Understanding Intra-European Schengen Flights

Recently I wrote about a security incident at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, and said that the terminal affected handled Star Alliance ‘Schengen’ flights. As I wrote about this I realised that some readers who may not travel around Europe regularly may not have heard of this term before, so I wanted to write another ‘Back To Basics’ article to explain what they are.

The Schengen Area

Within Europe, there are 26 European countries that have agreed to abolish passport and border controls at their mutual borders. They have signed the ‘Schengen Agreement,’ which was named after the town in Luxembourg where it was signed.

These countries are:

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

There are some exceptions to this list, particularly where a territory/part of that country is an island that does not share a border with another Schengen country, such as the Faroe Islands for Denmark, and overseas territories, such as Dutch Aruba.

There are also three tiny European nations that do not participate in the Schengen agreement but still have open borders to their neighbouring/surrounding countries:

  • Monaco
  • San Marino
  • Vatican City

The Schengen zone should not be confused with those members of the European Union, or those countries using the Euro (yes, confusing, I know!).

Source: Lequidy

Why does this matter when travelling?

If you’re travelling from a non-Schengen to a Schengen area (such as from London to Milan), or from a Schengen to a non-Schengen area (such as from Paris to Moscow), it’s no different than a standard international flight anywhere else in the world.

There are passport checks and stamps, questions about your travel intentions, and visas required in certain situations.

But the enormous benefit of travelling between Schengen member countries, whether by air, road, rail or sea, is that there is no inbound or outbound passport control and you can freely move between countries. While you may be disappointed that you won’t get a stamp in your passport crossing the border from France into Germany, it usually means a quicker, easier travel experience, especially if you do not have a European passport.

I travel around Europe every few weeks but it is primarily from, or to the United Kingdom. I have only an Australian passport which means if travelling between a Schengen country and the UK, I have to queue with all ‘foreign’ passports. This can take a very long time, especially if you arrive right behind a flight from a destination where passport officers tend to ask plenty of questions.

A few weeks back arriving into Zurich from the UK at 8pm on a Friday, I waited 45 minutes at immigration.

But travelling between Schengen countries by air is more like a domestic flight. You will of course have a security and ID check but it’s much quicker as there will be no stamping of your passport to exit the country and no stamping of your passport to then enter the new country.

Once you have entered one Schengen country, you can easily and freely move between others.

If moving between countries by road, the process is a breeze. You may only notice you’ve entered a new country by seeing a sign saying ‘welcome to xxx country,’ compared with driving between non-Schengen countries, where you may face long queues at the border with passport checks and probing questions.

Lounge Access

While larger airports will often have lounges within both Schengen and non-Schengen airside departure areas, if you are leaving the Schengen zone be careful to check there is a lounge after passport control, before having your passport stamped to exit the country, if you still have plenty of time before your flight.

For those smaller airports that have mostly intra-Schengen flights, they may have a small gate area for those flights exiting the Schengen area (i.e. to places like the UK), however there may not be a lounge in this area.

Once you go through passport control you will not be able to return to the lounge prior to passport control (i.e. if there are delays), and will be ‘stuck’ at the gate without a lounge, so I’d recommend waiting until just before boarding is announced before leaving a lounge to exit the Schengen area.

Bottom line

It would make my year if the United Kingdom ever joined the Schengen area, but following the Brexit vote that is almost impossible. It is so much easier travelling between Schengen countries – you hardly even notice you have crossed the border if travelling by road, and its more like a domestic flight by air.

Just time your passport control properly to maximise your lounge access!

Have you travelled in the Schengen area?

Comments

  1. “But the enormous benefit of travelling between Schengen member countries, whether by air, road, rail or sea, is that there is no inbound or outbound passport control and you can freely move between countries.”

    Um, not quite. It hasn’t really been that way for well over a year. When you fly from Zürich to Rome, for example, you frequently will be denied online check-in and must go to the counter and actually show your passport or national ID card. Even if you are Swiss or Italian.

    When you travel by train from e.g. Czech Republic to Germany there will be spot checks on the train.

    When you take the Thalys from Paris Gare du Nord to Brussels there will be occasional passport/ID checks. But not in the reverse direction.

    Oh and then there is the joy of flying out of Malta, where e.g. Swiss online check-in doesn’t even work. Ask the Malta government about that.

    Blame all the nasty internal politics about asylees for this.

  2. I recently did JFK-CDG-VIE on AF, and was amazed/surprised/frustrated at how badly all the signage is, Schengen or not. I had a two hour connection, early in the morning, and still barely made the flight to VIE. On the return flight, the only reason I made the plane to JFK is because it ended up being delayed for 90 minutes. Maybe it’s a CDG issue. Maybe it’s that two hour connection times between Schengen and non isn’t enough. Maybe I should have booked them as separate round trips. I dunno. Somehow it felt like they’ve made it so easy for Schengen flights that they’ve given up trying to connect people who aren’t.

