International passengers flying into or out of the United Kingdom may be forgiven for thinking that the choice of international airports is limited to just London Heathrow and Gatwick. While these two are certainly the most well-known and the busiest, there are in fact, six international airports serving the London area alone.
Across England, twenty airports are catering to international flights, one of which is located on the Island of Jersey, while Scotland has six. The other two United Kingdom countries of Wales and Northern Ireland have a total of four between them.
Some of the smaller airports only have a limited international service, often handling flights to and from a single destination, while the major airports are busy international hubs serving countries all around the world.
England is not just a popular destination for visitors but also an important connection for travel between the United States, Canada, the Middle East, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Most passengers transiting through the United Kingdom will connect at Heathrow or Gatwick. However, this is not always the case as other airports around England also cater to international travellers. Among the biggest and busiest are:
- London Heathrow
- London Gatwick
- Manchester Airport
- London Stansted
- Luton Airport
- Birmingham Airport
- Newcastle Airport
- Bristol Airport
London Heathrow (LHR)
The world’s third-busiest airport, handling around 80 million passengers every year, Heathrow Airport is located 20 miles (23 km) from the centre of London. The airport first opened in 1929 as a simple airfield, and it was not until 1946 that it became London Airport before finally being renamed Heathrow in 1966.
The airport’s four terminal buildings and two runways are in constant use by many of the world’s biggest airline companies, particularly by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, flying to destinations all across the globe.
London Gatwick (LGW)
The second-busiest English airport is London Gatwick, usually referred to simply as Gatwick. The first flights left Gatwick in 1933, and since its opening, the airport has grown steadily over the years. Located 30 miles (48 km) south of central London, Gatwick has two terminals and two runways, although only one of these can be operational at any one time as they are so close together.
Major airlines, including EasyJet, British Airways, and TUI Airways, use the airport as an operational base, but many of the world’s biggest carriers also run regular scheduled flights to numerous international destinations.
Manchester Airport (MAN)
Manchester Airport is England’s third-busiest airport, carrying almost 30 million passengers annually. A mere 9 miles (14 km) from the city, Manchester Airport has two runways but three terminals, making it a comfortable experience for arriving and departing passengers. The airport also has its own dedicated rail station, allowing travellers to travel between the city and the airport in less than thirty minutes.
Airlines operating out of Manchester Airport include EasyJet, British Airways, Ryanair and Thomas Cook Airlines.
London Stansted (STN)
Another airport serving the greater London area is Stansted, which is 42 miles (68 km) northeast of the city. Opened in 1943 as RAF Stansted Mountfitchet Airport, it played a pivotal role during World War II as a base for Royal Air Force and United States Army Forces bombers as well as a maintenance depot.
There is only one terminal at Stansted linked to three satellite terminals, and the airport currently caters to an average of 28 million travellers every year. A dedicated rail connection, the Stansted Express, runs up to four trains per hour during peak hours and is the best way of getting to and from the airport, with journeys taking about 50 minutes.
Stansted is a focus city for TUI Airways, Jet2 and budget carrier Ryanair, with flights to more than 160 destinations in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Luton Airport (LTN)
Often referred to as London Luton Airport, Luton Airport is actually situated just 2 miles (3 km) from the centre of Luton town, with the centre of London being some 28 miles (45 km) to the south of the airport. The airport opened in 1938 and was used extensively by the Royal Air Force as a fighter base during World War II before commencing commercial flights in 1952.
Luton Airport is predominantly used by budget airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair, with most of the flights departing for (or arriving from) European destinations.
Birmingham Airport (BHX)
England’s second biggest city, Birmingham, has its own international airport, just 9 miles (13 km) from the heart of the city. Since opening in 1931, business has increased at the airport year after year, and today, it handles close to 13 million passengers annually.
There is one large terminal at the airport since the merging of terminals T1 and T2 in 2011, with the security checkpoints and boarding gates located in the Departures Hall on the first floor.
Newcastle Airport (NCL)
Newcastle Airport is a busy airport for international travellers, with around five million per year passing through the airport’s one terminal building. Located just 6 miles (9 km) from the city, Newcastle Airport may be relatively small but it is a truly international airport with flights to and from more than eighty destinations across the world, including Mexico, America, Jamaica, Egypt, Barbados, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
Bristol Airport (BRS)
Bristol Airport is mainly a base for budget airline companies close to the border with Wales, including Jet2, EasyJet, TUI Airways and Ryanair. Less than 8 miles (13 km) from the heart of Bristol city, the airport’s one terminal is on three levels with security checkpoints and boarding gates located on the first floor.
Most of the international destinations are in Europe, but there are also longer flights to the United States, Mexico and Morocco.
At the northern end of the Island of Britain, Scotland is a popular destination for tourists and the country is well served with no less than five international airports:
- Glasgow Prestwick
Edinburgh Airport (EDI)
Scotland’s busiest airport is located about 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Edinburgh city. Relatively small, with just one terminal building and one runway, Edinburgh Airport still manages to handle around 12 million passengers a year and operates flights to Europe, North America and Mexico.
Glasgow Airport (GLA)
Carrying almost 9 million passengers a year, Glasgow Airport is a base of operations for budget airlines such as TUI Airways, Jet2 and EasyJet, with many flights bound for English, Irish or European destinations, although the airport also operates flights to places as far away as Barbados, Mexico, Egypt, Jamaica and the United States.
Aberdeen Airport (ABZ)
Most noted as a busy heliport for helicopters flying between Aberdeen and North Sea oil platforms, Aberdeen Airport has only one terminal building with UK and international arrivals to the right and departures to the left. The bulk of the international flights are to European destinations, with flights also available to Turkey and Tenerife.
Wales and Northern Ireland
Cardiff Airport (CWL)
The sole airport in Wales providing international flights is Cardiff Airport. The airport is used by budget carriers as well as charter companies specialising in flights to European destinations, although a service to Egypt is scheduled to commence in early 2024.
Belfast International Airport (BFS)
Of the three international airports in Northern Ireland, Belfast is the busiest, with over 6 million passengers being carried a year. A small airport with one terminal, Belfast International is located 18 miles (29 km) northwest of the city and operates 24 hours a day.
Budget airlines Jet2, EasyJet and Ryanair operate out of Belfast International with flights to European destinations. Virgin Atlantic also operate scheduled flights to Florida and other long-distance destinations, including Canada and the Middle East.
Northern Ireland’s two other international airports are George Best Airport in Belfast City and the City of Derry Airport. George Best Airport mainly handles flights to Scotland and England but does provide some short-haul European flights to popular destinations. Similarly, the City of Derry Airport has a limited number of European destinations to choose from but primarily focuses on flights within the United Kingdom.
Do you need a UK ETA or Visa?
Citizens of countries outside the European Union, Schengen Area or from countries not specifically exempt from requiring a visa will require the correct documentation before arriving in (or transiting through) any United Kingdom airport. While those who currently enjoy visa exemption status only require a valid passport, this is not the case for others who will require the correct form of British Visa, which is most appropriate for the main reason for the visit.
However, the situation is about to change as the United Kingdom begins to introduce a method of pre-screening all non-British (or Irish) visitors. Called the UK ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation), this requirement will apply to citizens of several Middle Eastern countries from later in 2023 before being extended to include all other nationalities by the end of 2024. It is expected that the UK ETA approval will be a mandatory requirement sometime in 2025, but the British government has yet to confirm an official date.