Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK need only a valid passport to enter all countries of the EU. Two Eastern European countries, Belarus and Russia, require a prearranged visa before arrival and even an ‘invitation’ from (or booking with) a tour operator or hotel. Visas to these countries are seldom available at the border.
Several types of visa exist, including tourist, transit and business permits. Transit visas are usually cheaper than tourist or business visas but they allow a very short stay (one to five days) and can be difficult to extend.
If you require a visa, remember it has a ‘use-by’ date and you’ll be refused entry afterwards. It might not be checked when entering a country overland, but major problems can arise if it is requested during your stay or on departure and you can’t produce it.
In some cases it’s easier to get visas as you go along, rather than arranging them all beforehand. Carry spare passport photos (you may need from one to four every time you apply for a visa).
Visas to neighbouring countries are usually issued immediately by consulates in Eastern Europe, although some may levy a 50% to 100% surcharge for ‘express service’. When regulations are confusing (say in Belarus or Russia) it’s simpler and safer to obtain a visa before leaving home. Visas are often cheaper in your own country anyway. Consulates are generally open weekday mornings (if there’s both an embassy and a consulate, you want the consulate).
THE SCHENGEN ZONE
Twenty-five European countries are signatories to the Schengen Agreement, which has effectively dismantled internal border controls between them. The countries in question are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Citizens of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK only need a valid passport to enter these countries. However, other nationals, including South Africans, can apply for a single visa – a Schengen visa – when travelling throughout this region.
Non-EU visitors (with or without a Schengen visa) should expect to be questioned, however perfunctorily, when entering the region. However, later travel within the zone is much like a domestic trip, with no border controls. (Although some countries, such as France, have made noises about reimposing stricter internal Schengen checks since the bombings in Madrid and London).
If you need a Schengen visa, you must apply at the consulate or embassy of the country that’s your main destination, or your point of entry. You may then stay up to a maximum of 90 days in the entire Schengen area within a six-month period. Once your visa has expired, you must leave the zone and may only re-enter after three months abroad.
If you’re a citizen of the US, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, you may stay visa-free a total of 90 days, during six months, within the entire Schengen region. Shop around when choosing your point of entry, as visa prices may differ from country to country.
If you’re planning a longer trip, you need to inquire personally as to whether you need a visa or visas. Your country might have bilateral agreements with individual Schengen countries allowing you to stay there longer than 90 days without a visa. However, you need to talk directly to the relevant embassies or consulates.
While the UK and Ireland are not part of the Schengen area, their citizens can stay indefinitely in other EU countries, only needing paperwork if they want to work long-term or take up residency.See www.eurovisa.info for more information.