After a long process of trying to meet the technical requirements for entry, it seems as though Bulgaria may finally join the Schengen Area for passport-free travel within Europe as early as 2019.
A Schengen Bulgaria means that the country may be eligible to join the shared ETIAS visa waiver program for the Area expected to come into effect by the end of 2022. Once implemented, citizens from 60 eligible countries will be able to complete an online ETIAS application to travel to Bulgaria for tourism, transit or business and have free movement within the other Schengen countries as well.
The ETIAS for Bulgaria (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) will be similar to the ESTA visa waiver for the United States in that eligible travellers will be required to pre-register personal information and travel details before the visa waiver is approved. The system is being implemented to guarantee a more modern, reliable travel process for third-country nationals and to further strengthen European borders against terrorism and other security risks.
The Bulgarian ETIAS will have a total validity of 3 years or until the corresponding passport expires, while multiple stays of 90 days within a 180-day period in any Schengen country are permitted. However, the implementation of the ETIAS Bulgaria will first depend on the country being granted accession to Schengen before late 2022.
Is Bulgaria a Schengen country?
Bulgaria is not currently a Schengen country. The Schengen Area is currently made up of 22 European Union states, as well as the 4 non-EU states of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland, between which passport-free travel is permitted.
Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007 alongside its neighbor Romania, and in 2011 the European Parliament gave the go-ahead for both countries to join the Schengen passport-free area. However, since then there has been much disagreement about whether Bulgaria meets the technical requirements for entry to Schengen.
At the moment, Schengen regulations only partially apply to Bulgaria and Romania, and passport checks are still carried out at the borders to the two countries. The European Council has yet to reach a unanimous decision on whether Bulgaria can fully join the Schengen Area.
However, there is an increasing sense of urgency for the pending candidate countries to fully join the Schengen Area, as the European Parliament believes that expeditating their inclusion will help to further strengthen Europe’s external borders.
As it has a long coastline bordering the Black Sea and is currently a major entry point for illegal migration, Croatia is high on the list to join Schengen once it meets all the technical criteria for entry. But now it seems that Bulgaria will join Schengen first.
When will Bulgaria join the Schengen Area?
During a visit to Bucharest in November 2018, the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, expressed his wish to expedite the entry process to Schengen for Bulgaria and Romania.
The same month, the European People’s Party presidential candidate for the European Commission, Manfred Weber, stated that Bulgaria will at least partially enter the Schengen Area in 2019. This means that passengers on flights between Bulgaria and Schengen countries will not be subject to passport checks, although land border security controls will still be enforced due to continuing issues with illegal migration.
At the same time, Weber expressed his doubts that Romania will become a Schengen country in 2019 alongside Bulgaria, as previously expected. Although it has met the border security technical requirements for Schengen, the latest European Commission report criticised Romania for not doing enough to solve corruption problems in the country.
However, the same report praised the progress that Bulgaria had made to meet the technical criteria for Schengen. While the Netherlands continues to oppose Romania’s Schengen entry because of its corruption problems, it appears that the EU countries are much more likely to agree on a Bulgaria Schengen entry in 2019.
Once a unanimous decision is made by all EU countries, Bulgaria will be able to fully join the Schengen Area and will be eligible to join the ETIAS shared visa waiver program due to be implemented towards the end of 2022.