Schengen Area: all you need to know

Gabriela Peratello
19.10.21
8 minute read

If you’re considering a trip to Europe, you’ll want to know about the European Schengen Area.

The 26 Schengen area countries work together to allow border free travel within their region. That means no need to wait at border checkpoints when you travel, no new visas or permits for a multi-city trip, and no restrictions to access across states. The Schengen area was started by the European Union, with the aim of allowing freedom of movement for EU citizens, residents and travelers. This guide covers what it means, and how it can help visitors headed to Europe to see more and do more on their trip.

📑 Table of Contents

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What is the (purpose of the) Schengen area?

The European Schengen area is designed to allow border-free travel for EU citizens, residents and visitors with the correct visa permissions¹. Initiated by the European Union back in the 1980s, the Schengen area today can boast pretty frictionless travel for all, across much of Europe — making life much easier for visitors and cross border commuters.

Within the Schengen area there are effectively no border controls.

If you’re entitled to live and work in the EU you can usually travel, live and work freely within this area without needing to get new permits or even show your passport.

Travelers in the Schengen area who have visa waivers — like most US citizens on short trips — won’t need to stop at border controls to move from one state to another.

And even if you’re a traveler in Europe and you do require a visa, you’ll be able to plan a multi-destination trip with a single Schengen visa.

At the time of writing there are 26 countries in the Schengen area, with more working on joining the group. It’s important to remember that not all EU member states are in the Schengen area, while some countries which are not full members of the EU are actually Schengen states. We’ll cover that in more detail later.

Schengen area systems and controls

Managing and maintaining the Schengen area relies on several broad reaching cooperations between member states, backed by information sharing and technology. Systems used include:

  • SIS² — The Schengen Information System (SIS) is used to allow Schengen countries to share information and cooperate on border control throughout the region. SIS facilitates border control, law enforcement cooperation and vehicle registration checks
  • VIS³ — The Visa Information System (VIS) is used to manage Schengen visa applications and checks
  • Eurodac⁴ — this large scale IT system is used to manage the registration and processing of asylum applications throughout 32 European countries, including 28 EU states and 4 associated countries

Schengen area — practical benefits in practice

So what are the real life implications of the Schengen area — either as a citizen, resident or visitor?

For EU citizens and legal residents, the Schengen area gives people the opportunity to live and work without restrictions within the 26 countries. This is especially useful where cross border commuting is commonplace. For example, many people working in Switzerland actually live over the borders in France or Germany. According to some figures, 320,000 cross border commuters head to jobs in Switzerland every day — 6% of all employees, and up to 25% in border regions⁵.

If you’re a traveler in Europe, the Schengen agreement means that you can much more easily visit different countries and cities — without wasting time on border checks. Travel times in Europe are often tiny in comparison to getting from one city to another in the US, so skipping the passport controls as you hit the highlights of Europe makes the whole thing even more convenient.

Let’s look at the essentials of the Schengen agreement, and how it works in practice:

💡 Essential features of the Schengen Zone¹
  • Anyone legally present in the EU can travel without border checks between Schengen countries
  • Visitors to the Schengen area will have their visas and travel documents checked on entry to the zone through a unified system, no matter which country they enter first
  • Schengen countries share information on border control, law enforcement and visas to keep their borders and their citizens safe
  • The Schengen area includes most — but not all — EU member states, and some European countries that are not full EU members, too

Why is it called Schengen?

Schengen is the name of the village in Luxembourg where the agreements to work towards freedom of movement within the European Union were first signed in 1985¹.

Although the EU had aimed for frictionless travel for some time, the significance of the breakthrough made in Schengen eventually led to the full convention being signed in 1990, and then initiated in 1995 — and gave the border-free region its name in the process.

What’s the difference between EU and Schengen?

Countries may be members of the EU but not in the Schengen area. They may also be in the Schengen agreement but not in the EU.

Acceptance into the Schengen area relies on countries being able to fully comply with the Schengen agreements, including following common visa rules, and cooperating fully over border security measures. At present, some EU countries like Bulgaria and Romania are not yet fully within Schengen — although they’re working towards this status. However, non-EU countries which comply with the Schengen protocols, like Iceland and Norway, are already part of the Schengen area, even though they’re not in the European Union.

