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Definition: what is the Schengen area?

Schengen area

“Schengen area” – the term is common, but for many it remains a bit vague. We explain to you what is behind the definition of the Schengen area : from the history of the Schengen Agreement and how it works to its member countries and the origin of its name.

All third-country nationals can travel to the entire Schengen zone with a so-called Schengen visa. We will answer all your questions about this special European area, which is more than 4 million km² in size and is the world’s largest area without border controls.

Where is the Schengen area located?

Today the Schengen area covers most of Europe, covers an area of ​​4,312,099 km², has over 500 million inhabitants and comprises 26 member countries (as of 2020).

Which countries belong to the Schengen area & are Schengen states?

The Schengen zone must not be confused with the EU, although many EU countries are also Schengen countries, but not all. Again there are non-EU countries that are Schengen associated countries.

There are currently a total of 26 Schengen countries :

  • 22 member states of the European Union: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta.
  • 4 associated EFTA states: Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein

Did you know … Although they are not part of Schengen, the Schengen Agreement also applies to the three European micro-states Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City.

Who does not belong to the Schengen area?

Caution, stumbling block! One could believe gullibly that all EU countries are Schengen countries, but that’s not the case! There are countries that belong to the European Union but are not part of the Schengen zone and vice versa.

The following EU countries do not belong  to the Schengen area:

  • Bulgaria
  • Ireland
  • Croatia
  • Romania
  • Cyprus

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, which left the EU in 2020, was never a member of Schengen. However, the British could travel to other European countries without a visa. Third-country nationals, on the other hand, needed and do need an extra visa for Great Britain in many cases. 

Turkey does not belong to the Schengen area and is not part of the EU, as well as the Ukraine. Citizens of Turkey and Ukraine must therefore apply for a visa.

Did you know … Some areas administered by member states of the Schengen zone do not implement the Schengen Agreement. A separate visa must be applied for for these areas. This applies, for example, to the DOM-TOM regions of France or the Caribbean Netherlands.

Brief history: how did the Schengen area come about?

Rome did not come about in a day. The same applies to the Schengen area. It all started in 1985 with 5 member countries of the European Economic Community (EEC). 

On June 14, 1985, the Federal Republic of Germany, France and the three Benelux countries Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Schengen Agreement.

All member countries of the Schengen Agreement agree on:

  • the abolition of border controls at the common internal borders
  • the freedom of movement and residence of people in the internal market
  • the strengthening of joint cooperation in relation to the police, customs and the judiciary
  • an expanded common database that helps member countries to quickly exchange information about people and goods with one another to enable the Schengen Information System (SIS)
  • common visa and asylum regulations, which are now regulated in the EU visa code

The signing of the Schengen Agreement in 1985 was the first step towards the abolition of internal border controls in Europe. After 1985, the Schengen Convention followed in 1990, which laid down in detail how the new area would function and how an executive committee would monitor the application of the treaty. 

The agreement was only implemented on March 26, 1995. In October 1997, the Schengen Agreement was integrated into EU law. Since then, more and more European countries have signed the Schengen Agreement. So far, 26 states have joined the Schengen area.

Where does the name Schengen come from?

Schengen, Luxemburg

Schengen is the name of a municipality in the south-east of Luxembourg. The agreement was signed there in 1985. The location for the birth of the Schengen area was not chosen by chance. Schengen is located in the border triangle and is a hub in the middle of Europe. 

The geographical location is more than symbolic, as the borders of Germany, France and Luxembourg directly meet in Schengen. Since symbolism plays a major role in politics, the contract was signed on the excursion ship Princesse Marie-Astrid. At that time the boat was lying on the Moselle, a river that crosses three of the signatory states.

What is the aim of the Schengen area?

Fixed border control points were abolished within the Schengen area with the signing of the Schengen Agreement. This is primarily intended to strengthen the European internal market. 

If people can travel from state to state more easily, this will facilitate economic cooperation between the member states. The control-free crossing of borders within the Schengen area can be suspended under certain conditions, for example if public security is threatened.

Did you know … Customs controls were not abolished by the Schengen Agreement. Whether goods are checked between two Schengen countries depends on membership in the European Customs Union. There are still customs controls between EU and non-EU countries, even if they are members of the Schengen area.

How does the Schengen area work?

The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, is based on the principle of free movement of people and has since regulated the circulation of the member countries:

1. Within the Schengen area 

Nationals of the member countries are exempt from visa and passport controls within this zone. Citizens of the EU and Schengen countries can travel without restriction simply by carrying their identity card with them.

2. Outside the Schengen area

Citizens outside the Schengen area and outside the EU * are in many cases required to apply for a visa and present a valid passport. In addition, they must also take out compulsory insurance for the duration of their stay. 

The visa is valid for a certain period of time (max. 90 days for a short stay). A foreign traveler who has the right to enter a Schengen country with a visa can also move freely in the other member states of the Schengen area without controls. In addition, flights within this area are considered domestic flights.

* Citizens of around 60 third countries are not obliged to apply for a Schengen visa for a short stay in the Schengen area . However, more than 100 nations must apply for a visa before entering the Schengen area.

How does the Schengen visa work?

The Schengen Agreement also laid down common visa and asylum provisions. The regulations for Schengen visas are now regulated by the EU visa regulations. 

With a Schengen visa, citizens who require a visa can move freely in the Schengen area for a certain period of time. To get a visa, you need to apply to the embassy or consulate. You always apply for a visa at the diplomatic mission of the Schengen country in which you are staying most of the time.

Once you have completed the visa application form and enclosed all the necessary documents including proof of travel health insurance, you will usually receive a visa within two weeks to two months. Your visa is valid for either one year or longer from the date of issue. During this time you can travel to the Schengen area for a maximum of 90 days within 180 days.

Important: If you want to work or study in a Schengen state, you have to apply for a national visa for longer stays. A Schengen visa for a short stay is not allowed for this purpose.

Why do I need travel insurance to get a Schengen visa?

Regardless of the purpose of your stay in the Schengen area, as an applicant for a Schengen visa, you are obliged to take out travel insurance. The insurance must be able to cover the costs of illness, emergencies and hospitalization and, if necessary, guarantee repatriation in the event of death.

The Schengen insurance must meet 3 criteria:

  • Cover medical expenses of at least € 30,000 (or US $ 34,000)
  • be valid for all countries of the Schengen area
  • be valid for the entire duration of the visa applicant’s stay

Remember: if the visa application is rejected, the insurance can be reimbursed.

FAQ: Schengen area definition

What is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen area is an amalgamation of 26 European countries between which border controls have been abolished. The Schengen Agreement of 1985 forms the contractual basis of the Schengen area. Third-country nationals with a Schengen visa can also move freely within all Schengen member states.

What is the Schengen Agreement?

The Schengen Agreement was signed on June 14, 1985 in the Luxembourg municipality of Schengen by the first five member countries Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There are now 26 countries in the Schengen area.

The contractual basis of the Schengen Agreement is the free movement of people to strengthen the European economy. In 1995 the agreement came into force and internal border controls were abolished.

Who does not belong to the Schengen area?

The Schengen area includes Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland as well as all EU countries except Bulgaria, Ireland, Croatia, Romania and Cyprus. In addition, the following European countries are neither part of the EU nor the Schengen area: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States Kingdom of Great Britain.



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