What is the Schengen Area?

What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area currently comprises 27 European countries that have all signed up to the Schengen Agreement. This is a treaty in which all signatories have agreed to abolish their national borders in order to facilitate simpler trading between member states as well as speed up border crossing procedures for business people and visitors.

The 27 current Schengen Area members are: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Citizens of any of the member states are not required to present a passport or identity card when entering a fellow member state while nationals of countries outside the Schengen Area will need a passport or other acceptable travel documentation.

Countries that will require ETIAS are those currently in the Schengen Area.

The Schengen Agreement

Schengen is a small town in the south-east of Luxembourg and it was here on the 14th of June, 1985 that five European countries met to sign what is known as the Schengen Agreement. Following World War II Europe was basically divided into two camps. One side envisaged a European community that operated no border controls or checks between European countries, thus allowing free trade and movement, while the other camp was vehemently opposed to this idea. The chief proponents of this borderless free movement were Germany and France who put the concept before the European Council in June of 1984 when it was decided that certain conditions had to be met before the proposed plan could become a reality.

With the European Union's terms and conditions accepted, guidelines and regulations were drawn up and the agreement signed by both Germany and France who were joined by three other European countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Although the original agreement laid out the five signing countries intention to remove internal borders between these nations it was not until 1990 that a signed convention allowed the Schengen Agreement to be implemented. The convention covered all issues relating to the introduction and operation of the Schengen Agreement including:

  • The removal of internal border controls between Schengen member states
  • The rules and procedures pertaining to the issuance of a standard Schengen Visa accepted by all Schengen countries
  • The introduction and operation of a database to be called the Schengen Information System (SIS) containing information relating to intending visitors to the Schengen Area travelling from a non-Schengen country
  • The introduction of an information exchange system between internal security guards and immigration officials

The concept of removing internal border controls to boost commerce and tourism proved popular to some countries and the original five founding members were soon joined by four further nations:

This brought the total number of Schengen Area members to nine but although the ground rules had been set and the Schengen Agreement officially accepted as early as 1990 the Schengen Area only really came into being in early 1995 when seven of the member states actually began to remove internal border security controls. The seven member states who made the Schengen Area a reality were: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Schengen Area Expansion

Following the decision to abolish internal borders by the seven European nations the Schengen Area expanded rapidly in the following years. Austria joined in April of 1995 and the expansion continued in late 1996 with the addition of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

April 2003 saw a virtual explosion in membership numbers when no less than nine European countries put pen to paper and joined the ever expanding Schengen Area. The nine new countries were the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The number of Schengen countries in 2003 numbered 24 and Switzerland and Liechtenstein signed up in 2004 and 2008 respectively.

On January 1st 2023, Croatia officially joined the Schengen Area as the 27th member. However, it took several years to join the bloc. Croatia expressed interest in joining the Schengen Area in early 2015. Then, the country was viewed responsible for a massive influx of illegal immigrants who travelled from Greece and were allowed to pass through Croatia en route to EU member states such as Hungary, Austria and Slovenia. Despite this, Croatia eventually joined the Schengen Area

Removal of Border Controls

Although the removal of border controls between neighbouring countries was the goal of the Schengen Agreement this was not always possible in the early days. Schengen member states that shared a border could effectively change border policy for fellow member neighbouring countries but this was not the case when membership was small and scattered across the continent of Europe. Even during the early years, the Schengen Area was almost a solid block of countries that covered virtually the whole of Europe and member states began to abolish land, sea and even airport border controls.

This process began as early as 1995 when neighbouring countries France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy first implemented the Schengen Agreement as did Spain and Portugal who also share a common border. The removal of internal border controls continued as new members signed up to the agreement with the final signatory, Liechtenstein, abolishing its internal border in December of 2011.

Countries in the Schengen Zone

The Schengen Zone includes 27 countries, with more potential members in the coming years. Here are the current participating nations that are a part of the Schengen Area:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland


This alpine nation was signed into the Schengen Agreement in 1995, adding scenic Vienna and Austria’s beautiful countryside to the Schengen Area. 


Belgium was one of the first nations to sign the original Schengen Agreement in 1985. Belgium is home to the European Union's capital city, Brussels, and iconic medieval cities like Bruges, capturing Europe's modern future and historic past in one place.


Croatia was the 27th member of the Schengen Area. The country has been a member of the EU since 2013. It is best known for it's beaches, which include the cities of Split and Dubrovnik. 

