Two Eastern European nations, Romania and Bulgaria, which both joined the European Union in 2007 and have been trying to become part of the Schengen Area for more than a decade, will enter the border-free area in stages, starting with air and sea travel on March 31. How that process goes will determine when the countries can open their land borders.
Once Romania and Bulgaria are fully within the zone, Ireland and Cyprus will be the only EU countries outside it.
In a post on X, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called the decision “a day of great pride for Bulgaria and Romania,” adding that the “decision to remove internal air and sea border controls with Romania and Bulgaria represents a major step forward for them and for the Schengen Area.”
Created in 1995 with 10 countries, the Schengen Area has since grown to cover more than 1.5 million square miles, allowing almost 420 million people to move freely between 27 countries, currently. It’s important not to confuse the Schengen Area with the European Union—the former is a travel zone where citizens can cross country borders without a passport or visa, whereas the latter is an economic and political union of countries. The Schengen Area currently includes Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
According to the Council of the European Union, “Each day around 3.5 million people cross internal borders for work or study or to visit families and friends, and almost 1.7 million people reside in one Schengen country while working in another.” Being a part of the zone saves citizens time and hassle from passport checks. It also helps travelers from 59 countries outside the EU, including the United States, as they can travel without visas for up to 90 days within the Schengen Area for tourism and business. However, that will change somewhat in 2025 when the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) launches, at which point those who want to travel to the 27 member countries of Europe’s Schengen zone will need to register for an ETIAS authorization or risk being turned away at the border.
There are myriad requirements a country must meet before it is approved for Schengen membership. Per the Council of the European Union, the list of preconditions includes enforcing Schengen rules regarding border controls, visa issuance, police cooperation, and protection of personal data, as well as properly managing external borders (for instance, not allowing people to cross into the country without proper documentation).
“Countries wishing to join the Schengen Area must undergo a series of evaluations to determine whether they fulfill the conditions necessary for the application of the Schengen rules,” reads a statement from the Council of the European Union. Once a member state meets the readiness requirements, “all other members of the Schengen Area have to approve the decision unanimously after consulting the European Parliament.”
Croatia was the most recent country to join the Schengen Area and was allowed to fully open its borders to other Schengen Area countries on January 1, 2023.
While Romania and Bulgaria have long argued that they have met the requirements, their previous attempts were thwarted. Austria, in particular, has played a big role in blocking the two nations from entering, having previously cited fears about illegal immigration, but has since softened its stance.