Europe’s biggest budget airline is taking an extraordinary approach to post-Brexit rules for British passport holders.
With easyJet dropping its previous claim that passengers needed six months’ validity, it is believed that all UK airlines are now following the rules – and denying boarding only when travellers breach European regulations.
Dublin-based Ryanair, though, is thought to be turning thousands of passengers away each day needlessly, with decisions based on rules of its own invention.
These are the key differences between what the rules actually are and what the Ryanair immigration department claims them to be.
What’s the background?
While the UK was in the European Union, all British passports were valid up to and including their expiry date anywhere in the EU.
But when leaving the EU, the UK asked to become subject to the “third country national” rules that it helped to establish while a member.
(These do not apply to travel between the UK and Ireland: the Common Travel Area rules mean British travellers do not even need a passport to travel to and from the republic, unless their airline requires it.)
Europe’s rules are more complicated than in other parts of the world, because they consider the issue date as well as the expiry date of the passport.
The British practice of extending passports to take into account “unspent” time when renewing early means that some travellers are ineligible to enter.
Regrettably, the rules have been widely misreported by the media and misinterpreted by the travel industry. Claims in some newspapers that “your passport runs out nine years and nine months after the date it was issued” are misleading and damaging – and help Ryanair defend policies completely out of line with reality.
What are the rules?
- Issue date: a British passport cannot be 10 years old or older on the day of entry to the European Union and wider Schengen Area – including Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. For example, a British passport issued on 1 July 2012 cannot be used to enter the EU after 30 June 2022.
- Expiry date: on the intended day of departure from the European Union, the passport must have at least three months remaining before the printed expiry date. For example, with a passport expiring on 1 December 2022, a British traveller must intend to leave the EU by 1 September 2022.
Crucially, the European Commission has confirmed repeatedly to The Independent that these two conditions are not connected.
For the purposes of the expiry date condition, the EU recognises any extra time added to UK passports beyond 10 years.
What is Ryanair claiming differently?
Let’s start with adult passports, issued for 10 years or more. Ryanair told The Independent: “As of 1 January 2021, UK passport holders who are travelling into a Schengen member state (except Ireland) must make sure that their passport is not used during the extended validity from the 10-year date.”
This is untrue. A British passport can happily be used beyond its 10th birthday, so long as it was under 10 years old at the point of entering the EU.
Passengers are also told: “If you are using a British passport to travel, it must be valid for a minimum of six months from the date of entry to any EU member state. If your passport is valid for more than 10 years, the excess validity period will not help to satisfy the requirements needed for travel to an EU member state.”
Again, this is wrong.
But I have to tick a box saying I agree to that condition: doesn’t that legitimise Ryanair’s policy?
No. The leading consumer lawyer, Gary Rycroft, partner at Joseph A Jones in Lancaster, said: “Denying a passenger boarding by saying their passport is not valid, when it is in fact perfectly valid, is unlawful.
“Ryanair cannot act in that way and then rely on a clause in their terms and conditions under which the passenger has ticked a box to say they have a passport which has six months left to run when asking that question has no relevance to whether the passenger can board a particular flight.
“Seeking to rely on such a clause is unlawful. It is a well-established principle in law that any contractual term that is unlawful may simply be severed, that is chopped out of the contract as if it was never there.”
What is the Ryanair policy for children’s passports?
The airline’s misrepresentation of European passport rules for passengers under 16 at the point of issue is even more extreme.
Ryanair told The Independent: “Under current EU rules which apply, a child’s passport must be no more than five years old on the date of travel.”
This is untrue.
The European conditions make no reference whatsoever to children’s passports. The only restriction on the age of the passport is the 10 years on entry rule. British passports for children are issued for a maximum of five years and nine months, and thereby all meet the “under 10 years” condition.
In the real world, the big problem with children’s passports is that their shorter validity means they are more likely to hit the “three months until expiry” rule on the intended day of leaving the EU.
What does Ryanair say?
“Ryanair complies with all European Commission travel regulations.”
What does the UK government say?
Unfortunately, the Foreign Office and Home Office claim there is still some uncertainty over whether the three months’ validity rule applies to 10 years after issue or the actual expiry date. There isn’t, and all the official correspondence from the European Commission has been passed to the government repeatedly.
The FCDO travel advice for Spain and other EU countries reads: “We are asking the European Commission to clarify the 10-year rule. Their guidance for Schengen border guards may not be updated until the spring of 2022.
“Until then, for some Schengen countries your passport may need to be less than 10 years old during your whole visit, and the three months at the end of your visit may need to be within 10 years of your passport’s issue date.”
The Independent has asked the UK government to provide a single example of when the invented “nine years, nine months” rule has been applied to the detriment of a British traveller. No example has been provided.
What happens next?
The Independent has asked the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to intervene to end the extreme emotional and financial harm that Ryanair is causing to British travellers.
The CAA, though, is part of the Department for Transport (DfT) and in the uncomfortable position of having to challenge other government departments over their ambivalent statements.
Now Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Transport Select Committee, has become involved. He tweeted: “This is a growing cause of public concern and enquiry.
“Our airlines need to give the correct advice and update their websites.”
The Independent will continue strenuously to lobby Ryanair and official bodies to align with the actual European rules.
What if I was denied boarding by Ryanair – or any other airline?
First, check whether you were wrongly turned away. Many people have been correctly denied boarding because their passports do not meet one or both of the two conditions: less than 10 years old on day of entry to the EU, at least three months remaining to expiry date on intended day of exit.
If you were wrongly denied boarding, you are due recompense. The starting point is statutory compensation: £220 for flights of under 1,500km (as far as London-Budapest) and £350 for longer flights. You are entitled to get your air fare refunded. If you flew with another airline at a higher fare then claim for this ticket – Ryanair can subtract your original payment from the bill.
For package holidays, the organiser of that trip should refund the whole amount. The contract for delivery of the holiday was not fulfilled by the firm (albeit because of Ryanair’s mistake) and you are due all your money back.
For independent trips, denied-boarding passengers are likely to be able to claim for the costs they lost for elements such as accommodation and car rental.
The airline, not unreasonably, will want full receipts – and may ask for confirmation that the payment was not partially or fully refundable.