Crete London

The traffic light system – part 1

Cheerio from London, where we are still in Stage 3 of lockdown easing, and I’m in a 10-day travel quarantine. We entered Stage 3 on May 17, and a lot of perks came along with Stage 3, like being able to dine and drink indoors, go to cinemas and theatres, hug family members (haven’t seen them since December 2019), and stay at hotels.

Another big perk that came with Stage 3 is that it is no longer illegal to travel out of the UK to go on vacation, though these are just words to make us feel warm and fuzzy. In practicality, it’s difficult and risky to do so.

Peter and I had a lot riding on the May 17 date because our vacation to Crete scheduled for May 2020 was postponed to May 2021, and though we’ve had many (many!) false starts with this vacation, we did successfully travel to Greece on June 5th, 2021. Our itinerary did not contain a single element of our May 2020 itinerary – not the accommodation, not travel month/dates, not the locations in Crete, etc. It was a completely new itinerary.

Just a heads up that this post is long and written with an educational intent mainly for UK holidaymakers considering traveling to/from an amber-list country, but it will also give insight into the complicated world of traveling in/out of the UK to non-UK readers. Oh, what freedoms people in the US have where they can hop on a plane and go to a different state without restrictions.

Here’s a list of shortcuts if you’re looking for specific information regarding traveling from an amber-list country to England, including details of our experiences with testing providers, turnaround times, etc.

Traffic light system

The traffic light system is a set of rules and requirements for travelers ENTERING the UK from abroad. At the time of writing, the rules and requirements apply to all incoming travelers to the UK regardless if the traveler is unvaccinated, single-jabbed, or double-jabbed and regardless if the traveler has legal rights to live in the UK (exception: travelers entering from red-list countries must have legal rights to live in the UK).

Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England each have their own set of rules. Since we live in England and traveled to Greece, this post will focus on the rules and requirements for entering England and Greece.

The rules and requirements for ENTERING England from abroad are defined by England’s traffic light system, which categorizes countries into three colors: green, amber, and red. England reviews the green and red lists (these lists are short) every three weeks. Greece is currently designated as an amber-list country.

When entering England from abroad, green-list countries have the least strict requirements, red-list countries have the most strict, and amber-list countries fall in the middle, more closely aligned to red-list countries than green-list countries.

Here’s an infographic outlining the rules/requirements to ENTER the UK by country color.

In addition to England’s traffic light system, travelers must research and comply with the entry requirements for their destination country. Just because the UK government allows travel to a country does not mean that the destination country accepts UK travelers, and it’s shocking how many people do not understand this and consequently get into a bind.

Note: This is the first time that UK citizens and residents have been allowed to travel post-Brexit, which is adding a layer of confusion for some.

Amber-list rules and requirements

The UK government does not want people traveling to amber-list countries, but at the same time, they’ve said it’s OK to travel to amber-list countries by the mere fact of having an amber list. They’ve implemented an exhaustive list of rules and requirements to deter people from traveling out of the UK.

The two main deterrents with amber-list countries are (1) multiple and costly covid tests and (2) a 10-day quarantine upon arriving in the UK.

In addition to covid tests and quarantine, travelers need to avoid society in the two-week period leading up to their departure out of the UK to limit their exposure to covid and their close contact with covid-positive strangers. I call this the pre-departure danger zone.

Catching covid in the pre-departure danger zone will likely result in a positive pre-departure test and a canceled vacation. Uh oh.

The second risk in the pre-departure danger zone is coming into close contact with a covid-positive stranger. This is slightly more complex and entails using the NHS Test and Trace app (known formally in app stores as “NHS COVID-19”).

In England, we are supposed to check in to the app every time we enter a shop, restaurant, pub, etc. If another person is checked in to the same venue as we are and that person later tests positive, we’d (in theory) be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to quarantine for 10 days, and that quarantine period would probably overlap with the vacation. Uh oh.

Factoring in the pre-departure danger zone, the vacation period, and the post-vacation quarantine, a 10-day vacation to an amber-list country impacts 28-33 days of a traveler’s life, depending on if they opt into the Test to Release scheme. More on that in a bit.

