Returning to England from an amber list country — Top tips and what you can expect
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With the world slowly opening up to travel, The Points Guy U.K. team is finally taking to the skies again. For our friends across the pond, travel is becoming increasingly more simple, but in the U.K., we’re not quite so lucky.
Aside from whatever restrictions are put in place by the country you wish to visit, there will also be requirements for your return to the U.K. These requirements vary depending on whether you’re coming from a green, amber or red list country.
There will soon be a boost for amber list arrivals. From 4 a.m. on 19 July, fully vaccinated Brits will no longer need to quarantine on return to England from amber countries, although almost all of the other requirements will remain, including a negative test within three days of returning to the U.K., completing a Passenger Locator Form and booking and taking a day two PCR test from a government-approved provider.
TPG U.K. Senior Writer Ben Smithson and I have both recently returned from countries on the government’s amber list. Here, we go head to head on the good, the bad and the ugly.
All travellers returning to the U.K. need a negative COVID-19 test in order to board their plane. The test must be taken up to three days before departure and this can be a PCR or lateral flow test.
I elected to used Qured‘s pre-departure rapid antigen test. The usual cost is £39, but I used code BATRAVEL15 to bring the price down to £33.15. This method of testing is incredibly handy if you’re able to plan ahead. Qured posted the test to me at home before my trip and I carried the kit with me on my trip.
I simply booked a video call with Qured the day before flying home and conducted the test live on video and marked the lateral flow test with the time and date. You then send a photo of the result next to your passport and Qured emails you back with a certificate confirming the result. The process went very smoothly for me and I enjoyed the comfort of having the test with me and not needing to worry about finding a convenient and reasonably priced test centre abroad.
I have already booked another Qured pre-departure test for my next trip abroad.
Ben has also used Qured (twice in fact!) and has also had a very positive experience.
At the airport
The biggest hurdle and most forensic checking of documents on my trip was at check-in for my Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to London Heathrow (LHR). Staff were at the entrance to the check-in area confirming with each passenger that all forms and tests were completed and booked.
Every passenger returning to the U.K. is required to fill out a passenger locator form. This is a little more complicated and time-consuming than it might sound. I set up an account on the government website to make it a little easier for the future, but there are many fields to fill in and some might struggle to easily do this on a mobile phone, especially under time pressure at the airport. I had filled out my forms but some at the airport had not. In particular, there was one elderly lady who had not filled the form out and was struggling to set up an account and fill in the necessary details.
The key tip here is to not wait until you are at the airport to have everything in order. This will avoid stress and delays for yourself and others who may get stuck behind you! Timing is key as you can only fill out the form within 48 hours of your flight’s departure.
Ben’s British Airways flight home from Athens (ATH), Greece to London Heathrow (LHR) had long check-in queues, even for Club Europe, as test results and passenger locator forms were checked manually. Queues did move quickly and the flight departed on time, though you should definitely allow more time than usual to check-in.
The couple checking in next to Ben for his flight tried to use a free NHS COVID-19 test result to return to the United Kingdom. The check-in agent politely but firmly advised the pair this was not an acceptable test to use. They immediately panicked given the flight departed less than two hours later, but Athens has rapid onsite testing available, which delivered results in less than 30 minutes.
The pair took this test and had no trouble boarding the flight in time. As tempting as it might be to use a free NHS test, these will not be accepted for travel.
On the flight
Aside from having to wear a mask at all times except when eating and drinking, the flight experience on this Virgin long-haul flight was relatively normal. The service in Upper Class onboard the Virgin Atlantic A350 was getting close to “normal” with pyjamas, amenity kits, bedding and an almost full meal service including alcohol.
For Ben, the meal served in British Airways Club Europe from Athens (ATH) to Heathrow was the same as he would expect prior to the pandemic. Champagne flowed freely, with crew eager to offer top-ups.
Most crew members wore masks the entire flight though Ben did observe one Club Europe crew member who had removed his mask while serving the evening meal which was an odd lapse in judgment considering how strictly the airline had insisted passengers adhere to mask rules.
Pillows and blankets were also at each seat prior to boarding — the blankets were wrapped in plastic, while the pillows were not.
Arrival at LHR and immigration
The part of the return I was most nervous about was immigration at Heathrow and the potential queues. I arrived at Terminal 2 at around 2 p.m. and after a relatively long walk to the immigration hall, I was met by hoards of people, all having flown in from different places. A flight had just landed from Israel at the same time, for example — but Israel is on the green list and the U.S. is on the amber list. The passengers coming from Israel would not be quarantining but were thrown in the same queues as amber list arrivals.
Only two of the many eGates and three staffed immigration desks were open for those with biometric passports from U.K., EU and some other nations. It made little sense that only two eGates were open and passengers we arbitrarily directed to eGates or staffed desks.
After a full hour of queuing (this was actually shorter than I expected after first seeing the line), I reached a member of Heathrow Airport staff who directed me to a desk. The immigration officer asked where I had arrived from and scanned my passport. They seemed to mumble under their breath “PLF, day two day eight tests” whilst looking at the screen, as if they could see this information when they scanned my passport. I was a little surprised by this but didn’t verify what they could actually see. I wasn’t asked any further questions and was handed by my passport after around 15 seconds, formalities completed.
