How to fly with your dog from USA to UK
Dog at the airport (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on September 17, 2019

When my wife and I decided to uproot and move to the United Kingdom from United States, our biggest concern was how to get our two dogs to England.

While we weren’t the first to emigrate from the USA to the UK, there wasn’t a lot of information readily available about the best way to move our pets to a new country.

Most airlines do list their pet policy on their websites but there are more headaches than just how to get your dog on the aircraft.

You have to make sure you pet has had the necessary vaccinations or risk quarantine upon your arrival in the United Kingdom.

If you haven’t secured your transfer of residence number, you could end up paying HMRC a hefty amount of VAT on your import duty.

Even simple things such as your dog crate needs to be the correct dimensions and up to a certain standard or an airline could refuse to fly your pet in cargo.

Having gone through the experience, helloBARK! will run through the list of requirements that we encountered when shipping our dogs from San Francisco to London.

Step 1: Contacting your airline

When my wife and I decided that we wanted to move to London from San Francisco in late 2018, we were worried about shipping our two Alaskan Klee Kai, Copper and Skye.

Initially, we hoped that Copper and Skye could fly in the cabin with us given they are both registered emotional support animals in the USA.

But the UK have strict rules for ESAs arriving at one of their airports.

We were told by Virgin Atlantic that our dogs would only qualify as assistance animals if they had received training from one of number of organisations:

-Canine Partners
-Dogs for Good
-Guide Dogs for the Blind Association
-Hearing Dogs for Deaf People
-Support Dogs

Copper and Skye were certified as ESA dogs by a company in the USA and didn’t meet Virgin Atlantic’s requirements so we decided to ship them as cargo.

Virgin Atlantic informed us that Copper and Skye would require individual crates of a specific size and type.

Note: You will need to contact Virgin Atlantic Cargo about shipping your pets in the hold in advance of booking your flight to make sure there is room on the aircraft for your dogs.

We were given a quote based upon the crate size that Virgin Atlantic Cargo recommended.

Step 2: Purchasing the correct dog crate

Your dog will need an appropriately sized crate to be accepted in cargo (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Your dog will need an appropriately sized crate to be accepted in cargo (Photo: Adobe Stock)

In order to fly your pet on Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft, you must obtain an IATA approved travel kennel. The kennel needs to meet the following specifications:

a) The crate must be made of wood or hard plastic and be rigid on all sides.
b) It should be non-collapsible and there should be no roof grill
c) It must be equipped with a suitable water dish, attached to the inside door of the kennel.
d) It must be ventilated around all 4 sides (however the sides must not be ventilated at the top and the bottom as this will weaken the integrity of the container)
e) The base must be leak–proof. You must put absorbent material in the bottom of the pet kennel (i.e. shredded newspaper, animal disposal pads) for the comfort of your pet.
f) The locking mechanism must be central on the door and be of a kind where the door pins fit through the roof and floor by at least 6mm
g) The minimum cage size we accept is 53 x 40 x 38cm (external measurements)

Virgin Atlantic Cargo provide guidance on how to ensure the correct sized kennel for your pet on their website.

It must be large enough to comfortably accommodate your pet to stand up and turn around freely, leaving at least 5cm headroom space between the top of your pets head and the rooftop of the kennel.

These requires ensure your pet has sufficient space to stand up, lie down and turn around comfortably whilst in flight.

Virgin Atlantic Cargo add that if you don’t have the correct size kennel, it could result in your pet being refused for transport on the day of departure.

Once you have worked out the correct size crate for your pet, then you can find plenty of options on Amazon or other websites.

We purchased our two dog crates from Amazon [LINK] and they were extremely simple to build (although they do take up a lot of space!).

We included an absorbent pad and one of our blankets in each cage in the hope that Copper and Skye would feel more relaxed if they could smell us on the material.

Step 3: Making a booking with your airline

Once we had the right crate to transport our pets, we got in touch with Virgin Atlantic Cargo to make our booking.

You don’t pay their airfare until your drop them off at the airport before your flight.