Greece entry requirements

Let’s start with the Greece entry requirements, as they existed on June 5th, 2021, which was the date we arrived in Greece.

  • Complete a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) no later than 23:59 on the day before arrival in Greece
  • Take a PCR test within 72 hours prior to arriving in Greece

Note: We are single-jabbed, so we were required to take a PCR test before our UK departure. There are different requirements for double-jabbed visitors and visitors who have recovered from covid. More details can be found on Greece’s official travel website here.

Note: As of June 22nd, 2021, Greece modified its arrival testing requirement (and, for some reason, backdated it to May 14th, 2021). In addition to PCR tests, Greece now accepts rapid antigen tests taken within 48 hours prior to arriving in Greece. For up-to-date information, consult Greece’s official travel website here.

Greece’s 72-hour PCR testing window is 72 hours from your arrival time in Greece, not 72 hours from your arrival day or three calendar days. Don’t forget to factor in time zone differences and the possibility of late arrivals when calculating the 72-hour window.

As an example, our flight was scheduled to arrive at 17:00 on a Saturday, and Greece is two hours ahead of the UK. Our departure PCR test timeline looked like this:

Wednesday 15:00 BST72-hour testing window begins
Thursday09:00 BSTPCR test w/next day results
Friday23:59 BSTPCR test results due
Saturday17:00 EESTFlight arrives in Greece

Now, let’s say your PCR test was negative, and you’ve boarded the plane. Woo hoo! No. Don’t let out a sigh of relief just yet. There are two more hurdles to overcome before you can claim vacation victory.

1) Greece randomly tests incoming visitors. I was selected for random testing in July 2020 when we traveled to Crete. I was told to stay away from people for the next 24 hours and that they’d contact me if the result was positive.

2) If a person on your flight tests positive, you may be contacted and required to go into hotel quarantine because of your close contact with the covid-positive person. This hotel quarantine is at the expense of the Greek government.

England entry requirements (amber-list, unvaccinated)

Next, let’s run through the amber-list entry requirements for ENTERING England from abroad. All of the covid tests are at the expense of the traveler.

  • Take a PCR or Antigen test in the 3 days before the service (e.g. flight, ferry) on which you will arrive in England departs
  • Complete a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) within 48 hours prior to arriving in the UK
  • Quarantine at home for 10 days (less if opting into the Test to Release scheme)
  • Take a PCR test on or before day 2 of home quarantine
  • Take an optional PCR test on day 5 of home quarantine (if opting into the Test to Release scheme)
  • Take a PCR test on or after day 8 of home quarantine

Note: The UK’s 3-day testing window for Test A includes the three calendar days preceding your departure day. As an example, if you arrive in England on a Sunday, your test must be taken on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (unsure if Sunday is acceptable, but I assume it is). 


Apologies for the tiny font in the calendar screenshots below.

Before we departed for Greece, I mapped out all of our tasks (tests, forms, etc.) that we needed to complete on a calendar to limit the risk of missing a deadline and having to use my time on vacation researching this stuff.

The first calendar layer contains three color-coded periods for the pre-departure danger zone period (yellow), the vacation period (blue), and the post-vacation quarantine (green). The events on the 12th and 22nd are the departures to Greece and to the UK, respectively.

The color-coded periods represent the 28-33 days of a holidaymaker’s life that are impacted by a 10-day vacation to an amber-list country. The reason for the range of days is the Test to Release scheme. A traveler can opt into this scheme by taking an extra PCR test on day 5 of quarantine in the UK. If the day 5 PCR test yields a negative result, the traveler can release from quarantine immediately upon receiving the negative test result.

Note: There are 11 blue highlighted days for the 10-day vacation period because the travel day back to the UK (on the 22nd) is not counted as a vacation day, nor is it counted as a quarantine day. This day is defined as day 0 of quarantine by England.

The second calendar layer (below) contains covid test planning, ordering, and booking. In total, there are four required covid tests for round-trip travel between the UK and Greece. It’s five tests if opting into the Test to Release scheme.

  • Test A: Pre-departure PCR test in the UK (Greek requirement)
  • Test B: Pre-departure test in Greece (UK requirement)
  • Tests C-E: Quarantine PCR tests in the UK (2 or 3 tests, depending on if opted into the Test to Release scheme)

The tasks on the 1st and 6th are to book and/or order all four, or in our case, all five tests.

