Europe is the most-visited region in the world, with countries like France, Spain, Italy, and Germany each welcoming more than 37 million international visitors in 2017 alone. In addition to offering some of the world’s best cuisine, museums, and architecture, Europe is a popular destination for U.S. travelers, who don’t need a visa to visit most countries.
But the rules are about to change. Starting on January 1, 2021, all U.S. citizens who want to travel to the 26 members of Europe’s Schengen Zone will need to register with the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) or risk being turned away at the border.
Here’s everything you need to know about the new process:
Why is the process changing?
With ongoing terrorism threats, the European Union decided to implement this new travel authorization program to protect and strengthen its borders. By requiring visitors to register, the EU will be able to identify any possible threats or risks associated with travelers coming into these countries before they arrive. U.S. citizens will still be able to enter Europe without registering until January 1, 2021.
Is this a visa?
European Commission and U.S. State Department officials confirmed to the Washington Post that ETIAS is a travel authorization for visa-free visitors, similar to the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
According to a fact sheet the European Commission released in July 2018, “The ETIAS authorization is not a visa. Nationals of visa liberalization countries will continue to travel the EU without a visa but will simply be required to obtain a travel authorization via ETIAS prior to their travel.”
“An ETIAS travel authorization does not reintroduce visa-like obligations,” it continues. “There is no need to go to a consulate to make an application, no biometric data is collected and significantly less information is gathered than during a visa application procedure.”
Which countries will require ETIAS authorization to visit?
The new travel authorization applies to those entering any member country of Europe’s Schengen Zone. Currently, that includes 22 countries that are also members of the EU, four non-EU countries, plus three European micro-states. That means that you’ll need to register starting in 2021 to enter Austria, Belgium, 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. The micro-states of San Marino, Vatican City, and Monaco will also require the registering.
While Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus aren’t currently Schengen countries, they are in the process of joining and will be subject to the same requirements once they do.
However, there are still many European nations that aren’t part of the Schengen Zone, mostly in Eastern Europe. That means you’ll still be able to travel to Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine without an ETIAS.
How long will an ETIAS take to process?
Through an online system on etiasvisa.com, a travel agency not affiliated with the European government, you should be able to book last-minute trips to Europe. To apply, you’ll need a valid passport, an email address, and a debit or credit card to pay the nonrefundable €7 application fee (there are no other fees associated with the program). After you fill out your application online with the personal information on your passport, and answer a series of security and health-related questions, it should be approved and sent to your email address within a few hours after it is checked across security databases like Interpol and Europol. While children under the age of 18 will be required to have an ETIAS, they will not be charged the application fee.
Will you have to reapply for each trip to Europe?
No. After you apply for the first time, your ETIAS will be valid for three years—or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. Because the ETIAS is valid for short-term stays of up to 90 days for both leisure and business travelers, you’ll be able to re-enter Europe multiple times within that three-year period without renewing it, as long as your stay doesn’t exceed 90 days within a 180-day period. Those who want to study or work in Europe will need to apply for a proper visa.
Who else will need ETIAS authorization?
This new program isn’t limited to U.S. citizens. In fact, there are 60 countries whose citizens will be required to have an ETIAS when visiting countries in the Schengen Zone. The list of ETIAS-eligible countries includes Canada, Mexico, Australia, and many more.
Correction: This article originally appeared online on March 8, 2019; it was updated on March 10, 2019, to clarify that the ETIAS is an authorization system.