Currently, travelers with a valid U.S. passport can visit Schengen countries and stay for up to 90 days without issue. However, starting in January 2022, there may be an additional requirement put in place.
Read on to educate yourself about all the current and upcoming requirements to visit Europe and the steps you’ll need to take to be prepared for this change.
What Is the Schengen Area?
The Schengen Area is a zone of 26 European countries and 3 microstates that have removed their internal borders in order to “facilitate free and unrestricted movement of people.” These countries have a border-free visa agreement that allows movement throughout the area without a traveler needing to show their passport every time they cross a border.
The Schengen Area covers most of the EU, except the U.K., Ireland, and a few other countries that are awaiting approval.
|Schengen Countries & Microstates|
What Are the Current Requirements To Travel to Schengen Countries?
Currently, there are 62 countries that are not a part of the EU, but citizens from these countries can still enter countries in the Schengen Area for business or travel purposes for up to 90 days without a visa. The U.S. is one of these 62 countries.
Citizens of the U.S. and the other 61 countries pictured below are allowed to enter the Schengen Area without having to get a visa beforehand. Your passport simply gets stamped upon your arrival and departure from Europe.
For a full list of all 62 countries from which citizens will need to get the ETIAS authorization, please visit SchengenVisaInfo.com.
There is a rule limiting your stay to 90 days within every 180-day period. Your first entry to any of the countries listed above is when the 90- and 180-day counters start. Days are accounted for in a cumulative manner over this time period.
For example, if you stay in Italy (a Schengen country) for 30 days, go to Croatia (not a Schengen country) for 30 days, and go on to travel to Greece (a Schengen country), your overall allowable days would still be at 30 days upon your initial entry into Greece.
What Is the Schengen Visa?
All citizens of countries that have yet not reached a visa agreement with the Schengen member states need to obtain a visa prior to their arrival in Europe. Since the U.S. does have an agreement, citizens of the U.S. typically do not need a visa to travel to Europe.
If you are staying longer than 90 days or are traveling for business purposes, this could vary. Be sure to check our Do I need a visa (or extension) to visit Schengen countries? graphic below for more details.
What Is ETIAS?
ETIAS stands for “European Travel Information and Authorization System” and is a form of electronic travel authorization. This new system will monitor all visitors from countries that do not need a visa to enter the Schengen Area.
The system works by screening travelers before their arrival in the Schengen Area. The ETIAS process will determine whether a citizen can enter the Schengen Area or not. By cross-checking information against various databases, ETIAS will be able to detect if a person is a security threat to any of the Schengen countries.
This change was put in place due to increased security risks and is an effort to better manage individuals who are passing through the EU’s borders. The EU began the process of introducing ETIAS back in 2016, and the system is expected to be launched on January 1, 2022. It will not come into effect fully until the end of 2022.
Bottom Line: ETIAS is not a visa. By the end of 2022, when arriving at the EU borders you will need to have both a valid travel document and an ETIAS authorization. Most commonly, a valid travel document is a valid U.S. passport.
An ETIAS travel authorization does not require visa-like obligations. For example, there is no need to go to a consulate to submit an application. There is significantly less information collected for this travel authorization compared to a visa application.
The U.S. already has a similar system in place. The U.S Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) determines the eligibility of visitors who travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). In fact, the cost for ESTA is higher than the future ETIAS fee.
What Does This Mean for You?
Starting in 2022, Americans and travelers from other visa-free countries will need to apply for an ETIAS travel authorization before they leave for their trip to any of the Schengen countries noted above.
Steps To Get an ETIAS Authorization
The good news is that the process is relatively straightforward. You simply need to complete an online application form. Let’s review details on the process, including what information you will need to provide.
Filling Out the Form
This is a process that must be done prior to your departure date. Depending on your country of citizenship, the online application will display several fields to complete. The only document you will need to apply for the ETIAS is your valid passport.
You must give the following information:
- Personal information such as:
- First name
- Last name
- Last name at birth
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Information regarding your citizenship
- Email and phone number
- Education and work experience
- First EU country you intend to visit
- Background and eligibility questions that will inquire on any medical conditions, travel to war countries, places where you were deported or rejected, and criminal records
Bottom Line: ETIAS is intended to identify threats to the EU, so those going to Europe with a criminal record for a minor offense, medical conditions that are not a public health threat, etc. should be able to get an ETIAS visa waiver without problems.
