The European Commission has announced plans to digitalize the Schengen visa process

This week we learned about an exciting new European Commission proposal to digitalize the Schengen visa application process within the next four years. We see this as a positive step forward that will deliver a smoother and more secure application process for travellers, Member States and air carriers.

A European Union flag flying in front of a historic building.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Schengen area is a collection of 26 European countries that have eliminated border checks on travel between those countries. Travellers entering from outside the Schengen area are subject to an initial border check, but are not subsequently checked when moving internally between Schengen countries.

Citizens from 102 third countries currently require a short-stay visa to travel to any one of the 26 Schengen countries. The process of applying for one remains largely paper-based, which can be frustrating and inconvenient for travellers. Some applicants need to travel quite a distance to submit visa requests in person. The new system will help reduce the financial and time burden on applicants.

Some Member States have already moved forward with digitalization plans, but the current proposal seeks to harmonize the digitalization process across all Schengen countries. According to the Commission, this will provide consistency for travellers, reduce costs for Member States and improve the security of the Schengen area—physical visa stickers can be at risk of falsification, fraud and theft.

Another reason quoted by the Commission for moving to digital applications is to avoid what they describe as ‘visa shopping'. This happens when applicants submit applications with a Schengen country other than their destination country because they believe it offers a faster visa application process. The new system would automatically determine which Member State is required to process each application.

This is welcome news for travellers and air carriers alike

Recently, intending travellers have been reporting difficulties in securing appointments at Schengen visa application centers, embassies and consulates. We’ve seen reports on Twitter of waiting times for appointments extending into months, particularly in India. We expect that a digital application process would help to reduce or eliminate these waiting times. Appearing in person would only be required in one of three situations: for first-time applicants, for applicants whose biometric data are no longer valid or for travellers with a new travel document. This will make visa renewals super-easy with no biometrics needing to be collected and no visa sticker being added to the travel document.

Air carriers that fly to and from the Schengen area will welcome the announcement. Carriers will have access to better information on whether a passenger holds the correct documentation for their trip. With this information, they can prepare travellers more comprehensively with the documentation they require for their trip. It also reduces the risk of flying people with incorrect or fraudulent visas, resulting in a reduction in fines and repatriation costs.

The new proposal is made possible by the rollout of the EU’s new Entry/Exit System (EES)—an automated IT system for registering travellers from third countries, both short-stay visa holders and visa-exempt travellers, each time they cross an EU external border.

One final note: The Commission’s proposal is not to be confused with ETIAS, which is a separate system that will enable visa-exempt, non-EU citizens to obtain an electronic travel authorization in advance of their travel to the Schengen area. For more on ETIAS, click here.

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