EU & the Schengen Area – How does it work?

Europe is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations on the globe. There is a lot of confusion about Europe’s border free travel area known as the Schengen Zone. Let’s understand that in detail below.

In brief, the Schengen Area is a border-free zone comprised of 26 different European Nations. For international travel purposes, it operates as a single state that shares a common visa policy. While you should carry your passport at all times while traveling through the Schengen Area, once you’re in, there is no need to present a visa or even your passport when passing through different countries within the bloc. If you’re an Indian holding a valid Schengen visa, you get 90 out of every 180 days to travel visa-free throughout the region provided you have a visa validity that long.  There are, however, external border controls where you will need to present your travel documents in order to enter or exit the area.

The Schengen Area (and the EU in general) is one of the most liberal developed world blocs to allow visa-free travel. While the US, Australia and similar countries are pretty difficult when it comes to travel and make people get visas, the Schengen Area is pretty liberal. The Schengen Area is not just for tourists, either. It represents the abolishment of all internal borders with other member nations to allow for the unrestricted movement of not just people but also goods, services and capital. As a policy of the European Union, it allows for the free movement of over 415 million EU citizens who can live, work and travel anywhere within the Schengen Area without restriction.

The Schengen Area also has common rules for fighting crime, both through police cooperation via the Schengen Information System (SIS) and through a common judicial system. In fact, police have the right to chase suspected criminals across borders. 

The Birth of the Schengen Area

Since the formation of the European Economic Community following WWII, the free movement of persons was a core part of the European project. From the beginning, citizens of EEC member states could travel visa-free from one member state to another with only a passport or national ID card.


Nevertheless, it was still a headache to travel around Europe.


Nationals of EEC member states were still subjected to systematic identity controls at a vast network of patrolled borders. And it was even worse for tourists. Many people who wished to travel to Europe would have to obtain travel visas for every country they planned to visit. On June 14, 1985, the breakthrough came when five of the ten members of the EU at the time decided to make an agreement of their own in order to bypass the UK, which was vehemently against opening up its borders. Leaders of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands met on a boat near Schengen, Luxembourg (where the territories of France, Germany, and Luxembourg meet) and signed the Schengen Agreement.

At the time of creation, only seven EU countries were involved in the intergovernmental initiative. With time, however, more and more EU member states signed the Schengen Agreement. Eventually, a consensus was reached and the policies of the Schengen Area were incorporated into the procedures of the European Union. The agreement is no longer considered an external treaty and all amendments are now made according to the

legislative procedures for EU treaties.


All participating states are required to remove any obstacles impeding the free movement of people and goods at internal borders. Since implementation, border posts have been closed, border traffic has been eliminated, and even though air carriers are still allowed to perform security controls, for all intents and purposes, Europe is now a single zone that can be traveled end to end without restriction.

How Does It Work?

There are two main beneficiaries of the Schengen Agreement: those who are citizens of a Schengen member state and those who wish to travel there.


For obvious reasons, the Schengen Area works differently for those who live in the region than for those who merely plan to visit.


Citizens and residents of Schengen member states can travel, live and work in any of the 26 member states. This is one of the reasons it is so attractive to obtain residence or even citizenship in Schengen member states.


Currently, approximately 1.7 million people commute to work across the border of another European country each day.

In fact, there are 1.3 billion Schengen border crossings each year, 57 million of which are attributed to the transportation of goods valued at €2.8 trillion a year. And that doesn’t even take into account all of the people who have permanently moved from one country in the bloc to another. It goes without saying that the decreased costs of trade made possible by the Schengen Area have provided serious economic benefits to Europe as a whole.

Do you need a visa?

Thanks to EU regulations, those who wish to travel to the Schengen Area fall into two different categories: Annex I and Annex II countries.

Individuals who hold a passport on the Annex I list (India) are required to obtain a short-term stay visa before visiting the Schengen Area. This visa is commonly known as the Schengen Visa. Annex II countries; on the other hand, can visit the Schengen Area visa-free.

