‘Such a nightmare’: Brits barred from boarding flights home to Italy amid travel chaos

British residents of Italy trying to fly home after Christmas were prevented from boarding after airline staff said their paperwork was not valid for entry.

'Such a nightmare': Brits barred from boarding flights home to Italy amid travel chaos
Photo: AFP

British nationals living in Italy and other EU countries have been barred from returning home amid confusion about post-Brexit rules and Italy's coronavirus entry ban on travellers from the UK.

People trying to return to Italy after their Christmas holidays were barred from flights over the weekend after being told by airline staff that their paperwork was not valid.
Dr Caitlin Procter, a British citizen who lives in Florence and works for the European University Institute, was among at least thirty people who were prevented from boarding Ryanair flights from Manchester to Italian airports on Saturday “because we didn’t have Italian passports or ID cards.” 

“They were not accepting residency certificates, proof of employment, utility bills or bank statements as evidence of Italian residence and an urgent need to travel home,” Procter told The Local.

“Ryanair is totally outsourced, so it was a handling company staffing the check-in desks, and they just said repeatedly there was nothing they could do, even when we showed them the official Italian guidelines, and FCDO (Foreign Office) guidelines on which documents are needed to return to Italy,” said Procter, who had planned to fly from Manchester to Pisa.

“They said that Ryanair have set up their own immigration team who are setting rules of which documents are and are not allowed, and they were only allowing passengers to board with Italian passports or ID cards.”

Italy restricted flights and entry from Britain on December 20th due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain identified in the UK.

It later made exceptions for those legally resident in Italy – whether or not they are Italian citizens – and those with essential reasons for travel, such as for work.

Britons keep their residency rights in Italy as long as they applied for residency before December 31st 2020, when Britain's transition period out of the EU ended.

“Some of the passengers didn’t have residency as their applications were still in process, but did have letters from their employers stating that they urgently needed to return to work, plus rental agreements, bank statements or utility bills,” Procter explained.

“Others had residency certificates but not ID cards, and these certificates were also not accepted.”

Ryanair confirmed to The Local on Monday that it requires passengers to show an Italian ID card, Italian passport or a “resident's ID card” – it was not clear what this referred to, but it may be the new EU-wide biometric residency card, which has only been available in Italy since January 1st.

However, the Italian government stated in its December 23rd ordinance that all residents of Italy are allowed to enter the country.

Italy's British residents cannot use their Italian ID cards for travel, and of course a passport does not prove residency, only citizenship.

Italy's British residents have been carrying other documents recommended by the British Embassy, including the 'WA attestazione' form or their Italian residency certificates, as proof of their rights, but these were not accepted by Ryanair.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Ryanair told The Local: “Ryanair fully complies with government restrictions.”

“A number of passengers on this flight from Manchester to Pisa (2 Jan) were denied boarding due to insufficient and/or incorrect documentation, as they failed to present a negative Covid test result or proof of residency in line with Italian government regulation.”

However, none of the official guidance from either the Italian or British authorities appears to mention the documents requested by Ryanair.

In its advice relating to Italy’s UK travel ban, the British government's website states:

“Until 15 January, entry into Italy from the UK is only permitted for those with official residency in Italy OR those with absolute necessity, which must be declared in writing. You should contact your travel provider for more information. If you are a UK national resident in Italy, we advise carrying proof of your residence when entering Italy.”

It did not specify which documents are needed as proof of residence.

The British Embassy in Rome referred The Local to the latest travel advice for Italy on the British government's website, which states:

“From 1 January 2021, UK nationals, resident in Italy by 31 December 2020, will need to show proof of residence when re-entering Italy. This could include an identity card, a registration certificate or a utility bill in your name.”

Britons living across Europe had been warned that if they travel over the New Year they would need to take proof of residency with them to ensure they would be allowed back in.

But since January 1st it appears that there has been confusion among airlines and local border officials in many countries.

In recent days there have been numerous reports of Britons travelling from the UK being unable to return to the countries where they live, including Spain, Germany and Sweden as well as Italy.

READ ALSO: Brits held at Gothenburg airport after being denied entry into Sweden

The issues have arisen in part due to countries imposing travel bans due to the new coronavirus strain, and in part due to Brexit, as the end of the transition period on December 31st brought an end to free movement for UK nationals.

