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How will the EU’s ‘Covid passports’ work for travellers?

The European Parliament and the 27 member states reached agreement this week on a digital Covid certificate that should pave the way for frictionless summer travel across the European Union. But what will the passes mean for tourists and visitors in practice?

A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading
A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading "Covid-19 vaccine" on an European passport. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

The provisional agreement between the European Parliament and member states on the EU Digital Covid Certificate means that the scheme is well on track to be ready by the end of June, says the EU Commission.

“European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today’s agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon,” said Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU hopes the certificates, which they insist are not “vaccine passports”, will make travel easier and safer, and boost the economies of tourism-dependent nations.

So what are these certificates?

The EU Digital Covid Certificate, whose final name appears to be settled on – it was previously called the Digital Green Certificate – will be used by all EU as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland.

They have been touted for some time. In March, the head of the European Commission vaccines task force Thierry Breton unveiled the first European “health passport” (see tweet below), claiming he hoped Europe will have a summer season “comparable to last year”.

The idea is that the document – which can be on paper or stored electronically – will carry proof that the holder has either;

  • been fully vaccinated
  • recently recovered from the virus (meaning the holder has antibodies in their system)
  • recently tested negative for Covid 

Ursula von der Leyen said: “The EU Digital Covid Certificate is free of charge, secure and accessible to all. It will cover vaccination, test and recovery offering different options to citizens. 

“All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU. The EU Digital Covid Certificate, available in paper or digital format, will make it easier for Europeans to travel – whether to see their families and loved ones or to get some well-deserved rest.”

It will also be available to non-EU citizens who are permanent residents in an EU or Schengen zone country.

So what will this mean for travel in reality?

The EU’s hope is that the certificates will help smooth travel around the Bloc, which up until now has depended on the measures brought in by individual member states.

The EU parliament is urging member states not to impose additional travel restrictions such as having to get tested before travel or quarantine on arrival.

“Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital Covid Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health,” says the EU.

But given that anything related to borders is decided on at a national level, we’ll have to wait and see whether this certificate really does herald a unified approach to frictionless travel this summer. Much of course will depend on Covid infection rates in countries.

In a short video on the subject, France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune said that travel within the EU/Schengen zone with the vaccine passport would “be in place across Europe from July 1st”.

So will I need to download a new phone app?

No, well, at least not an EU app but you’ll likely need the app developed in your country of residence if there is one.

The Commission has made it clear to The Local that there won’t be a new EU app.

“The Commission will not develop an EU app, neither for citizens, nor for authorities to check the certificates. This is for the Member States to do,” a spokesperson said.

They added: “Every member state will need to develop their national implementation for the EU Digital Covid Certificate. National wallet apps could be developed, but are not the only option. Integration in existing tracing or other apps, commercial solutions, digital storage of PDFs and of course paper certificates are also possible.”

So in other words the EU Digital Covid certificate is more of an agreement between member states rather than anything tangible Brussels will produce.

It is down to each member state to produce the paper certificates and apps, that will carry proof, in the form of a QR code, of vaccination, a negative test or full recovery from Covid. 

The EU insists the certificates will be “free of charge, obtained easily and also available to people vaccinated before the EU Digital Covid Certificate Regulation has entered into force.”

So it’s down to individual countries?

Apparently so. While some countries are well advanced in developing their “green passes”, “health passports” or “Covid passes” others are lagging behind.

The EU told The Local that is offering help to those member states who need it.

“To facilitate the work at national level, the Commission has provided a reference app to support Member States to develop their national solution to scan and check the QR codes, a template software for Member States to issue EU Digital COVID Certificate and a reference wallet app for governments to offer to citizens to store EU Digital Covid Certificate,” a spokesperson said.

Individual states are creating their own domestic apps. It makes sense to repurpose them to allow for international travel.

According to Reuters, EU countries link their national vaccine records to a central system using a template provided by German developers.

This centralised “Gateway” system basically lets all these different national apps to “talk” to each other and therefor enable travel between EU countries.

If that works, holders of the French app – for example – can travel into Germany or Italy easily. 

France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune told radio station Europe 1: “You will have the same code to go from Paris to Athens, from Berlin to Madrid. “It will be recognised by the security and health authorities of different European countries.”

So will it happen by summer?

The EU insists the scheme is “well on track to be ready end of June, as planned.”

But it says: “The political agreement will now have to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The regulation will enter into force on July 1st, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time.”

A six-week phasing in period takes us to mid-August.

Somethings have been resolved: Both antigen (lateral flow) and PCR tests will be accepted and while the passes would be limited to vaccines that have received EU-wide authorisation, Member States can decide to accept other vaccines in addition.

Where do I get the QR codes from?

The codes will normally be issued by a doctor, testing laboratory and vaccination centre. Or failing that they will be issued by the centralised health systems in each country.

Again much will probably be down to individual states – from whether passes will be available at vaccination or test centres, to if you will need to book an appointment with your GP. Some people have reported returning to vaccination centres weeks after their jabs to get their certificates and QR codes.

