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Hoping to go to Europe? Here’s how to navigate its patchwork of COVID rules

People silhouetted against the Eiffel Tower
Visitors gather in a Paris building with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
(Francois Mori / Associated Press)

Europe is opening up to Americans and other visitors after more than a year of coronavirus restrictions, but travelers will need patience to figure out who’s allowed into which country, how and when.

As the European Union’s 27 countries reopen one by one to the outside world for the first time since March 2020, tourists will discover a patchwork of systems instead of a single border-free leisure zone, because national governments have resisted surrendering control over their frontiers amid the pandemic. And post-Brexit Britain is going its own way altogether.

Meanwhile, the welcome isn’t always mutual. U.S. borders, for example, remain largely closed to non-Americans, including Europeans.

Here’s a look at current entry rules in some popular European tourist destinations. One caveat: While these are the regulations as written by governments, travelers may meet hiccups as airlines or railway officials try to make sense of them.

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France

If you’re vaccinated, come to France. But only if you’ve received one of the four EU-approved vaccines: Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. That works for Americans — as long as they can produce official proof of vaccination — but not for large swaths of the world, including China and Russia, where other vaccines are used.

France’s borders officially reopened Wednesday. Vaccinated visitors from outside Europe and a few approved countries will still be asked for a negative result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours before entry, or a negative antigen test result within 48 hours. Unvaccinated children up to 11 years old will be allowed in with vaccinated adults; those 11 and over will have to show a negative test result.

European Union lawmakers have approved a new coronavirus travel certificate aimed at opening the 27-nation bloc up for the summer tourist season.

Tourists from 16 countries wrestling with COVID-19 surges and worrisome variants are banned from France. The list includes India, South Africa and Brazil.

Unvaccinated visitors from “orange list” countries — including the U.S. and Britain — can’t come for tourism either. They can come only for specific, imperative reasons.

Italy

Americans — the second-biggest group of foreign tourists to Italy — have been welcome since mid-May. However, they need to self-isolate upon arrival for 10 days unless they arrive on so-called “COVID-tested flights.” That means that passengers are tested before and after the flight and must fill out documents about their whereabouts to facilitate contact-tracing if required.

“COVID-tested” flights from the U.S. started in December and have also been operating since May from Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

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Italy also started allowing tourists from Britain and Israel last month, meaning that they no longer need an “essential” reason to visit and don’t have to self-isolate, providing they present proof of a negative result from a coronavirus test taken no more than 48 hours prior to arrival.

The same rules apply to travelers from EU countries and those on “COVID-tested” flights from the U.S., Canada, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

Greece

Tourism-reliant Greece started opening to American travelers back in April, and now visitors from China, Britain and 20 other countries are also allowed to visit for nonessential travel.

All must provide a vaccination certificate or a negative PCR test and fill in a passenger locator form on their plans in Greece. This directive expires Monday, but could be extended.

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Athens long pressed for a unified EU approach, but didn’t wait for one to materialize. On June 1, Greece, Germany and five other members of the bloc introduced a COVID certificate system for travelers, weeks ahead of the July 1 rollout of the program across the 27-nation bloc.

Spain

Spain kicked off its summer tourism season Monday by welcoming vaccinated visitors from the U.S. and most countries, as well as European visitors who can prove they are not infected.

Americans and most other non-Europeans need an official vaccine certificate by a health authority. Spain accepts those who were inoculated with the four EU-approved vaccines as well as two Chinese vaccines authorized by the World Health Organization — as long as visitors are fully vaccinated at least two weeks before the trip.

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Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and related deaths are plummeting across the continent, after Europe led the world in new cases last fall and winter.

Arrivals from Brazil, South Africa and India are banned at the moment because of high infection rates there, and unvaccinated visitors from the U.S. and many other non-EU nations cannot come to Spain for tourism for now.

There are exemptions for countries considered at low risk, such as citizens from Britain, who can arrive without any health documents at all. EU citizens need to provide proof of vaccination, a certificate showing they recently recovered from COVID-19 or a negative result from an antigen or PCR test taken no more than 48 hours before arrival.

Britain

There are few, if any, American tourists in the U.K. at present. Britain has a “traffic-light” system for assessing countries by risk, and the U.S. along with most European nations is on the “amber” list, meaning everyone arriving has to self-isolate at home or in the place they are staying for 10 days.

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U.K. and U.S. airlines and airport operators are pushing for a travel corridor to allow tourism to resume, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to raise the issue when he meets President Biden at the G-7 summit in England starting Friday.

Thanks to an efficient COVID-19 vaccine rollout program, Britain is finally saying goodbye to months of tough lockdown restrictions.

Meanwhile, anyone traveling between Britain and continental Europe, be warned: In addition to the isolation requirement for those arriving or returning to U.K. shores, rising concern about the Delta variant of the virus has prompted some other countries to introduce special restrictions for those arriving from Britain.

European Union

The 27-nation EU has no unified COVID tourism or border policy, but has been working for months on a joint digital travel certificate for those vaccinated, freshly tested or recently recovered from the virus. EU lawmakers endorsed the plan Wednesday.

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The free certificates, which will contain a QR code with advanced security features, will allow people to move between EU countries without having to quarantine or undergo extra coronavirus tests upon arrival.

Several EU countries have already begun using the system: Spain, Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Poland. The rest are expected to start using it July 1.

It’s mainly meant for EU citizens traveling within Europe, but Americans and others can obtain the digital certificate if they can convince authorities in an EU country they’re entering that they qualify for one. The lack of an official U.S. vaccination certification system may complicate that.


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