The EU vs. the Schengen Area: What Travelers Should Know

The EU vs. the Schengen Area: What Travelers Should Know

With the incoming implementation of ETIAS, many may wonder how the EU differs from the Schengen Area. As early as 2024, all non-EU travelers, including U.S. citizens, will need to pre-register with ETIAS, an electronic visa-waiver program, before entering the Schengen Area. 

Because many travelers did not previously have to worry about this, the question becomes, what is the Schengen Area? More importantly, how does the Schengen Area differ from the EU?

These are valid concerns for any traveler, especially those who now must register for ETIAS. This article will cover everything non-EU citizens need to know about the Schengen Area before traveling to Europe.

Is the EU the Same As the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area comprises 26 European countries with open borders and a standard visa policy for international travel. On the other hand, the European Union is a political and economic union of 27 European member states that share a single internal market through a standardized system of laws. 

While the Schengen Area focuses primarily on travel and border controls, the EU has more significant political, economic, and social implications. While there is some overlap in their purposes and membership, they should be considered two separate entities. 

Are all EU countries in the Schengen Area?

A common misconception about the Schengen Area is that it includes every part of the European Union. Several EU countries are not in the Schengen agreement. These include:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Ireland
  • Romania

While Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania are not currently part of the Schengen Area, they are in the process of joining. New regulations require that additions to the EU join the Schengen Area. 

Ireland was a part of the EU before this rule became effective. Despite being a part of the EU, they continue to opt out of the Schengen Area and maintain their visa policy.

Which Schengen Countries Are Not a Part of the EU?

The notable non-EU countries that have an agreement with the Schengen Zone are part of the European Free Trade Association. EFTA countries are not a part of the EU Customs Union, meaning they can negotiate their international trade deals. 

Nonetheless, they share open borders with Schengen member countries. These nations include:

  • Iceland
  • Liechtenstein
  • Norway
  • Switzerland

While these countries do not participate in the European Union, they are effectively a part of the Schengen Area. As a result, they share open borders with the EU. Also sharing open borders with the EU are several European microstates, including:

  •  Andorra
  •  Monaco
  •  San Marino
  •  Vatican City

What Is the Purpose of the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area was created unilaterally with the European Union. When the EU was officially established in 1993, one of the scopes was to create an “area of freedom, security, and justice.” This set of policies, known as AFSJ, aimed to ensure security, rights, and the free movement of people within the European Union. 

The Schengen Area was created to uphold that idea, allowing European citizens to travel freely and safely across the internal borders of the continent. 

Why Are Some Countries in the EU but Not in the Schengen Area?

Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania are EU countries in the process of becoming Schengen countries. Croatia will become the next Schengen state; however, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania have more difficult paths. 

While Cyprus has border disputes with Turkey, there are concerns about Bulgaria and Romania’s ability to act as the Schengen Area’s eastern border. Each country is on track to join the Schengen Area, though.

On the other hand, Ireland chose to control their immigration status because they are not a part of mainland Europe and shares no borders with any EU nation. That said, EU newcomers must now join the Schengen Area.

Is the UK in the EU or Schengen Area?

The United Kingdom is neither in the EU nor Schengen Area. While the UK was once part of the EU, it exited in 2020 during “Brexit.” 

Among other reasons, the issue of immigration, stemming from the EU’s policy of free movement, was a primary factor. They were never part of the Schengen Area, though, for reasons similar to Ireland’s.

Do I Need a Schengen Visa To Visit the EU?

Currently, non-EU citizens, including U.S. citizens, can travel throughout the Schengen Area visa-free. As early as 2024, these travelers will have to pre-register with ETIAS before entering the Schengen Area. 

This means travelers still do not need a Schengen Visa for visits of up to 90 days within 180 days; however, they will need to register with ETIAS.

The 27 European Union member states are:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden

Why Is ETIAS Necessary?

The main concern that initiated the need for ETIAS was a lack of security at EU borders. ETIAS was officially proposed to address four areas of concern:

  • Each year, around 200 million people cross EU borders, which continues to rise.
  • As a result of several international crises, the number of refugees and people seeking asylum has risen sharply.
  • Terrorist attacks have become disturbingly frequent, threatening the lives of citizens who call Europe home.
  • Technological advancements have made electronic pre-travel authorization a realistic and practical way of maintaining border checks and security.

ETIAS aims to reinforce EU borders while also expediting the customs process for visa-free travel. 

What Will ETIAS Change?

ETIAS is an electronic visa-waiver program similar to the one the United States currently has. When travelers register for ETIAS, they enter an online database accessible to border agents throughout the Schengen Area.

Before ETIAS, EU border agents faced millions of unknown travelers daily. With ETIAS, each traveler will be known, enhancing the identification verification process and creating a more efficient system that will shorten the wait times for travelers.

What You Need To Enter the Schengen Area

If you plan a trip to an EU member state in 2024, you may be affected by the ETIAS. Except for Ireland, each member of the EU is or will be a part of the Schengen Area, which will soon require all non-EU travelers to apply for ETIAS. 

Applying for ETIAS is a straightforward process. Approval is nearly instant for a majority of applicants. Once approved, it digitally links to the traveler’s passport, and is valid for three years. More importantly, it will significantly enhance the safety and efficiency of European travel.



The Schengen Area |

The European Union: What it is and what it does | European Commission