Brexit may be “done”, but from the traveller’s point of view, the full implications of what it means for our holidays are only just becoming apparent. And I’m not talking about the short-term problems – the chaos at Dover, the queues at airport immigration desks and the 90-day limit on the time we can spend in EU countries. What is going to feel very very different – and a lot more bureaucratic – are the new border control systems which are due to be put in place by the EU next year.
Although the Government negotiated post-Brexit “visa-free” visits for British holidaymakers travelling to Spain, Italy, Greece and so on, the EU is changing its systems so that we will soon have to apply and pay for an electronic pass before we travel. Valid for three years, it will be required for any UK citizen entering the Schengen area – the border-free zone which includes the vast majority of member states, plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. And, in a separate move, the EU will also be requiring us to upload our fingerprints and other biometric data to a European-wide computer system.
Before you bang your fist in fury, this isn’t some terrible Brexit retribution from Brussels. We are simply experiencing the inevitable inconveniences of losing our EU citizenship. In fact, we are just one of more than 50 countries whose citizens don’t require a visa to visit the bloc and will therefore have to use the new system and register their biometric data.
The American model
Essentially, what Brussels is doing is following the American ESTA model which allows us to visit the United States without a visa, as long as we have registered our details and filled out the questionnaire on its computerised immigration system before we travel. The aim of both this and the new EU system, known as the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), is to improve security at the border, screening for undesirable or dangerous visitors, and make it harder to forge or use stolen documents.
So, how will the ETIAS work when it does finally come in? Essentially, you will have to go through a process which is not so different from what we had to do when Covid-related travel systems were introduced. Using either a new app or the website, you will need to upload some personal information including your passport details, and then answer a series of security questions about any criminal offences you may have committed, and health questions concerning certain medical conditions, infectious or contagious diseases. Finally, you will have to pay a €7 application fee. The EU says that most applications will then be processed “within minutes”.
Assuming you are successful, you will be issued with a pass which, combined with your passport, entitles you to visit the EU for 90 days in every 180-day period. It will last for three years, or until the expiry of your passport, whichever comes first. As well as being automatically checked at the border, your ETIAS pass will also have to be shown to your airline, train or ferry company before you travel. The EU says that attempting to cross the border without an ETIAS “could have serious consequences, including denial of entry to the Schengen member country.”
Not before next year
Quite when the ETIAS will be operational is not certain. You won’t have to worry about it just yet, however. Its development has been a tortuous process and the start date has been pushed back several times. The latest news is that it will be introduced from “late 2023.”
In the meantime, another major change is planned: the EU’s new Entry and Exit System (EES), which will automatically check the validity of passports and ETIAS passes (or visas) of visitors from countries outside the Schengen area each time they cross an EU external border. It is due to be implemented in May 2023 and will replace the system of manually stamping passports, which is currently the only way that border officials can monitor whether or not visitors remain within their 90-day limit for visa-free travel.
Fingerprints and facial images
It sounds as though it should make life easier, but it is controversial among privacy campaigners because the new system will require you to register your fingerprints and an image of your face. These will then be stored in the form of biometric data on the EU’s computers.
This sort of monitoring for security and identity purposes is not unprecedented. The US has been collecting the fingerprints of tourists at its borders for many years. And they are required for entry into China and with some types of visa at the UK border. But a spokesperson for human rights charity Privacy International expressed concern about the process: “These policies are created without any clear need, but because it’s seen as a border security initiative… the normal scrutiny that one would expect of a mass surveillance exercise doesn’t apply. Biometric systems deal with highly sensitive data that can be used against you, and are prone to fault and abuse. They could be used to misidentify you, and lead to miscarriages of justice.”
In practice, however, if you want to enjoy a holiday in Europe, there won’t be much you can do about it.
All your questions answered
Although Britain is no longer a member of the EU, UK citizens are entitled to visit the bloc without a visa (up to a maximum of 90 days in any 180-day period). Currently that system is policed by border officials manually stamping our passports. Soon however, we will be required to go through a new process of online checks known as the ETIAS which must be completed in advance of travel.
What is the ETIAS exactly?
When it is introduced next year, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) will be the EU’s way of automatically checking the credentials of visitors who don’t require a visa and who want to enter the Schengen zone. It will be used for tourism and business travellers and for stays up to the 90-day limit.
What is the Schengen zone?
The zone comprises 26 European countries (22 from the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland), that have abolished all internal border controls. Another four EU states, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus are expected to join Schengen in due course though, in the meantime, UK citizens will still need to apply for an ETIAS pass to visit them.
The full list of countries requiring the pass is as follows: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. British citizens will not need an ETIAS pass to travel to the Republic of Ireland.
When will the ETIAS be implemented?
The ETIAS was previously scheduled to begin at the end of this year, was then pushed back until May 2023 and has now been delayed until “late 2023”.
How do I apply for an ETIAS pass and how much is it?
You will have to make the application online, although the official website and an alternative app are not yet ready. There is a one-off €7 fee and you will be issued with a pass which lasts for three years, or until the expiry of your passport, whichever comes first. Your ETIAS pass will have to be shown to your airline, train or ferry company before you travel. The EU says that attempting to cross the border without an ETIAS “could have serious consequences, including denial of entry to the Schengen member country.”
What information do you need to provide for an ETIAS pass?
For the online ETIAS application, you will need a valid passport from a qualifying country and an email address. You will also have to complete some personal information including your full name, date of birth and country of residency. And, at the end of the process, there will be some security and health questions (see below). You will then have to pay the €7 application fee with a debit or credit card. The EU says that most applications “will be processed within minutes”.
What happens to the information that you give the EU?
All applications are automatically checked against a series of security databases, including EUROPOL, Interpol and a special watchlist which includes certain individuals on the UN list of war criminals, and people who have committed or are likely to commit terrorist or major criminal offences.
What are the ETIAS health questions?
We don’t yet know the exact questions which will be asked yet, but there will be a series asking about whether you have suffered, or are suffering from certain medical conditions, infectious or contagious diseases. These will then be automatically checked against a database. If you fail these checks, a more detailed investigation will follow to confirm whether or not an ETIAS pass will be issued.
What are the ETIAS security questions?
Applicants will be asked to declare if they have a criminal record which include criminal damage, terrorism, violence, drug or people trafficking or sexual assault within the last 10 years (20 years for terrorism).
Can you get an ETIAS if you have a criminal record?
The EU says that yes, you will “in most cases, providing information about a criminal record won’t contravene the requirements of an ETIAS visa waiver. However, some serious offences could lead to a refusal.” In such cases they would need to apply for an appropriate Schengen visa from the embassy of the country to which they are travelling.
What is the difference between ETIAS and EES?
The EES is the EU’s new Entry/Exit system which will automatically register and track visitors from countries outside the Schengen area – whether they hold visas or an ETIAS pass – each time they cross an EU external border. It will replace the system of manually stamping passports, which is currently the only way that border officials can monitor whether or not visitors, such as those from the UK, remain within their 90-day limit for visa-free travel.
The new system will register the person’s name, travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. You will have to register your photos and fingerprints which will be stored in the form of biometric data.
The EES is supposed to come into force in May 2023, but it is far from certain that it will be feasible to implement the system before The ETIAS is ready.
Where can I find out more?
For updates and more detailed information see the EU’s ETIAS website: etiasvisa.com.