  3. @Steven M – I share your disappointment with the (partial) removal, however inevitable it was. LYS for example has completely exempted itself from Schengen, and there is full passport control, with no automated machines – *incredibly* frustrating.

  4. Have you signed up for registered traveler? I re-enter the UK ~40 times a year. I was forlorn when the UK ditch IRIS but registered traveler is a great replacement. I haven’t waited more then 3 minutes in months.

  5. @Steven all your example its because of migrants or terrorist attacks that you have this passeport/id or security check

  6. Until 5 yrs ago, or so, I used to fly CGN to ZRH on a regular basis. I vividly remember the change when Switzerland joined Schengen. The ID checks by the federal police when entering the gate area CGN disappeared, and more important the flights no longer arrived at the E gates in ZRH, meaning you didn’t have to take the Heidi train anymore. Saved at least 10min.

    The last time I arrived in ZRH from LHR, I wasn’t able to figure out the self check immigration gates right away, the non-EU lines were at least 30min long.

    Overall I agree, it plays a much bigger role when crossing Schengen borders by car.

  7. Leaving the non-Schengen Area (at least for Schengen passport holders) is easy. You’ll just have to show your passport again when exiting.

    I already did that in VIE, because the non-schengen lounge is nicer.

  8. Thanks for that explanation James, had never heard of it!
    Explains why when I flew from Perth into Zurich recently I had to join the long queue with lots of middle east people in it. They when I drove into Italy and back there was no one manning the border stations in the mountains. Thought I had just struck lucky with morning smoko time!

    Cheers for the article.

  9. I was really happy about the Schengen agreement a couple of years ago when I did a Belgium/Netherlands trip. The land crossing between the countries would have been smooth as silk if it weren’t for the heavy traffic. I can’t imagine how bad it would have been if border control were thrown in to the mix.

    PS I made the mistake of using google maps to estimate driving times while pre-planning the trip in my free evenings…..evenings in Canada…..when everyone is in bed in Europe and there is little traffic. Would you believe that it took a tad longer to drive than the estimates I had found?

    PPS My wife’s Dutch relatives found it amusing that we estimate distance by driving time. If a destination is 100 km away, around here we say it is an hour away. Stop and go traffic on the highways made that way of talking sound pretty silly.

  10. I flew from Bucharest to Vienna in 2013 with an American Passport and was just waved in and out of Vienna without having to get my passport stamped even though Romania is not part of Schengen. But when I did the same in 2010 I was required to get a stamp on both entry and exit of Vienna.

  11. Canary Islands are most definitely in Schengen.

    They are not in the Customs Union, but then neither is Norway or Switzerland. May be worth pointing out that immigration is not the same as customs and plenty of cases in Europe where you have to go through customs without immigration or immigration without customs.

  12. Great article! I do believe one clarification is needed. Canary islands are exempt from some customs regulations but are part of the Schengen area.

  13. @ Sully, VitaliU – good pick ups and you are correct.
    I had read Canary Islands were an exception but it is actually a ‘special concession’ which is different. I’ve updated to use the Faroe Islands in relation to Denmark instead. Cheers.

  14. It may also be useful to clarify that anyone who requires a visa to enter Schengen should NOT book itineraries with more than one connection in Schengen (e.g. US-FRA-ZRH-LCA) The FRA-ZRH flight here is a “domestic” flight and you will not be able to get to the boarding area without going through Schengen passport control

  15. So you do still need to bring your passport and show it when travelling between Schengen countries?

  16. What I find strange is that ID checks do not even regularly occur anymore – particularly with automated boarding gates. My job regularly takes me between Germany, Italy and Switzerland – Will often find I’ve taken upwards of 10 flights / cross country trains without showing anyone any form of ID.

  17. @ Steven M – I’ve had the same experience flying KLM from AMS to a variety of other Schengen airports where I have to go through another passport check either outside the lounge or at the gate (much faster to do at the lounge in my experience). True, you don’t get a passport stamp, but they do mark your boarding pass that you’ve received the extra check.

  18. Maybe worth mentioning a precursor of Schengen, the Republic of Ireland + United Kingdom “Common Travel Area”, which dates back to 1952 (and has roots in the 1920s).

    I was hugely grateful for it in the 1990s when I lost my passport somewhere in Dublin but no-one bothered to asked to see it either before the flight back to London or on arrival. In fact, if you read Cold War-era novels by the ex-spy John Le Carre, he refers to entry to the UK via the Republic of Ireland as being the “soft route”.

    All now threatened by Brexit, of course.

  19. As a Norwegian (we’re outside the European union but inside the Schengen area), I can’t remember the last time I’ve shown my passport inside the Schengen area.