Virgin Atlantic Cargo sent us ample information so we were fully prepared ahead of the journey.

This includes their pre check document list for pets travelling under the Pet Travel Scheme.

If you are able to get the relevant documents together 72 hours before flying, you can send them to Virgin Atlantic who will forward them to the relevant Animal Reception Centre.

This can speed up the process on the other side when you land.

However, given the tapeworm requirements (which will be mentioned below), we were unable to submit the pre check document list ahead of departure. This did slow down the process on the other side.

Step 4: Getting your ToR

My wife and I were completely oblivious to the fact that we needed to get a transfer of residence number.

Thankfully, Virgin Atlantic Cargo informed us that we would need to get a ToR to avoid paying VAT on our dogs upon arrival in UK.

HMRC’s website states that getting a TOR number can take up to two weeks, but we managed to attain the number within five days.

You will be asked to send over documents, including:

a) transfer of residence application
b) A (black and white) copy of the photo page from your passport and a copy of your UK visa (if issued)
c) A signed list of goods that you wish to import. Please identify any goods that are not eligible for ToR – to establish eligibility of goods;
d) Proof of residency in a country you are transferring from showing your name and address of residence. For example, a utility bill;
e) Evidence of your right and intention to move to the UK. This could be a copy of the relevant signed page of your:
-UK contract of employment and/or
-purchase or rental agreement for your proposed dwelling place in the UK (only the relevant signed page that clearly shows your name
and address of residence need to be submitted).

If you are unable to get your ToR number prior to flight, you will be able to claim back the VAT once you’ve received your ToR number in United Kingdom.

Step 5: Working with your vet

Your vet will need to examine your dog before flying to UK (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Your vet will need to examine your dog before flying to UK (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Once we had booked our flights, we got in touch with our local vet who had previous experiences with clients moving to the UK from the USA.

With their help, we went through the requirements that needed to be met to bring Copper and Skye to United Kingdom.

We did not possess EU passports for our Alaskan Klee Kai, which would have made the process a lot smoother.

For Copper and Skye, we had to meet five requirements in order for our two dogs to enter the UK.

1) Identification with a microchip – your pet should be implanted with an ISO compliant microchip. ISO compliant microchips are 15 digits long.

2) Rabies vaccination – your pets need to have had a rabies vaccination on the day of their microchip implantation or after. The first rabies vaccination after microchip implantation is considered the “primary vaccine,” and is only valid for one year. If an animal travels more than 12 months after a primary rabies vaccine is given (the first rabies vaccine given after microchip implantation), written documentation that a rabies vaccine booster was given within 12 months of this “primary vaccine” must accompany the pet when it travels to the UK. Alternatively, the animal can be revaccinated in the U.S. prior to departure and will be eligible for travel to the UK after a 21 day waiting period.

3) After a primary rabies vaccination, the pet must wait 21 days before it is eligible to enter the EU. This applies only to pets over 16 weeks of age that have just received a primary rabies vaccination.

4) Have an accredited veterinarian issue the EU Health Certificate – usually this has to occur within 10 days of entry to EU.

5) Have an APHIS endorse the EU Health Certificate – After your veterinarian has issued the EU Health Certificate, have your completed paperwork endorsed by your local APHIS Veterinary Services office.

6) Tapeworm treatment – Tapeworm treatment is required for dog(s) exported to the United Kingdom (and a number of other countries including the Republic of Ireland). The dog(s) must be treated by an accredited veterinarian between 24 and 120 hours (1 and 5 days) before entering the EU.

There is a lot more detailed information on USDA APHIS here.

Our oldest Alaskan Klee Kai Skye had her rabies booster in October 2018, while Copper had his primary rabies vaccination in May 2018 so the 21-day waiting period didn’t apply to us.

Step 6: Examination and tapeworm vaccination

As we were flying to UK, we had to head back to our vet to get the EU Health Certificate and the tapeworm treatment within five days of our flight to London.

We ended up visiting our vet in the Bay Area, California with three days to spare to ensure there would be no issues with the timing of our flight.

