Covid restrictions and Brexit confusion see UK nationals turned away from flights to Spain

A number of would-be travelers reported problems this weekend when trying to return to their adoptive country, after airlines refused to accept their green paper identity cards as proof of residency

British travelers trying to check in for a flight to Spain at Heathrow airport this weekend.
British travelers trying to check in for a flight to Spain at Heathrow airport this weekend.Max Duncan (AP)

A number of United Kingdom nationals (UKNs) with Spanish residency took to social media at the weekend to report that they had been prevented from boarding flights bound for Spain after airlines such as British Airways and Iberia would not accept their green paper identity cards as proof that they resided in the country.

After a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus was identified in the UK, Spain opted on December 21 to restrict arrivals from the country to only Spanish citizens and those with official residency. This measure was initially to remain in force until January 5, but has since been extended until January 19.

However, after January 1, when the Brexit transition period came to an end and the UK definitively left the European Union, it appears the airlines in question – who are part of the IAG group – began to refuse to accept the green paper cards as proof as residency, despite both the Spanish and UK authorities clearly stating that these remain valid. The airlines would only accept the new Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero biometric identity card for UKNs, known by its initials TIE, despite the acquisition of these cards not currently being obligatory.

Madrid-based journalist Max Duncan was one of the first affected travelers to report the problem, after he and a group of UK passengers were not allowed to check in by staff at former Spanish flag carrier Iberia. “9 people refused for 10.55 Madrid flight,” he wrote via Twitter on Saturday. “Iberia said to contact Spanish consulate, emergency weekend staff have no solution, said overwhelmed by calls.”

A similar issue was reported by a number of members of various Facebook groups, including one would-be traveler who, despite arriving at the airport with a valid passport, green residency card, the QR code needed for travelers arriving in Spain and the required negative PCR coronavirus test, was apparently refused check-in and told he “needed a letter from the Spanish government.”

Another traveler, named James Elliot, wrote via Twitter: “I was booked on BA0482 flying to Barcelona, Spain today. I had all the correct documentation including UK passport, green residents card, negative Covid test and was turned away by the check-in manager.”

The official Twitter account of the British Embassy in Madrid, UK in Spain, replied to Max Duncan, stating: “This should not be happening, the Spanish authorities have reconfirmed again this evening that the green residency document will be valid for travel to return to Spain as stated in our travel advice.”

On Sunday, the Spanish Embassy in the UK also released a statement in which it said that it was aware of the problems that UKNs had been having in returning to Spain, and confirmed that the “‘Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión Europea,’” i.e. the green certificate, “and the new ‘Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero’ are valid proof of residency for UK nationals who wish to return to their homes in Spain.”

The statement added that UK nationals who can prove that they have started their residency process, but who do not yet have their new TIE card, “should also be allowed to board flights to return to Spain.” The statement said that the “Government of Spain will put in place this measure for a grace period of seven days from 4 January 2021.” It added that the document “resguardo de solicitud o renovación de tarjeta de extranjero,” i.e. the receipt given to TIE applicants, can be considered as acceptable evidence when flying.

On Sunday, the communications department from the British Embassy in Madrid confirmed to EL PAÍS that the Spanish embassy had restated the rules with airlines and ferry services, meaning that the problems some travelers encountered at the weekend should not be repeated.

According to several UK dailies, BA said in a statement: “In these difficult and unprecedented times with dynamic travel restrictions, we are doing everything we can to help and support our customers.”

News agency AP reported Spain’s Foreign Ministry as saying that there had been “an isolated communication problem with some airlines that affected a very small number of travelers” and that air traffic between the two countries had returned to “normality” by Sunday afternoon.

Also on Sunday, Max Duncan confirmed to EL PAÍS that other travelers who had been denied passage on Saturday had now been allowed to fly, but that he would have to wait to catch a later flight given that his PCR test was by that point more than 72 hours old and as such no longer valid.

On Sunday evening, another journalist, Ruth Edwards, wrote via Twitter that her British Airways flight from Heathrow to Málaga had arrived without incident, “despite worries that our green residency cards might not be accepted due to issues people had yesterday.” She added: “Feels very strange to be returning not as an EU citizen…”

Confusion over residency cards

Reaction to these incidents on social media over the weekend reflected the confusion that persists among some United Kingdom nationals as to the validity of their green paper residency certificates, with a number of posts claiming that they were no longer valid post-Brexit and had been superseded by the new TIE card.

The official advice, however, both from the Spanish and British authorities, is that under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the UK and the EU, “the registration certificate (known as, green certificate) either A4 size or credit card,” proves that holders “are beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement” and therefore hold residency status.

On the gov.uk page under the Living in Spain section, the UK authorities state: "You can exchange your paper EU residence document for the new TIE but you are not obliged to. The Spanish government recommends obtaining the TIE because the biometric card is more durable and may simplify some administrative processes.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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