Millions of people who have already been vaccinated will also need to get hold of one. 

The EU says no one will be forced to use the EU certificate.

What about non-EU countries?

Good question. The European Commission has been in talks with US officials on mutual recognition for some time. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hinted in a recent Stateside interview that fully vaccinated Americans would be able to visit Europe this summer.

While France’s Europe Minister sounded very certain on travel within the EU, when it came to travel outside the Bloc, he was a little more equivocal, saying it “will doubtless be possible in certain countries with whom we are in the process of negotiating over opening up travel this summer”. 

The EU says it has been working closely to inform the United States, the World Health Organization and others about its progress to allow the certificate to be used on a wider scale. But it is not clear how this will work in practice for travellers from the United States, who mostly don’t have vaccine certificates with QR codes on them.

Brussels has also been in negotiations with near non-EU nation the UK. It was reported on Friday that the EU has delayed its decision to exempt vaccinated UK travellers from travel restrictions into the EU due to concerns over the so-called Indian variant.

Meanwhile, the country’s Transport Secretary Grant Schapps said recently that the UK is modifying its NHS app so it can be used as a Covid-19 passport and allow foreign travel.

But the BBC reported that the app would not be ready “imminently”, while the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement that it was “being considered as part of the digital route”.

Nor has it been confirmed how it would work in connection with the EU Gateway system.

EU nationals and legal residents of member states are eligible to use them, but you may need to carry proof of residency, too, to avoid awkward questions about having, for example, a Spanish Covid-passport and a British standard passport.

What about personal data? 

Another good question. The EU has been hot on protecting personal data for a long time. The Commission has said the QR code-based system will be safe and secure. 

Things may change during the development of the system, but it has been suggested that sensitive personal data would be stored locally on smartphones and kept separate from information the EU Gateway system (that still doesn’t exist) would be able to access.

There’s understandable concern that such a system may be vulnerable to fraud – something developers and the Commission will have to work on to protect users.

And for those who don’t have a smartphone?

If you either don’t have a smartphone or are not a fan of fiddling around with apps, you will also be able to present a paper certificate at the border. Any certificate that meets EU standards and has a QR code can be scanned from a paper certificate as well as an app.

Member comments

  1. I live in Paris, but plan to get vaccinated in US since it’s available sooner. Is there any information on how French residents will be able to take advantage of the QR code system if they have been vaccinated outside of France or the EU?

  2. I have the same question as Sunita, I have EU citizenship and was vaccinated in the US how or what is needed to show the EU to travel openly between the EU.

    1. Not exactly. After the trials, they were no longer experimental, but have only been approved for emergency use. Most of the process is paperwork and funding, not testing and data. Remember, there was a SARS vaccine nearly ready to go when that pandemic fizzled out. They just picked up where they left off and that was nearly the same virus. In essence, there have been trials and data of the various COVID vaccines since 2002 and 2006 respectively.

  3. I’m a vaccinated American citizen planning to travel to France in July. Any idea what I will need in order to prove I’ve been vaccinated. The only documentation we were given is a paper card.

  4. I was vaccinated in Germany, but at the American hospital in Landstuhl. We were given CDC cards with our names, vaccine, batch, and date. Will this be enough? Also:

    There’s another problem. As we’ve said, individual states are creating their own domestic apps. It makes sense to repurpose them to allow for international travel.

    If you’ve brought a phone from the USA, it can’t access apps available in the EU because of licensing issues with Apple. I hope a paper version will be allowed and I hope I can get my CDC card translated to a more recognizable and accepted card here in the EU.

    1. There is a way around the ‘this app is not avaliable in your country’. Sign out of your apple account, than create a new account stating the country where you want to buy the app from, you get an email to confirm, than go to the new app store and download the app. Sign out and sign into your previous account again. If you want to buy an app than use a gift card as you can not use a credit card from a different country than the shop. Gift cards you can buy online.

      1. Or buy a local Android phone and do it all with that, you don’t need any payment details whatsoever, if you have an android phone from another market you can also download the apk file for the app online and install it irrespective of where your app store is based thus avoiding the Apple issue entirely.

  5. and what about the enormous number of Brits in Spain stuck in a huge backlog of residence applications . So not “officially “ resident yet with no card as yet . I know people here who have been in the residence application machine for well over 6 months now

    1. AFAIK they should be OK Like Denmark don’t be surprised if they extend the period for Application, DK did it well before it even started as they knew 6 months was way too short, DK is pretty efficient, being fully didgital and we can all guess how Spain fares on that front

  6. The UK NHS app has now been updated to show the dates, dosage and type of vaccine given although it officially goes LIVE on May 17th.
    I would like to know whether/when the Swedish government will be removing the ban on travel from the UK to Sweden.

