The end of last week saw one of the most panicked and heated debates in the travel media industry I have seen for some time, with some interesting vitriol being thrown around by readers.
Starting 1st January 2021, there will be a new Electronic Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) for citizens of visa-exempt countries at a cost of €7 for 3-year authorisation. Countries such as United States, Canada and even post-Brexit United Kingdom are all included. This authorisation will be required when visiting Schengen countries plus Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, which are all Schengen-elect countries.
The system works near-enough identically to the US ESTA, Canadian ETA and Australian eVisitor systems, despite none of these calling their systems calling theirs a visa. It is essentially a pre-authorisation which you have to pay for and if you get rejected then you have to apply for a visa. Considering nearly every country in the world requires airlines to send passenger manifests prior to travel and already have the chance to deny boarding, it is essentially a superfluous step in travel preparation.
I have no idea why it suddenly blew up in the way it did because its intention was formally proposed in November 2016 and full details were announced July 2018. Such is the quality of copycat journalism I guess?
The Duck Test
There is this saying in English:
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
The outcry is understandable. You cannot board your flight without purchasing and receiving approval from ETIAS, which sounds an awful lot like a visa.
So then what is the difference between the ETIAS system and visa? Well the backend processes are different which is sufficient to justify NOT calling it a visa. There is no official website for the application process yet (which US media outlets should have checked first), but the sole purpose is to check if you are likely to be a threat to the security of the Schengen zone. There is no legalisation of documents, letters of invitations, proof of accommodation, proof of financial sustenance, proof of return ticket, interviews. Just an online form and you will likely get your result in 10 minutes. This is shorter than the US ESTA system.
You will quickly realise ETIAS is NOT a visa if your electronic submission is rejected, because only then will you go through the pain and costs of applying for a visa!
I see this whole system not as a visa and asking permission to fly, but more as a money grab which the European Commission has the power to impose. (Or should I say… we have no choice but to accept.)
‘Visas' are only visas if that is the official name given by the issuing country
That is the unfortunate truth to it. Since the introduction of e-Visas and rapid profiling through advanced authorisation the boundaries are quite obviously blurred. But as long as the USA, Canada and Australia continue to deny calling their pre-authorisation systems a visa, then they also have no right to call ETIAS a visa. Now let's move onto less asinine discussions, please!