Your guide to Europe's online visa-waiver system, ETIAS

From 2022, foreigners visiting Europe under the visa-waiver program will need to complete an online travel application first.

By Chris Chamberlin, February 18 2021
Your guide to Europe's online visa-waiver system, ETIAS

European nations are planning more stringent border checks on foreign visitors from 2022, with a new visa waiver pre-clearance system on the horizon.

Mirroring the United States’ ESTA program for business travellers and tourists, those jetting to European Schengen Area countries without a pre-arranged visa will need to first obtain permission via the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) platform.

Citizens of Schengen Area countries are of course exempt, but travellers from the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and all other visa-free countries will need to obtain ETIAS clearance first, or get a pre-arranged visa, before travelling to Europe.

Here’s what you need to know about the ETIAS process.

Which countries will require an ETIAS to visit?

Obtaining an ETIAS will become compulsory for all travellers planning to visit any country in the European Schengen Area under the visa waiver scheme.

This includes the European Union countries of Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden.

It also includes countries that are part of the broader European Economic Area within the Schengen Area, but which are not themselves European Union nations – that’s Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

An ETIAS will not be required for travel to other nations that are part of the European Union but which do not participate in the Schengen Area, such as Ireland.

With the United Kingdom already having been outside the Schengen Area – and more recently, departing from the European Union entirely – an ETIAS will also not be required for travel to the UK.

Who will need an ETIAS?

As above, travellers planning to visit a country inside Europe’s Schengen Area will need to obtain an ETIAS, if their travel falls under an eligible visa waiver program.

For example, an Australian passport holder travelling to France does not require a pre-arranged visa when their journey is for business or leisure: they can simply arrive, present their passport, and zip on through.

Once the ETIAS system is introduced, however, the traveller will need to be pre-cleared via the ETIAS system to travel visa-free.

This applies not only to Australian passport holders, but also those from all other nations eligible to visit the Schengen Area without a pre-arranged visa, including those from New Zealand, Canada, the United States and others.

For those whose journeys require a pre-arranged visa – either because of their nationality, or due to the purpose or duration of their visit – those visa arrangements continue to apply, and an ETIAS will not be required.

Of course, for those who don’t have a pre-arranged visa and are otherwise eligible to visit the Schengen Area without one, the ETIAS will become mandatory.

Why is ETIAS being introduced?

Currently, travellers arriving in the Schengen Area under visa-free arrangements don’t undergo any pre-screening.

In fact, governments often aren’t aware of that passenger’s journey plans until they’ve either checked-in for their flight or have physically arrived at the border and presented their passport.

While this comes with a degree of convenience for the traveller, countries in the Schengen Area are working to better pre-screen arrivals, to identify travellers of interest to immigration authorities, as well as those whose journey may be ineligible for visa-free travel.

The European Union advises that the ETIAS system will be designed to “contribute to a high level of security … to the prevention of illegal immigration, and to the protection of public health, by providing an assessment of visitors prior to their arrival at the external border crossing points.”

Authorities expect that after the ETIAS system becomes operational, fewer travellers will be turned away at the border, having been more thoroughly pre-screened before their arrival.

Border guards processing incoming passengers would also have more information at their fingertips to draw upon when making immigration-related decisions.

How to apply for ETIAS clearance

As the ETIAS system has not yet been introduced, it is not currently possible – or necessary – to apply for ETIAS clearance when travelling to Europe.

Be wary of a host of unofficial websites that have claimed domain names relevant to ETIAS, which may appear official in content, but which have no affiliation with the European Union or any of its Schengen Area states.

In the future, these websites may attempt to solicit ETIAS applications from unsuspecting travellers – either to harvest their private information, or to make a profit by charging a more expensive processing fee for the same service, via an unofficial path.

In any case, the ETIAS system is not expected to come into place until some time in 2022.

What information do I need to provide to apply for an ETIAS?

Although applications are not yet open, the European Union has already confirmed the information that travellers will need to provide.

