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Will You Need a Visa to Visit Europe?

With European lawmakers calling for reciprocity, visa-free travel may be a thing of the past.

U.S. News & World Report

Will You Need a Visa to Visit Europe?

Passport and US visa background with immigration application form.

In March, the European Parliament called for a requirement that U.S. citizens obtain visas to enter all countries within the European Union.(Getty Images)

If you've been dreaming of slipping away to Europe, soon you may need to account for more than carrying an up-to-date passport. In the future you may also need to obtain a visa – and not just if you're traveling for longer than 90 days. While no new visa regulations have gone into effect yet, in March the European Parliament called for a requirement that U.S. citizens obtain visas to enter all countries within the European Union.

Why the sudden interest in rolling out new visa requirements for Americans? Today, U.S. citizens can visit all countries within the EU, including Italy, France and Sweden, without carrying a visa, while only visitors from 23 of the EU's member countries are granted visa-free entry to the U.S.

European lawmakers have called for the U.S. to allow visa-free travel from the remaining members within the EU – Romania, Poland, Croatia, Cyprus and Bulgaria – by June 15, upping the ante and escalating ongoing visa wars between the U.S. and Europe. Why won't the U.S. waive visa requirements for the remaining five countries within the EU? The State Department has cited security measures that do not adhere to the standards for visa-free entry.

"It's basically retaliation," explains Ed Perkins, contributing editor at SmarterTravel.com. Though many of the details on how the travel requirement would be introduced are still unknown, U.S. News tapped industry experts to bring you a breakdown on the policy changes that could be in place as early as this summer, along with smart tips for a hassle-free European getaway.

The Visa War Is Escalating

This year the visa-waiver discussion is louder, explains Jason Clampet, co-founder and head of content at the travel news website Skift.The same debate has taken place in the past, yet the issue never goes anywhere, he says, highlighting that it's resonating this year because of heightened attention to visitors coming in and out of the U.S. in light of the Trump administration's proposed travel ban. While the visa-waiver program sounds like a free pass for visitors, the reality is that nations that qualify must pass heightened restrictions and passengers are treated with higher scrutiny, he explains.

The debate has become symbolic, says Eben Peck, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents. "This state of affairs has been in place for a number of years, and it's created a lot of frustration over there [in the EU]," he says, adding that there's some politics at play.

Perkins agrees, describing the move as "purely and completely reciprocal." The initial discussions on implementing the proposed visa requirement came up in 2014, when the U.S. was also put on notice for not offering all EU nations visa-free status, he explains. "The only reason the Europeans are considering doing this is because of the American system," he adds.

The Visa Policy Change Could Be a Temporary Solution

"The parliament called on the commission [the EU's executive body] to act by May," Peck explains. If the U.S. is unable to come up with a solution to grant the remaining five countries within the EU visa-free entry, the commission will report back on the progress of ongoing discussions in June, he explains, emphasizing that "It's really hard to say exactly what's going to happen." Implementing the visa restriction would likely take a long time, Peck cautions, noting that all member countries would have to agree to this step, which could result in economic dislocation. "We hope cooler heads prevail," he adds.

If there is no action, lawmakers have pressed the European Commission to impose a temporary suspension of U.S. travelers' visa-free privileges to apply added pressure. Under a worst-case scenario, it would become harder for Americans to travel to Europe and would require the extra hassle of obtaining and paying for a visa, but with the potential ripple effects for Europe's tourism sector; the chances of any action being taken in 2017 are low, he adds.

"I don't see any way," Clampet chimes in. With ongoing committee hearings, any new visa requirements would likely not go into effect until 2018; the chances of these decisions affecting travel in the near term is slim, he adds.

Could Europe (and the U.S.) Face a Steep Price?

According to the National Travel & Tourism office, nearly 12.6 million Americans visited Europe in 2016. If the new requirement (and necessary payments, time and energy of visiting the embassy ahead of your trip) goes into effect, critics caution the economic repercussions would be significant. "The travel industry has a lot of tendrils into the broader economy," Peck explains, highlighting that hotels, restaurants, local retailers and airlines could suffer as a result.

There's a strong economic motive in the tourism sector to postpone the decision for a visa-waiver restriction on a broader scale, too, Perkins explains, noting that low-cost carriers such as Wow Air and Norwegian Air have been deeply discounting airfares across the Atlantic. If the policy comes to fruition, "it would certainly put a damper on that," he says. According to Perkins, "The most likely solution is to kick it down the road."

How the Visa Requirement Could Affect American – and European – Travelers

If a new visa requirement is enforced, it's possible the process may follow suit with other countries like Australia, where travelers can enroll online for an electronic visa to enter Australia and pay an approximate $15 fee for immediate enrollment. Conversely, if the process aligns with another destination like Russia, there's more of a headache and a fee starting at $90, Peck cautions, emphasizing that there would be hoops to jump through and the move would be "short-sighted" from an economic standpoint. Still, Peck doesn't expect lines to be impacted at airport security. Most of the additional legwork and hassle travelers could face would take place prior to traveling, Peck says, adding that money, time and potentially an in-person visit to an embassy or consulate would be required.

Beyond the potential economic ramifications for Europe, if the Trump administration decides to tweak its visa restrictions, America's tourism economy may also suffer. On April 19, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly noted that he would be taking a hard look at our current visa-waiver program. Though he did not propose eliminating the program, it could be tinkered with due to rising concerns over terrorist threats, Peck explains.

"I don't think it's going to happen," Clampet says. If the restriction goes through "we will see a chilling effect," he says, pointing to past visa wars the U.S. has waged with other countries like Brazil, which requires Americans to pay a hefty price and acquire a visa at a Brazilian consulate or embassy before entering. "They'll likely be a back and forth and bad politicians will make bad decisions," he says. If you have a trip fast approaching this summer, he advises ensuring your passport is up-to-date and staying tuned for the latest developments.

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