Czechia (Czech Republic)

Czechia signed on to the Schengen Agreement in 2003. Since then, travel to the country's beautiful cities like its capital Prague has been easier than ever.


Signing on to the Schengen Agreement shortly after its proposal in 1996, Denmark benefited greatly from the free movement provided by the Schengen Area. Its capital city Copenhagen is a short distance from the Øresund Bridge, which connected the Scandinavian peninsula to the central European continent for the first time ever.


The Baltic nation of Estonia signed on to the Schengen Agreement in 2003. On the Eastern border of the European continent, the Schengen Zone encourages free and easy travel to this former Soviet Bloc nation.


An early signer of the Schengen Agreement, Finland enrolled in Schengen Zone participation in 1996. One of Europe’s northernmost countries, the Schengen Area helps connect Finns to the larger European community and vice versa.


A founding signer of the Schengen Agreement, France has played a crucial role in forming the European community. One of the Schengen Area’s largest countries, France is a huge influence on promoting a better connected Europe.


Germany was a founding signer of the Schengen Agreement in 1985. Centrally located on the European continent and the area’s largest country by population, Germany plays a central role in the European community and the Schengen Zone nations.


In 1992, Greece became a key addition to the Schengen Zone. Rebranding its allure as a warm-weather vacation destination, the Schengen Agreement makes traveling to scenic Greek locations like Santorini easier.


Hungary enrolled in the Schengen Area in 2003. This historic European nation hosts several culturally rich locations for visitors to see, like its capital city Budapest.


Separated from the European continent by leagues of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland was to sign into the Schengen Zone in 1996. Iceland encourages freer travel between its European neighbors in mainland Europe thanks to reduced travel restrictions as a participant in the Schengen Agreement.


One of Europe’s most visited countries, Italy signed up for Schengen Zone participation in 1990. European access to the continent’s most historic cities is easier than ever. All roads lead to Rome, with no border restrictions for participating countries.


The Baltic nation of Latvia signed on to the Schengen Agreement in 2003. As a participant in the freedom of movement allotted by the Schengen Zone, more people can see the rich cultural history of this country of almost two million.


With an area of 160 square km, Liechtenstein is one of the smallest participants in the Schengen Area. Liechtenstein signed up for participation in the Schengen Area in 2008, allowing greater travel to this tiny nation in the larger European community.


Lithuania signed up for Schengen Area participation in 2003. Along with its fellow Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania’s participation in the Schengen Zone helps connect these easternmost European nations to the rest of the continent.


One of the original signers of the Schengen Agreement, the town of Schengen in Luxembourg is the namesake of the Schengen Area and the location where the agreement was signed. With a population of just over half a million, Luxembourg’s seminal role in drafting the Schengen Agreement speaks to the mission of the larger European community: connecting all European nations, no matter how large or small.


Malta signed the Schengen Agreement in 2003. This small island nation at the center of the Mediterranean Sea connected to the European community more meaningfully.


The Dutch were among the first to sign on to the Schengen Agreement in 1985. Located in central Europe, the Netherlands has become a fixture in the European community, hosting international institutions like the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.


The Scandinavian nation of Norway signed up for Schengen Zone participation in 1996. One of Northern Europe’s most oil-rich nations became a part of the larger European community.


Poland signed the Schengen Agreement in 2003. One of the most prominent nations of the Cold War’s Eastern Bloc, Poland’s participation in this pan-European policy signifies a new era in European peace and stability.


Signing on in 1991, Portugal is as far west as continental Europe goes. As a participant in the Schengen Agreement, this historic nation on the Iberian peninsula is connected to the whole of Europe.


Slovakia joined the Schengen Zone in 2003. This landlocked nation in Central Europe now benefits from greater access to its European neighbors.


The mostly mountainous country of Slovenia signed on to the Schengen Agreement in 2003. Located between Italy, Austria, and Hungary, Slovenians have better access to their neighbors as Schengen Zone participants.


Signing up for Schengen Zone participation in 1991, Spain was an early adopter of the increased travel benefits offered by the Schengen Agreement. One of Europe's most historical nations, Spain’s membership in the Schengen Area highlights the common cause shared by the European community.


The Scandinavian country of Sweden signed up for enrollment into the Schengen Area in 1996. Connected to mainland Europe by the Øresund bridge, Sweden’s participation in the Schengen Area helps connect Northern Europe to the rest of Europe.


