As of January 1, 2021, Americans will no longer be able to visit Europe on a whim — at least, not without applying for the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) first.
According to the European Commission, the new system is being enforced to upgrade international security. It will apply for travel in 22 countries in the Schengen zone, including Italy, France, and Germany. Visits to the UK will remain exempt.
While ETIAS is not a visa, it still represents a shift from the current system.
At present, Americans traveling to the 26 members of the Schengen area for up to 90 days do not require any type of authorization or visa. It’s as simple as booking a flight to London or Paris and heading off, granted you follow the 90/180 day rule.
In November 2016, the European Commission proposed to establish ETIAS to strengthen security checks on those entering the EU without a visa, a privilege extended to nationals from over 60 countries at the time (see the full list here).
In early 2017, the European Union deliberated over whether or not to pass new visa laws for Americans. They ruled against it the following May, on the condition that the US would reciprocate visa-free travel for Europeans.
However, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was also re-examining its visa-waiver agreement with Europe. Their concern about potential terror risks stemmed from several high-profile attacks unfolding on European soil. In the end, the US elected not to grant Europeans visa-free travel, leading the Commission to roll out ETIAS in lieu of visas.
ETIAS will be an automated IT system that identifies security or migratory risks posed by visa-free travellers entering the Schengen Zone. It is also designed to ease border crossings for the majority of travellers who are deemed non-risks.
The European Commission’s fact sheet details precisely how ETIAS will work.
Unlike the visa process, ETIAS will not require a consulate visit or biometric data collection. Instead, the process will involve the completion of an online application form prior to departure. Submission of a valid passport and payment of a €7 ($8) application fee will kickstart an automated assessment process. The commission expects that over 95% of applicants will pass and receive their authorization via email within just a few minutes.
ETIAS authorization will be valid for a period of three years for multiple entries, meaning Americans can go back and forth during the three-year window without re-applying.