FACT CHECK: Will U.S. Citizens (and others) Need a Visa to Visit Europe in 2021?

By Kent O’Neil, Global Legal Analyst, Newland Chase

Just want the executive summary? No.

For those wanting a more detailed explanation: Some major media outlets circulated stories this past week that – U.S. citizens will need visas to visit Europe starting in 2021. Like so many stories in the general media on legal topics, like visas and immigration – there was both a grain of truth and several grains of misunderstanding. In fact, such was the level of confusion the stories birthed in American readers that it prompted European Union officials this week to issue further clarifications on travel regulations for U.S. citizens.

Perhaps because of the hype and confusion surrounding Brexit and the European Union… perhaps because of an actual ongoing diplomatic discussion between the U.S. and the EU over five member states whose citizens still require visas to the U.S. – the stories sparked significant confusion among American readers. In the interest of clearing up some of that confusion, let me start by saying – (1) Brexit has no impact on visa requirements for U.S. citizens traveling to Europe, and (2) there are no current plans on the part of the EU to impose further visa requirements on U.S. citizens.  

Yes… something is changing in 2021 for Americans – and Canadians, Australians, Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Emirates, Brazilians, and many other foreign nationals – traveling to Europe. However, it is not a visa requirement. It’s the new ETIAS travel authorisation system – and it is not a new development. It has been in development now for more than three years.

What is ETIAS?

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) is the EU’s travel authorisation system that will be introduced early in 2021 for visa-exempt foreign nationals entering any of the 27 EU member states of Europe. It is similar to the U.S.’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) or Canada’s Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA). It is a method of pre-screening travellers who will be entering a country visa-free. It is not a visa.

What’s the difference between a visa and a travel authorisation? On the practical side, visas generally require lengthier applications and higher fees. Generally, visas are granted based on a valid purpose (usually tourism, business, or work) for a foreign national to enter a country.

Travel authorisations – like the ESTA, eTA, and the coming ETIAS – apply to foreign nationals who are already exempt from visa requirements. They generally involve simple online applications and minimal fees. No fingerprinting, photographs, or visits to a consulate or visa processing centre. They are typically issued immediately or within minutes of application and are electronically linked to the applicant’s passport. Travel authorisations usually involve only cursory background checks – looking for security concerns, criminal backgrounds, or prior visa abuses.

Some quick facts on the ETIAS:

  • Implementation is not expected until early 2021.
  • ETIAS will be a fully electronic, automated, online process.
  • ETIAS will be required of all foreign nationals from countries (currently over 60 countries) that are exempt from visa requirements.
  • ETIAS will apply to entry into all EU member states that are part of the Schengen area, as well as Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania.
  • According to EU officials – “The ETIAS authorisation is not a visa.
  • Application should take less than 10 minutes and require no documentation beyond the applicant’s travel document (passport).
  • There is no need to visit a consulate for application, and it involves no biometric data collection.
  • In 95 percent of cases, applications for the ETIAS should result in a positive issuance within a few minutes.
  • The application fee is expected to be €7.
  • The ETIAS will be electronically scanned and should not result in additional delay at border crossings.
  • Once issued, an applicant’s ETIAS will be effective for three (3) years and valid for an unlimited number of entries (subject to existing Schengen area rules).

What’s the Difference Between ETIAS and a Schengen Visa?

As the ETIAS is not a visa requirement, but a travel authorisation, it does not change the existing Schengen area rules or processes – either for those individuals entering the Schengen area visa-free or for those entering with a Schengen visa. The existing rules on length of stay in the Schengen area – i.e. 90 days in any 180-day period – are not affected by the ETIAS. Neither is the ETIAS expected to effect the current processing times for obtaining Schengen visas or individual country visas.

Need more on Schengen Visas? See Global Immigration 101: Schengen Visas.  

Is This Part of the Ongoing Visa Dispute Between the U.S. and the EU?

No. The ETIAS has nothing to do with an existing diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and the EU over visa exemptions for EU nationals, which has been ongoing for a number of years. There are no significant new developments in that dispute.

While citizens of most EU member states may travel to the U.S. without a visa, citizens of five EU states still require a visa to the U.S. – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania. U.S. authorities cite insufficiencies in security of the passport systems in those countries as reason for continuing to impose visa requirements on their citizens despite their membership in the EU.

For several years, diplomats of the U.S and EU have been in discussions to resolve the disparate treatment. The EU obviously takes the position that these five states should receive the same visa-exempt privileges as other EU member states.

The dispute seemingly hit its highpoint in March 2017 when the EU Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to retaliate against the U.S. by imposing visa requirements on U.S. citizens until the U.S. agreed to exempt citizens of the five states. Nevertheless, the EU Commission refused to take such action, deeming it “counterproductive” to the ongoing diplomatic negotiations.

To date, there appears to have been no further serious action toward imposing visa requirements on U.S. citizens traveling to the EU. Diplomatic talks reportedly continue on the issue, and recent statements by U.S. officials indicate that they have seen steady improvement in visa refusal rates in the five states. Assuming that trend continues, the issue may eventually resolve itself.

Final Thoughts and Lessons

I hope that this blog clears up some of this week’s confusion around the ETIAS and Schengen visas and visa exemptions and drives home an important lesson… When getting information regarding business and legal matters, go to the experts (like Newland Chase). Our over 1,700 expert immigration and visa professionals, attorneys and qualified migration consultants located around the world are well versed in the requirements for business travel and immigration to and from more than 150 countries – including all countries of Europe.

For those needing reliable information on visa and entry requirements into any specific destination, including ESTAs for the U.S. and eTAs for Canada – you can get a personalised assessment of requirements and assistance with obtaining all necessary visas and travel authorisations on the website of our sister company, CIBTvisas. CIBTvisas is the leading provider of global travel visa services. With thirty years of experience, CIBT is the primary service provider to 75% of Fortune 500 companies.

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Kent O’Neil is a Global Legal Analyst and frequent writer and speaker on international business and global corporate mobility for Newland Chase. Kent received his Juris Doctor from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law and a Bachelors in Economics from Clarion University. Prior to joining Newland Chase, he worked in both private practice and in-house for a multinational corporation operating across North America, Europe, Asia, and the APAC region. Now based in the U.S., Kent has lived and worked as an expat in Pakistan and the Philippines.

This blog is informational only and is not intended as a substitute for legal advice based on the specific circumstances of a matter. Readers are reminded that immigration laws are fluid and can change at a moment’s notice without warning or notice. Please reach out to your Newland Chase contact should you require any additional clarification or guidance. Written permission from the copyright owner and any other rights holders must be obtained for any reuse of any content published or provided by Newland Chase that extend beyond fair use or other statutory exemptions. Responsibility for the determination of the copyright status and securing any permissions rests with those persons wishing to reuse this blog or any of its content.