‘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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Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

British nationals living in Italy are becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of news about a reciprocal driving licence agreement post-Brexit, and say the current 'catch-22' situation is adversely affecting their lives.

Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Italy who are currently playing a waiting game on the validity of their driving licences.

Those who are driving in Italy on a UK-issued permit currently have just over six months left before their licence is no longer accepted on Italy’s roads.

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

That is, unless a deal is reached between the UK and Italy, or another extension period is granted.

Another extension would mark the third time the authorities have deferred making an agreement on UK driving licences in Italy.

When Britain left the EU at the end of 2020, British and Italian authorities hadn’t reached a reciprocal deal on driving licences.

However, UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences in Italy.

With just days to go before the deadline in December 2021, those still using a UK licence were granted a reprieve when it was further extended for another 12 months until the end of 2022.

But the situation from January 1st, 2023, remains unknown.

In the remaining few months, British nationals driving in Italy who hadn’t converted their licence to an Italian one before January 1st, 2021 face the same choice again: wait and hope for an agreement or start the lengthy and costly process of taking their Italian driving test.

There is still no confirmation on reaching an agreement on driving licences. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Many UK nationals have contacted The Local recently to express their frustration, anger and concern over the situation, explaining how the possibility of not being to drive in Italy would profoundly impact their lives.

For some, it would mean not being able to get to work, losing their independence, not being to reach supermarkets for the food shop in remote areas, or not being able to take their children to school.

And in the meantime, many readers told us it means ongoing worry and uncertainty.

Reader David (not his real name), who moved to the southern region of Puglia shortly before Brexit hit, tells us he now finds himself in a “horrible catch-22 situation”.

He summed up the feeling among many of those who contacted The Local by saying: “It is highly concerning and not at all helpful for mental or physical health in a period when we are trying to settle in to a new life in Italy.”

He points out that, for him, retaking his driving test and getting an Italian licence would also mean having to sell his car and buy one with a less powerful engine.

“I realise that if I pass the Italian driving test and obtain an Italian licence, then I will be a neopatente (new driver) with three years of serious restrictions,” he says.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about getting an Italian driving licence post-Brexit

Newly administered licences in Italy carry restrictions including on the maximum engine size of the car the holder may drive, tighter speed limits on the motorway and extra penalty points for breaking them.

“In this situation, I am honestly dis-incentivised to get the Italian licence unless there seriously is a real ‘no deal’ scenario on the table,” he says.

“Because if I get an Italian licence now – and of course I could choose now to invest a lot of time and money to get it – and then an agreement is reached to exchange licenses, then I might find myself in a worse position than if I just waited to do an exchange.”

“I am sincerely hoping for an agreement to be reached for experienced drivers with a UK licence.”

James Appleton lives in Milan and says he feels “frustrated about the situation”. Although he concedes that he lives in the city with all the convenience that implies, he is worried about having a car sitting outside his flat that he can no longer drive from January.

“The frustration now is with little over six months left of the year, advice from the authorities has continued to be quite unhelpful,” he tells us.

“We keep hearing, ‘consider your options’. I know my options: I have to start the process of taking a test, which is expensive and lengthy, and which may turn out to be unnecessary, or wait until the end of the year. Those have been my options for year and a half,” he adds.

Frustration for many British nationals still waiting on a post-Brexit driving licence agreement. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

“I feel very much in limbo. If it gets to November and we still haven’t heard anything, I risk having a car that I can’t drive from January as my licence may no longer be valid.

My hope would be if there’s not to be a deal, let us know so there’s time to take the test,” James says. “I don’t want to find out with a week to go, like last year.”

He points to the fact that many other non-EU countries have reciprocal driving licence agreements with Italy, so why not the UK? Meanwhile, Italy is one of only two countries in the EU still not to have made a deal on driving licences.

While he said he didn’t want to sound “entitled”, the lack of clarity was simply confusing.

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered about driving in Italy on a British licence

Like many others, he tried but didn’t manage to convert his British licence in time as he moved to Italy shortly before the Brexit deadline.

James registered as a resident in December 2020, leaving little time to begin the conversion process. He admitted it was partly his fault “for not having realised the consequences of what was going to happen”.

But “there are some people in a position where it wasn’t so straightforward to convert your licence,” he notes.

This was true for another reader, who wished to remain anonymous. She tells us that she tried to begin the conversion of her UK driving licence three times in Imperia, where she lives, but was told to “wait and see what is decided”.

“No one has taken a note of my requests and attempts so I cannot prove my attempts to get this sorted or listed,” she says.

READ ALSO: How to import your car or motorbike to Italy

In her case, it would therefore be difficult to prove that she began the conversion process before January 1st, 2021.

She also faced setbacks when trying to convert her licence in time after applying for residency before Brexit.

On being told that she needed her final ID card (carta d’identità) proving her residence, she returned to her town hall but couldn’t get the card for another seven months due to no appointments being available.

“Then I couldn’t get the licence exchanged as the person dealing with this was not at work on the day I went. I had to fly back to UK then Covid restrictions kicked in, hampering travel and by then UK was out of Europe and the Italian/UK driver’s licence issues remained unsolved,” she added.

The question on a UK-Italy driving licence agreement rolls on. Photo by FABIO MUZZI / AFP

So is there any hope that an agreement will be reached and those driving on a UK licence won’t need to sit an Italian driving test?

At this point there are no indications as to whether a decision will be reached either way. The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test, while also stating that they’re working on reaching a deal.

The latest update to the driving guidance on the British government’s ‘Living in Italy’ webpage in January states:

“If you were resident in Italy before 1 January 2022 you can use your valid UK licence until 31 December 2022,” however, “you must exchange your licence for an Italian one by 31 December 2022. You will need to take a driving test (in Italian).”

The guidance then states: “The British and Italian governments continue to negotiate long-term arrangements for exchanging driving licences without needing to take a test.”

So far, so much conflicting advice, as many readers point out.

Of those who have decided to take the plunge and sit the Italian driving test, some say it’s “not as difficult as it sounds” while others report having trouble with the highly technical questions in the theory test, not to mention the fact that the test has to be taken in Italian.

If you speak French or German better than Italian, the test may be available in those languages – but not in English.

READ ALSO: Getting your Italian driving licence: the language you need to pass your test

“My question is why can’t you take your driving test in English? Adding it as an option for taking the test would help,” says Njideka Nwachukwu, who moved to Italy in 2019. She failed the theory test and has to try again, at a further cost.

Even if you find taking the test a breeze, the process is known to take around six months – if you pass everything first time – and to set you back hundreds of euros.

At the time of writing, neither Italian nor British government officials have given any indication as to if or when a deal may be reached, or an explanation of why the two countries have not yet been able to reach an agreement.

Nor has any explanation been given as to why this important aspect of life in Italy was never protected under the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place.

When contacted by The Local recently for an update on the situation, the British Embassy in Rome stated: “rest assured the Embassy continues to prioritise the issue of UK driving licence validity in Italy and we continue to engage with the Italian government on this issue.”

The Local will continue to ask for updates regarding the use of British driving licences in Italy.

Thank you to everyone who contacted The Local to tell us how they are affected by this issue, including those we couldn’t feature in this article.

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

See The Local’s latest Brexit-related news updates for UK nationals in Italy here.