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The European Union (abbreviated as "EU") is an economic and political union of 28 member states that are located primarily in Europe. Additional countries participate in specific areas, such as immigration controls and 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 (who was from Alsace – a region at the heart of three wars between Germany and France in eighty years prior to his speech) in a speech in 1950. The speech resulted in the first agreements in 1951: the European Coal and Steel Community, which formed the basis for the European Union. Another important milestone was the Treaty of Rome which came into force on 1 January 1958, establishing the European Economic Community which eventually evolved into today's European Union. While the attempt to create a "European Army" failed in the 1950s due to the instability of the fourth French Republic which was preoccupied with Indochina and Algeria at the time, the six founding members (Italy, France, Germany and the Benelux countries) pressed on with deeper integration and the reduction of barriers to trade and free movement. While the United Kingdom at first saw itself as a benevolent spectator more focused on its special relationship with the US and with its empire and commonwealth, by the 1960s the French veto was the only thing that kept them from joining. The EFTA (European Free Trade Area) was set up as an alternative of sorts to the EU, with EFTA members mostly participating in the trade aspects of the EU but forgoing other forms of deeper integration. In 1979 the European parliament was directly elected for the first time and has been every five years since.
European institutions and organization
There are at least four groups of countries in Europe that overlap but are not identical:
- The European Union (EU), a partial political and customs union.
- The European Economic Area (EEA) and EFTA, where most of the EU legislation applies. EEA comprises of EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Switzerland used to be a member of EEA and has equivalent bilateral agreements.
- The Eurozone, countries using the common European currency, the euro (€). The euro is also the currency of Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City and Andorra by agreement with the European Union. Kosovo and Montenegro also use the currency, though they are not part of the Eurozone and there is no agreement with the EU. Eventual adoption of the euro is a requirement for new members, however some existing EU countries neither use nor plan to introduce the euro.
- The Schengen Area, countries using common visas and immigration controls. While primarily composed of EU member states, the Schengen zone also includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Some EU members, such as the UK and the Republic of Ireland, are not part of the Schengen agreement.
The European Union will soon experience its first departure, as the United Kingdom voted in a referendum in June 2016 to withdraw from the union. The manner of the United Kingdom's exit is unclear, although the current timeline is pointing to an exit on 29 March 2019.
|Country||Eurozone?||Free Movement?||European Time zone1|
|United Kingdom 2||WET|
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)
2 The United Kingdom voted by referendum in June 2016 to leave the EU. The date of departure is set for 29 March 2019, though the details on departure procedures are being negotiated and have yet to be determined.
There are also territories around the world outside of continental Europe that belong to the European Union owing to the sovereignty of an EU member and subsequent agreement:
Territories outside of continental Europe and not included in the list above are not considered part of the European Union, even if they belong to EU nations. Territories such as Bermuda (United Kingdom), New Caledonia (France) and Greenland (Denmark) have separate entry and travel requirements. However, even in territories that aren't part of the European Union, certain EU regulations relevant to travel may apply. On the other hand, even in certain places that are part of the EU certain exceptions to EU or national laws relevant to travel apply.
The EU does not have an all encompassing immigration policy, and therefore immigration controls are specific to each country. Many of its members – but not all – have however adopted the Schengen Agreement that makes travel very easy between members. Also some non-EU countries belong to the Schengen area. There is an earlier, related but separate, concept of free movement inside EU, which makes moving and working across borders easy for EU nationals regardless of Schengen.
There are usually no border controls between countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement. A visa granted for any Schengen Agreement signatory country is valid in all other countries that signed the treaty. Travel between a Schengen Agreement country and any non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks. Members of Schengen are also permitted to introduce border checks temporarily for security reasons.
Some European Union countries are not members of the Schengen Agreement or have not implemented it, while some countries from outside the Union 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, but non-citizens will have to get a visa from their "primary destination" country.
Citizens of some non-EU member countries, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Ukraine and the United States of America don't need visas if they are travelling for tourist purposes and their stay 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.
The 90-day visa-free stay for non-EU and non-EEA citizens applies for the whole Schengen area; in other words, it is not 90 days per country. Those 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 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.
