What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area was created by the Schengen Borders Agreement permitting people to travel freely within the 26 European countries (as of 2015) included in the Area. Travelers must qualify to enter the Schengen Area, by crossing an official external border during regular hours of operation and obtaining an entry stamp in the passport or arriving to the border with a valid visa from countries where required.

According to the European Commission: "The free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens. It entitles every EU citizen to travel, work and live in any EU country without special formalities. Schengen cooperation enhances this freedom by enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks. The border-free Schengen Area guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens, as well as to many non-EU nationals, businessmen, tourists or other persons legally present on the EU territory."

The Schengen Borders Agreement was signed and proclaimed in 1985 in a village in Luxembourg of the same name, followed by the signing in 1990 of the Convention implementing that Agreement, effective since 1995. As of july 2015, the Schengen Area encompasses most EU States, except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom. However, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area. In addition, other non-EU States, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, have joined the Schengen Area (see map).

Schengen Border Agreement map

On the other hand, according to the European Commission: "If there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security, a Schengen country may exceptionally reintroduce border control at its internal borders for, in principle, a limited period of no more than thirty days. If such controls are reintroduced, the other Schengen countries, the European Parliament and the Commission should be informed, as should the public."

Conditions for joining the Schengen Area

Joining the Schengen Area is not merely a political decision. Countries must also fulfil a list of pre-conditions, such as be prepared and have the capacity to:

  • take responsibility for controlling the external borders on behalf of the other Schengen States and for issuing uniform Schengen visas
  • efficiently cooperate with law enforcement agencies in other Schengen States in order to maintain a high level of security once border controls between Schengen countries are abolished
  • apply the common set of Schengen rules (the so-called "Schengen acquis"), such as controls of land, sea and air borders (airports), issuing of visas, police cooperation and protection of personal data
  • connect to and use the Schengen Information System (SIS). 

Applicant countries undergo a "Schengen evaluation" before joining the Schengen Area and periodically thereafter to ensure the correct application of the legislation.

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