|Capital||Brussels (de facto)|
|Currency||Euro (€) and 10 others|
|Population||507,890,191 (2012 est.)|
|Electricity||230V / 50Hz (plugs vary)|
|Time zone||UTC to UTC +2|
The European Union (abbreviated "EU") is an economic and political union of 28 member states that are located primarily in Europe. Some more countries are part of the cooperation in specific areas, such as immigrant controls or currency.
Travelling between the countries involved is generally much easier than crossing other international borders, both for residents and for people from outside the area.
The European Union was in part motivated by the catastrophe of World War II, with the idea that European integration would prevent such a disastrous war from happening again. The idea was first proposed by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman in a speech in 1950, which resulted in the first agreements in 1951 that formed the basis for the European Union.
There are at least three groups of countries in Europe that overlap but are not identical:
- The European Union (EU), a partial political and customs union
- The Eurozone, countries using the common European currency, the Euro. The euro is also the currency of Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Andorra, Kosovo, and Montenegro even though they are neither members of the euro treaty, nor the European Union. The first three countries are allowed to mint their own euro coins.
- The Schengen Agreement, countries using common visas and immigration controls. While primarily composed of EU member states, the Schengen zone also includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
1 Winter time. In summer (last Sunday in March to Saturday before last Sunday in October): WET → WEST (UTC+0 → +1), CET → CEST (+1 → +2), EET → EEST (+2 → +3)
There are also territories around the world outside of continental Europe that belong formally to the European Union owing to the sovereignty of an EU member and subsequent agreement:
- Mayotte (France)
- French Guiana (France)
- Guadeloupe (France)
- Martinique (France)
- Réunion (France)
- Canary Islands (Spain)
- Ceuta (Spain)
- Melilla (Spain)
- Azores (Portugal)
- Madeira (Portugal)
Note that not all other territories belonging to an EU member are considered part of the EU. One notable exception are that territories belonging to the United Kingdom are not considered formally part of the EU.
There are many ways to enter the EU/EEA; your best course of action is to read up on the individual nation you wish to enter. For passport, visa, customs etcetera the formalities are mostly uniform across groups of countries.
Passport and visa requirements
You will have to get a visa from your "primary destination" country. In the case of Schengen Treaty countries, that visa is then valid for all other signatory countries. See the "Get around" section.
Citizens of some non-EU member countries, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America don't need visas if they are travelling for tourist purposes and their stays lasts no longer than 90 days within a 180 day period inside the Schengen area. Citizens of most Balkan countries also don't need visas, as well as citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Citizens of these four countries should use the immigration queue often signed "EEA" - even though Switzerland formally left the EEA some years ago.
The 90 days visa-free stay for citizens of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America applies for the whole Schengen area; in other words, it is not 90 days per country. Citizens of the above countries who wish to travel within the Schengen Treaty region for longer than 90 days must apply for a residency permit. This is best done in Germany, as all other Schengen countries require applicants to apply from their home countries. Alternatively, you can sneakily arrange your travel to spend 90 days in the UK or Ireland (or other non-Schengen countries) to satisfy the "90 days in 180 days" provision.
Coming from outside of the EU
You're legally allowed to import from outside the EU 1 litre of spirits (above 22% alcohol) or 2 litres of alcohol (e.g. sparkling wine below 22% alcohol) and 4 litres of non-sparkling wine and 16 litres of beer. If you're younger than 17, it's half these amounts or nothing at all.
Amounts of tobacco allowed depend on your country of arrival. Age restrictions on handling tobacco and alcohol vary by country.
Moving between countries inside the EU
There are no restrictions on moving goods for personal use between EU states. Duty must however still be paid on goods that you wish to resell. For example, bringing 1,000 bottles of red wine from France into the United Kingdom might be regarded by the customs officers as not realistic for personal use only, and they will ask you to pay the appropriate duty or face confiscation of the goods.
Passport and visa requirements
There are no border controls between countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen Agreement signatory country is valid in all other countries that signed the treaty. Travel to and from a Schengen Agreement country to any other non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks.
Do note that not all European Union countries are members of the Schengen Agreement or have implemented it, while some countries from outside the Union actually have. For instance, the United Kingdom and Ireland run a separate border control scheme and require passport controls of travellers arriving from other EU countries. Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus have not adopted Schengen yet either, despite joining the EU. On the other hand, the EEA countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland) have implemented Schengen, while three European micro-states – Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City – do not have any immigration controls with the Schengen countries.
Citizens of EU and EEA member countries don't need visas to visit other member countries.
At some airports, airlines will still insist on seeing your ID card or passport.
The euro (€; EUR) is the common currency of many countries of the European Union. One euro equals 100 cent.
The euro has not been adopted by all EU countries. The 18 of the 28 countries in the EU that have replaced their own national currencies are commonly called the Eurozone. Some other EU countries are due to replace their currencies with the euro over the next few years. Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have no obligation to adopt the euro although some shops accept both local currency and euros.
The notes are completely generic, having no identifying national features. A Eurozone €10 note will be exactly the same from Portugal to Latvia. Coins on the other hand, such as the €1 coin, will have a national symbol on one side that identifies them with a country within the Eurozone. Although they look different they can still be used in exactly the same way in any country within the Eurozone, for example a €1 coin with a Greek symbol can be used freely in Spain.
It's not a good idea to accept any of the obsolete currencies. While several countries' banks will still change them into euro, it's a lot of hassle and there is no guarantee that this will be possible everywhere or on short notice. You should also expect to have to give your personal details to the bank as a precaution against money laundering. You're very unlikely to come across any of the old currencies, in any case - and if you do, they might make great souvenirs.
Value added tax
All purchases made within the European Union are subject to value added tax (VAT) — unless you're a foreigner. The VAT will be refunded for goods that you are taking back to your home country, as long as you produce the goods to customs officers when leaving the EU.
In many countries, your purchases must be above a minimum value at a single merchant. Therefore, you may benefit from making several purchases in one transaction, instead of visiting multiple stores. Not all merchants participate in the refund program, so check before finalizing the purchase. Present your passport at the register, and the seller will complete the necessary paperwork. Keep these documents, as you will need to present them to customs before leaving the EU.
Transferring money within the EU
The EU has a directive for the 'Free Movement of Capital', and therefore there are no restrictions in transferring funds between banks in different EU member states. In addition, if the Euro currency is used then the transfer will be considered domestic and no additional charges can be applied. This also applies to Euro funds transferred to EU countries not belonging to the Eurozone. (i.e. A transfer of €1,000 from Germany to Sweden will still be treated as a domestic transfer, even though the Euro is not Sweden's currency).
For travelers this means that you can easily pay for goods and services throughout the Eurozone provided that you have a Euro currency bank account anywhere in the EU.
The European Health Insurance Card gives access to most medical care on the same terms as for local residents. This includes necessary treatment of chronic conditions, but not any "medical tourism" expenses. The card is available for free or for a nominal fee to people covered by the public health insurance in the EU, the EEA countries and Switzerland and will be valid in these same countries. The specific rules and practices vary quite a lot from country to country, but generally you will get cheap or free medical care. Not all doctors and hospitals operate within the reimbursement system, so check beforehand.
Dial 1-1-2 to reach all emergency services.