While border controls do not exist between Schengen area countries, you can still have your travel documents checked during your journey. For example, a train journey between two Schengen countries may still have immigration spot checks by the authorities en-route, a police patrol may also check documents of both the EU citizens and travelers.
EU and EEA citizens (including the Swiss) have no restriction in travelling anywhere in the EU, although exceptions are occasionally applied for serious criminal convictions. They should use the immigration queue often signed "EEA". Passports may still be required when venturing out of the Schengen free travel area, and otherwise most EU states still require people to carry a form of official identification.
The citizens do not need visas to study or work in other EU countries (except possible restrictions on working for nationals of new EU members), but moving to another EU country for an extended time (more than three, six or twelve months) can cause a change of residency and mean they lose social welfare and healthcare benefits in their former country. Longer stays may also require some special status, such as employed, student or pensioner with own funds. Many countries require registration of new long term residents, and a change of driving licence after one year.
Free movement inside the EU does not always apply to your pets. Relevant national rules should be consulted before travel.
EU citizens can travel within the EU with their cat, dog or ferret provided they have a European pet passport with required treatments documented. The most important compulsory treatments are those against rabies, and against the tapeworm Echinococcus in at least UK, Ireland, Malta and Finland.
Alcohol and tobacco from outside of the EU
You're legally allowed tax-free import from outside the EU of 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 is half these amounts or nothing at all. Amounts exceeding this must be reported at customs for paying (quite heavy) duties and taxes.
Amounts of tobacco allowed depend on your country of arrival.
Age restrictions on handling tobacco and alcohol vary by country.
If you plan on coming by car or yacht and staying for an extended period, check the rules not to have to register it locally – or how to register it without too many bad surprises. Generally the vehicle has to leave the EU within 18 months (get and keep papers proving entry date). Lending such a vehicle to an EU resident or to a non-relative is usually not allowed.
Moving between countries inside the EU
There are no restrictions on moving goods between EU states. For certain types of goods, such as alcohol and tobacco, taxes of the country you are entering may have to be paid, unless the goods are for "personal use" (including as gifts and the like). Claiming that is not enough; if the authorities suspect the goods are for resale and you cannot convince them, you are in trouble. At a minimum they will ask you to pay the appropriate duty or face confiscation of the goods.
Some areas within EU are not part of the customs union, e.g. alcohol bought on ferries going via the Åland islands has to be imported into the EU customs union.
When travelling between EU countries with €10,000 or more in euros or other currencies, you should check with authorities in each country whether special measures are needed. It should be noted that maintaining your cash in an EU bank account effectively frees you from any such controls, since the free movement of capital is maintained across the EU.
You must declare at customs when leaving the EU with €10,000 or more in euros or the equivalent in other currencies.
Although the European Union is moving towards the standardization of travel around the EU, national laws do still vary and it is important to refer to the article for each country for planning your trip. Similarly, while open access and harmonization of railway legislation are intended to lead to an integrated railway market for all of Europe, national railways still dominate their countries and overlap tends to be limited.
- See also: Driving in Europe
EU drivers are issued with a standard European Union driving licence. If you hold an EU driving licence then it may be used for driving throughout the EU, provided you stay in another country for less than a year. One important caveat is that age restrictions are not uniform across the EU, and your licence is not valid in any EU country unless you also meet the minimum age requirement.
If you hold a non-EU driving licence then this does not apply. You must still check with each country in order to determine whether it is valid.
- See also: rail travel in Europe
Border controls on international trains are usually done on the moving train and usually via spot checks. No international train stops at the border for significant amounts of time. Tickets can usually be bought from both national railways involved unless it is a "private" operator like Thalys. Prices may differ depending on the country where you buy the tickets. When you buy online, prices may vary depending on the website you use and sometimes even depending on the language version of the website. For trains to and from the UK, both exit and entry immigration checks are carried out at the departure station prior to boarding.
Customer protection for travel issues
The EU is creating a common framework for travel between all the member states. Implications for issues you may face when travelling are covered under the Cope section.
Exchange rates for Euros (€)
As of update 02 September 2017:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The euro (€; EUR) is the common currency of 19 of the 28 countries that are members of the European Union. These are commonly called the Eurozone. The other 9 countries of the EU retain their national currencies.
