The European Union has considered requiring a visa for tourists from the United States for some time. After all, the U.S. has required special authorization from visitors from European countries (and many other places) since 2010.
Starting on January 1, 2021, Europe is returning the favor.
All U.S. citizens will need an ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) visa to visit the 26 Schengen Zone countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. (The United Kingdom, which is in the process of leaving the European Union, will not require a visa.)
Here's what we know so far:
The official release introducing the new authorization doesn't directly mention reciprocity with the U.S. as a motivation for the change—instead, the stated purpose is "to identify any security or irregular migratory risks."
Nor does the European Union consider this a visa because "there is no need to go to a consulate to make an application, no biometric data is collected and significantly less information is gathered than during a visa application procedure."
Call it what you want—a simplified visa, an official authorization, a tap-dancing walrus named Percy—it's still an additional step with an additional form and an additional fee that you'll have to take, fill out, and pay to go to Europe.
To apply for an ETIAS whatsit, U.S. citizens must have a passport valid for three months beyond the intended stay in Europe—no big change from the rules now. You'll also need an email account and a credit or debit card.
You'll have to fill out an online application form and pay a fee of €7 (US$8).
Among the pieces of information you'll have to provide: your name, date of birth, current address, and passport number. Behind the scenes, you'll be screened for involvement with human trafficking, terrorism, and other crimes.
The EU's European Commission, which is overseeing the implementation of the ETIAS, estimates that "more than 95% of cases" will result in approval for entry "within a few minutes." Everything will be handled digitally—you won't need to send your passport away.
Nevertheless, you should apply for authorization well ahead of your trip in case you run into problems.
Regular travelers will not have to keep filing requests. Once your visa—there, we said it—is approved, it will remain valid for three years. And during that time, it will be good for all 26 Schengen Zone countries. You don't have to reapply each time you return to the continent.
These changes do not go into effect until 2021 and have no bearing on your European travel plans in the meantime.
The application process could be refined over the course of the next two years. In Australia, for instance, travelers can obtain visas through airlines when buying flights. A similar system could theoretically be introduced for Europe as plans develop.