By Francois Laruelle, Director of the ETIAS Central Unit Division, Frontex
In today’s interconnected world, ensuring the security and integrity of our borders is paramount. The European Union, with its vast Schengen Area where internal border controls have been abolished, faces unique challenges in this sphere.
As a major travel destination, the EU sees over 700 million border crossings taking place at its external borders each year. Yet, at the same time there is no comprehensive system to reliably track those entering and exiting, especially for travellers who do not need a visa and who account for approximately half of annual border crossings.
This has posed significant security risks, along with less than effective identification of those without a right to enter or who have remained in the EU beyond the permitted period. The lack of automated border control procedures has made it easier for criminals to use fake identities and travel documents while putting visa-free travellers at a disadvantage as the lack of advance information of their arrival translates into longer waiting times at borders.
European border management is currently undergoing an unprecedented transformation to address these security gaps thanks to the introduction of the Entry/Exit System (EES) and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). These ground-breaking initiatives are set to revolutionise the way European borders are managed, and given their magnitude and intricacy, they are undoubtedly among the EU’s most ambitious undertakings to date.
Biometric identification at entry and exit
The introduction of the EES in the second half of 2024 represents a significant shift in how the EU processes short-stay travellers at its external borders.
A system for registering non-EU travellers each time they cross the EU’s external borders, the EES replaces the manual stamping of passports at borders. When crossing the border for the first time, the travellers will have to register in the EES their names, travel document information, facial images and fingerprints. The registered data will be then verified during subsequent border crossings. The system will also register the date and place of entry and exit every time travellers cross the border.
These measures will have a direct impact on European security. The automated border control procedures will help prevent terrorism or other serious criminal offences. It will also become more difficult for non-admissible persons to enter the Schengen Area as thanks to the EES information about refusals of entry will be available to the national authorities across Europe. Biometric check each time travellers cross the external borders will also allow for a more systematic and effective detection of overstayers.
Given the size of the Schengen Area, the changes introduced by the EES affect more than a small number of people: in 2022 alone, over 141 thousand non-EU nationals were refused entry at the border, while over one million were found to be staying illegally in the EU, according to statistics from Eurostat.
Pre-travel screening of visa-exempt travellers
ETIAS represents another step towards bridging the security gaps at the European external borders. Scheduled to be launched in mid-2025, the system will carry pre-travel screening of visa-free travellers to determine whether they pose a security, illegal immigration or public health risk.
With ETIAS, visa-exempt travellers will be required to apply online for a travel authorisation before starting their short-stay trip to most European countries. Each application will then be automatically cross-checked by the system against other EU security databases, such as the EES, the Schengen Information System, ECRIS-TCN and the Europol database.
If there is a hit against one of the databases, the application will be reviewed by the ETIAS Central Unit hosted by Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – and sent to the relevant ETIAS National Unit located in one of the 30 countries using the system for a further analysis leading to an approval or a rejection of the application.
Once operational, it is estimated that 50-70 million travel authorisation applications will be processed through the system annually. As a result, national border authorities will be able to receive the relevant information on incoming travellers well before they arrive at border crossings.
Combatting identity fraud
Identity and document fraud constitute a key enabler for many other types of cross-border crime, such as trafficking in human beings, smuggling and terrorism. The new EU border management systems will further strengthen, document and identity control at external borders in order to help secure the Schengen Area.
Take the EES, for instance: with increasingly sophisticated security features of modern passports, criminal networks have changed their methods. Rather than counterfeiting documents, they resort to other forms of document fraud, using genuine passports and impersonating the identity of their legitimate holders. However, with the processing of biometric data, the system will effectively help detect those employing fraudulent identities or passports of lookalike persons.
As the EES and ETIAS are introduced as part of a larger initiative aimed at making the EU’s security information systems interoperable (capable of information exchange), it is paramount to ensure that every individual has only one identity file across different databases. To this end, the EU will crossmatch all biometric and biographic data stored in the information systems, to detect cases of potential identity fraud and to facilitate identity checks for travellers.
This process is called Multiple Identity Detection (MID). It will automatically flag profiles with similarities that require further analysis. The profiles raising concerns will be manually handled by EU and national authorities.
Facilitating travel to Europe
While the new EU border management systems are being developed to maintain a high level of internal security in the EU, they will also help ensure smooth border crossings for travellers.
As a pre-travel screening system, ETIAS will contribute to reducing administrative burdens at borders. Currently border authorities in Europe assess whether visa-exempt travellers pose a security risk only after they have already arrived at the border. ETIAS will allow for the assessment to be carried out before travellers commence their journeys, making their travel easier and more convenient. When travellers arrive at the border, the automated border control procedures brought by the EES will make entering most European countries more efficient. The EES will also make it easier for short-term visitors to check how long they can still stay in Europe.
However, travellers must be vigilant to ensure trouble-free travel. Whilst the launch of ETIAS is still over a year away, it is troubling to observe the appearance of over 60 fake or unofficial ETIAS websites. Some of these websites are run by genuine businesses, as the use of commercial intermediaries and of other third parties is permitted under the EU regulation establishing the system, others may be acting dishonestly.
Considering that they will be collecting travellers’ sensitive data – names, nationality, date of birth, addresses, credit card numbers among others – these websites may pose serious personal data protection concerns and security threats which could range from selling personal data, cloning credit cards information, extorting payments to potential data leaks, document forgery, identity theft and even people smuggling. Some of those websites may also be used by third parties to spread misinformation.
Therefore, the best way to apply for an ETIAS travel authorisation is through the EU’s official ETIAS website: europa.eu/etias, which ensures that the submitted information will not be misused.
The introduction of the EES, followed by ETIAS is set to transform travel to Europe. It will streamline the experience for genuine travellers while making it harder for those who seek to exploit the system for illicit gains or other form of criminal activity. As both systems will also have a profound impact on the way borders in Europe are managed and kept secure, their implementation is a challenging task, requiring seamless coordination among four EU institutions and 30 national authorities. Such collaborative efforts are essential to safeguard the Schengen Area for the safety and well-being of all its residents and visitors alike.