The Schengen area, named after the 1985 Schengen Agreement, signifies a zone of 26 European nations. The agreement has abolished border control checks between Schengen member countries for the purposes of easier international travel within the European continent. The current list of Full and Partial Schengen Member countries and a few exceptions, is as follows:

  1. Austria – Joined December 1st 1997
  2. Belgium – Joined March 26th 1995
  3. Czech Republic – Joined December 21st 2007
  4. Denmark – Joined March 25th 2001
  5. Estonia – Joined December 21st 2007
  6. Finland – Joined March 25th 2001
  7. France – Joined March 26th 1995
  8. Germany – Joined March 26th 1995
  9. Greece – Joined January 1st 2000
  10. Hungary – Joined December 21st 2007
  11. Iceland – Joined March 25th 2001
  12. Italy – Joined October 26th 1997
  13. Latvia – Joined December 21st 2007
  14. Liechtenstein – Joined December 19th 2011
  15. Lithuania – Joined December 21st 2007
  16. Luxembourg – Joined March 26th 1995
  17. Malta – Joined December 21st 2007
  18. Netherlands – Joined March 26th 1995
  19. Norway – Joined March 25th 2001
  20. Poland – Joined December 21st 2007
  21. Portugal – Joined March 26th 1995
  22. Slovakia – Joined December 21st 2007
  23. Slovenia – Joined December 21st 2007
  24. Spain – Joined March 26th 1995
  25. Sweden – Joined March 25th 2001
  26. Switzerland – Joined December 12th 2008
Image showing the Schengen Member Countries and their type of membership commitment

  EU member states participating
  EU member states not participating but obliged to join
  EU member states with an opt-out
  non-EU member states participating
  non-EU member states de facto participating
  non-EU member states with an open border

Within the Schengen area, the borders between countries only exist on maps. All Schengen member countries effectively share one common border, and are responsible for protecting the entire Schengen area as one.

Over 400 million people have the freedom to travel to all member states. The ability to cross borders without stopping for passport checks allows for quicker and smoother travel, particularly for the 1.7 million people who commute to other countries for work. All other nationals are allowed to stay and travel throughout the area for 90 days within a period of 180 days under a common visa policy, versus the issuing of multiple visas for each individual country.

Schengen Area Member States

Despite encompassing most of Europe, not all Schengen area members are in the European Union (EU), and vice versa.

Of the 26 Schengen area member states, 22 fully implement the legislation known as Schengen acquis. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

The remaining four members, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are non-EU members.

As a rule, territories and autonomous regions of Schengen states are not permitted as members if located outside of Europe. The Azores and Madeira, as well as the Canary Islands, are the only regions to receive special provisions due to their close proximity to Portugal and Spain respectively.

Although they are European microstates located within the Schengen area, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are considered de facto and not a part of Schengen. Despite this, Vatican City and San Marino have open borders with Italy, as does Monaco with France, and they therefore do not conduct border control.

Bulgaria, Croatia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Romania are the only EU states that have not yet passed all requirements to become a part of Schengen. Cyprus is also obliged to join, however incentive is lesser, as the country shares no borders.

A Brief History of the Schengen Agreement

Belgium, France, West Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the first to sign the Schengen Agreement in 1985. At this time, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already eradicated shared border controls under the Benelux Economic Union.

The first implementations of the agreement came a decade later in 1995, by which time Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Austria had also signed on. Denmark, Finland and Sweden, as well as the first non-EU member states Norway and Iceland, signed an agreement to become a part of the area in 1996. Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia became members in 2003, followed by Switzerland the following year. The last member state to join the Schengen area was Liechtenstein in 2008.

Benefits of the Schengen Area

The removal of borders between these 26 countries has resulted in the following:

  • Nationals of any Schengen member country may freely cross any internal borders of Schengen countries without border checks
  • Removed obstacles for border crossing, such as unnecessary speed restrictions
  • Mutual measures for crossing all external borders
  • Coordinated entry conditions and unifed issuing of short-stay visas for non-EU citizens
  • Improved collaboration between police of Schengen countries
  • Judicial cooperation between Schengen countries, such as faster deportation of criminals
  • Sharing of an advanced database, the Schengen Information System (SIS), to help member countries easily and quickly exchange information about people and goods

Despite the immense freedom the Schengen Agreement provides, specific circumstances grant police the right to conduct any checks at internal borders or within border areas. Police can request information from individuals at internal borders in relation to their stay in Schengen area and other related information.

