The European Union has long modelled itself as a beacon of free movement. But for some visitors, entry will become slightly more constrained in mid-2023 with the rollout of the European Travel Information and Authorization System, or ETIAS. So what exactly is ETIAS and what impact will it have on airlines and travel companies?
ETIAS is an electronic system for registering visitors from certain countries. It is not a visa, but rather a new requirement specifically for travellers visiting from all countries that currently enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen Area. The European Commission describes this new travel authorization as a “necessary and small procedural step.”
Once the authorization system is rolled out, valid passport holders from current visa-free countries will need to apply for it prior to arrival in any of the Schengen countries. The ETIAS application will be available online, and will be accompanied by a small fee. Once issued, the ETIAS waiver allows a traveller to move freely within the zone, and will be valid for visits up to 90 days, with renewal needed after three years.
In most cases, obtaining ETIAS authorization should not add too much friction to a traveller’s trip. However, that may not be the perception of the average traveller looking to travel to Europe, especially for the first time.
For industry partners—including airlines, airports, OTAs, tour operators and the like—it’s important to understand what the obligations are when it comes to upholding and enforcing the new ETIAS system.
It is also good to grasp how this added layer of complexity will affect the traveller's understanding of their journey and willingness to book a trip.
With the right messaging and guidance, industry stakeholders can help educate travellers and alleviate any concerns that the ETIAS regulation might stand in the way of a smooth and seamless trip.
A brief history of ETIAS
The ETIAS visa waiver program was first introduced by the European Commission in 2016. Even though it is a border control measure, its primary purpose is certainly not to discourage travel and tourism or to create needless barriers to entry.
Rather, according to the European Commission, its purpose is to enhance public health and safety within the 26-nation zone, flag any irregular migration patterns and minimize the security threat posed by a small minority of visa-exempt visitors to the Schengen zone.
In theory and practice, it is similar to the United States’ Electronic System to Travel Authorization, or ESTA, a successful border management system introduced in 2008 that has since welcomed millions of travellers to the USA from eligible countries.
The ETIAS proposal was adopted by the European Union in 2018. Originally slated to roll out in 2022, its current proposed start date is November 2023.
How the ETIAS system will work
From the traveller's point of view, the ETIAS travel authorization process will be straightforward. Before departing for any country that is a member of the Schengen zone, a traveller will enter their passport details, personal contact information, and other relevant trip details into an online form. They will also provide payment details to cover the ETIAS application fee. In most cases, the application submission process will take roughly 10 minutes.
The information provided by the traveller will then be checked against various EU databases and global systems like Interpol. If the traveller has any criminal records or was previously put on a ETIAS watchlist, their application may be flagged for manual review. In that case, they may be denied entry.
In most cases—up to 95 percent—an ETIAS application should be processed and approved within minutes after payment is made. With a valid ETIAS visa waiver, a traveller is permitted to travel to any of the Schengen countries an unlimited number of times within a 3-year window, as long as their travel document remains valid.
How to prepare passengers for ETIAS
There are several ways that travel industry partners can help prepare passengers for the roll-out and implementation of ETIAS.
- Communicate early and often. When passengers are looking for European travel information, they should be able to find resources and explanations about the ETIAS process easily and quickly on any travel provider’s website. It’s best to communicate in pre-departure language—such as emails, FAQs, promotional materials, social media posts etc.—that the traveller may need to to apply for an ETIAS prior to departure if they are citizens of an eligible country.
- Differentiate from a visa. It's also important to emphasize that this process is distinct from a visa application procedure and not akin to the kinds of visa obligations that passengers from other nations are subject to. As the European Commission points out, visa applications can take weeks to approve and often include the gathering of biometric data. Plus, they can often require a trip to the embassy or consulate. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of ETIAS applications will take mere minutes and no biometric information is required.
- Understand carriers' responsibility. Carriers—such as an airline, train or cruise line—will also want to communicate that they are responsible for upholding ETIAS screening rules. If a passenger fails to complete their ETIAS visa waiver application prior to boarding a vessel bound for the Schengen zone, it is the carrier’s responsibility to deny them boarding. Help passengers avoid that situation by over-communicating the change in your pre-departure correspondence. Integrating sherpa˚ into the booking path can help carriers uphold this duty of care by using technology to guide the traveller through the visa process.
- Explain the Schengen zone. It’s worth educating the traveller on what precisely the Schengen zone is, as it may be unclear to the average person how it differs from the European Union, or the European continent in general. Let passengers know that they can continue to travel within the Schengen zone freely and without a visa once their ETIAS has been accepted at the external borders (in other words, their first country of entry). In that way, free movement within the zone has been maintained as it was before.
- Guide towards the right application. Remind the passenger that if they are travelling with a passport for a country that requires them to apply for a Schengen visa, then they do not need to also apply for ETIAS travel authorization, just their appropriate visa.
The Schengen zone comprises 26 countries, most of which (but not all) are also European Union member countries. Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein are non-EU states that are part of the Schengen zone. Meanwhile, EU member states like Ireland (and formerly the United Kingdom) have opted out. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus are EU member countries that hope to join the Schengen zone, but have not yet done so.
Adding complexity, bureaucracy, and administrative procedures to a traveller’s itinerary is never welcome news. However, there is no reason for the ETIAS rollout to negatively impact passenger numbers to Europe.
The travel industry all shares a responsibility to begin educating passengers about the new guidelines without deterring them from booking their next trip. As the leader in eVisa guidance and in helping travellers understand travel documentation requirements with ease, sherpa˚ is dedicated to making that process as easy and straightforward as possible—for both industry partners and the travellers they serve.
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