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REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

A number of countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks
A picture shows "Parafe", an automated border passport control at Orly airport, near Paris on July 6, 2018. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors.

EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks as long as they can prove residency in an EU country however they will still be caught up in any delays at passport control if the new system as many fear, causes longer processing times.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 countries to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

From strikes and public holiday dates to the best Christmas markets and Italian festive treats, here are some things to know if you’re planning to visit Italy in December.

Nine things to know if you’re visiting Italy in December

December in Italy is nothing short of magical. Most cities light up with twinkling displays and local life is energised by enchanting Christmas markets, which turn even the most ordinary of urban landscapes into a cheerful wonderland. 

READ ALSO: Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

So if you’re planning on travelling to (or around) Italy in December, here are a few things you should know before you go.

No travel restrictions

People who travelled to Italy last December were required to show proof of Covid vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative molecular (PCR) or antigen test result in order to enter the country.

The above mandate expired on May 31st, which means that travel to the bel paese for any reason, including tourism, is no longer tethered to any health requirements.

As for the requirement for arrivals to complete an EU digital passenger locator form (dPLF), that was also scrapped last May.

Face masks required in healthcare settings

The requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport lapsed on Friday, September 30th.

However, Italy does still have a requirement to wear face masks in all healthcare settings, including hospitals and care homes, until the end of the year.

So if you’re planning on paying a visit to a relative or friend who’s currently staying in one of the above facilities, you’ll have to wear a mask. 

Anyone refusing to comply with face mask rules can still face fines ranging from a minimum of €400 to a maximum of €1000.

Current quarantine rules 

Italy still requires anyone who tests positive for coronavirus while in the country to self-isolate, with the minimum isolation period currently standing at five days.

In order to exit quarantine, the infected person must be symptomless for at least two days, and must test negative to a molecular (PCR) or rapid antigen test at the end of that period.

Testing should be carried out at a registered pharmacy or testing centre as the results of home tests are not seen as valid for this purpose.

Should the patient continue to test positive, they must remain in isolation until they get a negative test result. However, the maximum length of the self-isolation period has now been cut to 14 days, down from 21.

National strike on December 2nd

Travel to, from and across Italy will continue to be disrupted by strikes during the last month of 2022. 

The demonstration that’s currently expected to create the greatest amount of disruption will take place on Friday, December 2nd and it’ll be a 24-hour national strike affecting airline and rail travel as well as some local public transport lines.

You can check the latest updates before your trip in The Local’s travel news section here.

Local public holidays 

Italy has three public holidays in December. Those are:

  • December 8th – Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25th – Christmas Day
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day in English-speaking countries)

As you might have already realised, December 24th (Christmas Eve) and December 31st (New Year’s Eve) are not official public holidays in Italy. However, most local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

It’s worth noting that on all of the above-mentioned days the country will pretty much collectively stop, with all public offices and nearly all shops remaining shut. 

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Even transport services are usually very limited on the days in question, so, if you’re planning to visit around those dates, make sure to make all the necessary arrangements well in advance.

Christmas markets 

This Christmas looks set to be Italy’s first in two years without any Covid restrictions.

This means that the country’s traditional Christmas markets, a number of which were cancelled last year due to safety concerns, should be up and running again this December.

Italy’s most popular markets are located in Trentino-Alto Adige, the northern region bordering Switzerland and Austria – Bruneck, Bolzano and Brixen are all well known for their gleeful stalls.

That said, the northern mountain cities don’t claim complete ownership of Italy’s Christmas markets, as Rome, Perugia and Gubbio also have some of the best set-ups in the entire peninsula.

Galleries and museums’ special openings 

Most galleries and museums in the country tend to have special opening hours during the festive season, which means that you might be able to admire artworks by some of the most famous Italian painters and sculptors even on public holidays and as late as 10pm on some days.

For instance, in Venice, Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr and Murano’s Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) will be open every day (public holidays included) in December, with their doors remaining open to visitors until 9pm on some dates.

As always, you’re advised to check the websites of the museums you’re interested in visiting to know what they’ll offer visitors in December.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Christmas treats

The quality of Italy’s cuisine is no secret, but the country dishes out some of the best examples of its long culinary tradition over the Christmas holidays.

While the evening meal on Christmas Eve (known as ‘La Vigilia’) tends to be quite frugal, the Christmas Day meal is anything but.

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

A pasta dish (tortellini, lasagne or baked pasta) is followed by a veal-, ox- or poultry-based second course accompanied by a variety of vegetables.

Finally, the festive meal is finished off with a scrumptious slice (more like, three or four for some) slice of panettone or pandoro.

Prosecco or another variety of sparkling wine is generally used to wash down all of the above.

Extravagant New Year celebrations

If you’ve never spent New Year’s Eve in Italy, you might be in for a surprise.

The Italians have a reputation for being a superstitious bunch, and some of the New Year customs can startle the uninitiated foreigner. 

READ ALSO: Red pants, smashed plates and bingo: Six reasons Italian New Year is awesome

Apart from wearing red underwear to fend off evil spirits and eating lentils by the bucketload to bring wealth and prosperity, some residents, especially in the south, throw crockery out of their windows to show that they’re ready for a new start in the new year.

An alternative tradition – which seems to be slightly more friendly towards passers-by – is crashing pots and pans together right by the front door to frighten away evil spirits.

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