In the event of a serious threat to security, Schengen countries are able to temporarily reintroduce border checks at internal borders for up to 30 days.

Legal Texts Adopted Within EU Law

The following four key regulations relate to the Schengen area and EU law:

Schengen Borders Code (Regulation (EC) No 562/2006)

This text defines key rules in relation to the movement of people through borders of Schengen member states, the removal of internal border checks, and attempts to coordinate the criteria necessary for third country nationals to be able to cross external borders for short stays.

Visa Code (Regulation (EC) No 810/2009)

This text outlines procedures and criteria for issuing short-stay and airport transit visas to third country nationals.

Local Border Traffic At External Land Borders (Regulation (EC) 1931/2006)

This regulation establishes that bilateral agreements of Schengen countries offering advantages to their bordering countries are allowed, meaning that those countries are permitted to lessen checks at borders for individuals living within border areas. This aims to eliminate trade barriers being established and to support cooperation within the region.

Visa Information System (VIS) (Regulation (EC) 767/2008)

This regulation intends to establish a harmonious exchange of data among Schengen countries regarding applications and subsequent granting of short stay visas.

Criteria Required to Become a Schengen Member

European countries with the determination to join the Schengen area cannot do so immediately. All countries seeking to join must meet the following criteria:

  • The ability to control all external borders on behalf of the Schengen area
  • The ability to issue uniform short stay Schengen visas
  • Possess the competence to collaborate with other law enforcement agencies within other Schengen countries to support a greater level of security
  • To be ready to apply Schengen acquis in the controlling of land, sea and air borders, protection of personal data, and cooperation with police
  • To be ready to connect to and implement the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the Visa Information System (VIS)

Before joining the Schengen area, the countries are subjected to a Schengen evaluation and monitoring. After becoming a member, countries go through evaluations to ensure that Schengen acquis is being applied and implemented properly.

Maintaining Security Within the Schengen Area

There are structures by which the Schengen area protects the security of its citizens and identifies fraud, particularly relating to travel documents being held by the incorrect individuals. All of the following security structures of the Schengen area and EU are handled by eu-LISA, an EU Agency for IT systems.

The Visa Information System (VIS) is a database used as a way to rapidly exchange information between Schengen members regarding short stay visa applications.

The Schengen Information System (SIS) is used to share data among Schengen countries in relation to suspected criminals, individuals prohibited from entering or residing within the Schengen area, missing people, and stolen or lost assets.

The European Dactyloscopy (EURODAC) ensures the security of the Schengen area and European Union by the use of a fingerprint database in order to identify asylum seekers and individuals crossing the border illegally.

The EU is currently working on a Smart Borders programme to rethink the entry and exit system at external borders. The intention is to improve border control and combat irregular migration. In addition, border crossing and visa procedures will become easier for frequent travellers.

Visa Information System (VIS)

VIS was established in 2004 to share information on visa applications by third country nationals seeking entry into the Schengen area.

When individuals apply for a Schengen visa, they consent to providing biometric information. This data includes 10 fingerprints and a scanned photograph of the applicant, which remains valid in the system for five years.

Verification and identification can be carried out at border crossing points by a separate Biometric Matching System (BMS) to check that an individual’s fingerprints correspond to those on record for that particular visa.

VIS supports in the security of the Schengen area by:

  • Supporting the issuing of short stay and transit visas
  • Quickly verifying the legitimacy of a visa
  • Finding third country nationals with false or no documents residing in the Schengen area
  • Putting a stop to unlawful activities such as visa shopping, whereby applicants apply for visas at multiple consulate posts
  • Identifying fraud and individuals attempting to travel within the Schengen area using another individual’s identity and documents
  • Assisting asylum seekers and finding the relevant country responsible for looking at specific asylum applications
  • Improving overall security in both the Schengen area and the EU
  • Assisting police to avoid and investigate the occurrence of terrorism and other serious crimes

Schengen Information System (SIS)

The Schengen Information System (SIS) is a governmental database that serves to support the cooperation between law enforcement and protection of external borders of the Schengen area. Alerts are provided to police and other authorities with information regarding missing people, wanted criminals associated with crimes, and individuals forbidden to enter or stay within the Schengen area.

