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With EU open for travel, who can go where?

August 3, 2020

Germany wants mandatory COVID-19 testing, while Sweden's restrictions are almost non-existent: EU travel rules are complicated these days. Which regions are high risk, and who sets the standards?

A colored map of Europe being examined by a magnifying glass
Image: Fotolia/Xuejun li

Starting this week, travelers arriving in Germany from so-called "risk areas" will be required to take a coronavirus test — making Germany the first country in the European Union to require mandatory testing.  

As the risk of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic grows, EU states have been busy preparing their own set of travel rules and restrictions ever since passing a joint resolution on travel within the bloc in mid-June. But with different standards in all 27 member countries, and rules that are constantly subject to change, the list of travel regulations is long and confusing.

Read more: How is coronavirus changing air travel?

For example: Latvia requires Belgian travelers to quarantine for 14 days, whereas Belgium merely recommends the measure for Latvians. On the other hand, Belgium does have strict quarantine rules in place for certain areas in Spain and the UK, namely Leicester.

Post-lockdown tourism in Berlin

Each EU member state follows its own definitions and rules: Some make travelers fill out contact forms, while others prefer online registration ahead of time. Still others call for travelers to present proof of a valid negative coronavirus test before entry. The most recent restrictions can be found on the European Commission website Re-Open EU.

How does the EU define COVID-19 risk?

Adding to the confusion is the fact there is no common EU definition of what constitutes a risk area. In Germany, the job of making that determination falls to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). As of July 31, the RKI only lists Luxembourg and parts of Spain as risk areas within the EU. Travelers from those regions will be required to take the coronavirus test when they arrive in Germany starting next week.

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The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm is attempting to compile an overview of the pandemic to better understand the risk areas. The EU agency collects data from member states and provides daily color-coded maps with detailed information on regional infection rates. Looking at the most recent ECDC map for July 31, it's clear that the current hot spots are in northeastern Spain, Lisbon, Belgium — Antwerp, in particular — Luxembourg and Sweden, as well as parts of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.

Holiday guinea pigs

Germany plans to keep borders open

Another look at the ECDC map shows that only certain regions are suffering from rising infection rates at the moment, making widespread border closures excessive. The current recommendation is rather to locate and isolate regional coronavirus outbreaks, and track possible chains of infection across international borders.

After the continentwide border closures across the EU in March, April and May, the bloc has planned to use a regional approach in the event of a second wave of infections. Last week, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced that Germany had ruled out renewed border closures or a resumption of border controls.

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"We had major political problems," said Seehofer about the total lockdown in the spring, and he wants to avoid those problems in a possible second wave. Disease experts say the greatest risk is not traveling as such, but how carefully people act both at home and abroad.

An infographic showing which countries around the world are part of the EU COVID travel restrictions

The first wave, or the second?

The question of whether the EU is already experiencing a second wave of coronavirus infections is not easily answered. In any case, the ECDC says infection rates are going up — but for now, it's a far cry from the numbers seen in March and April. Back then, upward of 35,000 infections were being registered each day. Now they are down to around 10,000, with the lowest number — less than 5,000 — coming in late June.

Read more: Coronavirus crisis: EU interpreters left in the lurch

The EU is also doing well when compared with the rest of the world. Globally, some 200,000 people are infected with COVID-19 each day, mostly in the Americas and in Asia. At the moment, the EU accounts for only 5% of infections worldwide.

Those global numbers have led Germany to declare almost anywhere beyond the EU a risk area. Berlin has strongly advised its citizens against traveling to the United States, Brazil, India and South Africa. Those who do face quarantine as well as mandatory coronavirus testing upon their return.

Many EU countries have begun welcoming travelers from places where infections have decreased — countries like Canada, Australia, Uruguay or Thailand, for example. But Austria, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and Belgium have still ruled out any entry from travelers from those countries. Portugal, meanwhile, still allows arrivals from Brazil and the US, but only if they meet certain conditions.

When it comes to compiling a common set of travel rules to deal with the particular challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, the EU still has a long way to go. All the European Commission can do is keep collecting data and try to foster coordination.

Every 14 days, a committee meets in Brussels to discuss the loosening of travel restrictions on countries like the US, Russia and China. But one European adviser told DW there was little hope for normalization any time soon: "As long as the virus is out there, everything stays shut."

This is an updated version of a previous article.


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union