One euro equals 100 cents, sometimes referred to as "eurocents".
When an EU country decides to adopt the euro, there is a transition period during which both the local currency being phased out, and euros, remain legal tender. Be aware when this period ends so as not to be left with the phased-out currency when it is no longer possible to use it for payment. It may be as short as two weeks. If you end up with any of the obsolete currencies, you may be able to change it in a bank, but don't count on it. As of July 2017, no country in the EU is undergoing currency transition.
Even in EU countries that have not adopted the euro, it is usually the easiest foreign currency to exchange and is accepted in some places at the discretion of the business, but the exchange rate is unlikely to be favourable. For details, see the destination articles.
Euro banknote are the same in all countries, except for small identifying national features, such as the first letter in the serial number and a printing code. Coins, on the other hand, will be identical on one side across countries, while the other side is country-specific. Although they look different, they can be used in any country within the Eurozone, for example a €1 coin with a Greek symbol can be used freely in Spain. There are also commemorative coins, with the national side looking different than on other coins from the same country, also legal tender everywhere.
Low-value coins are being phased out to varying degrees in several countries. For example, retailers in the Netherlands by law do not have to accept 1 and 2 cent coins, and all payments in cash will be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. In Finland payments in cash will likewise be rounded, but you can use the small coins for paying the rounded prices. In other countries, e.g. in Germany, those coins are treated as any other money and prices are not rounded – potentially leaving you with a handful of worthless coinage if you visit the Netherlands afterwards!
Value added tax
All purchases made within the European Union are subject to value added tax (VAT), included in the advertised prices. Non-residents can claim this amount back for goods they are taking back to their home country, under certain circumstances.
In many countries, the 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. Paying with a non-EU credit card will make this easier.
Most EU countries use debit cards as the primary method of payment. However, some merchants in some countries only accept local-only debit card (i.e. those without a Visa or MasterCard logo).
If you have a euro currency debit card then you will not pay any additional charges from your bank when using the card in another EU country to:
- Withdraw cash from an ATM (although cash machine operators may charge their own fees)
- Pay for goods or services
Many large banks outside of the EU offer Traveler Cards in the euro currency that have the same benefits. Other debit and credit cards will also work but their use can be subject to fees.
European EC and Maestro are becoming less accepted in shops and machines while V-Pay, although not universal, is becoming more widespread.
Transferring money within the EU
There are nominally no restrictions in transferring funds between banks in different EU member states (although recently capital controls have been imposed on Greece and Cyprus). In addition, if the euro currency is used then the transfer will be considered domestic and no additional charges can be applied in the normal case. 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 travellers 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.
See the article on Money for more information on the topic.
An EU citizen can generally apply for jobs in any EU country under the same conditions as a local citizen. Work permits are not required, but certificates required for some types of work are not always recognised. Only Croatian citizens still face restrictions in some EU member countries.
Accessing social security benefits may depend on the length of time that you have worked in that country. EU/EEA citizens usually get the local social security – and lose the domestic – at the moment they start working, but there are exceptions.
The future status of EU workers in the United Kingdom is unclear as of June 2017. EU workers will enjoy full working and residency rights within the UK until the country leaves the European Union, which will be in 2019 at the earliest. What happens after that is uncertain, although a deal that allows EU citizens to remain in UK and UK citizens to remain in the EU may eventuate.
Health coverage for EU residents
All EU countries operate public healthcare services that provide medical treatment for free or low cost to all residents. Non-EU residents can also use these systems, although they may have to pay a fee.
Travellers who live outside the EU and hold citizenship of an EU country may find that it is not possible to access the public health service in the same way as residents. British nationals (for example) must be resident in the United Kingdom for 6 months before they are entitled to take advanced treatment under the British national health service.
EU, EEA and Swiss residents can obtain a European Health Insurance Card that gives access to public medical care on the same terms as for local residents in any other country. This includes necessary treatment of chronic conditions, but not advanced medical treatment. 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.
It is important to carry your Health Insurance Card at all times, since it will simplify greatly getting access to medical treatment abroad in any EU country. You still have the same rights to treatment without it, however you may be asked to pay all costs upfront, and then go through a complex process of reimbursement when you return home.