The events on the 10th, 21st, 24th, 27th, and 30th are the five covid tests, including the optional Test to Release test on day 5 of quarantine. The second event on the 12th is the random Antigen test that may occur after passing through Greek immigration.

Test A: pre-departure test in the UK

The pre-departure test in the UK is a Greek requirement and needs to be coordinated a couple of weeks before departing the UK, either by ordering an at-home test kit or by booking an in-person test appointment at a testing center or partner pharmacy.

Below is a short list of pre-departure options offered by covid testing providers that I researched in the UK. There are hundreds of providers!

  • At-home tests that are mailed back (no mail service on Sundays or government holidays!)
  • At-home tests that are dropped off at designated drop boxes
  • At-home tests that are collected and dropped off at partner pharmacies
  • At-home tests that are delivered by courier, and the courier waits and then delivers the completed test to wherever it needs to go
  • In-person tests at partner pharmacies
  • In-person tests at travel clinics or testing centers

The price of a PCR test ranges from £60 (with an airline discount) for an at-home test with next-day results to £230 for an in-person test at a travel clinic with same-day results (this price is an outlier, however). During my research, I found that test prices and options were changing on a weekly basis.

Test prices have reduced by about 75% from when I first started researching our options in early May 2021. The tests that we booked earlier this month are now advertised at a lower price, and while we were in Greece, the testing provider terminated their partnership with the pharmacy where we had booked our tests and automatically moved our appointments to the testing center they’d opened about a mile from our flat. It’s the Wild Wild West out there!

We booked our pre-departure PCR tests (“Test A”) at the Randox Travel Centre in London because (1) we were concerned about mail delays, and (2) we wanted a professional to conduct the test to ensure a proper sample was obtained.

Test A is the most important test; therefore, is not a test you should mess around with. If this test can be done by a travel clinic or partner pharmacy professional, I highly recommend choosing that route. Don’t put your vacation in the hands of Royal Mail and DHL and their delays with a mail-in test kit!

We paid £85 per test with next day results (defined as by 23:59 the next day). Here’s how that went.

Thursday 09:15Tests conducted at Randox Travel Centre
Friday06:30Received confirmation that our samples had arrived at the laboratory
Friday18:04Received our test results and Fit to Fly certificate

We were very pleased with the process and turnaround time Randox provided and will use Randox for future UK departures where a PCR test is required by the destination country.

Test B: pre-departure test at the destination

Antigen, PCR, and LAMP tests are all acceptable types of tests (“Test B”) to ENTER England; however, for cost and convenience sake, the at-home (taken at your destination) Antigen test is the obvious winner.

Note: Confirm the type of tests that are accepted by your airline and your departure country. Just because the UK accepts multiple tests does not mean the country you are departing from or the airline you are flying accepts the same tests. Kenya is an example of this – they only accept PCR tests when departing Kenya.

To prevent fraudulent testing, the identity of the traveler taking the at-home test must be confirmed and linked to the test kit serial number. In the case of pre-ordered, at-home Antigen test kits, this is accomplished via a telehealth/telecare appointment.

Here’s how that process worked for us.

A couple of weeks prior to departing to Greece, I ordered Antigen test kits (via British Airways recommendation) from a company called Qured (pronounced “cured”) for £39 per test.

The test kits arrived at our flat the following day, and we booked our future telehealth/telecare test appointments online. We brought these test kits with us to Greece and conducted the tests poolside under the watchful eye of a Qured representative through the Qured online portal two days before departing to the UK.

It was so easy. So simple. So carefree.

Here’s how the Qured testing telehealth appointment went.

09:00Connected to the Qured online portal for introductions and instructions
09:06Self-administered the Antigen tests and set a timer for 15 minutes
09:21Emailed photos of the test cassettes showing the results
09:25Received confirmation that they received the test result photos and are processing the paperwork
09:31Received our Fit to Fly certificates

Protip: Research testing centers at your destination as a backup for the scenario where your Antigen test comes back inconclusive (usually due to inadequate sample size).

Tests C-E: quarantine tests

There are two tests that are required during the post-vacation, 10-day quarantine in the UK.