Switzerland joined the Schengen Area in 2004. One of Europe’s most independently-minded nations, the Swiss nevertheless see the benefit of participation in the Schengen Area, speaking to its importance.

What countries may join the Schengen Area the future?

In due time, many European countries that do not participate in the Schengen Agreement may join this unified migration policy. Some countries have been approved for the Schengen Area and can begin admittance into the agreement at their choosing.

For example, Ireland has decided to opt-out of the agreement and operate under its own travel protocols as an island nation. As a European Union member, Ireland abides by certain freedom of movement laws outside the Schengen Agreement.

Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus have pre-approval for Schengen Area participation in the future but have since opted out for the time being.

As European Union members, these countries benefit by already meeting certain national standards demanded by the Schengen Agreement. With greater emphasis being placed on European solidarity, more European countries may opt to participate in the Schengen Area, creating a more unified Europe as a result.

What’s the difference between the Schengen Area and the European Union?

Travellers to Europe may easily confuse EU member states with Schengen Area participation. While they may often intersect, member status in the EU does not necessarily equate to Schengen Zone participation and vice versa.

Knowing the difference between the Schengen Area and the European Union deepens your understanding of European travel, ensuring you understand what you should expect on your trip.

The European Union Is a governing body; the Schengen Area is a migration agreement

The European Union is a governing body that passes political and economic legislation that its member states must follow; the European Parliament is the highest government institution for participating member states. While EU countries retain their own national policies, European law passed by the European Parliament provides the prevailing legal framework.

The Schengen Agreement is not an active governing body but rather an international policy agreed to by participating nations. Unlike the European Union, the Schengen Agreement does not pass legislation; it is rather the legislation itself assented to by the nations who have signed on to the Schengen Zone. This set of common rules is called the Schengen acquis.

Because it is not a governing body, the Schengen Area includes European nations that are not European Union member states. Schengen Area countries outside the European Union include:

  • Iceland
  • Liechtenstein
  • Norway
  • Switzerland

The microstates of Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City are de facto Schengen Area members despite not being EU members nor signers of the Schengen Agreement.

What are the best ways to travel in the Schengen Area?

Once you’re in the Schengen Area, getting around is fairly easy. Depending on where you have planned to visit throughout your journey, you may want to explore different European travel options. These are the four best ways to travel through the Schengen Visa area:

  • Bus
  • Car
  • Plan
  • Train

Schengen countries by bus

Buses are a popular means of transport in Europe. Continental Europe is fairly dense; external borders between neighboring countries are never too far away. As a result, buses provide travellers with an effective means of cross-border transport between countries.

Buses are ideal means of transport between cities that may not be popular enough to warrant more dedicated transit infrastructure. Some of your destinations may not be easily accessible by more conventional travel means, like rail. 

When rail fails to connect to isolated locations not included on train lines, buses help fill in the gaps and get you where you need to be.

Schengen countries by car

For travellers who want to travel on their own terms, transit by car can open a wide range of travel destinations accessible based on your chosen schedule. Renting a car in Europe allows travellers to set their own pace; you can use Europe’s many interconnecting highways when travelling — no need to plan around airlines, train stations, or bus schedules.

While renting a car can be expensive, it can give travellers more freedom of movement. Furthermore, there is a strong push to expand Europe’s already impressive electrical recharge stations for EVs. With a Schengen Visa, international travellers can freely move between European countries without border checks by car. 

Schengen countries by plane

The Schengen Zone consists of a large area across the European continent. Traveling by land-based transit is a great way to get around neighboring countries. When it comes to transit between distant countries, air travel is an efficient means of seeing as many of the Schengen member countries as possible.

Air travel can be expensive. But flying between European countries can be quite affordable, especially when booked with European budget airlines. People from non-Schengen countries are advised to bring their travel documents while flying. 

Schengen countries by train

Europe’s rail infrastructure is among the most robust in the world. Regarding maximizing your transit between Schengen member countries, rail is one of the best options you can choose.

Trains are a great way to get around the internal border of given European countries and cross into other areas. Rail passes can be obtained for a reasonable price for the miles travellers can get from them.

The Schengen Visa

The Schengen Area can be considered as one large country with a single external border. Under normal circumstances this is where a tourist or visitor would present a passport and any necessary travel documents for inspection by border authorities. However, because there are no internal border controls between neighbouring Schengen states it was necessary to introduce a means of screening intending visitors before they enter any of the member countries and the solution was the introduction of the Schengen Visa.

