Will the British Referendum Vote Create a Travel Nightmare?

Intercontinental travel, visas, and air agreements could be subject to change

Could the "Brexit" mean more trouble for international travelers? The ramifications could be coming.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News

On June 24, 2016, the people of Great Britain told their government they no longer want to be part of the European Union. Although the vote did not obligate the nation to immediately begin the exit process, it is widely expected that the United Kingdom will soon submit their notice to withdraw, as outlined by Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union.

As a result, travelers are left with more questions than answers about how their next trip will be affected by the vote. While the good news is that no changes are immediately pending, the coming separation between the United Kingdom the European Union could create trouble in the future. 

Will the British Referendum Vote create a travel nightmare for visitors to the United Kingdom? From a travel safety and security standpoint, the three biggest problems travelers could soon face include movement within the semi-border free Schengen Zone, entry into the United Kingdom, and international air service going into the United Kingdom. 

The United Kingdom and the Schengen Zone: No Changes

The Schengen Agreement was originally signed on June 14, 1985, allowing for borderless movement in five countries of the European Economic Community. With the rise of the European Union, the number ultimately grew to 26 nations, including non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.

Although the United Kingdom and Ireland were members of the European Union, they were not parties to the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, the two island nations (which includes North Ireland as part of the United Kingdom) will continue to require separate entry visas from the rest of the European Union countries. 

Moreover, the United Kingdom will still maintain separate visitor visa rules than their counterparts in continental Europe. While visitors from the United States can stay in the United Kingdom for up to six months at a time on a visa waiver, those who stay in Europe on a Schengen visa can only stay up to 90 days in a 180-day period. 

Entry Requirements into the United Kingdom: No Immediate Changes

Much like entering a country or returning home from an international trip, visitors to the United Kingdom must prepare ahead of their trip and pass through two rounds of checks prior to arrival. First, common carriers (like airlines) send information about each passenger to the Border Force, followed by passing through regular customs checks.

Currently, there are two processes for travelers to enter the United Kingdom. Travelers from countries in the European Economic Area and Switzerland can use dedicated entry lanes and ePassport gates, using their passports or national identity cards. All others must use their passport books and the traditional lanes to clear customs, which can grow in length during peak arrival hours. 

During the exit process, the potential exists for the European Union bypasses to be removed from major ports of entry into the United Kingdom. If this comes into place, more travelers may be required to pass through traditional customs, which would create even more delays for those attempting to enter the country. 

While this has yet to be settled, there is an opportunity for frequent visitors to get ahead of the situation. Travelers who have visited the United Kingdom four times in the past 24 months or hold a UK visa can apply for the Registered Traveller program. Those who are approved for the program do not have to fill out an entry card upon arrival and can use the dedicated UK/EU entry lines. The Registered Traveller program is open to residents of nine countries, including the United States. 

International air service to the United Kingdom: Potential Changes Coming

While visas and entry requirements may not change much over the next two years, one of the problems that may potentially face the new country is how to manage changing air traffic laws. Unlike the current ground-based travel infrastructure, airlines and freight carriers are governed by a specific set of laws set by both the United Kingdom and the European Union. 

Over the next two years, British lawmakers will be tasked with setting new aviation policies and creating agreements with their counterparts in the United States and the European Union. While current British airlines benefit from the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA) agreement, there is no guarantee they would maintain that status after their exit. As a result, regulators may have three options: negotiate a way to stay within the ECAA, negotiate a bilateral agreement with the European Union, or forge new agreements to regulate air traffic entering and exiting the United Kingdom.


As a result, many processes that travelers currently take for granted may change over time. These regulations include transportation security and customs procedures. In addition, renegotiated agreements could result in increased airfare due to raised taxes and tariffs.

Although there are many things travelers do not know about the "Brexit" today, information is the only way to prepare for future changes. By being aware of these three situations as they develop, travelers can be ready for whatever may come as Europe continues to change and evolve.