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Differences Between the EU and the Schengen Area

After World War II, European countries came together to create a more stable and unified international community within the European continent. This was achieved throughout the years thanks to a series of peace and trade agreements.

The results are an area of freedom of movement and trade (the Schengen zone) and a political and economic international coalition with a common Parliament and shared laws and currency (the European Union or EU).

The good news for international tourists is that foreigners can enjoy some of the same privileges that apply to European citizens: for example, thanks to the new ETIAS (European Travel Information and authorization System) visa waiver, eligible citizens can travel freely within the Schengen area with just one travel authorization.

Italy has joined both the Schengen area and the EU. But although it may sometimes seem confusing to citizens of other continents (and even to Europeans themselves) the Schengen area and the European Union are not the same. Not all EU countries are part of the Schengen area and some nations within the Schengen territory did not sign up to join the Union.

This page is intended to clear up any doubts regarding the two European institutions. Here you’ll learn about:

  • The history and purpose of the Schengen Area
  • The history and purpose of the European Union
  • The lists of countries within the Schengen zone and the EU respectively
  • How to get a visa for the Schengen territory.

What Is the Schengen Area?

The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1958 in a small village near Luxembourg. The village is called Schengen and the name remained to refer to both the agreement and the international partnership that developed in the following decades.

The original signers were 5 European countries — (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The agreement saw for the first time the dissolution of internal borders.

Although the concept has been more clearly defined and came to embrace many aspects of European life, at the core of today’s Schengen area still lies the principle of freedom of movement within Europe.

But what does freedom of movement mean for the Schengen countries? The below are the most important effects of the agreement:

  • There are no checks at internal borders within the area (this means the borders between Schengen states).
  • The signatory countries join forces and apply the same protocols for running controls at the external borders (this means the borders between Schengen countries and non-Schengen nations).
  • Both EU citizens and non-EU citizens who entered the area legally can move freely within the Schengen area and will only have to go through document checks when crossing an external border or in case of special circumstances regarding European safety.

If you are a non-EU citizens wishing to travel to the Schengen zone legally, you will have to check the visa requirements for Europe and obtain a permit before crossing the border.

Are the EU and the Schengen Area the Same?

No, the European Union and the Schengen area were formed at different times for different purposes.

The EU is younger than the Schengen zone. In February 1993, 12 nations that were part of the European Community signed the Maastricht Treaty, officially approving the creation of the EU, which had been a hotly debated topic for years within the Community.

Italy was among the first signers. The complete list of original signers is as follows:

  • Belgium
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • France
  • Netherlands
  • West Germany
  • Denmark
  • Ireland
  • United Kingdom
  • Greece
  • Portugal
  • Spain

The principles of the European Union go well beyond free trade and movement and also include common laws and policies concerning health, climate, human rights, the environment, and justice.

Are All the Schengen Countries EU Nations?

No, not all Schengen members are also part of the EU. Currently, there are 26 countries within the Schengen zone. 22 of these are not part of the European Union.

The complete list of Schengen countries at the time of writing is as follows:

  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • Spain
  • France
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Hungary
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Austria
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovenia
  • Slovakia
  • Finland
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

What EU Countries Are Not in the Schengen Area?

The vast majority of EU member states are also part of the Schengen area. However, some decided to stay out of the special border-free zone. EU countries that are not part of the Schengen area include:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Ireland
  • Romania
  • The United Kingdom

EU citizens are free to move within the EU. However, the borders between the above countries and Schengen nations are considered external countries. This means that they are subject to border checks.

Some countries that are not part of the Schengen area still have shared open borders with the zone. That is, for example, the case of San Marino and the Vatican.

How Do You Get a Visa for Schengen?

When it comes to long-term visas (like a work or student permit) different countries have different policies and agreements in place. That is also the case within the Schengen area.

However, the Schengen countries are about to launch a new travel permit that will allow foreigners to visit the whole Schengen territories for tourism purposes. Unlike a traditional visa, the ETIAS visa waiver is a simple online system that lets eligible foreigners to obtain a permit to enter the Schengen area for stays of up to 90 days within a 180-day period.

The ETIAS application form will ask foreigners to point out which Schengen country they intend to enter first. Mening, what external border they’ll cross first. That is meant to strengthen and streamline border control.

But after crossing the external border for the first time, ETIAS grants its holder the right of free movement within the Schengen territory. As long as the ETIAS is still valid, its holder won’t have to go through document checks again unless special security reasons apply.

The ETIAS system is expected to come into effect in late 2022.