This will include information about the person’s identity and travel document, as well as residence information, contact details, their level of education, their industry of employment, and the details of key family members.

The traveller will also need to respond to a series of background questions concerning any previous travel to conflict zones, criminal convictions, and other pre-screening questions.

How much does an ETIAS cost?

When requested via an official channel, requesting ETIAS will cost just €7.

Those who are under the age of 18 at the time of application, or above the age of 70, will not need to pay a fee, but will still need to request their ETIAS before travel.

The application process will take approximately 10 minutes to complete, per person.

How quickly are ETIAS applications processed?

After submitting an ETIAS application, a variety of automated checks are completed to determine whether the traveller can be granted their ETIAS straight away, or whether their application needs to be manually reviewed.

The European Union expects that in most cases, approvals “should be issued within a few minutes in more than 95% of cases.”

Those who don’t receive near-instant approval will instead have their application vetted manually, to confirm why they were flagged for review by the system, and whether they are eligible to travel.

These applications “will receive either the final response, or a request for additional documentation, within 96 hours.”

What can delay an ETIAS application?

As the automated screening system runs checks of various databases, a ‘hit’ in any of these systems will cause an application to be reviewed manually.

This could simply be because the person applying for an ETIAS has the same name – or one similar – to somebody listed in any of these databases: in which case, approval should be expected within four days, once manual checks confirm this to be the case.

Why might travellers have their ETIAS application denied?

The European Union shares that it expects “the vast majority of applications will obtain a positive answer by automated means,” although a small number of travellers may have their ETIAS application rejected after manual review.

This could be due to criminal activity, previously breaching local regulations such as visa or visa-free rules, being on a government ‘no fly’ list, or could be in error.

If an ETIAS application is denied, the traveller will be provided with “information about the applicable national law, the necessary authorities to contact, the procedure to lodge an appeal against the refusal of an application, and any relevant deadlines.

Recognising that circumstances may change over time, EU authorities also advise that “a previous refusal of a travel authorisation will not lead to an automatic refusal of a new application.”

That’s especially true given that one reason for rejection can be for travellers identified as being of “high epidemic risk”.

Such denials may occur if a Schengen Area country has travel restrictions in place for certain travellers, such as those from a particular country, due to an epidemic such as COVID-19.

If granted, how long does an ETIAS last?

Assuming your ETIAS application is approved, it’ll be valid for three years from the date of issue.

You won’t need a new ETIAS every time you travel, either – your application covers an unlimited number of Schengen Area visits during its validity period, for both business and leisure, from the one approval.

However, as with current visa-free travellers, most travellers visiting the Schengen Area using ETIAS can only spend up to 90 days in any rolling 180-day period within the Schengen Area.

Those wishing to stay longer, or to travel for purposes not covered by the ETIAS, such as employment, will need to obtain a pre-arranged visa, as is currently the case.

Can you travel to the Schengen Area without an ETIAS?

As the ETIAS system has not yet been implemented, an ETIAS is not yet required for visa-free travel to the European Schengen Area.

However, once it’s implemented – currently expected in 2022 – travellers relying on visa-waiver agreements will need approval via the ETIAS system visit any of the Schengen Area countries.

If the traveller attempts to enter the Schengen Area under a visa waiver agreement but without an ETIAS clearance, their entry will be denied. Airlines will assist in verifying that a traveller is eligible to fly, before allowing that traveller to check-in, to minimise these situations.

Once again, those travelling with a pre-arranged visa will not require an ETIAS – which is an authorisation for travel under various visa-waiver agreements.

Citizens of Schengen Area countries will also not require an ETIAS, as their travel does not fall under the visa waiver program, being only for foreign business and leisure visitors.

Where can I find more information?

Head to the official European Union website, where you can find an FAQ about the ETIAS scheme, as well as the ETIAS legislation in full.

Also read: What the 'Schengen Area' means for your European business trip

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins not just with a single step, but also a strong latte, a theatre ticket, and later in the day, a good gin and tonic.

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