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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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What you should know if you’re travelling to Spain in December

The rules, the least busy travel times, the strikes, the free travel deals, what you can’t check in - here’s what you need to know if you’re travelling to Spain in December or at Christmas.

What you should know if you're travelling to Spain in December

December is a busy travel period with many foreigners leaving Spain to celebrate Christmas with their families back in their home countries and many others travelling to Spain for a holiday or to spend time with their loved ones here.

Airline strikes and an increase in passengers could make travelling this winter a little more challenging, but here’s everything to need to know, so you can be prepared. 

According to Spain’s airport operator Aena, the number of airline tickets sold for travel to Spain over the winter season is set to exceed the number in 2019-2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also, last winter saw the rise of the Omicron variant and some countries introduced new restrictions, so many foreign residents decided not to go back to see their families over the holidays. This means that this year could see more people wanting to return after several years of not having celebrated together with their families. 

Therefore, airports could be particularly busy this December, so make sure you leave plenty of time for getting through security and passport control.

There is still one important Covid travel rule in Spain

Although the majority of Spain’s domestic and travel Covid-19 restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022, one of the only rules that still remains in place is the obligation of wearing a face mask on public transport.

This includes aeroplanes, buses, trains, taxis and some ferries, but mask wearing isn’t compulsory at airports, ports or bus and train stations.

As things stand, the general rule is that cabin crew from all airlines have to tell passengers on planes bound to Spain that they have to wear masks.

If on the other hand the aircraft is flying out of Spain, the mask rules of the country which the plane is flying to apply, which in almost all cases means face coverings aren’t required.

Spain’s flagship airline Iberia has criticised the Spanish government’s ongoing mask requirement for passengers on planes bound to the country, stressing that it “doesn’t make any sense” and “it affects tourism”.

Although it is no longer compulsory to present a negative Covid-19 test to fly, Spanish health and airport authorities ask that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms avoid travel.

It is no longer necessary either for travellers to fill in health control forms before flying to Spain as was previously the case, and there are no bans or restrictions on non-EU or other specific countries.

Which are the least busy days for travelling to Spain in December?

According to flight search engine Skyscanner, which has analysed nine million searches for people looking to travel to Spain over the festive period, some of the quietest days to travel to Spain are from the 18th to the 23rd, with the 23rd being the least popular before Christmas.

If you’re wanting to fly to Spain after Christmas, however, you’ll find it even quieter on December 28th, as well as January 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th. You may find Spanish cities to be fairly busy however as December 6th and 8th are public holidays.

Conversely, the most popular days to travel are between December 12th and the 17th, so avoid those days if you want to avoid the crowds. 

Who is travelling to Spain this December? 

According to new data released by Spain’s Tourism Ministry, during the last month of the year, 7,066,101 people have booked seats, which implies a recovery of 97.4 percent compared to the same month of 2019. 

Forecasts for the early December holidays reveal that Italians, Germans and French are the main tourists who will be visiting Spain. During the puentes and public holidays on December 6th and 8th, Italians will make up the majority of tourists travelling to Spain (23 percent), followed by Germans (17 percent), French (16 percent), British (10 percent) and finally the Portuguese (6 percent).

Airline strikes

Several airline strikes have also been called for this winter, mainly involving low-cost airlines Vueling and Ryanair.

The Vueling strikes are due to take place on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. They began on November 1st 2022 and will run right through the Christmas period to January 31st 2023.

Specifically, this means that those travelling on December 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th,10th and 11th may be affected by cancellations. 

Additional days that will be affected include December 24th, 31st and January 5th 2023, affecting those passengers who plan on travelling for Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and Three Kings’ Day.

The workers are demanding a wage increase in line with the rise in prices due to inflation, as well as protesting over the precarious work conditions that have been experienced within the sector since even before the pandemic.  

Many passengers are currently being offered alternative flights, refunds or other compensation if their flights are cancelled. 

Ryanair baggage handlers and on-the-ground staff have also been striking and will continue to do so until January 7th, 2023.

It’s likely these airports will include Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Seville, however, it’s worth noting that Ryanair has said that it doesn’t expect this strike to cause that much disruption.

Bringing food and goods in from the UK and other non-EU countries

One of the advantages of going back to your home country for Christmas is not only to see your friends and family but also to stock up on treats and ingredients you’ve missed while living in Spain. Think mince pies, custard powder and Marmite for those going back to the UK.

But as this is the second Christmas since Brexit came into force, many may still not be totally aware of what they’re now allowed to bring to Spain from non-EU countries.

The EU’s strict rules mean that all imports of animal-derived products are not allowed. This means no Christmas puddings with suet, no British bacon and blocks and Wensleydale or Cheddar cheese to bring back with you.

If you want to know exactly what you can and can’t bring in this Christmas, read our detailed guide here

Bringing food from Spain into the UK, is a little easier as you’re still allowed to bring in EU products, so packets of jamón and Manchego cheese are ok to take.

Travel within Spain

Those who are planning on travelling within Spain this Christmas, either to visit friends and family or simply for the fun of travel should know that there are currently lots of travel discounts, particularly on trains.

Multi-journey tickets are currently free on Cercanías, Rodalies and Media Distancia trains and are worth paying the €10 or €20 deposit for if you’re going to be making the same journey several times during your trip.

READ ALSO:

For example, if you’re planning on spending the holiday in the small Catalan town of Sitges, but know that you’ll be making several trips to Barcelona during that time for sightseeing, shopping or eating out, then it could be worth it.

Unfortunately, the free tickets are not available on long-distance trains, but you can still get a bargain on these this winter as Spain’s new low-cost train operator Iryo recently launched.

This means that you can get tickets from Madrid to Barcelona as well as Valencia and Málaga for an average of €18 each. 

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