After the UK voted to leave the European Union and the government negotiated for British travellers to become “third-country nationals subject to a range of restrictions, British passport holders must now have their travel documents inspected and stamped.
The next steps, which are likely to be introduced in autumn 2024, will involve more red tape. The good news: passport stamping will end. The bad news: every traveller must be fingerprinted and provide a facial biometric.
The European Union is planning to introduce an “Entry/Exit System” (EES) that will record the movements of non-EU visitors. Shortly afterwards – in mid 2025, according the latest plan – prospective UK visitors to the Schengen area will have to apply online for permission to enter.
The Schengen area comprises most of the 27 remaining members of the European Union (but not Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland or Romania), plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) is the next step in tightening frontier controls. It depends upon EES being fully functional and is due to appear in mid-2025.
When it is introduced, the €7 (£6) online permit will be valid for three years.
What is the “Entry/Exit System”?
The Entry/Exit System is an automated IT system for registering citizens from “third countries”, which means everywhere outside the EU and Schengen area.
The system is aimed at such travellers when they either enter or leave at an external Schengen border – such as flying from the UK to Spain or crossing by road from Greece to Turkey. (It will not be used for internal frontiers within the Schengen area.)
EES will register the date and place of entry or exit, plus fingerprints and a facial biometric.
This system, says the European Union, “will replace the current system of manual stamping of passports, which is time-consuming, does not provide reliable data on border crossings, and does not allow a systematic detection of over-stayers”.
British travellers, like other “third-country nationals,” are restricted to 90 days’ stay in any 180 days within the Schengen area. But enforcement of this currently depends on checking passport stamps and is applied haphazardly.
When will it start?
Originally EES was due to start in 2021. But the body responsible for implementation – the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (EU-LISA) – has repeatedly pushed back the date because the database is far from ready.
In October 2023, the European Council’s Justice and Home Affairs Council endorsed a new timeline for the roll-out of EES,.
The council said in a statement: “The new roadmap for the delivery of the new IT architecture foresees that the Entry/Exit System will be ready to enter into operation in autumn 2024.”
How will the biometric checks work?
Outbound and inbound passengers will go through the formalities at airports abroad, in a similar way to US immigration, though both on the way in and out of the Schengen area.
Some EU members have expressed alarm at the extra time involved in the new processes, with the Slovenian government warning: “It takes up to four times longer to do the new process.”
For terrestrial travellers it could be even worse.
Giving evidence to Parliament about the new system, Tim Reardon, head of EU exit for the Port of Dover, said: “There is no such thing as an e-gate for a car, and there is no such thing as an e-gate process for people travelling as a group. They’re all one-at-a-time processes.
“There is no way of doing a biometric control without getting everyone out of the vehicle.
“That’s the one thing on our site which cannot happen, because you’re in the middle of live traffic. It would be equivalent to asking people to get out of their car at a motorway toll booth. It’s fundamentally unsafe and it can’t happen.”
Gareth Williams, strategy director for Eurostar, which runs trains to France from London, said: “We don’t currently see a practical solution. If we take the peak of August, up to 80 per cent of people will have to go through the system.
“We do have a very extreme space challenge. At a minimum we would require over 30 kiosks, and an area about the size of our entire check-in area at St Pancras.”
The rules will not apply to EU citizens.
When does Etias start?
The much-delayed scheme is now anticipated to start in mid-2025. A “grace period” of six months is likely to be granted, meaning it is likely Etias will not become mandatory before 2026.
Is Etias a visa?
Officially, no. Europe says that Etias is “a pre-travel authorisation system”. It is a similar concept to the US Esta, the Canadian eTA and the British ETA, which are not technically visas. They are issued to international travellers who do not require a full visa.
“Its key function is to verify if a third-country national meets entry requirements before travelling to the Schengen area,” says the EU.
But as Etias requires visitors to apply in advance, provide lots of personal information, pay money and be issued with a permit to cross a border, it is not surprising that it is commonly termed a “eurovisa”.
How much does it cost?
The fee is €7 (£6) for all applicants aged 18 to 70; while those under 18 or over 70 will still need an Etias, it will be free.
How will I apply?
When finally the EU is ready, at the heart of the system is an Etias app and website. Travellers will be required to submit personal information including name, address, contact details in Europe and passport data. They must also state an occupation (with job title and employer). Students will be required to give the name of their educational establishment).
The applicant must give details of any serious convictions in the past 20 years.
Travellers must also provide online the reason for their journey (holiday, business, visiting family, etc), specify the country they will first arrive in, and provide the address of their first night’s stay – which will pose a problem for tourists who like to make plans as they go along.
As with other online travel permits, commercial intermediaries are allowed – but according to Frontex, the EU organisation implementing Etias, there are many scam sites out there that are likely to apply fees way above the basic €7 (£6).
Any site other than europa.eu/etias is unofficial and should not be trusted.
One “imposter” site claims to have processed 671 applications already; this is impossible since no applications have been processed anywhere.
Another site offers a 40 per cent discount for early applications. Some use the EU logo, which is illegal.
Frontex also warns about the risk of identity theft if personal information is provided to imposter sites.
What happens to the information?
Every application will be checked against EU and relevant Interpol databases, as well as “a dedicated Etias watch-list”.
The system will be tuned to pick out individuals suspected of being involved in terrorism, armed robbery, child pornography, fraud, money laundering, cybercrime, people smuggling, trafficking in endangered animal species, counterfeiting and industrial espionage.
How far in advance must I apply?
The European Union says: “We strongly advise you to obtain the Etias travel authorisation before you buy your tickets and book your hotels.”
The aim is for an Etias to be granted within minutes, though even a straightforward application could take up to four days.
If an application is flagged (ie there is a “hit” with one of the databases) the applicant may be asked to provide additional information. Alternatively, says the EU, the applicant may be asked “to participate in an interview with national authorities, which may take up to additional 30 days”.
Assuming yours is granted, there is no certificate issued, and nothing needs to be printed. The frontier guard will get the information he or she needs from the passport you used to apply.
In a case of mistaken identity, will I be able to appeal?
Yes. Details of how to appeal will be included with the notice of rejection.
Once I have an Etias, am I guaranteed admission to the Schengen area?
No. “Mere possession of a travel authorisation does not confer an automatic right of entry,” says the EU. As with the US, travellers can be turned away for any reason.
There is likely to be a mechanism in place for an Etias to be rescinded.
Do I need to apply for an Etias every time I travel to Europe?
No. The permit will be valid for three years, or until your passport runs out, whichever is the earlier.
Will I need an Etias to travel to Ireland?
No. The Common Travel Area incorporating the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands transcends European Union rules, and in any event, Ireland is not in the Schengen area.
If I have a long-stay permit from one of the EU nations, must I obtain an Etias?
How are people without internet access supposed to apply?
They will be expected to get a friend, a family member or a travel agent to make the application for them, in the same way as the US Esta and similar schemes.
Just remind us about the 90/180 day rule?
This rule, to which the UK asked to be subject after leaving the European Union, means that British travellers cannot stay more than 90 days in any stretch of 180 days.
As an example of what it means: if you were to spend the first 90 days of 2024 (January, February and almost all of March) in the Schengen area, you would not be able to return until late June.
Is this all because of Brexit?
No. Work on strengthening the European Union’s external border was already under way before the UK referendum on membership in June 2016.
Etias would not be relevant if the UK was still in the EU. But the nation voted to leave the European Union and the British government negotiated for British travellers to be classified as third-country nationals – triggering extra red tape.