  • PCR test on or before day 2 of quarantine
  • PCR test on or after day 8 of quarantine

Note: Testing provider, Randox, states in their FAQs that the arrival time must be taken into account when taking the day 8 test. For example, if you arrive at 4pm on the 19th, then you must take and register for your day 8 test after 4pm on the 27th.

The UK government website does not include arrival time as a requirement for the day 8 test. The website states, “take a day 8 test after you arrive in England – on or after day 8”.

Note: If you do not opt into the Test to Release scheme, you cannot release from quarantine until you have received a negative test result for your day 8 test or are told otherwise by NHS Test and Trace.

If opting in to the Test to Release scheme, quarantiners will take a third PCR test on day 5 of quarantine.

Note: Quarantine tests are not required to be booked before departing to your destination; however, they must be booked before departing TO the UK. Our testing provider, DocTap, provided a single booking reference number for each set of the day 2 and 8 tests, and these numbers were required on the UK PLFs. More on PLFs here

We decided to go all-in with in-person testing with DocTap for our quarantine tests. We are not in the norm here; the majority of people will book at-home/mail test kits for all of their quarantine tests because of the price. More on that later.

The one perk that DocTap got us was that we were allowed to leave our flat during quarantine to get tested, and walking the mile to and from the testing center was the absolute slowest pace I have ever walked in my life. Babies crawl faster than the pace I walked.

Here’s how our day 2 tests went, and I anticipate the same turnaround time for our day 8 tests.

Tuesday 10:15Tests conducted at the DocTap testing center
Tuesday17:10Received confirmation that our samples were on their way to the laboratory
Wednesday05:40Received notification that our samples were being tested
Wednesday12:11Received our test results 26 hours after taking the tests

We were pleased with the process, and turnaround time DocTap provided for all quarantine tests and will use DocTap for our day 5 test (Test to Release) but may opt for a cheaper at-home/mail test kit for days 2 and 8.

Test to Release

We opted into the Test to Release scheme, and our testing provider, DocTap, provided a separate booking reference number for our Test to Release tests, and these numbers were also entered on the UK PLFs.

Note: Quarantiners who have opted into the Test to Release scheme are still required to take a PCR test on or after day 8 of quarantine.

The Test to Release scheme, if all goes swimmingly, can cut quarantine from 10 to 5 days if you get your day 5 test results the same day. However, there is one scenario that can occur and could make a grown man cry.

If you test negative on day 5 and release from quarantine and then test positive on day 8, the 10-day quarantine starts over at 1, beginning on the day AFTER you took your day 8 test. And your household goes into quarantine with you for the same duration under the same rules. Oh boy.

Now, an unfortunate thing happened to me on day 4 of quarantine. I was contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told that I had come into close contact with a person who had later tested positive. Due to this, I was not eligible for the Test to Release scheme and was told that I had to quarantine for the full 10 days.

Here’s how that contact tracing went.

DayQuarantine dayAction
Saturday0Flight from Greece to the UK aka “close contact day”
Monday2The covid-positive person takes their day 2 test and mails their sample to the laboratory
Tuesday3The laboratory receives the sample, likely that evening
Wednesday4-The laboratory starts testing the sample and notifies the covid-positive person that they are positive
-NHS Test and Trace gets involved and conducts contact tracing
-NHS Test and Trace notifies me of my close contact and tells me that I must self-isolate for 10 days from the date of my last contact with the covid-positive person

NHS Test and Trace informed me that the date of my close contact with the covid-positive stranger was our travel day from Greece to the UK.

The close contact was either someone on our 30-passenger flight who tested positive or, a more unlikely scenario, tracking by the Home Office and my movement through Heathrow immigration and the ePassport gates.

I immediately canceled my day 5 test with DocTap since I was no longer eligible for the Test to Release scheme. Peter proceeded with his day 5 test because he was not contacted by NHS Test and Trace. None of this made sense but at least one of us got out of quarantine.

Here’s how Peter’s day 5 test went.

Thursday 10:15Test conducted at the DocTap testing center
Thursday13:19Received confirmation that his sample was on its way to the laboratory
Thursday14:12Received notification that his sample was being tested
Thursday20:27Received a negative test result

Test costs

Below is a breakdown of our covid test costs. It’s complete nonsense.