Why is the UK not in Schengen?

The UK is neither in the EU nor part of Schengen. Even when the UK was part of the European Union, prior to Brexit, it was not part of the Schengen area.

The UK — along with Ireland — had opted out of joining the shared border agreement when it joined the EU originally. The UK does actually have a common travel area with Ireland, which allows for some freedom of movement between the two countries, but operates its own border rules, checks and controls for all points of entry.

How does Schengen work?

Within the Schengen area there are no regular border controls. That means you can normally simply drive over the border from one Schengen country to another without showing your passport or acquiring a new visa. Instead, travelers apply for a Schengen visa which allows for free travel within the Schengen area for up to 90 days⁶. This visa is checked at the point of arrival into the Schengen area, with all participating countries cooperating to ensure that the outer borders are controlled.

It’s worth noting that the Schengen provisions do allow for some forms of border check by police, and in the event of emergency situations. Therefore, although you can theoretically leave your passport at home when you head out on a cross border trip within Schengen, it’s not a smart idea to do so.

Schengen Area countries

schengen-area-map

The Schengen area currently comprises of 26 countries:

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

Which European countries are not part of Schengen?

It’s important to know that not all European countries — and not even all countries within the EU — are part of the Schengen area. Some countries are actively working towards joining Schengen, but others have for a long time opted to maintain their own border controls outside of this protocol. If you’re taking a multi-destination trip to Europe you’ll need to check you have the correct visas for all the places you intend to visit.

Notable European countries which are not Schengen states include:

  • The UK
  • Ireland
  • Cyprus
  • Croatia
  • Romania
  • Bulgaria
  • Serbia

Schengen states territories outside the Area

Some countries which are not part of the European Union are actually part of the Schengen area — these include Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

Prospective Schengen Area members

Joining the Schengen area requires states to meet a series of eligibility criteria. Some countries within the EU are currently working on these with a view to joining the Schengen area later, including Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. You may find that when you travel through these countries, some aspects of the Schengen protocols are already in place.

Schengen Area entry and exit requirements

US passport holders don’t usually need a visa to enter the Schengen area for a short stay. However, it’s worth checking the exact rules based on your situation and planned trip.

If you’re in the US as a Green Card holder for example, and your original home country does not have a visa waiver arrangement with your destination, you may still need a Schengen visa.

Schengen visas are typically issued for a stay of up to 90 days in any 180 day period, and allow for free movement through the Schengen states. You’ll have to apply for your Schengen visa at the consulate of the country where you’ll spend the longest time on your trip⁷. If your stay in the Schengen area will be split between several countries equally, you’ll have to apply for your visa at the consulate of the one you’ll visit first.

Learn more about Schengen visas — including who needs one, and how to get one — here

Schengen Area border policy

The Schengen area borders are secured through checks on entry at external borders, and at standard points of entry for travelers like international airports. That means that most people traveling to the Schengen area will need to present their travel document and any required visa upon arrival at a Schengen state, but are unlikely to be asked again as they travel from one Schengen area country to another.

The Schengen protocols do allow for temporary reintroduction of border measures if there’s an emergency situation, and for some police checks at the borders — so you’ll still want to keep your travel documents handy when you travel within the region.

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The Schengen area makes travel within large areas of Europe far quicker and easier, thanks to frictionless border crossing. With no checks when you pass from one member state to another, Europe can be much more accessible, making multi-destination trips a great way to see more. It also makes it possible for many EU citizens and residents to cross borders on a daily basis, to commute to work, visit friends, or simply head out to pick up groceries.

If you’re keen to try border free travel, you’ll need a way to make sure your travel money keeps up with you. Get the Wise Multi-currency Account to hold and manage all the currencies you need for your trip — with lower costs, and more convenience. Happy travels!


Sources:

  1. Europa - Schengen Area
  2. Europa - Schengen information system
  3. Europa - Visa information system
  4. Eulisa - Eurodac
  5. UniBas - The live of cross border commuters
  6. Europa - Schengen visa
  7. Europa - Where and how to apply for a Schengen visa

Sources checked on 10.18.2021


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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