The ETIAS travel experience

The ETIAS travel experience

ETIAS, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, is being rolled out in 2024 with the express aim of strengthening security across Europe and curtailing illegal cross-border activities. It is hoped that ETIAS will also help prevent, or at least contain, any further health crises such as the current coronavirus pandemic. While these are the main objectives of ETIAS it is expected that travelling to, and within, the European Union and Schengen Area will also be simpler, faster and a better overall experience for future visitors regardless of the length of the stay or reasons for travel.

Will ETIAS streamline pre-screening security checks?

Yes. Currently, any non-EU national who enjoys visa-free travel to Europe is only checked by border officials and then only if there is some cause for suspicion. Because security authorities have little or no information about any visa-free visitor, any checking carried out at border control points or at airports can be very time-consuming and problematic for travellers on a schedule. A visa system for Europe would be a possible solution to the problem but such a scheme would be a bureaucratic and technological nightmare to introduce and operate as it would need to be consistent, accessible and understandable in so many different countries. The solution was ETIAS: an electronic digitally linked system for verifying passports similar to ESTA which is used by American authorities.

As is the case with a normal visa, the ETIAS application process requires the applicant to supply personal information and details relating to the relevant passport. In addition the applicant must provide information pertaining to past criminal activity and details about serious medical conditions with an emphasis on contagious and transmissible diseases. This information is checked against several EU databases and an ETIAS either granted or denied based on the outcome of these checks. For successful applications all the individual's information is stored in the central ETIAS database from where it can be quickly accessed by any authorised body.

With an ETIAS approved passport, a quick scan will inform security personnel that a traveller has been cleared for travel and there should be no delay in the passport holder being allowed to proceed. It should be noted, however, that possession of a valid ETIAS does not automatically guarantee the right to enter any country as this is at the discretion of the border authorities.

Will ETIAS increase travel security?

Yes. As well as ETIAS, the European and Schengen countries also operate an Entry/Exit System (EES) to keep track of a non-EU passport holder's movements throughout the zone. The system records a traveller every time he or she crosses a European border and stores the following information:

  • Passport holder's name
  • Type of travel document used
  • Biometric data (facial image and fingerprints)
  • Date of entry and exit
  • Place of entry and exit

In combination with ETIAS, EES is a further security screen for Europe as it will help curb illegal immigration and detect people who have overstayed the permitted time period or are deemed likely to do so.

EES replaces the old system of passport stamping and will provide more detailed information on where a person stays and for how long. Details of any refusal of entry, deportation or overstaying of permitted time will also be recorded.

The system should be fully automated and machines put in place which will scan a passport and automatically allow third country nationals to proceed once given clearance. This should take seconds rather than the long delays now experienced for manually checking and stamping passports.

Will ETIAS reduce waiting times?

Yes, probably the biggest pet hate for all travellers today is the amount of time wasted in queues. A faster, simpler process would be welcomed by all travellers that would be happy to provide biometric data such as fingerprints and facial scans in order to reduce waiting times at airports, sea terminals and border checkpoints.

With ETIAS up and running a quick scan of a passport will show transport authorities that the passenger has the necessary clearance for travel while the biometric data that accompanies EES will allow travellers to be monitored while they travel within Europe.

Running in tandem, these two systems should virtually end the need for queues at airports, sea and ferry terminals, international train stations and at border crossings.

What will be the safeguards remaining from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Despite the fact that there are fewer visitors to Europe due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, travellers are still facing lengthy queues at airports and sea terminals. The checks on additional COVID-19 documentation such as proof of vaccination and passenger locator forms have slowed the check-in process dramatically but this situation should improve with the introduction of ETIAS in 2024. This is because the ETIAS application form includes a section on health and medical history and this information could help speed up processing times at check-in desks.

What are the ETIAS data protection standards?

Data protection is a major concern for EU authorities and safeguarding a traveller's personal information is of the utmost importance. Information contained on the ETIAS application form (and, to a lesser extent, that on the EES data bank) is personal and private and needs to be properly secured.

To this end the agencies responsible for ETIAS and EES (the ETIAS Central Unit, ETIAS National Units and eu-LISA who manage SIS, the Schengen Information System) will be required to:

  • Store the data securely in encrypted format
  • Only allow access to the data to authorised, recognised and responsible authorities

Any information will only be held in storage until the ETIAS expires or for a period of five years since the last ETIAS denial or cancellation.

What are the expected improvements with ETIAS introduction?

As ETIAS is linked electronically to a passport this should greatly reduce the paperwork required for travel and the associated processing time for officials and border security personnel. Now, security and medical screening will be carried out at the point of departure rather than arrival and this should lead to:

  • Less queueing at points of departure and border crossings
  • Improved security across Europe
  • Improved screening for potential health risks
  • Quicker and more efficient processing of visiting non-nationals
  • Improved tracking of non-nationals in the greater European area

Of course, these are the benefits of ETIAS and EES as predicted by EU officials but as to whether all, or any, of these come to pass only time will tell.