Because of a reciprocal agreement with the European Union, citizens of any EU member country do not require a Schengen Visa to enter or travel through a Schengen member state. This will also be the case following the introduction of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) in 2025 as all EU passports will be electronically linked to a central database which can be accessed by the relevant European border or security agency. There are differences between Schengen Visas and ETIAS that travellers should be aware of prior to applying for either travel authorisation.

Non-EU citizens, however, are deemed to be “third-country nationals” and, as such, must possess a valid Schengen Visa before entering any Schengen member state no matter how brief the stay. The visa allows the holder to stay within the Schengen Area for a period not exceeding 90 days in any 180 day period. This can be a continuous 90 day block or broken up into a number of shorter stays once the 90 day total is not exceeded. Visitors wishing to stay for a longer period such as students, workers or intending residents will require a national visa for the relevant country as a Schengen Visa will not suffice.

Schengen Visas are issued in three main formats:

  • Single-entry
  • Double-entry
  • Multiple-entry

Which type of visa is required depends on an individual's own criteria and which one best meets the necessary requirements.

What are the Schengen Visa requirements?

Obtaining a Schengen Visa is required for certain travellers to the Schengen Area. If you plan to travel to Europe for 90 to 180 days or longer, you will likely need a Schengen visa to enter Europe. To obtain a visa, you will need to:

  • Fill out a visa application form.
  • Provide two photos taken within a recent time frame.
  • An active, valid passport.
  • Proof of round-trip travel reservations.
  • A sufficient travel insurance policy.
  • Documents of proper accommodation.
  • Proof of your financial stability.
  • Receipt for the visa application fee.

How much does a Schengen Visa cost?

A Schengen Visa costs 80 euros for adults and 40 euros for kids aged 6 to 12.

How long does a Schengen Visa last?

Short-term visas will remain valid for 90 days from the moment they are first used to start travel. Before travel begins, the visa can remain active. 

What is the Schengen Visa Application process?

Applying for a Schengen Visa can be a drawn out, complicated process so it is best to apply well in advance of any intended visit to the area. Applicants must provide full details of:

  1. Intended dates of travel
  2. Dates of stay in the Schengen country of arrival
  3. Details of travel plans within the Schengen Area
  4. Country of entry and exit
  5. Documentation confirming accommodation for duration of stay

Following the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, British citizens still enjoy visa-free travel to Europe and the Schengen Area but this situation is set to change in the near future with the rolling out of ETIAS. From this point on Britons wishing to visit a Schengen country will require a Schengen Visa, an ETIAS approved passport or both.

Not only will the information listed be necessary but British applicants must also possess a valid passport issued in the preceding ten years with at least two blank pages and which is valid for at least three months following the date of departure from the Schengen Area. Documentation confirming travel arrangements, accommodation and proof of sufficient funds to cover the trip will also be required as will Schengen medical insurance to cover any medical emergencies.

Finally, it will also be necessary to attend an interview at an embassy or consulate. Which embassy it will be necessary to visit will depend on whether the applicant is visiting one or more Schengen countries. The interview will usually be conducted at the embassy of the first country being visited but may also be for the country in which the longest stay is planned.

What is the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS)?

A Schengen visa is required under certain conditions through the Schengen Information System (SIS). However, there are more accessible travel authorizations that can help you visit Europe without the fee and red tape. The ETIAS will help travellers from select countries visit Europe without a visa.

The European Travel Information and Authorization System was officially passed in 2018 and will officially come into effect in 2025. Based on the American ESTA, this travel system promotes improved security in Schengen Area countries by pre-screening nationals from visa-exempt countries on their trip to Europe.

ETIAS approval may qualify you for travel to Europe without requiring a Schengen visa. ETIAS helps create a safer and more accessible Europe.

Future of the Schengen Area

Despite recent events related to Brexit, COVID-19 and the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the EU member countries have shown that the union's bond can withstand complex regional and global challenges. It is evident that the economic, social and political ties forged over the years have helped to preserve the union. In light of the benefits, it is expected the EU will continue to slowly add new member countries. Whether or not those EU members will also join the Schengen Area, is unknown. However, based on the fact that a 27 member majority of the 27 total EU countries are within the Schengen Area, it can be assumed with high certainty that any new EU member country is likely to also join the Schengen Area.