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Wait, do you need a visa to go to Europe now? The new ETIAS requirements, explained

St. Mark's basilica in Venice is one place U.S. passport holders may not be able to get to without approval under the new ETIAS requirements
Andrea Pattaro
AFP via Getty Images
St. Mark's basilica in Venice is one place U.S. passport holders may not be able to get to without approval under the new ETIAS requirements

Already thinking about next summer's vacation plans? If Europe is on your short list, there could be one extra step to take before boarding that plane.

Starting in 2024, American passport holders traveling to 30 European countries will need authorization via the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).

Though it may sound complicated, the ETIAS and the reasoning behind it are quite similar to existing travel requirements and reflect increasing fear of terrorism in the U.S., Europe and around the world.

Here's what you need to know.

What is ETIAS? Is it a visa?

While some media outlets are taking a cue from the European Union's travel site and calling this a visa, in truth, ETIAS is more like a travel authorization form.

"It's definitely not a visa," said Dan Hamilton, a senior non-resident fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "It's an electronic entry-point, an authorization for countries that are currently visa-free."

Even the European Commission has said as much (and in bold letters), writing this is "not a visa" but rather an "automated IT system" in a press release on the discussions around it back in 2018.

Whatever you want to call it, the ETIAS form is not what you'd seek if you're trying to work or live in Europe, but rather what you'll need for short-term trips — up to 90 days within any 180-day period.

Why is it being implemented?

These new requirements have been years in the making, stemming back to a rise in terrorism fears following 9/11. It's very similar to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization — or ESTA — program that the U.S. implemented in 2008.

At the heart of ETIAS is an electronic database system to better track who's coming and going. According to the EU's latest report on terrorism data, EU law enforcement authorities arrested about 388 suspects for terror-related offenses in 2021, more than half of whom were accused of being associated with Jihadist groups based abroad.

The European Commission says ETIAS may have the added impact of cutting down on "irregular migration" (i.e. illegal immigration), but one thing the form is definitely not aimed to do is deter tourism in general.

Crowded cities, inflated airfare and extreme heat disasters may all be making headlines this summer, but many of these European countries are still depending on tourism revenue to help them bounce back from pandemic slumps, Hamilton said.

And the pandemic is another one of the many reasons this new requirement has been delayed by decades — there was no need for ETIAS when countries closed their borders to all travel amid fears of spreading COVID-19.

"Another part of it is simply the pace of the way this parliament and European commission works," Hamilton explained in an interview with NPR. "They're ending their term and pushing through a lot of these directives because parliamentary elections happen next June."

"And getting 30 countries to agree on anything takes a long time," he added.

When does it take effect?

The European Union's website says the new authorization will start in 2024 but hasn't clarified a specific date. A press spokesperson for the union's travel arm did not respond to NPR's request for information.

And, similarly, a spokesperson for the State Department told NPR that the U.S. government website for international travel (travel.state.gov) would be updated "once the regulation goes into effect," but didn't specify when that would be.

"Frankly, I'd be surprised if this starts on time," Hamilton said. The rollout of ETIAS has already been delayed at least once.

But it couldn't hurt to plan ahead for any 2024 travel just to be safe.

Who needs to apply for ETIAS approval?

Basically, all passport holders from 60 countries who can currently travel to most European destinations without a visa — and that includes American passport holders — will now need to get ETIAS authorization for the same trip. That's about 1.4 billion people, by the European Union's estimation.

There are 30 European countries in total on the impacted destination list, including those in the "Schengen Area" — 27 European countries, many that are part of the European Union, that agreed to ease border restrictions to facilitate the movement of people within Europe.

Those Schengen countries include top vacation spots like France, Italy and Spain.

The other three countries on the list are Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, which are all trying to become a part of the Schengen Area soon.

You can check the full list of both impacted passport holders and affected European destinations here.

How can you apply for ETIAS approval (and does it cost money)?

The application isn't open yet, but the European Union says that when it is, all necessary forms can be filled out via a web portal or mobile phone application.

You'll be asked to share personal information such as your date of birth, parents' names and details about your current occupation and previous criminal convictions. You'll also need to share a passport that is not set to expire in less than three months.

Oh, and you'll have to pay a fee of 7 euros (about $8).

When is the right time to apply?

If you want to play it safe, apply well in advance of your trip — no later than a month out.

ETIAS says most applications "are processed within minutes" and decisions are delivered within four days. But that wait could take up to 14 days if you are requested to supply additional information and up to 30 days if you're invited to interview.

Those denied an application can appeal, but that process could be even lengthier.

The European Union says ETIAS approval will stay valid for three years or until the passport you used in your application expires.

Naturally, you'll also need to follow the ETIAS rules to stay in good standing.

Those with ETIAS approval can stay in the European countries on the list for up to 90 days within any 180-day period. So you can leave and come back, but you can't stay in the confines of the countries on the list for 91 days or more non-stop.

What happens if I don't apply for this and try to travel to Europe?

Your ETIAS approval will be linked to your passport. So without it, airport security (or cruise, bus or train line staff) won't let you board.

In other words, you can kiss that dream vacation goodbye.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.