The Schengen Area, originally comprising 10 countries in 1995, currently includes 27 nations and allows for seamless travel among those nations without passport checks.
Starting March 31, Bulgaria and Romania will both be included in the Schengen Area for land and sea border crossings. The move will allow travelers to travel among Schengen terminals — including within Romania and Bulgaria — without the need for passport checks.
Both Romania and Bulgaria have been part of the European Union since 2007. However, the two countries’ previous attempts to join the border-free area were blocked due to security concerns. Austria, in particular, cited hesitation due to the potential for increased illegal immigration.
Austria has now agreed that the two Balkan states can enter the border-free zone, provided it happens in stages, beginning with sea and air.
Negotiations for the removal of land border controls remain ongoing and will continue through 2024, though their eventual removal is anticipated to further streamline travel for the region, which has historically faced challenges with extended waiting times at road and rail borders.
The last nation to join the Schengen Area was Croatia, which officially joined in January 2023. Should Bulgaria and Romania be granted full Schengen entry, Ireland and Cyprus would be left as the only EU countries outside the zone.
In a statement on X (formerly known as Twitter), the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called the decision “a day of great pride for Bulgaria and Romania” and “a major step forward for them and for the Schengen Area.”
What is the Schengen Area?
The Schengen Area was created in 1995 and now includes 27 nations across Europe. Members of the zone have, for the most part, abolished passport checks along their mutual borders, and the zone comprises a single jurisdiction with a standardized visa policy for international travel.
While the Schengen Area doesn’t include all European nations, all the countries within the Schengen Area are in Europe. However, the Schengen Area should not be confused with the EU or the European Union Customs Union.
For example, some countries, such as Switzerland, are not part of the EU but are members of the Schengen Area, while others (like Cyprus and Ireland) are not part of the Schengen Area but are members of the EU.
The Schengen Area includes the following 27 countries: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Once Romania and Bulgaria partially join the border-free zone, the remaining European countries that aren’t members will consist of Albania, Andora, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Vatican City.
How will this affect US travelers and the Visa Waiver Program?
The Schengen Area currently allows U.S. citizens to travel without visas for up to 90 days within the zone for tourism or business purposes.
After March 31, with the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen Area for air and sea, the Visa Waiver Program will eventually cover 29 countries.
The Visa Waiver Program counts travel days cumulatively within the Schengen Area, and time spent in Bulgaria and Romania will then be considered part of the 90-day limit for those utilizing the program.
How will this affect UK travelers?
The expansion of the Schengen Area will not directly alter entry requirements or travel procedures for United Kingdom travelers. The U.K. has never been part of the Schengen Area and maintains its own border controls — though its citizens did have the right of freedom of movement within the EU prior to Brexit.
U.K. citizens will continue to follow existing entry protocols when visiting European countries, including Bulgaria and Romania.
While Romania and Bulgaria have a ways to go before they are accepted as full members of the Schengen Area, streamlining travel to and from the nations via sea and air is a huge step forward for the two countries. The move will not only greatly improve freedom of movement for the countries’ own citizens, but it will also further simplify travel for those visiting the Schengen Area whose nations are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.
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