All alerts regarding an individual contains a name, known aliases, nationality, date of birth, gender, history of violence, the reason the alert was prompted, and the recommended action to be taken should one encounter the individual. SIS does not, however, record any travel history of individuals, namely entries and exists into the Schengen area. Other data held by SIS include requests for extradition, requests by judicial authorities, individuals with mental illnesses, missing people, undesirable presences in particular territories, and individuals suspected of crime.

There are over 46 million alerts within SIS, mostly regarding lost, stolen or misappropriated documents, vehicles and firearms. Alerts about individuals make up less than two per cent of entries.

SIS supports the security of the Schengen area by facilitating collaboration between law enforcement, border control and the judicial system.

While SIS is a highly secure and protected database, each individual has the right to request access to their own personal data. If information entered is deemed incorrect or believed to have been misused, that person may request corrections or deletion. Citizens of Schengen states can request this information via the Data Protection Authority, or by directly contacting the relevant national authority responsible. Third country nationals can request access at the consulate of any Schengen member country in his or her country of residence.

European Dactyloscopy (EURODAC)

The European Dactyloscopy, otherwise known as EURODAC, is a database of fingerprints used within the EU, specifically for the purposes of inspecting asylum seekers and border-crossers. Through EURODAC, asylum applicants over the age of 14 have their fingerprints digitally scanned and checked each time an individual applies for asylum within the EU.

Although EURODAC’s main purpose is sharing data on asylum seekers and supporting legal travel, it also functions as a way to compare fingerprints in order to fight against terrorism, irregular border-crossing and other serious crimes.

EURODAC adds the security of both the Schengen area and the European Union by:

  • Providing easy access to the fingerprint data of asylum seekers and border crossers
  • Speeding up the communication of data, reducing the time it takes for authorities to receive confirmation from the central unit at EURODAC
  • Guaranteeing that information conforms with up-to-date asylum legislation
  • Verifying records to prevent terrorism and other serious crimes
  • Supporting the work of VIS

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Schengen Agreement?

The Schengen Agreement abolished internal borders within the majority of EU countries, with the idea of operating as a single state for the purposes of international travel.

The treaty was signed by Belgium, France, West Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands on the 14th of June, 1985, near the town of Schengen, Luxembourg. Along with the eradication of border checks at shared border points, it proposed allowing vehicles to cross borders without stopping or reducing speed, as well as common visa policies. This essentially allowed residents living near borders greater freedom to cross into neighbouring countries with ease.

What is the EFTA and what does it stand for?

EFTA stands for the European Free Trade Association.

This regional trade organisation and free trade area was established in 1960 to eliminate customs duties. These rules applied to industrial products only, with agricultural or fisheries products being unaffected.

Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom were EFTA’s founding members, and referred to as the Outer Seven throughout the ’60s. Iceland and Finland became members in 1970 and 1986 respectively, with Liechtenstein also joining in 1991. The United Kingdom and Denmark, however, left to join the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973, with Portugal leaving in 1986. In 1995, Austria, Sweden and Finland all ceased to be EFTA members after joining the EU.

Today, only Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland remain a part of the EFTA.

How does the EFTA differ from the EU?

The EU operates as a single internal market of political and economic unity, with the aim to ensure the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. It serves over 510 million individuals and an area of almost four and a half million kilometres. The EU also provides a substantial amount of foreign aid.

The EFTA is much smaller in comparison and exists for the purposes of trade only.

Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, as members of the European Economic Area (EEA), also have access to the EU market.

By 2020, all EU members will be required to adopt the euro, as 19 member states have already done. EFTA members, however, retain their individual currencies.

Can I travel within the Schengen area on a residence permit?

The residence permit, which is stamped on your passport, allows you to travel freely throughout the entire Schengen area without requiring any special documents. However, you must inform authorities if you are going to be travelling outside of the Schengen area.

Am I permitted to travel to multiple Schengen countries with the same visa?

Yes, all Schengen member countries utilise one common visa. Therefore, once you are given your visa, you can travel within the area for as long as your visa permits.