Our guide to the Schengen Area—what it is, and why it makes European travel easy
Traveling to Europe is a life-changing experience, and with all of the excitement of the journey comes the research into what you can expect when traveling overseas. You’ve probably heard news stories in recent months about a country being added to something in Europe called “the Schengen Area” (welcome to the club, Croatia!). While you know all about the European Union, you might be asking, what is the Schengen Area (and if you are also wondering how to say it, think [Sheng + uhn])? Will the addition of countries to this area have an impact on my European tour? Here's everything you need to know about the Schengen Area, why it exists, where it came from, and how it will help you enjoy your time traveling in Europe.
Why the post-World War II decades made the Schengen Area necessary—a short story
For decades, international travel was point to point. Here’s an example…The year is 1979, and our intrepid traveler, let’s call her Janet, wants to see the Eiffel Tower. She books a flight from New York City to Paris. Upon arrival, she proceeds through passport control and receives her stamp welcoming her to France. After a few days, she decides it would be wonderful to see her favorite Magritte painting in Brussels, just a few hours away. She boards a plane and arrives in Brussels, only to wait again at passport control. After her visit to the museum, she returns to the airport, flies back to Paris, and, you guessed it, waits in line at passport control again before returning to her hotel.
This was the hard part of European travel. In the postwar decades, every nation had instituted their own border patrol and crossings, and every time you switched nations you had to go through customs. This would be like if you lived in Overland Park, Kansas, but worked in Kansas City, Missouri. Your 13 mile commute to work would include a stop to have your passport checked. There had to be a better way for European nations.
Enter the Schengen Zone. It's one of the solutions to all of that extra time spent in customs, and the reason you’re going to have a wonderfully seamless tour traveling through Europe!
What is the Schengen Area?
The Schengen Area is a large group of European countries that have abolished their internal border controls. So, if you enter a Schengen Area country from outside of the group, you must go through customs—but if you drive, fly, walk, or boat from one of the Schengen nations to another, there is no passport control.
Why is it called the Schengen Area?
Schengen is a small village in Luxembourg where the borders of Germany, France, and Luxembourg meet. (What a great place to meet about dissolving internal borders.) In 1985, a group of countries that were part of the European Communities—the precursor to today’s European Union—met here to discuss a plan that would abolish their internal border controls and create greater integration of the European nations.
How did the Schengen Area start?
During that 1985 meeting, five of the 10 countries in the European Communities agreed to abolish their border controls. The Schengen Agreement was signed by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, dissolving the internal border-control process of these nations.
In 1990, the Schengen Convention proposed a supplement to the Agreement, including a common visa policy for non-Schengen travelers to go along with the erased internal border controls. A common visa allowed a traveler to enter one country on a 90-day tourist visa and experience open travel across all nations within the area for the duration of their stay. The Schengen Area as we know it was officially created in 1995 and was later incorporated into European Union law in 1999 with the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty. Only two EU countries remained outside of the area, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Today, several non-EU countries are part of the area through special agreements.
What are the Schengen countries today?
After the most recent additions, most of what we consider mainland Europe is part of the zone today. Member countries—of which there are 31—can be classified into two groups: countries that are current members (there are 27), and countries which are de facto members. The latter is a group of four European microstates that maintain open borders within a Schengen member country.
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What does all of this mean for traveling to (and through) Schengen Area countries?
The benefits of Schengen policy on our European tours are incredible. No more waiting in traffic to cross a border checkpoint, no having to declare food or wine at the border (great for when you grab that extra bottle after a tasting on our Food & Wine Tours), and no more compromising on transportation and guides across the continent—we've got you covered with the best of the best.
So if our Jewels of Alpine Europe tour caught your eye—or maybe you’ve been dreaming of our Budapest, Vienna & Prague tour—you can hop from nation to nation without worrying about paperwork and passport checks. The only downside to the Schengen Area? You won’t get a new passport stamp every time you cross into a country. This is different if you visit countries in the Schengen Area and then travel to a country outside the zone. For example, our Portugal, Spain & Morocco tour. You would receive a stamp when landing in Lisbon, Portugal and then again when you arrive in Tangier, Morocco.
What is the future of travel in the Schengen Area for U.S. citizens?
Beginning in 2024, travelers heading to many countries that are currently visa-free will need to register with the new ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) program. It is important to note that ETIAS is not a visa, but rather a visa waiver. This new waiver is designed to give EU countries more visibility into who is entering and exiting the zone and why they are traveling to the EU. The program is many months away from launch, and our team will be communicating everything you need to know as a traveler once the program goes live.
With all of the wonders of Europe so close together, we love being able to see multiple incredible places on one tour. So if you want to combine the Eiffel Tower with the Colosseum, or a Mozart dinner in Vienna with the Chopin Monument in Warsaw, the Schengen Area makes it easy.
Go guided and explore a few members of the Schengen Area on one of our Europe tours.