In what has been a seemingly endless operation the introduction of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) has just taken a large step towards becoming a reality. At the end of January the first ETIAS Central Unit operators completed an intensive three-month training program. This first group consists of 28 application handlers and 10 traveller and carrier support operators along with two team leaders and will now be tasked with testing and developing the system, processing the first applications and spotting and correcting possible problems. Early teething problems are expected at the new ETIAS Central Unit as they attempt to link several European security and police databases as well as coordinate the ETIAS processing system across all the European Union member states.
Over the next two years the ETIAS Central Unit is expected to increase to two hundred staff members who will process the applications from citizens of approximately sixty countries that currently enjoy visa-exempt status. It is now envisaged that citizens of these countries will require ETIAS approval beginning in May of 2023 in a concerted bid to strengthen European security as well as increase public health safety and reduce illegal immigration and cross-border criminal activities.
Similar to already existing pre-travel screening systems in the U.S.A. and Canada, ETIAS is intended to prevent unwanted visitors travelling to the greater European area. Currently, around sixty nations enjoy visa-free travel to the EU and Schengen area which means that the European authorities have very little information regarding arriving visitors. Given the recent rises in terrorist attacks, as well as increased cross-border criminal activity and people smuggling, the European Commission decided to introduce a way of pre-screening intending visitors and this is the purpose of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System.
ETIAS was first announced by the European Commission in 2016 and introduced into legislation in 2018 with a proposed implementation date of early 2022. Due to ongoing technical and legal issues implementation has been pushed back to the end of this year and it is expected that ETIAS approval will be mandatory for all non-EU tourists and business travellers by mid-2023.
In order to acquire an ETIAS applicants must possess a valid passport and complete an online form supplying personal information as well as details regarding criminal convictions and health status. The applicant's details will then be checked through various security and police databases stored in the ETIAS Central Unit before the application is granted or denied. Because of the extensive nature of the application questionnaire ETIAS officials can decide if the intending traveller poses a criminal, terrorist or health risk to Europe as the ETIAS performs the functions of both an electronic visa and security check. Once granted, an ETIAS is not a paper document but an electronic approval which is digitally linked to the relevant passport and is valid for travel to and within all EU member states as well as Norway, Switzerland, Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria for a period of three years.
ETIAS and British Travellers
As things stand, the introduction of ETIAS will have no effect on British travellers to Europe until the latter part of 2022 and possibly not until the middle of the following year. All that is currently required is a valid passport along with documentation pertaining to planned travel dates. Britons applying for a new passport in the second half of the year (and planning a possible European visit) must ensure that they also have applied for and received ETIAS approval. Without this electronic endorsement it may not be possible to book through travel agencies or transit companies and those who somehow arrive in Europe without an ETIAS may be detained and returned home.
As ETIAS is being introduced to improve European security and safeguard public health it should come as no surprise that the application form contains questions regarding the applicant's criminal history and current state of health. Although such questions can be seen as invasive and embarrassing, refusing to answer or providing false information is not an option as this will likely end in a refusal. The information provided by an applicant (particularly regarding criminal convictions) will be cross-checked against numerous European databases (including that of Interpol) and any errors or false claims will most likely be discovered. Failure to supply an accurate criminal record, or provide details of certain health issues, are expected to be among the chief reasons for an ETIAS application being rejected.
Applicants with a criminal record can apply for an ETIAS although the seriousness of the crimes and when they were committed as well as the length of any sentence served will play a major role in acceptance or refusal. Of chief concern to the ETIAS screening board are:
- Cross-border crimes
- Serious crimes (murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery etc.)
- Terrorist activities or links
- Current threat level
- Deportation record
- Applicants with a record for minor crimes, or probation rather than a prison sentence, are not precluded from applying for an ETIAS although some further questioning and clarification may be required.
One need only think of the ongoing coronavirus situation to understand why Europe is concerned with possible health risks. Applicants will be required to provide details of infectious and/or transmissible diseases that may pose a threat to fellow travellers or to the population as a whole.
Avoiding ETIAS Refusal
Filling out an application form incorrectly (whether intentionally or in error) or providing false information are the most likely reasons for a refusal. As the application form is filled out online it may be tempting to fill in the easier sections first and then go back to the more difficult questions. The danger here is that some answers may be omitted or not fully completed which will result in the application being rejected and having to be resubmitted. Applicants should take care to:
- Double-check all information entered
- Pay attention to correct spelling and numbering
- Complete the criminal record section truthfully and in full
- Provide any health details requested
Before sending the application make sure that ALL questions have been answered and no sections are left blank. It is expected that over 95% of applications will be successfully granted within a matter of minutes and those that are unsuccessful can be appealed. Once granted the ETIAS is valid for multiple entries into Europe for a period of three years whereupon the ETIAS application process must be repeated.