same until 30 June 2021.
Again, because of the Common Travel Area, rights of Irish citizens will not change.
6. There’ll be a new immigration system
From January, there’ll be a new points-based system for foreign citizens (except Irish nationals) wanting to move to the UK.
The government says it’ll treat EU and non-EU citizens equally and will aim to attract people who can contribute to the UK economy.
People wanting to move to the UK to work, live or study will have to apply, and pay for, a visa.
It will cost £348 to apply for a student visa from outside the UK, or £475 to extend or switch one from inside the UK.
Applying for a visa for a skilled worker will cost between £610 and £1,408 per person unless they have skills that the country is short of.
They will also have to pay a health surcharge of £624 per person per year, unless they are healthcare workers.
EU, EEA and Swiss citizens won’t require a visa for tourist visits to the UK of up to six months.
There’s also guidance for UK nationals living abroad planning to return home with family members who aren’t UK citizens.
7. Trade will be different, inside and outside the UK
England, Wales and Scotland
Some products, including plants, live animals and some foods, will also need special licences and certificates. Others will have to be labelled in specific ways.
But in response to the devastating impact of the Covid crisis on many businesses, the UK government has chosen to delay by six months the imposition of full controls on goods entering Great Britain from the EU, although there will still be checks for controlled substances.
Some details on what Northern Ireland businesses should do, and how goods can move around, have been published – but the government concedes there’s still some uncertainty.
It says there’ll be full guidance by the end of December.
The UK and EU have agreed to keep an all-but-invisible border, without checkpoints, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It means Northern Irish businesses can trade freely with the EU from 2021 without new paperwork or checks.
There’ll be a little bit more paperwork for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). But the government says its proposed Internal Market Bill – which controversially would give ministers power to change aspects of the EU withdrawal agreement – would make things easier.
Discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol are ongoing – but there’s likely to be more regulation for items moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, than for trade going the other way.
What is still to be resolved?
Aside from trade, officials are trying to agree other things including:
- Access to fishing waters
- Licensing and regulation of medicines
- Law enforcement, data sharing and security
There’s also the matter of how influential the European Court of Justice might be in the wording of any final agreement.
If there’s no deal, the UK would have to trade with the EU from 1 January 2021 under basic World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
If you move to an EU country (except Ireland), Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein or Switzerland from January, it’s unclear if UK pensions claimed in those countries will be uprated (increased) each year as they would be if you were still in the UK.
Also, some benefits may only be paid for a limited time.
The government says it’s seeking to maintain arrangements in some areas, but rules are still to be finalised.
If you’re already living in the EU, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein or Switzerland by 31 December, the situation is clearer.
You’ll be covered by the withdrawal agreement and will receive any UK benefits and state pension increases as long as you stay living in the same country. You’ll also be able to start claiming a UK pension from 1 January.
Meanwhile, British people living in the EU with UK bank accounts should check for changes from January.
BBC Radio 4’s Money Box says many expats have been told their accounts will be closed if they don’t have a UK address.
People who are already studying in an EU member state by the end of December should still be entitled to broadly the same ongoing support as students from that country.
But they will need to make sure they meet all visa requirements for their destination country if they travel there after 1 January 2021.
Guidance is under review – but if you’re starting a course from January you should contact your prospective EU university to see whether the situation is likely to change.
You should also consider healthcare and travel insurance.
UK nationals planning to study in the Republic of Ireland will continue to be covered by the Common Travel Area arrangements.
The government has also published guidance for EU students in the UK.