Citizens often turn to the European Parliament to ask about the European Union’s rules regarding the Schengen Area and EU visa policy.
The Schengen area enables EU citizens and non-EU nationals, who are legally present in the EU, to travel between countries without being checked at national borders. It contributes to the free movement of citizens, allowing them to live, work and move around without formalities.
Twenty-seven countries are part of the Schengen agreement. They include most EU countries as well as four non-EU countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland).
The EU Member States Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania are not Schengen countries. Ireland has opted out of joining the agreement, while Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania are expected to join in the future.
Common rules for border checks
To ensure safe and controlled entry into the Schengen area, the Schengen Borders Code sets common rules for checks at the external border. These include checks on persons, duration of stay, as well as harmonised visa requirements for the Schengen area.
Member countries are evaluated regularly through the Schengen Evaluation and Monitoring Mechanism, to verify that the rules concerning the Schengen area are being applied.
In December 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to amend the Schengen Borders Code, which aims to improve the Schengen system’s resilience to serious threats, and to adapt it to new challenges. The proposal, which falls under the ordinary legislative procedure, is at the initial stage of the legislative process.
Common visa policy
The EU has established a common visa policy for travellers transiting or intending to stay for a short period in the Schengen area. It facilitates the entry of legal visitors into the EU, while strengthening internal security.
The most common type of visa for non-EU citizens is a short-stay visa, entitling a person to stay up to 90 days in a period of 180 days. Any of the Schengen countries can grant a visa, according to the Visa Code, which was updated in November 2021 to make the application process faster and easier, as well as to improve cooperation with non-EU countries. Visa requests for longer stays are managed by the EU country in which the visa applicant wishes to stay.
The EU has a common list of countries whose citizens must have a visa when crossing the external borders and a list of countries whose citizens are exempt from that requirement. These lists are set out in a 2021 regulation.
Temporary reintroduction of internal border controls
While the EU aims to keep the internal borders of the Schengen area open to facilitate free movement, member countries have the right to reintroduce internal border controls temporarily in exceptional circumstances, for instance:
- foreseeable events (e.g. sports events) drawing significant attention (renewable periods of 30 days, up to 6 months);
- immediate action that needs to be taken to respond to a threat (renewable periods of 20 days, up to 2 months);
- persistent serious deficiencies relating to external border control (3 renewals of any period up to 2 years).
These measures should only be introduced as a last resort to protect common interests within the Schengen Area. Recent examples include: some countries introduced internal border controls during the large-scale arrivals of migrants and refugees into the EU in 2015; and temporary internal border controls and travel restrictions from 2020 onwards, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
While sometimes necessary, internal border controls or closures can have a negative effect on both the economy and the fundamental freedoms of EU citizens. The European Parliament considers the Schengen Area a key EU achievement. In a 2021 resolution, Parliament expressed its commitment to safeguarding border-free movement.
Croatia joined the Schengen area on 1 January 2023, following a period of intensive preparation and substantial efforts to meet all the necessary requirements.
Bulgaria and Romania have not yet joined the Schengen area, although they fulfil the criteria for full membership. The decision to allow new states to enter the border-free zone is taken unanimously by national governments. In a resolution on Bulgarian and Romanian accession to the Schengen area, adopted in October 2022, the European Parliament reiterated its long-standing position that Bulgaria and Romania should be allowed to join the Schengen area.
- The impact of coronavirus on Schengen borders, European Parliamentary Research Service, Briefing, April 2020
- Temporary border controls in the Schengen area, European Parliamentary Research Service, At A Glance, March 2020
- Revision of the common visa code, European Parliament, Legislative Train
- Schengen, Borders and Visa, European Commission
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