Most non-European citizens apply for a Schengen visa in order to visit Italy, Spain and other countries in the European Union. Many of them mistakenly assume that the Schengen zone and the European Union are the same.
In this article we discuss the differences between the Schengen area and the European Union, which states are part of the Schengen zone, the rules to follow at border crossings, and which visa makes it easier to travel around Europe.
The Schengen Agreement: how it all started
In June 1985, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France signed an agreement allowing visa-free travel without customs control at the borders separating them. The Schengen Agreement was named in honour of Schengen, a city located nearby in Luxembourg.
The parliaments of these five countries then discussed the details of the union for ten years before the Schengen Agreement came into force in 1995.
The Schengen area then expanded steadily: another nine states, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, joined in 2007.
Timeline of the Schengen zone expansion
| Belgium |
| Spain |
| Austria |
|Italy|| Denmark |
| Hungary |
By 2021, the Schengen area comprised 26 countries, which had pledged to be governed by common laws, which allowed:
- visa-free travel inside the zone;
- common visas and common rules of entry into and exit from the common area;
- exchange of information between the police and courts of member states.
Difference between the Schengen Area Countries and the European Union
The Schengen area is composed of 26 states, in which visa-free travel takes place without any customs control.
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 states, which have not only abolished internal visas but have also voluntarily transferred part of their powers to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
The borders of the Schengen zone and the European Union do not coincide. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland signed the Schengen Agreement but did not join the European Union. The Schengen area also includes Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands, which are located in the Atlantic Ocean.
San Marino, the Vatican, Monaco and Andorra adhere to the Schengen Agreement even though they are not part of the Schengen area. As a result, you can visit these states on a Schengen visa, but you cannot enter the Schengen zone from them without a Schengen visa.
A foreign tourist is issued with a single-entry Schengen visa. He plans to visit France and Andorra, and then continue on to Spain. However, on leaving the Schengen area, in this case in France, the single-entry visa is no longer valid. In order to enter Spain, the tourist will have to apply for a Schengen visa again.
The agreement is also not valid in some Schengen states: in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Svalbard, Bear Island, Martinique, Mayotte, Reunion, Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin.
Which Countries Are in the Schengen Zone and the European Union
|EU and Schengen||Only EU||Only Schengen|
Candidate states for the Schengen zone accession
Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, Croatia and Montenegro plan to become part of the visa-free Schengen area. The European Parliament has postponed the terms of these countries’ accession to the Schengen zone several times. Cyprus was denied entry due to its conflict with Turkey, while Bulgaria and Romania have not been admitted because of corruption and high crime rates.
The exact date when these countries will join the Schengen area has not been decided. Nonetheless, foreign citizens can travel to Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus, Montenegro on a Schengen visa.
Common Rules: obtaining a Schengen visa
There are four types of Schengen visas:
A: transit, valid only in the transit zone of an airport;
B: transit through the Schengen countries. It is issued for up to 5 days;
C: single- or multiple-entry;
D: national. Valid only in the country that issued it.
The category C visa is the most popular one. It allows the holder to spend 90 out of 180 days in Schengen countries. For example, the one-year category C visa issued at Spanish consulates allows the holder to spend 90 consecutive days in Spain in the first half of the year, and then another 90 days in the second half of the year.
To apply for the C-type visa, the applicant must provide the following documents:
- passport valid for another 3 months after the expiry of the visa;
- a form including the full name and contact details, as well as the purpose and duration of the trip;
- photographs 35 × 45 mm;
- medical insurance valid in all countries to be visited;
- documents confirming the reservation of accommodation;
- bank statements. The requirements on the minimum amount of cash in the current account varies;
- each country determines the required amount independently. On the website of Spain’s Visa Application Center, for example, a minimum of €810 for a trip or €90 per person for each day of the visit is indicated. For a five-day trip to Italy, a minimum of €270 is sufficient;
- a return ticket or other confirmation showing that the applicant does not plan to remain in the Schengen zone illegally is also required. For example, a marriage certificate, child’s birth certificate or proof of property ownership is acceptable as evidence.
For Schengen visas, applicants’ biometric data, including digital photographs and fingerprints, need to be resubmitted every five years.
Schengen visas are issued and picked up at the consulate of the issuing country. When planning a tour of Schengen countries, the visa application should be made at the consulate of the country where you plan to spend more time.