The staff at the surgery had completed the EU Health Certificate but fortunately we spotted a number of mistakes that they had made in the document (including Skye’s sex!).

We asked for the staff to stamp almost every page that we had to be safe, while this was possibly excessive, it did give us peace of mind.

Step 7: Trip to USDA APHIS

Having received our EU Health Certificate, we immediately left the Bay Area and drove to Sacramento to visit our nearest USDA APHIS office.

The process usually takes between 30 and 60 minutes, but an issue with a date on the EU Health Certificate resulted in a four hour wait.

Step 8: Arriving at the airport

Virgin Atlantic Cargo requested that we arrive 4 hours before our flight to drop off Copper and Skye.

We were instructed to go to Virgin Atlantic’s cargo building rather than the San Francisco International airport.

The location was a five minute drive from the airport, so it wasn’t out of the way, but this can differ from airport to airport.

We were 30 minutes early and the extra time ensured the process wasn’t rushed.

A member of the staff has to go through all your documents, there is extra paperwork to fill out and a rather large payment to take for the service.

There is a chance to say a temporary goodbye to your pets before they are taken away to be weighed (we were informed that the dogs will remain in their cages).

Fast forward four hours, we checked with the Virgin Atlantic worker on the desk that our dogs had made it onto the plane without any problems.

On board the aircraft, we asked the flight attendant to confirm that the captain was aware dogs were in the hold. This was a tip that we had read online.

The crew were already aware that they had two VIPs in freight and had even seen our dogs (we’re not entirely sure how, but they saw enough to call them “baby huskies”).

Step 9: Landing in the UK

After an 11 hour flight across the Atlantic from San Francisco to London, we were sufficiently awake to spot the two dog cages being taken off the plane upon landing.

Once we made it through customs at London Heathrow, we called the Animal Reception Centre to check on Copper and Skye. We were reassured they were doing fine and given a rough estimation for pick up.

The Heathrow Animal Reception is located about a 10 minute drive from Terminal 3, so for those without a car, a taxi will be required to reach the building affectionately dubbed the ARC.

While our experience is based upon Heathrow’s centre, there are two other animal reception centres around the UK: Gatwick Animal Reception Centre and Manchester Airport Animal Reception Centre.

Step 10: Collecting your pets

Heathrow’s Animal Reception Centre inform anxious pet owners that processing your pet will usually take 4-8 hours when you arrive from outside the EU.

We arrived at Heathrow around two hours after landing and we were initially told that Copper and Skye could be ready within an hour.

But unfortunately another issue with our paperwork meant what was an hour wait turned into five anxious hours on and off the phone with our vet stateside.

Copper’s microchip number was omitted from his rabies certificate, meaning there was no proof that he had the microchip at the time of his primary rabies shot.

Facing a potential quarantine, Heathrow’s Animal Reception Centre did everything possible to help us contact our vet and eventually the error was amended.

Almost 24 hours after dropping off our dogs at San Francisco, we were reunited.

Step 11: Adjusting to life in UK

(Photo: lifewithkleekai/Instagram)
(Photo: lifewithkleekai/Instagram)

We were concerned that our dogs would struggle to adapt to life in UK, especially coming from the warm weather in California.

But Copper and Skye have settled in very quickly.

As crazy pet parents, we were concerned that putting our dogs in the hold could permanently affect our Alaskan Klee Kai.

While every dog is different, Copper and Skye have shown no signs of any trauma despite the 11-hour flight.

We were worried their separation anxiety could return, but the first time we left them alone, we could see on our dog camera that they went straight to sleep.

Other considerations

helloBARK! recommends contacting the airline that you plan to use before purchasing your ticket. Not all flights will accept animals on certain days, while there may not be room on a specific flight.

– The cost of shipping Skye and Copper was in excess of $2500.

– The Heathrow Animal Reception centre doesn’t receive pets at the weekend.

Have you emigrated with your pets? If so, please drop us a line (kieran @ hellobark.com) as we would love to hear about your experience.