I noticed other passengers spending far longer at the desks, so perhaps more thorough checks were done of some passengers. In theory, all documentation should be in order to even board flights, so the difference between my 15 seconds with an officer and the 10 minutes or so others seemed to spend seemed strange.
Ben landed at Terminal 5 around 8 p.m. on a Sunday evening. As he was seated in Club Europe and therefore in the front of the aircraft, he was one of the first off the plane. There was a sizeable queue in the immigration hall, however, despite hearing horror stories of these queues taking several hours, he only waited about 30 minutes before he reached the front.
Only around one-quarter of the eGates were switched on, with about half of the arriving passengers directed to use eGates and the other half directed towards staffed desks to be processed manually.
Ben observed a good percentage of passengers being rejected by the eGates and sent to staffed desks but he managed to pass through the eGate without any manual checks of his documentation. He noticed special queues and lanes at Terminal 5 for arrivals from red list countries, though there were no passengers using these at the time.
I took advantage of an offer on my Platinum Card from American Express for the taxi company Wheely. I pre-booked the car, was met with a sign in the arrivals hall and took the car straight home to my flat to begin my quarantine.
Quarantine lasts for 10 days, however, you can choose to test to release after 5 days in England using Test to Release. Note that Test to Release is only available in England — not the other devolved nations.
I was called by track and trace on four of the first five days of my quarantine. I answered each call immediately and the calls each lasted around 20 minutes and went through a long script of confirmations on my location and advice on the actions I needed to take. I didn’t have anyone visit my home from track and track or the police.
Ben was called almost every day of his 10-day quarantine period at approximately the same time each day by a different person each call. He was able to answer most calls and recommends having your phone in your pocket on vibrate at all times, even if a cooking emergency sets the smoke alarm off in your flat as it did with his.
Each call lasted around five minutes and was mostly an NHS test and trace member reading from a script of disclaimers and legal obligations. The only real questions he was asked was to confirm he was isolating at the address given, that he had taken his tests and if he had any questions.
Day two and Day eight tests
Ben and I both elected to use the government-approved provider Randox. I had read good reviews and was also aware of the British Airways discount code BritishAirways43, which brought the total cost of the tests down from an already reasonable £96 to £86. I ordered these a couple of weeks before my return to the U.K. and they were already at home waiting for me when I got back.
I took these tests and immediately dropped them off at my local DX dropbox on days two and eight, respectively, although for the day two test, you are actually permitted to take it on days zero, one or two. It is important to understand in advance how you will receive these tests and how you are able to send them back to the provider. You are permitted to leave your quarantine to send these tests.
Test to Release
This is where Ben and I deviated on cost and experience. I was eager to Test to Release as soon as possible and so I chose to book an in-clinic test on day five with a same-day result. This urgency meant paying a higher price and my test cost £159.
I booked my test through the provider DocTap at 9:15 a.m. on the morning of day five of my quarantine at a pharmacy in Belsize Park. I queued for around 15 minutes before being let in for the test, which was completed in a couple of minutes.
I received update emails throughout the day: The test was sent to the lab at 12:29 p.m., started processing in the lab at 2:35 p.m. and I finally received my negative test and was able to release from quarantine at 9:01 p.m.
I had hoped to receive the results earlier, so if you are committed to an earlier release, you might want to find a provider that guarantees a result within a certain amount of hours, rather than just same day.
Ben shopped around for the cheapest Test to Release option, which was through Randox with a next-day result. As the next day was a Saturday and he really didn’t fancy the thought of sitting home all day to wait for the result, he chose a slightly more expensive same-day-result service at London City Airport (LCY) through Collinson Group.
This was normally £95 but reduced to £76 with the discount code Lcytest.
He booked the earliest available spot on his day five (7 a.m.) and the test was quick and well organised. Ben received a negative result around 7 p.m. that day. Oddly, NHS test and trace continued to call even after he advised them he had received a negative test result through Test to Release, and had ended his self-isolation early, in accordance with the amber rules.
They even called him on day 10 and said You can end your self-isolation at midnight tonight,” to which he reminded them of the Test to Release rules and that he had ended his self-isolation several days earlier. It appeared to Ben as if NHS test and trace did not record if he was participating in Test to Release. Given the cost of same-day tests, it’s also frustrating the testing provider doesn’t appear to advise NHS of the test result either.
As the sole reason for paying for and taking the additional test was to end self-isolation early, Ben found it disappointing and frustrating that neither the testing provider nor NHS seems to be tracking this additional test.
Note, too, that both Ben and I had to also complete our day eight test, even though we had already ended our self-isolation.
With many hoops to jump through to return to the U.K. regardless of what list the country you are coming from falls on, you have to have your wits about you. It is essential to plan ahead, fill out all the necessary forms and do research in order to find solid testing providers at good prices. Hopefully, our hard work and our experiences outlined above will help you navigate your next journey home successfully.
Features image by Nicky Kelvin / The Points Guy
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