Do you need a visa to visit Europe? Or does a passport suffice? Many Americans are probably wondering about these issues right now, after a confusing resolution was passed by the European Union indicating that the era of hassle-free tourism with no visa requirements could be ending soon.
Here’s everything you need to know about the controversy.
There Is No Visa Requirement (Yet)
For now, American travelers do not need visas to enter Europe. Travelers with American passports can visit nearly anywhere in Europe for a period of up to 90 days without the hassle or costs of getting a visa. All you need is a passport valid for at least three months beyond your intended departure, and perhaps some proof that you have the financial resources to cover your bills while traveling.
These rules have remained largely the same for American travelers for years, and nothing has changed.
So What’s With the Headlines About a “Visa War”?
Last week, the European Union’s Parliament voted to impose a visa requirement on American travelers. A resolution passed asking the European Union Commission to begin requiring visas of American visitors in Europe as soon as May.
The vote is part of the ongoing dispute known as the “visa war,” which stems from the fact that the United States still requires visas for visitors from five European Union countries—Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania—while American travelers have no such requirements to visit there. The EU’s resolution is threatening that the visa waiver Americans enjoy for travel all over Europe could be dropped until the U.S. gets rid of its visa requirements for all European Union members.
The resolution is widely viewed as little more than a negotiating tactic, however. And considering how badly Europe’s economy would be hurt with even a small decline in American visitors, it’s far from certain that there would ever be a visa requirement of Americans in Europe. “It’s a non-binding vote with no real impact,” Foreign Policy said of the resolution. “Regardless of breathless headlines, the real story is that Americans don’t need visas to go to the European Union, and certain Europeans still do.”
The Issue Predates Donald Trump
Fox News described the new visa resolution as a “possible response to Trump,” and the Wall Street Journal reported that the vote “reflects hostility among some European politicians to the Trump administration.” In January, Donald Tusk, the European Council President from Poland, called Trump a “worrying” threat for his policies on immigration and his support of Britain abandoning the EU, also known as Brexit. Yet as the BBC noted, the push within Europe to enforce its reciprocity agreement—the requirement of visas for travelers from any countries that require visas of any EU visitors—first arose in 2014.
The so-called “visa war” hasn’t been limited just to the U.S. either. Last summer, the EU threatened to begin requiring visas of Canadians visiting Europe unless Canada changed its rules and started allowing tourists from Bulgaria and Romania to visit visa-free. In this case, the pressure seemed to work: Canada plans to drop its visa requirements for all EU citizens by December 2017.
When Might a Visa Requirement Go into Effect?
Many observers are skeptical Europe will ever be so bold as to require visas of American travelers. There are just too many dollars (or euros, or francs) at stake: U.S. visitors accounted for 27.4 million arrivals in Europe in 2016, up 8% compared to 2015. What’s more, business is expected to be on the rise. Prior to the recent controversy, forecasts from the likes of AAA called for a “significant amount of demand for travelers visiting Europe in 2017,” in particular because of the strength of the U.S. dollar and more affordable transatlantic flights.
If and when a visa requirement on Americans is ever instituted in Europe, there will likely be ample warning so that travelers aren’t confused or put off. “Americans need not start queuing at the French embassy just yet,” the Economist explained. “Implementing the parliament’s recommendation would require the agreement of all EU members, which would probably take years.”
What Would a Visa Requirement Mean for Travelers?
Americans already need visas to visit dozens of popular tourist destinations, including Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, and Russia. Visas for some countries aren’t much of a hassle: Americans heading to Australia, for instance, can get what’s known as an Electronic Travel Authority online, for a fee of about $15, and most applications are approved immediately. Visiting the Dominican Republic is similarly easy for American visitors, who must pay $10 for a tourist card online or at the airport.
It’s much more complicated and costly to get visas for some other countries. A visa for Brazil costs about $160 and must be obtained at a Brazilian embassy or consulate. An American who arrives in Brazil without a visa will most likely be refused entry. Getting a visa for Russia can run $160 to $450 depending on how quickly you need it, and American visitors must also technically be invited to apply for one—usually, a letter from a hotel or tour operator in Russia you’re doing business with does the trick.
If visas ever are required of American travelers in Europe, in all likelihood they would be more like the system for Australia rather than Russia. That would mean a little extra cost and paperwork on the part of visitors. Right now, though, American tourists still don’t need visas for entering Europe, and it’s unclear how this whole “visa war” will play out.