    We’ve have had a passport-free union in the Nordic since 1955, so of course I don’t bring my passport to Sweden, Denmark or other nordic countries but I do bring it to the EU. However, it’s just in my rucksack. Only if I want to get a return on the VAT (shop tax-free) when leaving the country, I actually need to use my passport.

    Haven’t even shown an ID at security or boarding for quite some time.. perhaps three or four years?

  20. @The nice Paul, Unfortunately, the Irish government started imposing passport/ID checks on flights arriving from the UK, IofM and the Channel Islands quite some time ago, way before the Brexit vote. In 2013 I traveled between Dublin and the Isle of Man and there were no checks in Douglas but a full passport control in Dublin.

  21. @ Neil S. That would be mostly a CDG issue. Is now my local airport and I still find the signage confusing. I’ve never quite worked out what the difference is but it doesn’t seem to follow the same logic as other airports. Add to that the sprawling and confusing layout of both terminals and you have a hot mess. (although I do have a soft spot for T1 which must have been seen as really futuristic when it was built).

  22. @ Morgan – no. Some borders will require a simple ID check (such as a national ID card), others will have no border check at all.

  23. Note that
    1) Airlines may still require you to show ID before passing security and/or before boarding
    2) Despite Schengen, countries may impose immigration checks. France did so
    3) There are spontaneous checks. E.g. Border force checking a moving, international TGV
    4) Traveling within the EU can be made using a national ID, provided it has been issued by an EU member state. E.g. A German can use his “Ausweis” to travel from Denmark to the UK.
    5) Customs rules continue to apply within Schengen. While there’s no limit on goods bought in another Schengen/EU country, you can only bring X cigarettes and Y L of booze. Those levels are higher than for arrivals from non-EEA destinations, but the point was: They still exist
    6) When transiting at a Schengen airport to a Schengen airport, the items in your carry-on will, if necessary, have to be declared at the transit point. Your checked bags need declaring at the final destination. E.g. I fly from MIA to SXF via AMS. My carry-on may be checked by customs in AMS, my checked bags may be checked in SXF:

  24. @ VitaliU

    Yes, 911 killed identitypapers-free air travel, even in the CTA. But you can still drive (or take the train) between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland without showing anyone any papers.

    I think you do need to show something for ferries across the Irish Sea, too.

    I also vaguely remember (from the pre-Good Friday era) papers being required to travel between Northern Ireland and rUK: there was some statement at the time that the UK was the only western country other than (Apartheid-era) South Africa which had a system of “pass laws” to control movement within its own borders.

  25. @smallmj

    I made the google map mistake once also but then I realized you can put in the date and time of day when you would be travelling so it can estimate better what traffic conditions typically are at that specific time and day of the week…

  26. This is technically true but not de facto anymore due to heightened security in Europe.

    I’ve had my passport checked upon entering France from Spain via air. It was a normal passport check (border agent ran the passport through the SIS); the only difference was they didn’t stamp it. I believe it is up to the member country to decide if they want to implement intra-Schengen border checks.

  27. As an American that enjoys getting my passport stamped, I have a love/hate relationship with Schengen. It’s great to be able to travel freely and not have to wait in ques for passport control…but I still want a stamp! I’ve connected mostly via AMS in the past since I usually catch a nonstop flight from SEA, so I have a lot of Schiphol stamps…and few others from Europe (LHR, CDG, SNN and EDI). I wish airports and train stations would offer a little stamp desk with a generic stamp for that country and the date….i.e. Italy 31.10.2017.

  28. France has imposed TEMPORARY border checks on all its borders since the 2015 attacks expected to time out this October but they might extend it again. Otherwise its mainly limited to spot checks in general.

  29. At DUS I miss the entrance to BA Lounge and exited the Schengen area, when I realized this I went back, just needed to queue for passport control, no questions asked and got an additional stamp on my passport. Of course there was virtually no queue since it was Jan 1st at 7AM.

  30. Two years ago following the Paris nightclub and Nice terrorist attacks, I was on a train traveling from Nice to Milan and the train was stopped at the Italian border and agents boarded and checked passports (just like the old days). This past May, same train route but no border stops or checks. They can turn it off and on rather easily it seems if security conditions call for it.

  31. Thank you so much for the very interesting post!

    One thing that I would mention to non-EU/EFTA/CH (European Union/European Free Trade Area, so Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland/Swiss) passport holders when crossing an internal Schengen border is that you MUST have your passport with you. My cousin only has a US passport and was checked on a train between Germany and Switzerland, which was at the bottom of his bag… and was told the following by German ‘Zoll’ – ‘Customs’ officials: Under the Schengen Agreement, EU/EFTA/CH passport holders have 48 hours on a verbal declaration to present their passport to the local police, should they in a very unlikely situation be asked for one.