Paying the Fee
The ETIAS is planned to cost only €7 (~$8) for each application. This fee may be subject to change. The fee is also only applicable to adults between 18 and 70 years old. Individuals outside that age range will not owe a fee.
This fee can be paid by debit or credit card. Immediately after you complete the payment, your ETIAS authorization will start processing.
Hot Tip: Even though they won’t need to pay the fee, minors still need a travel authorization upon arrival in the Schengen Area to be permitted to enter. A legal guardian must apply for the minor’s ETIAS.
ETIAS Application Results
The system will:
- Check if the information you gave was correct
- Check your eligibility
- Check your risk factors
ETIAS will also cross-check data against the EU information systems for borders, security, and migration, including the Schengen Information System (SIS), the Visa Information System (VIS), Eurodac, Europol, and Interpol databases.
If what you filled out on the application form is correct, you’ve not been deemed a risk, and you’re eligible to enter, your application will be approved. This whole procedure is expected to be completed in only a few minutes.
However, if there is an exception from the system, the application will be manually reviewed. The manual processing is expected to take about 96 hours (4 days) up to a maximum of 2 weeks.
Bottom Line: According to a press release by the EU, “the online application shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes long and automatic approval will occur in 95 percent of the cases.”
Approved ETIAS Applications
Once approval is received, your ETIAS travel authorization is valid for 3 years or until the end of the validity of the travel document you registered during application (whichever comes first). This authorization will also be valid for an unlimited number of entries.
While the ETIAS is valid for 3 years, the limit for stays up to 90 days without a visa still applies, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Do I Still Need a Schengen Visa or Extension?
While the ETIAS requirement will not go into effect until 2022, the following rules for extensions and visas are currently in place. For a typical vacation, U.S. citizens will not need to apply for a visa or an extension.
However, if you plan to stay in the Schengen Area for longer than 3 months, you will need to obtain a separate visa or apply for an extension.
Unfortunately, if you are traveling for longer than 90 days for personal or educational reasons, the process to extend your stay in the Schengen Area is not straightforward.
Steps to Obtain an Extension
If you are a student studying abroad applying for a “Long-Stay Study Visa” or simply a tourist hoping to stay longer than 90 days, there is not 1 standard process to obtain a visa for long-term travel in the Schengen Area. Each country has a separate application process, and approval is not guaranteed.
You will have to apply for an extension with the embassy of the respective country where you are currently residing. The main thing to know is that you will have to remain in your application country until your visa extension is processed.
Here are the steps to take to file for an extension:
- Contact the embassy of the country where you plan to spend the majority of your time to determine specific requirements.
- Schedule an interview, if required.
- Examples of documents you will have to provide include:
- Passport, which must have the current visa or stamp under which you entered the Schengen Area
- Application form
- 1 photo
- Proof of income, which shows you can financially maintain yourself during the period of time you have applied to get a visa extension for (as you are not usually allowed to work)
- Health insurance
- Documents that prove your situation and the need to get a visa extension
- Attend the interview.
- Pay the non-refundable fee that varies by situation.
- Wait for a decision on your application.
Processing Time for Visa Extension
Your visa extension application can take a few days (but up to a month) to be processed. During this time, you are permitted to remain in the country where you submitted your application even after your visa expires, but you cannot travel to the other Schengen countries.
If you are granted a visa, you will be able to remain — if you aren’t granted an extension, you will have to leave in 1 to 2 days.
Hot Tip: It is very important to apply on time, which is at least a week before the expiration of your visa or before you hit your 90 days on your passport stamp.
If you are not from one of the countries that have been granted visa-free travel, you will have to apply for a visa. Note that you won’t need to also apply for the ETIAS in this instance.
If you are moving for work-related reasons, your company should help facilitate your process to obtain a visa. This is a completely separate process, as a Schengen visa does not allow visitors to work during their travels.
Steps To Obtaining a Visa
- Contact the embassy of the country where you plan to spend the majority of your time to determine specific requirements.
- Examples of documents you will have to provide include:
- 2 recent photos
- Valid passport with a minimum validity of 3 months
- Round-trip reservation
- Travel health insurance
- Proof of accommodation
- Proof of financial means
- Evidence of employment status
- Travel itinerary
- Submit your application at least 15 calendar days prior to your planned arrival to the Schengen Area.
