A recent trip I took to France coincided with the country's ongoing battle with its fifth wave of the pandemic and the emergence of the Omicron strain of COVID-19. Here's what it felt like visit this winter, and what to expect if you're traveling there soon.

France largely opened to tourists this summer and while there are strict rules regarding health passes at the border and on the ground, almost everything is open. Tourist attractions are welcoming visitors, restaurants are full, bars are buzzing, and most seats are occupied under the brass banquets and striped canopies of Paris' iconic sidewalk cafes. But that's not to say it's business as usual.

Read more: The latest France health and safety information

I spent a week in France at the start of December, traveling between Rennes in Brittany and Paris. Three days before I departed, news broke that the Omicron variant had been detected in South Africa. The day I landed in Charles de Gaulle, France had recorded six cases of Omicron, and Delta-driven infections were quickly rising too. In an attempt to curb the surge, midway through my trip officials announced nightclubs would close for four weeks and entry rules would be tightened at the border with all non-EU travelers now required to present a negative test before arrival.

Woman wearing mask at a Paris metro station stop
Face masks are required on public transport in France © Sasha Brady

Traveling to France: what documentation do you need?

Entry requirements vary depending on travelers' vaccination status, but under the latest rules people from outside the EU are now required to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test (PCR or antigen) to enter France even if they are fully vaccinated. I traveled to France from Ireland and as an EU citizen, getting the necessary documentation in order was pretty straightforward. The vaccine certificate that was issued to me in Ireland is part of the EU digital COVID cert system, so I was able to use mine to travel without any restrictions. British travelers can show their NHS Covid Pass (and its equivalents from Scotland and Northern Ireland), and Americans can present their CDC vaccination certs to get into the country. But they'll have to show digital or paper evidence of a laboratory-produced negative test result too.

My vaccination cert, which is stored on my smartphone, was checked by airline ground staff while I was queuing to board my flight in Dublin. France also requires that travelers fill out a passenger locator form before boarding their flight and while I had mine prepared to be inspected in Ireland or France, nobody checked or even asked for it on either side of the border. When walking through the security gates in Charles de Gaulle airport, I handed in my passport, briefly pulled down my mask to prove I was the holder and was quickly moved along.

A bar terrace in Paris busy with patrons at night.jpg
Getting an outdoor seat in a Paris  bar or restaurant is still a challenge during the pandemic © Sasha Brady

What are the health pass rules in bars and restaurants?

France requires that anyone over the age of 12 presents their health pass to access many non-essential businesses such as restaurants, bars, museums, tourist attractions and to board long-distance public transport. The health pass is proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative COVID-19 test taken 24 hours prior. I was able to use my EU digital COVID cert as a health pass in the same way a French citizen can. The UK's NHS COVID pass is also recognized in this way but travelers from the US, Australia, Canada and many other non-European countries have to pay up to €36 to apply for a French health pass in designated pharmacies when they arrive in France. I'm told this process is relatively straightforward though, and once travelers present the right paperwork (vaccination certificate and passport), they can generally expect to receive their pass within minutes.

From my experience I was surprised to find that how seriously the health pass rule is enforced, depended on where I was. In Rennes, I was asked to present my health pass almost everywhere, even when sitting on a cafe terrace with a take-away coffee. But when I boarded the long-distance train to take me from Rennes to Paris, nobody checked... something that made me feel uneasy when sitting on a stuffy, packed train for three hours. In Paris the application of the rules were slightly scattered. When visiting museums, restaurants and bars, my pass was scanned at the door but I found that when visiting some of the older, more traditional cafes, it was barely even glanced at.

People visit the Louvre Museum
The Louvre asks visitors to pre-book their tickets in advance © Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Visiting tourist attractions in France

The beginning of December is typically quiet in France; the summer crowds have long gone and the bulk of the Christmas travelers has yet to arrive, but I found this December to be quieter than usual, though still buzzy. I didn't have to wait long to be seated in my favorite restaurants, and the queues for the main tourist attractions moved pretty quickly.

When visiting the Louvre, for example, I had to book my ticket in advance for a specific time slot (tip: try to book your ticket at least 48 hours in advance as time slots fill up pretty quickly) but once I got there, I was directed to my queue, my vaccine cert was scanned, and after about 15 minutes I was inside. Although there was a steady stream of tourists wandering through the museum, it was nothing like pre-pandemic times. I stood alone in front of The Wedding of Cana, I snagged a seat in the restaurant as soon as I was served, and there were only half a dozen or so people moving with me in each of the treasure-filled Napoleon III Apartments, which meant no elbow jostling to get a good look. The queue to view the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo tipped along slowly but I was surprised at how remarkably accessible almost everything else was.

Christmas markets were open in Paris and while a health pass isn't required to gain entry, people are advised to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines which in France means maintaining a distance of at least one meter between yourself and others.

Read more: Skiing in France during COVID-19: What to know before you go

People enjoy themselves at the Christmas market at Jardin des Tuileries in Paris
Christmas markets are open in France © Getty Images

Masks and social distancing

In France, face masks are compulsory on public transport and in indoor areas, though in some communes they're also required in outdoor public spaces such as Christmas markets and at public gatherings. The face mask rule applies to everyone over the age of six. I found that French people adhered to the rules where they're required and it was even common to see some wear them outdoors in Paris and Rennes, particularly older people on busy pedestrianized streets.

Most businesses and venues are operating at full capacity which meant we didn't have too much trouble securing reservations in restaurants. In many small stores in Paris, such as the tourist-favorite Shakespeare & Company bookshop, there are queue management systems in place to curb crowds.

People wearing face masks on the streets of Rennes, France
People wearing face masks on the streets of Rennes © Sasha Brady

Where to find a COVID-19 test for returning home

Getting a walk-in COVID antigen test in France is somewhat easy but PCR appointments should be booked in advance. You must pay for a test—averaging around €25 for an antigen and €49 for a PCR. Results are for a PCR are generally guaranteed in 24 to 36 hours, while antigen test results are usually provided within 30 minutes.

I needed either a PCR or antigen test for my flight back to Ireland. I got an antigen test on the day I was due to travel home in the pharmacy next to my hotel in Belleville. I didn't make an appointment and was seen by the pharmacist straight away. I filled in a form with my name, phone number, email address, date of birth, passport number, and accommodation address details in Paris. I was brought into a side room to be tested and within 15 minutes the results were ready. The pharmacist printed out a paper copy for me and the result was also sent to me by text message and email with a QR code ready to be scanned at the airport.

Leaving France

The airport queues were well-managed in Paris with ground staff on hand to direct people to where they needed to be. At the main departures entrance at Charles de Gaulle, I presented my cert and joined the queue for EU citizens who were vaccinated in the EU. That queue moved relatively fast as there was less paperwork to sift through. When boarding my flight to Dublin, my antigen test result was checked by airline staff and, unlike my experience in Dublin, so was my passenger locator form for Ireland.

Traveling during the pandemic

Traveling during the pandemic is filled with uncertainty, especially now as people are watching to see what happens with the new Omicron strain. In France the mood was generally upbeat, particularly as I was there during the run-up to Christmas. But it's clear people and businesses are taking extra precautions to stay safe.

If you have plans to travel over the holidays, it's always a good idea to stay up-to-date on the latest travel rules for your destination so you can factor in all the necessary requirements. You can consult your local embassy or foreign office of the destination you are traveling to for the latest latest pandemic-specific guidelines. 

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

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