There are some restrictions:
- The Health Insurance Card cannot be used in Denmark by holders who are not citizens of an EU country (residency is not sufficient).
- Croatian citizens cannot use the Health Insurance Card in Switzerland
- The Health Insurance Card does not cover rescue and repatriation services
- Health Insurance Card does not cover private healthcare or planned treatment in another EU country
Health coverage for non-EU residents
All EU countries have public health services that are available for everyone to use. Non-EU residents may be charged for using these services, and the cost will vary between countries where the health service was used. Being an EU citizen who is resident outside the EU may mean that you fall into this category.
Emergency services are generally available to everyone without having to pay upfront. Nevertheless, private travel insurance should be considered before travel to the EU.
Anyone visiting a doctor in the EU can request a cross-border prescription. This means that the prescription is valid and will be honoured in any other EU country.
Pharmacies may refuse to supply you with medicine without this prescription.
Air passenger rights
You are covered by the same set of passenger rights when flying:
- within the EU on any airline
- departing the EU on any airline
- arriving into the EU on an EU airline
These rights include:
- Ticket price: Your nationality and the location of purchase must not affect the price
- Online booking: All websites are legally obliged to clearly display all costs before booking, including taxes, airport charges, surcharges and other fees
- Financial compensation: You will be compensated a set amount when a flight is cancelled, delayed more than three hours (at arrival) or you are denied boarding.
- Within the EU: €250 for 1,500 km or less, €400 for over 1,500 km
- Between EU and non EU airport: €250 for 1,500 km or less, €400 for 1,500-3,500 km, €600 for over 3,500 km
Travellers by air can submit an air passenger rights EU complaint form on return if they wish to apply for a refund or compensation.
Rail passenger rights
You are covered by the same set of passenger rights when travelling by rail between any two EU countries. These rules do not apply when travelling by rail inside an EU country, or travelling to or from a non-EU country, however some railways have adopted similar rules for domestic travel and in some countries of the EU they are national law.
If before your journey you are told that you will experience at least a one hour delay, then you are entitled to:
- Cancel your journey with an immediate refund
- Accommodation (if an overnight delay is expected)
- Meals and refreshments
- Refund if you continue your journey:
- 25% of the fare, if delayed between 1 and 2 hours
- 50% of the fare, if delayed more than 2 hours late.
- Compensation for lost or damaged registered luggage:
- Up to €1,300 per piece of luggage, if value can be proven
- €300 per piece of luggage, if value can not be proven
While it is possible to get a reimbursement for some of the above after you already paid them out of pocket, it is easier to directly contact the company while still on the train. The easiest way to do this is to talk to conductors or the like on the train when a delay is probable or when you are likely to miss your connection. They will usually give you forms for your refund and give you contact details for meals or hotels as most major railways have contracts with certain hotels in major cities to be able to hand out vouchers for stranded passengers.
Bus passenger rights
You are covered by the same set of passenger rights when travelling by bus between any two EU countries for a distance greater than 250 km. These rules do not apply when travelling by bus inside an EU country, or travelling to or from a non-EU country.
If you experience a two-hour delay in your journey, then you are entitled to either:
- Cancel your journey with a refund as well as be provided with a free journey back to your initial departure point
- Request alternative travel arrangements to your destination
Additionally you may be entitled to:
- Accommodation overnight to a maximum €80 if required (except when delay is caused by severe weather)
Ship passenger rights
You are covered by the same set of passenger rights when travelling by ship from or to the EU. These rights generally do not extend to freight ships or small vessels (less than 13 passenger capacity).
- Cancel your journey with a refund as well as be provided with a free journey back to your initial departure point
- Request alternative travel arrangements to your destination
If you experience a delay arriving to your destination for more than 1 hour and it is not caused by bad weather, then you may be entitled to compensation worth between 25% and 50% of your paid ticket price.
Dialling 112 from any phone will connect you to all emergency services wherever you are in the EU. In some countries your call will be forwarded to a more specific number depending on the emergency, in others all or most emergencies are centrally handled.
If your mobile phone operator is based in the European Union, then from 15 June 2017 the default is for roaming to be no more expensive than domestic use. If a provider offers roaming services at all, they are bound to offer it to this price, although they may also offer other pricing schemes. There are other exceptions as well, so check the fine print. Especially plans with unlimited data for a fixed monthly fee may have surcharges for "unreasonable" roaming data use.