Added to that is the fact the UK is now classed as a “third country” and so is now also subject to the EU's ban on non-essential travel.

British residents of Italy and other EU countries, however, have the right to return to their homes – subject to rules on Covid-19 tests and quarantine.

READ ALSO: 'We warned you': Call for urgent action after Britons living in EU denied entry

Until January 6th, Italy requires all arrivals from the UK to show a negative test result, taken no more than 48 hours before travel, as well as to undergo a second swab test on arrival in Italy, plus a 14-day period of mandatory quarantine.

“It has been such a nightmare, and so expensive with private Covid tests costing between £160 – £210 among the passengers I spoke to,” said Procter, who was supposed to return to work in Florence on Monday but is still in the UK.

“There are so few flights running, and now our original tests have expired, so we need to pay for another one before flying again.”

“Obviously all the passengers knew there were serious risks with travelling for Christmas, but everyone had personal reasons for needing to do so,” she said.

“The point is that we followed all the rules, and were travelling with documents that the Italian government said were eligible; and Ryanair were taking these decisions into their own hands.”

Campaign group British in Europe has called for urgent action and said it had been warning about likely complications.

“This is a serious situation when people face problems getting home although they have a clear right to do so,” the group said in a statement.

Have you been wrongly barred from travelling home to Italy? Please email us and let us know about your experience.

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Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

With ongoing uncertainty over whether UK driving licences will continue to be recognised in Italy beyond the end of this year, British residents are asking where they stand.

Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

Many of The Local’s British readers have been in touch recently to ask whether any progress has been made in negotiations between the UK and Italy on a reciprocal agreement on the use of driving licences.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the background of this Brexit consequence.

READ ALSO: Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

When Britain left the EU there was no reciprocal agreement in place, but UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences. This period was later extended to the current deadline of December 31st, 2022.

The situation beyond that date however remains unclear, and concern is growing among the sizeable number of British nationals living in Italy who say no longer being allowed to drive would be a serious problem.

There was the option of exchanging licences before the end of 2021, but many didn’t make the deadline. As has been proven before, this was often not due to slackness but rather all manner of circumstances, from having moved to Italy after or shortly before the cut-off date to bureaucratic delays.

Driving licences: How does the situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

So is an agreement any closer? Or do those driving in Italy on a UK licence really need to go to the considerable trouble and expense of sitting an Italian driving test (in Italian)?

With five months left to go, there’s still no indication as to whether a decision will be made either way.

The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test – while also stressing that they’re working hard on reaching a deal, which would make taking the test unnecessary.

This message has not changed.

On Wednesday, July 27th, British Ambassador to Italy Ed Llewellyn tweeted after a meeting with Italian Infrastructure and Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini: “The British and Italian governments continue to work towards an agreement on exchange of driving licences.”

But the ambassador earlier this month advised UK nationals “not to wait” and to “take action now by applying for an Italian licence”.

In an official newsletter published in mid-July, Llewellyn acknowledged the concerns of British residents and confirmed that negotiations are still going on.

“I know that many of you are understandably concerned about whether your UK driving licence will continue to be recognised in Italy, especially when the extension granted by Italy until 31 December 2022 for such recognition expires.

“Let me set out where things stand. The British Government is working to reach an agreement with Italy on the right to exchange a licence without the need for a test. 

READ ALSO:  Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

“The discussions with our Italian colleagues are continuing and our objective is to try to reach an agreement in good time before the end of the year.

“We hope it will be possible to reach an agreement – that is our objective and we are working hard to try to deliver it. 

Nevertheless, he said, “our advice is not to wait to exchange your licence.”

“If you need to drive in Italy, you can take action now by applying for an Italian licence. This will, however, involve taking a practical and theory test.” 

He acknowledged that “the process is not a straightforward one and that there are delays in some areas to book an appointment for a test”.

READ ALSO: ‘Anyone can do it’: Why passing your Italian driving test isn’t as difficult as it sounds

“We will continue to work towards an agreement,” he wrote. “That is our objective and it is an objective we share with our Italian colleagues.“

The British Embassy in Rome had not responded to The Local’s requests for further comment on Friday.

The Local will continue to publish any news on the recognition of British driving licences in Italy. See the latest updates in our Brexit-related news section here.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.