Testing providerTestResultGBPUSD
Randox (Test A)Pre-departure – CamieNext day85120
Randox (Test A)Pre-departure – PeterNext day85120
Qured (Test B)Pre-departure – Camie20 minutes3955
Qured (Test B)Pre-departure – Peter20 minutes3955
DocTap (Test C)Quarantine day 2 – CamieNext day129180
DocTap (Test C)Quarantine day 2 – PeterNext day99140
DocTap (Test D)Test to Release (day 5) – CamieSame-day129180
DocTap (Test D)Test to Release (day 5) – PeterSame-day129180
DocTap (Test E)Quarantine day 8 – CamieNext day109150
DocTap (Test E)Quarantine day 8 – PeterNext day109150
Grand total£932

Passenger Locator Forms (PLFs)

The third calendar layer (yep, still layering) contains the tasks for completing and submitting the Passenger Locator Forms (PLF) that are required to enter Greece and the UK. The only thing that the forms have in common is their name so pay attention to their instructions.

The Greek PLF was very simple and only took a couple of minutes to fill out. The UK PLF takes about 20 minutes to fill out.

Another difference is that Greece requires all members of a household to be included on one PLF, whereas the UK requires every adult to submit their own PLF (under-18s should be included on an adult’s UK PLF).

The tasks on the 11th and the 21st are PLF submissions for Greece and the UK, respectively.

PLF submission timelines differ slightly, but when flying between the UK and Greece, you’ll be good to go if you submit the forms in the morning on the days before your departures.

Note: Quarantine tests are required to be booked prior to departing TO the UK. Tests are assigned booking reference numbers, and these are required on the UK PLF.

NHS Test and Trace

We have been called daily by NHS Test and Tracers whilst in quarantine. My calls were sometimes twice per day because of my unique situation of already being in amber-list quarantine whilst also being contacted as having come in close contact with a covid-positive person. I have also received text messages and had to log into the Test and Trace portal and input information. It has been out of control.

The tracers read from a script, and it has been nearly the same script every day. Every question on the script is a question they know the answers to based on information we provided on our UK PLFs and on information provided by our testing provider.

These phone calls provide no value to the person in quarantine. Not once have we been asked if we are physically at home or if we needed help with anything. If I had a question, I don’t have confidence that they would know the answer. They are there to read a script, and that’s it. It is a complete waste of government money.

Script question examples:

  • Have you entered the UK from abroad in the past 10 days?
  • Have you received your day 2 test kit?
  • Have you received your day 2 test results?
  • Did you opt into Test to Release?

Barring my day 8 test is negative, I’ll officially be released from amber-list quarantine on June 29th. Peter was released the evening of June 24th. Our vacation in Greece was 14 days, and I will have spent 10 days in post-vacation quarantine, 11 if you count our travel day back to the UK where we went straight from Heathrow to our flat and remained there until Monday morning when we had our day 2 tests.

What will I do when I’m released from quarantine?

The first thing I will do is get my second jab which is booked bright and early on June 30th. Then I will go sit in a coffee shop and drink a flat white. Then I will go to the gym. I may even walk the “Covid Triangle” just for fun.

Resources and testing providers

Below is a list of resources I used to prep for our vacation in Greece.

Greece arrival information + PLF
Note: There is a large section of information below the blue header section.
England pre-arrival testing requirementsLink
UK-approved testing providersLink
British Airways: General rules for leaving and entering England Link
British Airways: Discounted testing providersLink
Randox testing (in-person at the London travel center)Link
Randox testing (at-home test kits)Link
Qured testingLink
DocTap testingLink

Related traffic light system posts

Below are the related posts in this unpleasant traffic light system mini-series.

  • Part 1 (this post) – Amber country, single-jabbed (June 2021)
  • Part 2 – Amber country, double-jabbed (August 2021)
  • Part 3 – Green country, double-jabbed (September 2021)
  • Part 4 – Amber country, double-jabbed (September 2021)

1 comment on “The traffic light system – part 1

  1. Hi there! This post could not be written much better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I am going to forward this article to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

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