A small dot in the Atlantic between Scandinavia and America, Iceland has built an impressive tourist industry from its abundant natural wonders. Even financial collapse during the global economic crisis failed to hold back “the land of fire and ice” for long, and visitors are once again flocking to its wilderness parks and dramatic landscapes.
The fire in question, of course, comes from Iceland’s abundant volcanoes, which burst periodically into life, with sometimes costly consequences for European aviation. Elemental forces bubble just below the surface across the island, heating the water in Iceland’s taps and swimming pools, and creating otherworldly landscapes of twisted lava and rainbow-coloured mineral sands.
Volcanic tourism is big news, with trips to bubbling fumaroles, live lava flows and perhaps the world’s most reliable geyser at Geysir, which blows its top every four to eight minutes. Thermal springs surface everywhere, providing hot spots on the nation’s beaches and heating the waters of the iconic Blue Lagoon, a surreal open-air swimming pool surrounded by a landscape of tortured black lava.
Ice is Iceland’s other big draw (the clue is in the name) – more specifically, the dramatic glaciers which slice down towards the coast, calving icebergs into eerie lagoons. Glacier tours, by snowmobile, on foot, or on the back of a tiny Icelandic pony, are an integral part of the Iceland experience. In places, you can even tick off a glacier and a volcano on a single trip.
What lures many people back to Iceland a second or third time is the quirky nature of the Icelandic people. Eccentric, creative and fiercely independent, the Icelanders are simply a lot of fun to be around, particularly during the endless days of summer, when the runtur bar crawl rages through the streets of Reykjavík, the island’s miniature capital city.
So come trek a lava-field, gaze on a glacier, spot a whale or a puffin, sample one of Europe’s strangest national cuisines, and brave the snows in winter to glimpse the northern lights in their full glory, undimmed by light pollution in the least densely populated nation in Europe.
Iceland is volcanically and seismically active. The Icelandic Met Office issued a yellow warning on 17 November 2017 for Öræfajökull, the volcanic glacier in southeast Iceland. This warning indicates higher than normal levels of volcanic activity. You should monitor the Icelandic Met Office website for the latest updates and follow the advice of the local authorities. In case of an emergency, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management in Iceland will send out text messages to everyone situated in the area of Öræfajökull.
Weather conditions can also be severe and change rapidly. In order to receive the latest updates and alerts, you should monitor the Safe Travel Website, Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website and Icelandic Met Office reports.
If you need to contact the emergency services, call 112.
You should download the 112 Iceland app and leave your travel plans with the Safe Travel website in case you need assistance from the Icelandic emergency services. While travelling in Iceland, you should keep mobile phones switched on and always follow the advice of the local authorities.
Approximately 316,000 British nationals visited Iceland through Keflavik airport in 2016, 31 percent more than in 2015. Most visits are trouble-free.
Terrorist attacks in Iceland can’t be ruled out.
Weather and climate
Best time to visit
Iceland’s climate is tempered by the Gulf Stream. Summers are mild and winters rather cold. The colourful Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) are best seen between November and February. In June and July, there are nearly 24 hours of daylight in Reykjavík, while in the northern part of the country the sun barely sets at all.
Winds can be strong and gusty at times and there is the occasional dust storm in the interior. Snow is not as common as the name of the country would seem to suggest and, in any case, does not lie for long in Reykjavík; it is only in northern Iceland that skiing conditions are reasonably certain. However, the weather is very changeable at all times of the year, and in Reykjavík there may be rain, sunshine, drizzle and snow in the same day. The air is clean and free of pollution.
Lightweights in warmer months, with extra woollens for walking and the cooler evenings. Medium- to heavyweights are advised in winter. Waterproofing is recommended throughout the year. Umbrellas are not recommended because rain is very often accompanied by wind.
Safety and security
Petty theft and anti-social behaviour can occur, particularly around bars where people gather late at night in downtown Reykjavik. Take sensible precautions and avoid leaving valuables lying around.
You can drive using a valid EU/EEA driving licence. There is no need for an International Driving Permit.
Make sure you have the correct vehicle insurance cover before you arrive. Read the small print on car rental agreements and make sure you understand which damages are covered by the excess or damage waiver. Some car hire agreements limit the class of roads you are allowed to drive on. Costs for breakdown recovery, especially in remote areas, can be very high. Iceland can be affected by strong winds causing localised sand and ash storms. Though this extreme weather is infrequent, British tourists have had to pay significant sums of money to repair damage to hired cars caused by sand and ash.
Distances between towns can be great, roads are narrow and winding, and speed limits are low. Driving takes longer than you think. Take particular care on gravel and loose surfaces and reduce your speed when driving on them. Driving conditions may be hazardous and roads impassable, especially in winter. Winter (but not studded) tyres are mandatory from around 1 November to 14 April; however, exact dates can vary from year to year. Keep dipped headlights on at all times. Fines for exceeding the speed limit are high.
Many highland tracks are only open for a short part of the summer. If you intend to drive to the highland, or to the more remote regions of the country, check with the Icelandic Road Administration (Vegagerdin) – telephone +354 522 1000 – before you leave. This provides up to date information on all roads in the country and will also advise you on weather conditions and off-road driving, which is strictly controlled.
Beware of rapidly changing weather patterns, including river levels, which can change dramatically even within the same day. Driving in the highlands should only be done in a 4×4/4WD vehicle. When crossing rivers in the highlands, you should drive slowly (5-10kph) and use 4WD.
Drink/drive laws are strictly enforced. Alcohol limits are far stricter than UK levels. Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are severe.
In 2016 there were 18 road deaths in Iceland. This equates to 5.4 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2016.
See the AA guide on driving in Iceland.