    Non-EU/EFTA/CH passport holders have to present it immediately. The Germans were very kind and waited but explained the rules.

    It is really rare and a special situation that you have to show a passport, at all, inside of the Schengen area. If it should happen, for people from outside of Europe it might be important to know to always bring your passport with you, even within Schengen.

  32. James, on which list does Andorra fall? Is it a part of Schengen? Is it a country that does not participate in Schengen but has open borders with Schengen countries?

  33. @James: Your last thought about the UK and Schengen is misleading: If the British had ever wanted they could have joined the Schengen Agreement – so while leaving the EU, they could as well have remained in Schengen.
    At the same time, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are even taking part in Schengen although they never wanted to join the EU!

    You could also have named some popular exceptions, where flights between Schengen countries are operated as non-Schengen flights: When you take the LAN fifth freedom flight from FRA to SCL via MAD, you already leave Schengen in FRA and need to re-enter if you’re only flying to MAD.

    @ All: Some of you are confused of border controls even on land borders within the Schengen area. This is because the countries are allowed to conduct such controls temporarily if they have good reasons. But some countries currently make excessive and long-term use of this option due to the current fear of large numbers of refugees.

    And: There are some situations where you will need to show an ID or passport although this is not for entrance or Exit to the Schengen area. For example in accordance with Spanish identification law your ID will be checked vs. the name on your boarding pass when boarding a plane anywhere in Spain.

  34. I had a flight from MUC-ORY a few years ago and there wasn’t even an ID check at security. I was surprised by that. They just screened your bags and made you walk through a metal detector.

  35. @Daniel: Andorra does not participate in Schengen and doesn’t even apply Schengen rules. There are border and especially customs controls with both France and Spain.

    For other European small countries:
    When it comes to border controls Monaco sticks with France (no border controls to France, the port of Monaco is controlled by French border authorities).

    The same counts for San Marino and the Vatican City with Italy.

    Liechtenstein sticks to Switzerland with a customs union and – unlike the other small countries – is a Schengen member itself.

  36. I do agree with you here James, it’s generally a breeze to travel within Europe. However, like a few have said, things are getting stricter lately. When driving from Germany into Denmark a while back, there was full passport control at the border. They were openly saying that Denmark was not interested in having all those asylum seekers entering the country. (actually had the same from Germany into France too interestingly.)

    The Denmark inspectors thoroughly inspected my passport, but for a good reason – they were fascinated by the Australian passport and wanted to show their colleagues. Definitely a friendly bunch 🙂

  37. I am surprised that you did not mention how beneficial the Schengen Policy is for those who require a visa in advance. Saving time at airport is the last thing I would think of , as I am saved from the MUCH BIGGER hassle of applying for a visa for every individual country.
    Secondly , I always notice that Australian citizens (mostly) end up going to EU immigration counters , only to be turned back. They must accept that Visa Exemption is applicable to many countries , and standing in a queue of “Foreign” ( as quoted by you ) passport holders is nothing to be embarrassed of. I was at the Malta Airport recently , and a group of Australian citizens were quite “vocal” about the time me & my family took at immigration , which as is quite obvious , is not determined by us.

  38. Actually, the Faroe Islands is also not the best example in terms of not being part of Schengen, as they‘re a part of the Nordic Passport Union, which de facto still means there‘s no passport control when you do RKV-FAE or FAE-CPH. They do have passport control but only for flights arriving from Scotland.

  39. @ The nice Paul – It has nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.

    The common travel area strictly only applies to British and Irish citizens, who do not need passports (or in fact any ID whatsoever, though it’s difficult to demonstrate you’re a citizen without it!).

    If you are not a citizen, then you require a passport to move between Ireland and the UK and always have done. In reality there are no checks on the land border so nothing stopping you going without one, but they’ve been checking at air borders for over 2 decades.

  40. I recently travelled by rail from Budapest to Vienna and was asked for ID check prior to entering Austria on the train.

  41. The CTA essentially works in one direction only now.

    Any flight arriving in Ireland regardless of origin is subject to passport/ID check.

    However flights arriving in the UK from Ireland are treated as domestic flights. Many larger UK airports have busy domestic areas (there is practically zero domestic commercial aviation in Ireland) and so Irish originating flights can be segregated as such.

    For example LHR-DUB, passport check on arrival, DUB-LHR, no check. This irks Irish travellers no end, but it’s purely based on the layout of Irish airports which pool all arrivals together.

  42. Thanks for the info James! Ive always seen this term thrown around but had only a vague idea of what it meant since what prevails is European Union vs. non EU. I remember now travelling freely between AMS and Belgium, but from Uk to France and Germany there was always passport control.

    Youre awesome, a great addition to the OMAAT family. keep it up mate!

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