What to know about ETIAS, Europe’s travel authorization program

Travelers to Europe from many countries, including the US, will soon be required to apply for a travel authorization known as ETIAS, or the European Travel Information and Authorization System, to visit destinations like France, Italy, and Spain, as well as 27 other European countries.

For years, US citizens have been able to travel to many European countries for short visits without any prior travel authorization, but that will change when the new policy goes into effect — likely sometime in 2024. The EU has attempted for years to get some manner of travel authorization on the books for travelers from countries where a visa isn’t required to enter EU nations, without success.

The new system is best thought of as a database to track who’s authorized to enter European countries, rather than as a visa. The authorization, once given, is valid for three years and permits short trips — 90 days or fewer at a given time. Longer stays, like for school or work, already require visas.

Though it may seem like a major change for Americans and citizens of other countries that currently have visa-free entry to European countries, the US has its own authorization system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization or ESTA. Citizens and eligible residents of certain countries — mostly in Europe, but also including South Korea, Brunei, Chile, and Japan — don’t have to have a visa for shorter visits to the US, but they do need ESTA authorization. Visa holders don’t require ESTA authorization, because obtaining a visa requires much more information from travelers and an interview at a consulate.

Why is ETIAS going into effect?

According to a memo released by the European Commission, “ETIAS will be a largely automated IT system created to identify any security or irregular migratory risks posed by visa-exempt visitors traveling to the Schengen area, whilst at the same time facilitate crossing borders for the vast majority of travelers who do not pose such risks.” The Schengen area is a group of 27 European countries — 23 of the 27 EU countries plus Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Lichtenstein — which allow travel between them without internal border controls.

The system has been in the works for several years, according to NPRthe European Commission introduced the idea 2016. The US version, ESTA, went into effect in 2008.

ESTA has a mandate to prevent terrorist crime through its tie to the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. That legislation barred nationals of North Korea, Iraq, Sudan, and Iran who also held nationality in an ESTA-eligible country from the program; anyone who traveled to those countries, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen after March 1, 2011 is also ineligible for ESTA, even if they would otherwise meet the eligibility criteria.

ETIAS is also ostensibly a tool to help prevent crime, irregular migration, and public health threats, according to FRONTEX, Europe’s border security force. Irregular migration to Europe from countries including Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Tunisia has trended upward in the past two years in particular due to political instability, economic and environmental crisis, and conflict. The most high-profile cases of irregular migration occur via human trafficking operations and small vessels, but other methods of irregular migration, including via plane and land crossings, occur as well.

ETIAS is aimed at reducing or preventing serious crimes, which according to EUROPOL include human trafficking, drug trafficking, and arms smuggling, as well as terrorist crimes. The 2018 European Parliament legislation establishing ETIAS suggests creating a watchlist which “shall consist of data related to persons who are suspected of having committed or taken part in a terrorist offence or other serious criminal offence or persons regarding whom there are factual indications or reasonable grounds, based on an overall assessment of the person, to believe that they will commit a terrorist offence or other serious criminal offence.” Essentially, based on the metrics established under the legislation, a person can be denied authorization if the relevant authorities — EUROPOL and member states — believe that an applicant might commit a terrorist or other serious crime.

An official EU memo states that ETIAS applications will be checked against “EU information systems for borders and security,” though it doesn’t specify which systems. An EU press release from 2016 identifies “the Visa Information System (VIS), Europol data, the Schengen Information System (SIS), Eurodac and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS)” as databases to be used in the ETIAS verification process.

Though the idea for ETIAS was introduced years ago, getting all the members of the European Parliament to find a system they could agree on was challenging, Dan Hamilton, a senior non-resident fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told NPR.

“Another part of it is simply the pace of the way this parliament and European commission works,” he said. “They’re ending their term and pushing through a lot of these directives because parliamentary elections happen next June.”

What does it mean for travelers?

The ETIAS website isn’t yet active, so it’s impossible to know the requirements for the authorization or see the form travelers will have to fill out. However, according to an official memo about the ETIAS program, the only documentation travelers will require is a valid passport that expires no less than three months after your intended travel date. Only travelers between the ages of 18 and 70 need to apply.

As the memo states, the ETIAS authorization isn’t the same as a visa:

An ETIAS travel authorisation does not reintroduce visa-like obligations. There is no need to go to a consulate to make an application, no biometric data is collected and significantly less information is gathered than during a visa application procedure. Whereas, as a general rule, a Schengen visa procedure can take up to 15 days, and can in some cases be extended up to 30 or 60 days, the online ETIAS application only takes a few minutes to fill in.

The application will cost 7 euros — about $7.70 per the typical exchange rate — and will apply to travelers from dozens of different countries, including Singapore, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, Australia, Japan, and the UK.

Although it’s recommended to apply at least a month in advance of travel, all advisory information from the EU claims that the application and approval process will take just a few minutes, so it’s still possible to make emergency travel work with the new system. “Only in very exceptional cases, could the ETIAS procedure take up to 30 days,” according to the official memo on the system.

The authorization is good for a period of three years — “significantly longer than the validity of a Schengen visa,” as the memo points out, and “will be valid for an unlimited number of entries.”

Although the official memo estimates that 95 percent of applications will be approved, rejected applicants will be told the reason for their rejection — and will be able to appeal or apply again. However, ETIAS approval isn’t a guaranteed entry into a given country; border guards still have the final say.