During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, travelling from the United States to Europe was problematic, to say the least. At different times, different European Union countries clamped down severely on which countries they would accept flights from and American travellers were often prohibited from entering Europe due to the risk of spreading the virus.
Today, however, things are somewhat back to normal, and the rules and regulations regarding the passport and visa requirements that applied before the pandemic are once more in operation. This means that (in most cases) a valid U.S. passport is all that is required to enter Europe, although the necessity of acquiring a Schengen Visa cannot be entirely ruled out.
The United States of America has a reciprocal agreement with the European Union whereby citizens of either entity does not require a visa to enter the other. While this is still the case there is one notable change to consider. This is the introduction of the EU’s ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System), which is currently being rolled out.
Electronic Approval to Travel
ETIAS is very similar to the American ESTA system. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and was introduced in 2008 before becoming mandatory the following year. Like a visa, ESTA is a means of pre-screening intending visitors to the United States via a detailed questionnaire and background security checks. As citizens of any of the European Union or Schengen Area countries, as well as those of countries on the U.S. Visa Waiver Program list (which includes the United Kingdom), enjoy visa-exempt entry into the United States, they do not require an American visa. They do, however, require a passport that has ESTA approval and air and sea carriers are required to verify this at the point of departure.
The new ETIAS works in precisely the same way as ESTA. Before American passport holders even set out on a trip to Europe they must have applied for and received ETIAS approval. This permission to travel is electronically linked to an individual’s passport and shows up when scanned at the point of departure.
The issue is when exactly ETIAS approval becomes mandatory as, at present, it is not!
After some delays, ETIAS has been up and running since the beginning of January 2023. Despite this, U.S. passport holders do not, as yet, require an ETIAS-approved passport to enter any of the EU or Schengen countries. This is because the system is still in what is termed a “transitional phase”, during which an ETIAS is optional. By the end of the year, however, it is envisaged that an ETIAS will be a mandatory requirement for visiting U.S. passport holders, as will also be the case for nationals of countries outside the EU and Schengen areas.
As is the case with a Schengen Visa, an ETIAS allows foreign nationals permission to enter and travel through any of the Schengen member states, which contains many of the European Union countries. Visitors are constrained to visits of no longer than ninety continuous days, and longer stays will require a visa to cover any extended stay.
Although, as a general rule, American passport holders do not currently require an ETIAS to visit Europe, this is an evolving situation and it is better to err on the side of caution and have the required ETIAS approval before embarking on any European trip.
Check the Lists
The Schengen authorities operate a list of countries whose citizens require visas and another for those visa-exempt countries. While the United States is on the visa-exempt list this does not mean that holders of American passports will never require a Schengen Visa. Whether a visa is required or not will depend upon the passport holder’s nationality and/or country of residence.
No Visa Required
Foreign nationals who, despite residing principally in the U.S., hold a different passport should check if their country is on the visa-exempt list. If so, no visa is required.
Foreign nationals with dual citizenship, one of which is an EU country, should travel under their European passport.
Foreign nationals with permanent or temporary U.S. residency do not require a Schengen Visa.
Foreign nationals resident in the U.S. but holding a passport from a country, not on the visa-exempt list.
Foreign nationals residing in the U.S. from a country on the visa-exempt list but who have been previously refused entry to the Schengen Zone.
There is a multitude of possible combinations of residence status, visa-exemption status, passport(s) held, and nationality issues which can affect U.S. resident’s travel plans for Europe, and time and care should be taken to ensure whether or not an ETIAS or Schengen Visa will be required at the intended time of travel.
European Entry Required Documentation
As previously explained, an ETIAS is not (as yet) a requirement for U.S. citizens wishing to visit Europe. Still, it will be from November 2023, and it is probably best to assume it is necessary immediately to avoid issues later in the year.
Before entering the European Union and Schengen Area, U.S. visitors will require:
- Current U.S. passport, no more than ten years old and valid for three months after the last date to be spent in the European area.
- ETIAS approval (due to become mandatory in November)
- Any relevant documents showing the purpose of the visit, e.g. business, study, tourism etc.
- Documented proof of sufficient finances to cover the stay in Europe.
While a valid U.S. passport (with or without ETIAS approval) allows entry into the Schengen Area it is not a guaranteed right. Border security at the point of entry can refuse admission for a number of reasons, although this is a rare occurrence. A refusal to enter at the external European border will result in an immediate return to the point of origin. It may also be necessary for the refused traveller to apply for a Schengen Visa.
Schengen Visa Application in the U.S.A.
Foreign nationals residing in the United States who do not qualify for visa-exempt travel will need a Schengen Visa for the country in question. This could be the country of arrival or the one where most time will be spent if visiting more than one Schengen country.
Fortunately, most of the European countries have an embassy or consulate in most of the major cities in America or have a designated visa application centre.
The two main categories of people who will need to submit visa applications are:
- Holders of U.S. passports who have previously been refused entry to Europe.
- Resident foreigners who hold a passport from a country not on the Schengen visa-exemption list.
The visa process involves amassing a significant number of supporting documents and can be a daunting task for many and particularly those whose first language is not English or one of the major European languages, as application forms are also available in French, German, Spanish and others.
Receiving ETIAS approval is a relatively straightforward matter. It involves filling out a detailed online form which includes personal details and any criminal records. All details supplied are checked against a central database, and the application is granted or denied usually within a matter of minutes. Refused applicants have the right to appeal, and this process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Applying for any type of Schengen Visa, however, is a different matter entirely. Laborious and lengthy, a Schengen Visa application not only requires a lot of form filling but also necessitates the collection of numerous background supporting documents.
Just some (but by no means all) of the documents that are likely to be requested are:
- Current passport
- Two airport-approved photographs
- U.S. Residence Permit (if applicable)
- Confirmation of booked return flights
- Confirmation of accommodation booked
- U.S. bank statements showing sufficient funds for the European visit
Intending travellers also need to include a cover letter detailing the reasons for the trip, plans for any excursions or onward travel to another Schengen country and a general outline of how the time in the Schengen area will be spent.
ETIAS or Schengen Visa?
There is no hard and fast rule as to whether an American citizen wishing to visit any of the 27 Schengen member states will require an ETIAS or a Schengen Visa. In the majority of cases, an ETIAS is the answer (certainly from November 2023 onwards), but this may not always be the case.
Having decided on which country (or countries) is to be visited, it is prudent to check that country’s website for information regarding visitors from the United States. Also, check to see if the passport held is issued in a country that qualifies for visa-exempt entry to Europe.
An ETIAS is a lot easier to apply for and faster to receive than a Schengen Visa and is, by some distance, the preferable route to take whenever possible.