While it is certainly more advantageous to be from an Annex II country, even passport holders from Annex I countries are better off today seeing that they now only need one visa to access the entire region — versus needing a visa for every country they plan to visit — and they can travel unimpeded throughout much of Europe once they enter.

The process to obtain a Schengen Visa is much like any other visa process. You must apply, attend a biometrics session once in 5 years and then submit your passport. If approved, your passport will be stamped and returned to you

The Schengen Visa costs €60 for the short-stay visa. The fee must be paid upon application and cannot be refunded, even if the visa is refused. The fee is waived for students of an official school or university trip, as well as for the spouse and minor children of EU nationals. Children younger than six do not have to pay the fee, regardless of their nationality.

If you are from an Annex II country, you can skip the visa application process and enter the Schengen Area by simply presenting your passport upon entry. Over the years, the EU has enhanced and expanded the list of qualifying Annex II countries. Just recently, they added countries like Colombia, Kiribati, Timor Leste, Vanuatu, and Moldova. But there are a lot of countries from Peru to the South Pacific that can visit visa-free for those 90 out of 180 days.

External Border Controls

Once inside the Schengen Area, visa holders and visa-free travelers alike can travel throughout the internal borders of the region without border checks, irrespective of nationality. As such, the largest concern for travelers when visiting Europe will be entering and exiting through one of the Schengen Area’s external borders. Anyone crossing an external border, be they a citizen of a Schengen member state or a foreign national, will be checked by a border guard. Regular cross-border commuters are the only exception.

These external border checks are located at road crossings, seaports, trains and airports. If entering via air, the airline must check that you carry the correct travel documents before allowing you to board to ensure that you can enter the Schengen Area upon arrival.

In summary, they will check your travel documents, including your visa if required, they will ask you to justify the purpose of your stay, and then they will check the SIS and other relevant security databases for any alerts that would justify refusal of entry.

Where Can You Visit?

The Schengen Area is made up of twenty-two EU countries and four non-EU countries (although they are still technically part of Europe). At present, that means you can visit a total of twenty-six different countries inside the Schengen Area. However, there are also three microstates that are considered de facto participants — Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City — bringing the total to twenty-nine.

There are, however, several EU countries that currently do not participate in the Schengen Area.

Four out of the six non-Schengen EU countries are legally obliged to join at some point in the future but have yet to do so. These countries are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania.

The other two countries — the UK and Ireland — selected to opt out of the Schengen Area indefinitely. The UK chose to opt out because it never agreed with abolishing border controls, and Ireland chose to follow suit in order to maintain their Common Travel Area (CTA) with the United Kingdom and keep their open border with Northern Ireland.

At present, there are twenty-six official members of the Schengen Area.

Of those countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland are the only countries that are not members of the EU. They have each signed agreements in association with the Schengen Agreement in order to participate in the border-free zone.

Furthermore, the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands are also included in the Schengen Area as special members of the European Union.

The Immigration Crisis

While Europe’s Schengen Area is the result of forward-thinkers dedicated to the concepts of free movement and open borders, there are always those who question the wisdom of such an open door policy.

In 2015, the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia and then to other countries in the Schengen Area led to an immigration crisis. In the midst of this crisis, the November 13 Paris attacks took place and much of Europe was suddenly on the defense and ready to close their borders, if only for a short period of time.

Additionally, to create a more responsive system, the European Commission has proposed a major amendment to the Schengen Agreement. On September 13, 2017 the president of the European Commission made a proposal to update the Schengen Borders Code. The change would affect the rules regarding temporary internal borders.

Under the new proposed changes, the temporary internal borders could be reinstated for up to a year (instead of the previous six months). In extreme cases, this timeframe could be extended for an additional two years.

The EU has already made other small adjustments to improve security. For example, all EU nationals now have their details checked against all relevant security databases at external borders. Previously, only non-EU citizens were checked. Since the Paris attacks, ID checks within the Schengen Area have become more common. As of the summer of 2017, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden all have temporary border checks along their borders.