- Make an appointment at the embassy of your destination country.
- Attend the visa interview.
- Pay the non-refundable tourist visa fee.
- Wait for a response on your visa application. The Embassy or consulate will typically reply in 10 working days.
Beyond being relocated by a company, there are a few countries that offer “freelance visas” that are meant for people who actually want to live and work in Europe for a time. Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic offer the most opportunities for this, with visas lasting 1 to 2 years.
This is a more complicated process — the application process alone could last over 6 weeks. But it is possible if you can prove you have a job and money to support yourself. Check out the links above if you would like to look into this process in more detail.
Penalties for Overstaying
Adhering to the 90-day limit is incredibly important, as you could face some tough penalties for overstaying. This could happen very easily. Say you are scheduled to leave the Schengen Area on the ninetieth day of your stay and you miss your return flight — this means you’ve overstayed the 90-day limit (even if it’s unintentional).
This is the most common penalty received. If you’ve only stayed a day or 2 extra, you could get away with a warning. However, you could also get hit with a fine of up to €1,200 (~$1,334).
The exact fine you receive will depend on the country you are caught in. Certain countries like Germany are notoriously strict, while others, like Greece, are more lenient.
Immigration officers and border guards tend to be suspicious of people who overstay once, no matter which country they were caught overstaying. The country that caught you may put something on your personal record for the Schengen countries, making it hard to get a visa or ETIAS travel authorization in the future.
Banning people from entering the Schengen Area is the most serious consequence, though it’s usually applied to those overstaying and working or engaging in other illegal activities. A person can be banned from entering any of the member states of the Schengen Area for a period of 3 years or more.
Top European Travel Tips
Now that you are educated on all of the requirements for visiting Europe, here are some tips to make your trip a success!
1. Get Your Documents in Order
Make sure you have a valid passport. Some countries in Europe require that you have 6 months of validity past your date of entry, others only require 3 months.
We have a few guides on how to apply for a new passport and how to renew an expiring passport.
In addition, if you plan to rent a car, rental car companies require you to have a valid license where you live. Some car rental companies also require an international driving permit (or IDP). Consider checking with the American Auto Association (AAA) for more information on how to obtain an IDP.
2. Look Into Travel Insurance
There are several kinds of travel insurance: trip cancellation insurance, flight cancellation insurance, medical insurance, etc. The best time to buy insurance is right after you put down the major deposits on your trip, whether that entails airfare, a package, or prepaid hotels.
Check your medical insurance coverage to see if you’re covered overseas. If not, you may want to purchase supplemental medical insurance to cover situations like the cost of transportation back home for emergency care.
Be sure to check out our ultimate guide to buying the best travel insurance.
3. Make Reservations in Advance
Making reservations in advance is the best way to secure accommodations and tours, especially during peak travel season in Europe.
For the things you know you want to do, it pays to book a ticket in advance so you can avoid the long lines and get tickets on those trains that work best with your travel plans. You may even want to buy a Eurail Pass if you’re planning on using trains a lot during your travels.
4. Bring a Suitcase You Can Carry
Whether you’re navigating the train station, walking on cobblestone streets, or carrying your luggage up several flights of stairs at your hotel, having a suitcase you can lift up and carry when needed is a must!
You won’t need as much as you think and laundromats are readily available throughout Europe if you need to do laundry during your trip.
Hot Tip: If you need help finding your perfect luggage, start with our list of the best carry-on luggage bags for any traveler.
5. Pack Light
To help with the item list directly above, be sure to pack light. For starters, you don’t have to pay for checked luggage, show up early to the airport, stand in long lines to check your bag, or wait for your bags to come out at baggage claim.
You also don’t have to worry about the airline losing your bag, you’ll be able to switch to an earlier or non-delayed flight more easily, and you can take public transportation to get around, which is usually faster and cheaper – especially in Europe.
6. Don’t Plan on Using Credit Cards Everywhere
While it seems that most of the world now accepts credit cards, it’s not uncommon for places in Europe to only accept cash.
Having euros on hand for tips, taxi rides, restaurants, purchases at local markets, and daily activities will make your transactions go smoother and it will save you money on foreign transaction fees.