Hotels in Iceland are often fully booked for the summer period. If you visit on flight only tickets make sure all your accommodation has been reserved before departure. The British Embassy can’t help you find accommodation.
Hiking and adventure tourism
Hiking, mountaineering and other adventure sports are increasingly popular activities in Iceland. Unfortunately each year there are incidents with visitors getting into difficulty and needing the help of the emergency services.
Follow the guidance of the Icelandic emergency services as detailed on the Safe Travel website. Leave travel plans and contact details with your hotel, or directly on the safe travel website, and take a mobile phone with you.
When hiking, choose a trail suited for you and your level of experience. Conditions in Iceland will be different to what you’re used to.
Take sufficient food, equipment, clothing and emergency rations, plus an appropriate means of communication, for the worst-case scenario. A map, compass, GPS and telecommunication equipment should always be used when travelling outside urban areas.
Going too close to the ocean, cliff edges and hot springs is a common cause for accidents in Iceland.
Attacks in Iceland can’t be ruled out. You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks which could be in public areas, including those frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
There is a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
Local laws and customs
Don’t become involved with drugs of any kind. Possession of even small quantities or soft drugs can lead to heavy fines and/or imprisonment. Using or importing khat/qat is prohibited in Iceland.
Smoking in restaurants, bars, public transport and public buildings is prohibited. Anyone caught smoking will be asked to leave the premises and may be fined.
You don’t have to carry your passport with you, but it is sensible to keep some form of ID on you. The British Embassy in Reykjavik deals with a significant – and increasing – number of lost passports by British citizens each year. You should keep your passport somewhere safe at all times and make sure next of kin details are entered into the back of your passport.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people enjoy progressive rights in Iceland. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010 and same-sex couples have had equal access to adoption and IVF treatment since 2006. Reykjavík has a visible gay scene, with at least one gay bar in the downtown area. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Whale products are available in Iceland but tourists should be aware that its importation into the UK or EU is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Any importation of whale products to the UK will result in seizure of the goods, possibly a fine of up to £5,000 and/or a custodial sentence.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
Visa is not required by the members of the EU. Citizens of the EU can stay in Iceland up to 90 days.
Your passport should be valid for the proposed duration of your stay. You don’t need any additional period of validity on your passport beyond this.
Visit your health professional at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other preventive measures.
Check the latest country-specific information and advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website or from NHS (Scotland) on the fitfortravel website. Useful information and advice about healthcare abroad is also available on the NHS Choices website.
If you’re visiting Iceland you should get a free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) before leaving the UK. The EHIC isn’t a substitute for medical and travel insurance, but it entitles you to state provided medical treatment that may become necessary during your trip. Any treatment provided is on the same terms as Icelandic nationals.
The EHIC won’t cover medical repatriation, ongoing medical treatment or non-urgent treatment, so you should make sure you have adequate travel insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment and repatriation.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 112 and ask for an ambulance. If you are referred to a medical facility for treatment you should contact your insurance/medical assistance company immediately.
Iceland is volcanically and seismically active.
The Icelandic Met Office issued a yellow warning on 17 November 2017 for Öræfajökull, the volcanic glacier in southeast Iceland. This warning indicates higher than normal levels of volcanic activity. In case of an emergency, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management in Iceland will send out text messages to everyone situated in the area of Öræfajökull.
A large volcanic eruption took place in the area around the Bárðarbunga volcano on the Vatnajökull glacier in the east of Iceland in August 2014. Eyjafjallajokull and Grimsvötn volcanoes erupted in 2010 and 2011 respectively causing disruption to Icelandic and European airspace.
Further volcanic eruptions are possible and there is the potential for sulphur dioxide and other volcanic gases to be emitted during eruptions.
- If you have existing respiratory conditions, take particular care and monitor the advice of the Icelandic authorities.
Up to date information on seismic activity and the effects of volcanic eruptions in Iceland can be found on the following websites:
- Icelandic Meteorological Office
- Icelandic Civil Protection and Emergency Management Authority – This also includes health advice.
- Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration
- Institute of Earth Science
- UK Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre
Iceland is expensive. Credit cards are widely used. Icelandic Kronur are available through banks and cash machines in Iceland although some UK banks require advance notice before allowing debit or credit cards to be used in Iceland.
Large numbers of British nationals travel successfully and safely in and around the Arctic each year. The Arctic is, however, a vast region, comprising the northerly areas of Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Alaska (United States). In addition to reading the specific travel advice for each of these countries, prospective visitors to the Arctic should also consider carefully the potential remoteness of certain destinations from search and rescue, evacuation and medical facilities. Independent travellers in particular are advised to develop contingency arrangements for emergency back-up.
The most popular way of visiting the Arctic is by ship. As some areas of the Arctic -specifically the more northerly and remote regions – can be uncharted and ice-covered, you should check the previous operational experience of cruise and other operators offering travel in the region. You should also consider the on-board medical facilities of cruise ships and talk to cruise operators as appropriate, particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition.
The eight Arctic States take their international search and rescue obligations very seriously, and have recently signed a binding agreement on search and rescue co-operation in the Arctic. However, in the highest latitude regions of the Arctic, cruise ships may be operating in relative isolation from other vessels and/or inhabited areas. You should be aware that in these regions, search and rescue response will often need to be despatched from many hundreds of miles away, and assistance to stranded vessels may take several days to arrive, particularly in bad weather. Search and rescue assets are also likely to offer only basic transport and basic medical care, and are unlikely to be capable of advanced life-support. Responsible cruise operators should happily provide additional information relevant to the circumstances of the cruise they are offering, and address any concerns you may have.
Consular assistance and support to British nationals in the Arctic will be affected by the capacity of national and local authorities. You should make sure you have adequate travel insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment or potential repatriation.
If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider.