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COVID-19 requirements for travelling and entry to the UK

04 February 2021

Since the beginning of 2021, the Government has implemented a raft of additional travel and entry measures to minimise the spread of new coronavirus variants in the UK.

These include pre-departure COVID-19 testing, travel bans, suspending travel corridor arrangements and requiring visits to the UK to be for an essential purpose. Plans have also been announced to review the list of occupation-based self-isolation exemptions and to start using managed isolation hotels for those arriving from countries on the travel ban list.  

The recent developments for travel to England are outlined below, however the key point to note is that conditions for travel, entry and post-entry are rapidly changing and likely to become more restrictive in the short-term. Our recommendation is therefore for travellers to make preparations to meet the requirements in good time, including checking for updates to the position throughout the two weeks leading up to departure and seeking immigration advice where needed.

The requirements for entry to ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland are broadly similar, however there are some differences, including to when specific changes become effective. Travellers to these destinations should ensure they check the current information published by the Government of the relevant nation.

Pre-departure COVID-19 testing

Since 4 am on 18 January 2021, all international passenger arrivals to England by air, sea or rail must have proof of an acceptable negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of the departure of their transportation to the UK. If the length of a person’s journey means they are unable to take a test within three days of their departure for England (e.g. if they will be transiting airside), they should take a test as close as possible to when they start their journey.

There is no specific list of authorised test providers, however the test providers and test types must meet the Government’s published minimum performance standards for specificity, sensitivity and viral loads. Some visa services providers such as VFS Global are coordinating COVID-19 testing services in various countries around the world, however the requirements for entry to England should be checked with the individual provider.

If a passenger has transit stops on their journey to England is acceptable for them to take a test part-way through their journey, however they should check whether this is logistically possible before they set out. This is because some countries have entry restrictions or other requirements that may make testing impossible. If a person is denied entry to the country where they planned to take their test, they will be allowed to continue their journey but risk being fined at least £500 on arrival due to not having a valid test result.

Travel bans 

Flights and vessels have been banned from arriving directly in the UK from a 'red list' of countries to which a travel ban applies. The list has been expanded since mid-January 2021 in response to the appearance and movement of new virus strains identified in Brazil and South Africa.

Individuals who have been in or transited through a red list country in the 10 days before they arrive in the UK will be refused entry, unless they are a British or Irish national, or a person with residence rights in the UK, as defined on GOV.UK. There is also currently a specific exemption for hauliers travelling from Portugal.

Those who are permitted to enter the UK after being in a relevant country within the last ten days will need to use an indirect route to arrive, or be brought to the UK on a repatriation service. On arrival to England, currently they must self-isolate for a full ten days, along with their household, and are not eligible to use the Test to Release scheme to reduce their self-isolation period.

Managed isolation in hotels

The Government announced on 27 January that the current self-isolation arrangements for those arriving from travel ban countries will be replaced by managed isolation in hotels. Further details are not yet available, including whether or not entire hotels will be government-managed for this purpose, and what the cost to travellers will be.

Travel corridors and self-isolation exemptions

Since 18 January 2021, all travel corridors to the UK have been suspended until further notice. The effect of this change is that only arrivals from the Common Travel Area are exempt from the requirement to self-isolate, along with those who are exempt because of their occupation.

The list of occupation-based exemptions does not apply to individuals who have been in or transited through ‘red list’ countries in the 10 days before their arrival in England. The exemptions have been narrowed three times already since the beginning of 2021, and a full review is currently underway with a view to reducing them further.


Because of the national lockdown implemented from 4 January 2021, visitors arriving in the UK may be refused entry if their reason for seeking admission is not considered to be for an essential purpose. There is currently no definition of this, and reasons for travel will be considered by Border Force on a case-by-case basis.

If you have any queries about the current or planned requirements and how to manage them, please get in touch with a member of our Immigration Team.

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