    1. I want to know this as well. Under the current regulations I cannot enter Sweden even though I own a small house, which I pay tax on and all my family of cousins are Swedish my mother having been born and grown up in Sweden

  7. I am a resident of Spain and have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. I have proof on my Spanish gov. app including a QR code. Will this be recognised in France?

    1. I shall need this information when I travel back from UK to Spain through France at the end of September.

  8. I hope to fly to Switzerland the first week in July from the US. I have been vaccinated and have my CDC card. I can also access my vaccination status via my on-line hospital record which shows when and where I was vaccinated and with what vaccine. I am hoping this will be enough. Am also planning on carrying a letter from my doctor on hospital letterhead attesting to the fact that I have been vaccinated – again, when, where and what.

  9. I hope to travel to Italy from Canada in August. I will receive my second dose of Moderna in June. Just wondering if it’s realistic to plan a trip there.

  10. I had covid, I have copies of the positive test result. Only had a phone consultation with my DR., so I presume I need to get some documentation from them.

  11. I had covide, have an email re my positive test result and admonishment notification from my county. Had only a phone consultation with my Dr, presume I’ll need to get some sort of documentation from their office.

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For members

EUROPEAN UNION

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

Foreign nationals living across Europe regularly have to overcome hurdles with paperwork and red tape whether it's with residency or work permits or having professional qualifications recognised. But there is help at hand that many may not know about.

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

What is SOLVIT and what kind of problems can it help you solve?

Although the general principle is ‘freedom of movement’, people going to live to another country of the European Union, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein can have all sort of problems setting up.

These can include the transfer of a car bought in another EU country, the swapping of a driving license, the application for a non-EU spouse visa, and the procedure to set up a company. The good news is that help is available.

SOLVIT is a name few people are likely to have heard, despite having been around for 20 years.

It is a free online service to help individuals and businesses resolve problems they experience with administrations in the countries of the European single market, where people, goods, services and capital can move freely.

What sort of problems?

Created by the European Commission in 2002, the network of SOLVIT centres can help with anything related to European single market’s rights.

The single market countries have common rules to avoid technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free movement. But sometimes national, regional or local authorities do not apply these rules as intended causing problems to the people who depend on them.

It can be daunting to try and solve these issues across borders, even more so when another language is involved. In these cases, people can resort to SOLVIT centres to seek help.

How does it work?

Complaints can be submitted on the SOLVIT web page, which also provides the contact details of SOLVIT centres in all countries.

The central office (home centre) will check whether the problem falls within the SOLVIT’s remit, prepare the case and send it to the SOLVIT team (the lead centre) in the country where the problem has occurred, who will try to find a solution with the responsible authority.

The objective is to complete the procedure in 10 weeks from when the case is accepted by the lead centre. But according to a report by the European Commission less than 50 per cent of cases now meets that target, partly because of stretched resources in the face of growing demand.

Gerard de Graaf, the head of the EU Office in San Francisco, previously head of the team that created SOLVIT, wrote in the 20th anniversary report: “In 2001, it was clear that citizens and small businesses in particular needed hands-on help to overcome incorrect application of EU rules by national and local authorities.

“We had contact points in each member state but few problems ever got resolved and it was disheartening. We had the idea to set up instead problem-solving centres, connected via an internet-based, multilingual network… I still vividly remember the first cases going through the new system in 2002, and, even more so, the positive feedback we received: “I can finally reunite with my husband and children…”

In 20 years, the network has dealt with close to 29,000 cases. Only in 2021, 5,231 complaints were filed to the SOLVIT service (2,455 accepted) compared with 155 in the first year of operation.

How are countries doing?

The caseload varies between countries. In 2020 France handled the largest number of complaints, with 157 submitted by individuals and companies and 435 received from other Solvit centres. Germany followed with 131 cases lodged by individuals and companies and 214 received from other Solvit centres, Italy with 146 and 270 respectively, and Spain with 133 and 196.

Austria also had a relatively large number of cases, with 32 submitted complaints and 102 received. Sweden had 39 submitted and received 60, Denmark 51 and 22, and Norway 11 and 30.

Some of the common problems, the European Commission reports, were the recognition of professional qualifications, visa and residence rights, driving licences, pension rights and access to healthcare.

In 2020 difficulties included delays in exchanging information related to social security, as well as problems accessing healthcare and claiming unemployment benefits linked to COVID-19. Some of the problems in France were related to the social security reimbursement of medicine sold by parallel traders.

In terms of recognition of professional qualifications, there were difficulties for nurses who acquired part of their training in a non-EU country, for social paedagogical educators in Italy and for speech therapists in France.

Complaints about Sweden were related to the inclusion in the population register and the issuance of a personal identification number, unjustified delays to admit EU workers to the national social security system and to issue residence cards to their non-EU family members. This was reported also in Austria.

Several countries, including Norway, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany, applied unjustified conditions and refused short-term visas for non-EU family members of EU citizens.

If you need to submit a complaint via Solvit in the country where you are then click here for the details of how and where to submit it.

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