The Eurotariff, which dictates the maximum surcharge for roaming and the maximum cost with it included, applies wherever you travel in the EU (from May 2016 and July 2014, should apply also to the exceptions to the 2017 rules; VAT not included):
|Type||Maximum surcharge||Maximum cost|
|Outgoing voice calls (every minute)||€0.05||€0.19|
|Incoming voice calls (every minute)||€0.0108||€0.05|
|Outgoing texts (every SMS message)||€0.02||€0.06|
|Online (data download, every megabyte)||€0.05||€0.20|
Be careful what network you connect to. By the EU border or in international waters (an intra-ship GSM network can have connections via satellite) your phone can choose a non-EU network, for which the maxima do not apply – the prices can then be outrageous. Where this is likely, be sure to choose network manually or to check the used network before each call.
While roaming in the EU, you will get an SMS stating the current tariffs whenever you change networks.
The EU isn't a travel destination in itself, although being regarded as an important project it does open many of its institutions in order to help people learn about it and its objectives. These are generally spread across the whole EU, although key institutions are to be found in a small area in Northern Europe in the cities of Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Frankfurt.
The public transport between all the institutions below is excellent, and you can visit them all with a combination of train and tram. The memorials may be more remote, but can still be accessed by regular buses.
- 1 Parlamentarium, Willy Brandt building, Rue Wiertz / Wiertzstraat 60, B-1047, Brussels, Belgium. A dedicated visitor centre for the European Parliament in Brussels.
- House of European History, Rue Wiertz 60, 1047 Brussels, Belgium. A display of European history from the perspective of the EU.
- 2 The Luxembourg campus, European Parliament, Robert Schuman Building Place de l'Europe, L-1499, Luxembourg, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A lesser known part of the EU Parliament, Luxembourg actually quietly runs a lot of the EU administration. Group tours in advance are available, but should be made at least 2 months in advance. Visitors must be aged 14 and above. Apply via the email address. free.
- 3 Court of Justice of the European Union, Rue du Fort Niedergrünewald, L-2925, Luxembourg. Although each country still has its own legal framework, they are all bound by treaty to adopt EU law over time. The courts are central to the orderly running of the EU and visits are possible.
- 4 Alsace-Moselle Memorial, Lieu dit du Chauffour, F - 67 130, Schirmeck, France. Strasbourg and its Alsace region are highly symbolic of European identity, given that it changed hands between Germany and France no less than four times between 1870 and 1945. This EU monument tells the story of the people who lived through these times, and how this relates to modern Europe.
- 5 The European Parliament Hemicycle, Entrance Louise Weiss No 2 1, Allée du Printemps, F-67070, Strasbourg, France. Although Brussels is widely known as the 'capital' city of the EU, this building in the French city of Strasbourg is the official home of the Parliament. Politicians have to regularly move between Strasbourg and Brussels, largely because of historical French demands that a minimum number of sessions be held there. Nevertheless it is great place to visit, with the local Alsace region regarded as a mix of French and German culture. Visits to this building can be booked both inside and outside of official 'plenary' sessions, but check the website for the best times.
- 6 European Central Bank, Sonnemannstraße 20 (Main Building), 60314 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The financial arm of the EU, with direct monetary control of all current members of the Eurozone. Provides visits for education and architecture. It is building a dedicated visitor centre.
- 7 Europa Experience (Erlebnis Europa), Unter den Linden 78, 10117 Berlin, Germany. 10:00-18:00. A permanent European exhibition in the German capital of Berlin. free.
- European Parliament Information Offices. These offices are found throughout Europe, EU overseas territories and in Washington, DC. They can provide you with information about the EU, and host events for visitors to understand the EU better.
European Capital of Culture
Upcoming cities designated as European Culture Capitals include:
- European Capital of Culture. This EU program selects a couple of cities in member states to showcase European culture, with a good number of exhibitions and events.
- European Cultural Month (USA). Every May, the EU holds cultural events in the USA. You can hear Spanish folk music, see Shakespeare performed live, view some of the Dutch masters' paintings, take in avant-garde film from Romania, and eat rich Greek food.