A consensus has been reached among EU member states and lawmakers to convert the existing Schengen visa system into a predominantly digital process, eliminating the requirement for a physical sticker in passports.
Upon formal adoption, the new legislation will allow most visa applicants to apply online, offering a more streamlined, cost-effective, and expeditious procedure, according to Matjaz Nemec, the lead Member of the European Parliament (MEP) overseeing the matter.
Apart from the enhanced convenience, this transformation will also bolster security within the Schengen area by minimising the risk of visa sticker forgery and theft, highlighted Maria Malmer Stenergard, Sweden’s Migration Minister, as Sweden presently holds the EU presidency.
The Schengen area encompasses nearly all EU member countries, with the exception of Cyprus, Ireland, Bulgaria, and Romania, the latter two of which are anticipated to join in the future.
In a bid to streamline and enhance security, the current Schengen visa system is undergoing digitalisation, eliminating the need for physical stickers in passports for visitors requiring a visa. Several countries, including Australia, have already implemented similar digital visa systems, seamlessly linking the online visa directly to the traveller’s passport without the requirement of a physical sticker.
The upcoming EU system will enable applicants to conveniently upload necessary documents and make processing fee payments online. However, specific cases such as first-time applicants or individuals with new passports or modified biometrics data may still necessitate an in-person appointment at a consulate or visa office.
In an official statement, the European Commission has expressed its satisfaction with the political agreement reached between the European Parliament and the Council regarding the digitalisation of the Schengen visa process.
This accomplishment is a significant milestone outlined in the Schengen Strategy, presented by the Commission in June 2021. The newly agreed-upon regulations will bring modernisation, simplification, and harmonisation to the visa procedures for non-EU nationals applying for a Schengen visa, as well as for the Member States responsible for issuing such visas through digital means.
According to the release, currently, the visa procedures for the Schengen area heavily rely on paperwork, resulting in additional costs for both travellers and the Member States. Moreover, the process of applying for a Schengen visa varies among different Member States, with only a few having partially implemented digitalised procedures. The use of physical visa stickers also increases the risks of counterfeiting, fraud, and theft, issues that digital visas will significantly address.
The Regulation will introduce digitalisation in two key aspects of the visa procedure: the transition from physical visa stickers to digital visa stickers and the digitalisation of the visa application process, achieved through the establishment of an EU online Visa application platform.
The recently approved Regulation encompasses several crucial elements that will revolutionise the Schengen visa procedure:
1. Single EU Online Visa Application Platform: A centralised platform will be established, enabling visa applicants to apply for a Schengen visa online. Irrespective of the Schengen country they intend to visit, applicants will be able to complete their application and make the necessary payment through this platform.
2. Secure Applicant Accounts: The Online Visa application platform will provide applicants with secure accounts, facilitating the submission of online applications and the receipt of decision notifications.
3. Up-to-Date Information: Applicants will have access to comprehensive and current information regarding Schengen short-stay visas. They will receive all necessary details about requirements and procedures, including supporting documents, visa fees, and the need for biometrics identifier appointments.
4. Determining Responsible Member State: The platform will automatically determine which Schengen country is responsible for processing an application that involves visits to multiple Member States.
5. User-Friendly Chatbot: The platform will feature a chatbot functionality, allowing applicants to obtain user-friendly responses to their queries.
6. Digital Schengen Visa: The current Schengen visa sticker will be replaced with a digital version represented by an encrypted 2D barcode. This digital visa format will also apply to long-stay visas. Additionally, it will be issued by EU countries that are not yet fully implementing the Schengen rules, namely Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus.
7. Transition Period: Member States will have a period of 7 years to join and implement the platform.
This development aligns with the New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the Commission in September 2020, which emphasised the goal of fully digitalising visa procedures, including the introduction of a digital visa and online visa application submission.
Furthermore, the Schengen Strategy, unveiled in June 2021, identified the digitalisation of visa procedures and travel documents as a critical measure to effectively manage the EU’s external borders. In line with these initiatives, the Commission presented a legislative proposal on 27th April 2022, specifically focused on digitalising the visa process.
The Regulation, which outlines the digitalisation of Schengen visa procedures, has now reached an agreement between the European Parliament and the Council. However, before it can be implemented, it must undergo formal adoption by both institutions.