In 2020, the rules for issuing Schengen visas were tightened. Applicants from some countries become eligible for one-year multiple-entry visas only after they have received three short-term Schengen visas in the two preceding years. Applicants who were granted a one-year Schengen visa in 2019-2020 will be able to apply for a two-year Schengen visa. Five-year Schengen visas will generally only be issued to those who have received a two-year Schengen visa in 2018-2020.
The period for reviewing and processing Schengen visa applications has now been extended from less than a month to 45 days. The consular fee for a Schengen visa varies depending on a number of factors, including the country of citizenship of the applicant and type of visa.
Travelling without borders: how to choose the right European country for residence
Investment programs in Malta, Portugal, Spain and Greece help applicants obtain a residence permit and visas faster. A residence permit allows the holder to spend 90 out of 180 days in the European Union and Schengen countries. At the same time, the holder can live indefinitely on the territory of the state issuing the residence permit.
The programs differ in terms of processing time, conditions, benefits and investment amount.
Malta offers investment programs at different cost levels, allowing a foreign citizen to obtain a residence permit or Maltese citizenship. The residence permit allows the holder to spend 90 consecutive days in the Schengen area and the European Union. Citizenship allows the holder to live indefinitely in any EU country.
In order to obtain a residence permit, the investor either rents or buys a property in Malta for at least €220,000. The minimal rental cost per annum is €8,750 in the South of Malta and €9,600 in Central or Northern Malta. A residence permit is issued within 3–4 months.
Investors with confirmed capital of €500,000 are eligible to obtain permanent residence in Malta. A permanent residence permit is issued in 5–6 months. The minimum investment is about €112,000.
Obtaining Maltese citizenship based on exceptional merit requires a larger investment than for a residence permit or permanent residence. The minimum amount depends on the time period within which the investor wants to obtain citizenship. In order to become a Maltese citizen three years after obtaining a residence permit, they need to invest €690,000.
The Portugal Golden Visa program offers several options for investors: buying shares in Portuguese companies or investment funds; investment in real estate, research activities or restoration of Portugal cultural heritage; or creating a company with ten employees. A Portugues residence permit by investment is issued six months after the application is submitted.
The minimum investment in real estate is €280,000. A residence permit allows visa-free travel to Schengen countries, and citizenship can be granted after five years.
Spain and Greece process residence permits faster than other European countries. A Spanish residence permit by investment can be obtained in 2–3 months. The investor can choose to invest in real estate, a business, government bonds, or place money in a deposit account in a local bank.
The minimum investment in Spanish real estate is €500,000. The investment in 5-year government bonds must be at least €2,000,000.
Greece’s investment program provides four options:
- buying real estate
- leasing a hotel
- purchasing land for construction or agriculture
- acquiring a share in a tourist property
A residence permit can be obtained within 3 months by investing €250,000 in real estate in Greece. According to the investment terms, the investor can sell the property after five years.
Each of these residence permits by investment, be it in Malta, Portugal, Spain or Greece, allows the holder to spend up to 90 days in any six-month period in the Schengen zone.
Malta, Portugal, Spain and Greece programs comparison
|Residence permit||Processing time||Minimum investment|
Frequently Asked Questions
The list of Schengen countries includes some states that are not part of the European Union: Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland.
In contrast, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are part of the European Union but are not included in the Schengen countries’ list. We discuss why it is important not to confuse the European Union and the Schengen area.
One of the ways that foreigners can visit the Schengen countries without a visa is by obtaining a residence permit in Malta, Portugal, Greece or Spain. A residence permit issued by any of these countries allows the holder to remain in the Schengen zone for 90 days in any six-month period.
A residence permit issued by a European country not included in the Schengen zone does not entitle the holder to enter the Schengen zone without a visa. For example, Croatia entered the European Union eight years ago. A residence permit by investment in Croatia does not give the right to enter the Schengen zone without a visa. We discuss in detail the most suitable residence permits for travelling in the European Union and the Schengen zone.
The residence permits available differ in terms of processing times and the amount of investment. Malta offers the most affordable residence permit by investment. It can be obtained by renting real estate for €8,750 per annum or buying property for €220,000. Details on calculating the costs and applying for a residence permit by investment in Malta.
For applicants short of time, the programs offered by Greece and Spain are suitable. The residence permit can be issued within 3 months. Details on how to compare residence permit programs offered by Greece or Spain.