7. But Also, Choose the Right Credit Card
Do yourself a favor and find a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. For those locations that accept a credit card, you will be happy you’re not taking on additional fees each time you swipe your card.
Your card may already have this feature without you realizing it. If you need to obtain a new card, we have a complete listing of the best no foreign transaction fee credit cards for travelers.
Hot Tip:Be sure to notify your bank and credit card company before traveling so that you don’t find your accounts frozen!
8. Skip the Money Exchange Counters and Find an ATM
Along these same lines, never ever use money-changing counters (especially the ones located by airports). They usually have horrible exchange rates.
ATMs are usually easy to find in an airport and with the correct card, you can pay little to no fees for your withdrawal.
9. Stay in the Center of Town
It may seem cheaper to spend the night in a hotel in the suburbs, but it’s not always worth it. When you take into account the transportation to and from the city, or the hassle of trying to find a restaurant in a residential area, sleeping far from downtown can be a real pain.
Instead, splurge a bit and book a moderate place in or near the city center. Or even better, use your hotel points for a free night! You’ll be able to reach the main sights and find cafes and restaurants on foot.
10. Learn Basic Foreign Phrases
Although English is becoming a popular second language across Europe, don’t expect everyone to speak English. That being said, it’s always a great idea to learn a few basic phrases.
Don’t be embarrassed to sound like a non-native speaker. Locals will appreciate the effort and might be more helpful as a result. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to use hand gestures, facial expressions, and pointing to convey a message.
11. Download Useful Apps
Google Translate is free to download and can translate over 90 languages! With this app, you can translate any text (including street signs and menus) just by holding up your camera… all without an internet connection!
TripIt and Google Trips organize all your travel itineraries and documents so you have everything in 1 place before you even get to your destination.
Other apps that may also be useful are Mobile Passport, XE Currency Converter, FlightAware, Google Maps, Uber or Lyft, and Priority Pass.
12. Check Your Phone Plan
Before you start using all of these apps, make sure your cell phone is ready for data usage. Before leaving on your trip, call your provider and ask them if you are covered for the countries you are traveling to or if they have a temporary plan available to extend your coverage.
If not (or you just don’t want to pay the fees), either turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode and just use Wi-Fi. Some of the apps listed above (such as Google Maps and XE Currency Converter) as available in offline modes.
Hot Tip: It may be worth considering an international cell phone plan so you’re not stuck with roaming charges and can stay connected while traveling.
13. Combat Jet Lag
The best way to combat jet lag is to get on the local schedule as soon as possible. If you take an overnight flight and don’t get much rest, fight the urge to sleep right when you arrive.
That first day may be tough, but try and stay awake until at least 10 p.m. so you can get on local time as soon as possible.
14. Enroll in STEP
The U.S. Department of State urges citizens to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) which helps the embassy alert you in times of trouble. STEP is a free service allowing U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
15. Trains vs. Planes
When looking at travel times, a 1-hour flight may look a lot more time-efficient than a 3-hour high-speed train, but that is not always the case. Airports are usually located outside of major cities and it can take 30 minutes or more to get there.
Train stations are typically located in city centers. From the station, it might be just a short walk or metro ride to get you to your hotel. When you factor in check-in time and transit to and from the airport, it may be faster to take that train.
16. Electricity Concerns
The electricity supply in Europe is 220v, whereas North American voltage is 110V. Many devices like cell phones, laptops, tablets, and camera chargers have built-in converters and will automatically accommodate the change in the voltage (110-240V). This will be noted on the label.
If your item isn’t adaptable, you will need a power converter.
In addition, you will need an adapter to plug in your electronics. Here are our picks for the best travel adapters and converters you can buy.
17. Wheelchair Accessibility
Wheelchair access to public buildings is far from common in many European countries. The cobblestone sidewalks and streets in many cities definitely pose a bit of a challenge for wheelchair users.
Since this is a major concern for many, we have developed the ultimate guide to air travel with a disability where we dig in-depth into some of the main challenges and solutions to traveling with a disability.
All told, a short trip to Europe should still be painless for most U.S. citizens. While Americans may be frustrated about an added barrier to travel, the ETIAS should be a simple and easy process.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, or you are a U.S. citizen who plans to stay longer than 3 months, you will always need to apply for a visa or an extension.