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Requiring a Visa — or Not

Terry H. Schwadron

March 11, 2019

It’s not that we’re such big world travelers, though we’ve taken our share of trips.

But the announcement that starting in 2021, American and travelers from other visa-free countries will have to seek a visa to visit more than two dozen countriesin Europe felt like a big disappointment.

As these things go, there is confusion in the air, because Europe now says it did not mean to impose an actual visa process, but something for documentation that sounds a lot like a visa application. Whatever, it is turning something that was a wonderful, liberating feeling about travel into a hassle.

What I see is the gradual passing of an era, another sop to international security, likely necessary over time, but definitely a reflection of a degrading of individualism.

Personally, my family went through this a few years ago when the U.S. required a visa from visiting Argentines, and Argentina responded with the same. It meant, among other things, that my very close uncle could not obtain an emergency visa in time to attend my mom’s funeral, something that I can forever hold against Governments of all sort.

These visa decisions — Europe insists it is proper documentation, but not a visa — are made in the name of security, but the effects can be much more far-reaching. Last year, one community orchestra I play in had trouble bringing in a guest conductor from Europe with a particular interest in the repertoire we were playing because of all the paperwork to assure that he was not taking a job away from American citizens.

My son, a musician, earns part of his living by touring Europe; my younger daughter regularly goes to Europe to work on dance and movement with a stateless population. Whether for research or consultation, for business or pleasure, the bonds between the United Sates and Europe (and Argentina for that matter) would seem to require a liberal attitude towards travel.

More prosaically, a lot of young Americans I know took trips to Europe as part of growing up, either with their families or as part of some back-packing, hostel adventure to visit some place with a different language and perhaps some different culture. It doesn’t exactly ruin that kind of trip to have to think through exact routes and the needs of visas, but it does change it.

I suppose that’s why I am reacting.

The European Union announced last year that before travel, visitors from all visa-free countries, including the United States, will need to complete an online application and pay a small fee using the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) designed “to strengthen security checks on those persons who travel visa-free to the EU,” according to a fact sheet from the European Commission. It applies to people traveling to Europe’s Schengen Zone, an area comprising 26 countries, including France, Germany and Spain, but not Britain.

U.S. citizens with a valid U.S. passport can visit Schengen countries and stay for up to 90 days without a visa, according to the State Department.

This week, news outlets including CNN, Esquire and Travel & Leisure initially called the process starting in 2021 a visa, but government authorities said it is not one. With ETIAS, travelers will need documentation, such as a passport, and will be asked to complete an application online and pay a $7 fee; in an expected 95% of cases, approval will be granted in minutes, the fact sheet said.

Officials with the European Commission and the U.S. State Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely on the process, confirmed that ETIAS is simply a travel authorization for visa-free visitors, similar to the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) to screen people in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Needless to say, there is some confusion in the travel world, but whatever you call it, this is another sign in the continuing deterioration of trust and belief in a liberal view of learning and culture, and a more buttoned-down view, however justified, towards security and rule-making. By itself, it is a little bit of a disappointment in my fellow humans.

A spokesman for the commission said the E.U. decided to establish the ETIAS in summer 2018. In 2016, the European Commission proposed ETIAS, “an automated IT system created to identify any security or irregular migratory risks posed by visa-exempt visitors travelling to the Schengen area, while at the same time facilitate border crossings for the vast majority of travelers who do not pose such risks,” according to the fact sheet, which the commission released in July.

The ETIAS authorization is not a visa, they said. Nationals of visa liberalization countries will continue to travel the EU without a visa but will simply be required to obtain a travel authorisation via ETIAS prior to their travel. ETIAS will be a simple, fast and visitor-friendly system, which will, in more than 95% of cases, result in a positive answer within a few minutes. states that it is a travel agency and is “not affiliated with any European Government.” Travelers will not need to use a travel agency to apply but can do it themselves online.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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