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Travel between the UK and EU after the Brexit transition period

Posted on 9 October 2020

The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020 and entered an 11 month transition period (sometimes called the implementation period) which will end on 31 December 2020. Talks continue on the future relationship between the EU and UK with only a few weeks remaining for many issues to be resolved.

Though much has been written as to the effects on trade in goods if no free trade agreement is reached between the UK and EU, less has been written about travel – many take it for granted that they will be able to fly to continental Europe or catch a Eurostar train as they have always done. This article looks at some of the issues surrounding travel and the new restrictions that may arise.

Air transport

During the transition period, the UK has remained part of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the previous regulatory framework has continued to apply. This will cease after 31 December 2020. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has signalled an intent to recognise current EASA certificates, approvals and licences for use in the UK aviation system and on a UK-registered aircraft, for at least two years following the end of the transition period. However, in a notice to stakeholders dated 16 March 2020, the European Commission noted that certificates issued before the end of the transition period by the competent authorities of the UK will no longer be valid in the EU as of the end of the transition period. This concerns certificates that govern the lawfulness of planes themselves as well as the pilots flying them, such as operating licences, certificates of airworthiness and pilot licences. Unless there is mutual recognition, UK registered airlines, aircraft and pilots will not be entitled to operate in the EU.

The UK has signed bilateral 'open skies' agreements with countries including the USA and Canada, in order to replace existing EU aviation agreements with third countries. However a UK-EU air transport agreement has not yet been signed, meaning in principle, UK airlines will be unable to fly to EU destinations in 2021. As part of preparations for a no-deal Brexit in 2019, EU Regulation 2019/502 provided the basis for EU countries to give UK airlines permission to operate if the UK left the EU without a deal. This was conditional on the UK conferring equivalent rights to airlines from EU countries. No such equivalence has yet been granted and over the coming weeks it will be important to monitor statements from the CAA, the UK Government and the EU concerning any aviation agreement reached.

Road transport – coaches and cars

The exact requirements for UK motorists (private and commercial) driving in the EU after the end of the transition period will depend on what (if anything) is agreed in negotiations on the future relationship. The Government's current advice is that drivers may need extra documents from 1 January 2021. An international driving permit (IDP) may be required to drive in some countries. Currently, no EEA countries require IDPs for stays shorter than 12 months, but it is possible that this may change. With regards to insurance, the Government's advice is that a Green Card and GB sticker may be required from 1 January 2021. If taking a vehicle to the EU for fewer than 12 months, drivers should also carry a vehicle log book or VE103 to show they're allowed to use the hired or leased vehicle abroad.

As part of no-deal preparation prior to the Withdrawal Agreement being signed, the Government stated that the UK would join the Interbus Agreement and its Protocol. The Government 'hopes to be in a position' to provide for ratification of the Interbus Agreement and its Protocol before the end of the transition period. This would allow for occasional (not scheduled) coach services to continue between the EU and the UK. Cabotage is the carriage of passengers for hire or reward between two points in an EU country by a vehicle or operator that is not registered in that country. No cabotage would be permitted by UK coach operators within the EU unless, and until, a separate agreement is reached. A further limitation of the Interbus Agreement is that it cannot be used to transit through the EU to reach non-contracting parties, such as Switzerland.

A Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) qualification is required to drive professionally in the UK, the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Drivers who have a UK Driver CPC qualification and work for an EU company need to exchange their CPC qualification for an EU one.

Rail transport

On the positive front, UK consumers' rights as rail passengers using either domestic or cross-border rail services will remain unchanged. There is also a deal now in place between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to permit continuation of rail services. However, no deal is in place between the UK and France, Belgium or the Netherlands in respect of Eurostar or Eurotunnel services. Further, UK train drivers, railway undertakings, railway equipment and services will all require EU licences to continue to work and operate in the EU.

Sea transport

Sea travel is generally governed by international law and therefore, after the transition period, access in most respects will be permitted. However, cabotage rights are provided under EU law and will no longer be granted to UK operators post 31 December 2020, so there will be no opportunity to provide inland waterway services. Passengers' rights will continue to be protected. Fisheries are well known to be one of the main obstacles to a trade deal being struck. If the fisheries issue is not resolved, there is surely a risk of port blockades, potentially disrupting sea travel and trade.


A comprehensive deal on the UK's future relationship with the EU would obviate many of the issues anticipated above, but that currently seems unlikely. Instead, there is a real likelihood of a legal vacuum emerging. Short term, last minute arrangements may be necessary to ensure international transport does not grind to a halt with further damage caused to an industry already suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Stakeholders should closely watch this space.

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