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What exactly is the Schengen Zone?

The Schengen Zone is considered one of the biggest achievements of European integration. For the travel and tourism industry, it’s a much-loved concept as it makes European travel simple and frictionless. But what exactly is the Schengen Zone?

The Schengen Zone comprises an area where people, as well as goods and services, can circulate freely within the territory. Currently, the Schengen Zone consists of 26 countries: 22 that are members of the EU and four non-EU countries, as well as three European microstates.

These countries include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Travelers who enter the Schengen Zone adhere to a single set of rules and are subject to a common visa policy. They can enter and travel around to any country in the Schengen Area without being subject to border checks.

History of the Schengen Area

Free movement was a fundamental concept of European integration in the “area of freedom, justice and security.” The idea was to remove trade barriers and enable European citizens to work, live or travel in any European state without special formalities. Doing so would strengthen solidarity and bring economic and social benefits to Europeans.

The Schengen Agreement was the treaty that laid the foundation of the Schengen Area. Signed on June 14, 1985, by five countries—Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany (later Germany), the agreement allowed for the easing of internal border checks, with the ultimate goal of abolishing them completely.

To implement this, the member states agreed to share common policies including those regarding visas, the transport of goods, and illicit drug and arms trafficking.

The Schengen Convention, signed on June 19, 1990, implemented the Schengen Agreement and created the Schengen Information System (SIS), a massive database that shares information about people, vehicles, and goods transiting the Schengen Zone.

It’s largely used for security purposes in border and migrant control and has a system of alerts for wanted persons and stolen property. Since the treaty was enacted in 1995, more countries have joined the original members: Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, followed later by Austria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Although the Schengen Agreement originated outside the framework of the European Union, it was incorporated into the body of laws governing the EU in 1999.

Since then, the Schengen Zone has continued to expand. In 2007, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the Schengen Zone. The area was further enlarged by the addition of Switzerland in 2008 and Liechtenstein in 2011. Four more countries—Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus—are in the process of joining.

Future of the Schengen Area

Migrant crises, rising threats of terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic have tested the Schengen Area’s existing border policies. To this end, recent amendments to the Schengen Borders Code have been proposed. The suggested reforms will allow a more uniform response to emergencies across Schengen countries, including temporary travel restrictions. It will also make the borders more resilient against unauthorized crossings while safeguarding the free movement of people.

Furthermore, under the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Schengen visa process is transitioning to a digital application, with the goal of going completely digital by 2025. Applicants will be able to apply for a Schengen Visa through an online platform, simplifying the process for both travelers and member states.

Schengen Area Entry Requirements

For entry to the Schengen Area, travelers from some countries will have to apply for a Schengen Visa—either a short stay or an airport transit visa.

The Schengen Visa application process involves filling out a visa application form, paying a visa fee of €80, and providing photos and supporting documentation including a round-trip ticket or itinerary, receipts for accommodations, such as a hotel booking or rental agreement, a bank statement or sponsorship letter to prove financial means, and proof of travel insurance for medical emergencies. The entire Schengen visa process will be digital, ensuring a smoother and more secure process.

Non-visa travelers will have to register for the European Travel and Authorization System (ETIAS) starting in 2023. This new travel authorization was implemented to help strengthen borders as an additional security measure and applies to many countries, such as the United States and Canada, who previously did not have any administrative formalities to enter Europe.

Once the application is online, travelers will provide personal information and answer a detailed form with questions about their criminal history and past travels and pay a small non-refundable fee.

Entry requirements can be confusing, especially if they always seem to be changing. At sherpa˚ we’re constantly working to alleviate traveler pain points, resulting in a better overall customer experience.

At sherpa° we’re passionate about freedom of movement. Our mission is to help travelers move freely around the world and to shift the way the world's leading travel providers approach border crossings. Through unmatched industry knowledge and expertise, we help our partners—from airlines to cruise lines to online travel agencies—open new ancillary revenue streams to help them reduce costs and operational risk while enhancing the customer journey and growing consumer confidence in travel.

More than simply providing a product or service, we're moving travel forward. Away from stress and confusion, and towards ease and connection. So travelers can move freely wherever life takes them. This is the future of international travel. Contact us today to find out how our suite of solutions can help grow your business.

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