When South Africans in the UK attempt to pop over the English Channel to spend a holiday — and some hard-earned pounds — in Europe, the word ‘Schengen’ is often added to the colourful array of uniquely Saffa swear words.

The reason? Without a Schengen visa South Africans won’t even make it past the ferry port, Eurorail or airport for that matter. So what exactly is the Schengen? Where did it come from and why do South Africans need this piece of documentation in their passports, while Antipodeans can travel most European countries without this added hassle.

London based immigration specialists, Brendan Beder (LLM), director, and Catherine Maclay (LLM), legal associate, of Beder-Harrison & Co help to demystify the dreaded Schengen.

What is a Schengen visa and where did it come from?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s two agreements constituting the Schengen Agreement were signed near the small town of Schengen, Luxembourg.  The main purpose of these agreements and subsequent European Union regulations enacted in relation to them was effectively to allow freedom of movement between European countries.

EU and non-EU countries are parties to the Schengen Agreement.  Most notably Ireland and the United Kingdom opted out of the arrangement while Iceland and Norway are among the non-EU signatories that have fully implemented the provisions so far.  Switzerland may join in due course.

Why are stricter Schengen rules are applied to certain country’s citizens, such as South Africans?

You have to refer to Council Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 of March 15, 2001 to see that the EU signatories will give consideration to a variety of criteria including illegal immigration, public policy, security, their external relations with third countries and the implications of regional coherence and reciprocity when determining which nationals of those third countries will require visas.

Two lists have been drawn up in this regard and South Africa along with all other African countries are on one list while Australia and New Zealand along with the US are on a second list.  The Australians and New Zealanders who wish to stay for longer than three months in the Schengen space must apply for a Schengen visa while South Africans who wish to stay in the Schengen space for any length of time must apply.

Do EU countries automatically implement the Schengen system when they become members of the EU?

It all depends on the conditions of the treaties signed between the countries although, generally, EU Council regulations are automatically binding on members.

Where do UK based South Africans have to apply for Schengen visas if they plan a visit to various Schengen countries?

The Schengen visa must be obtained from the London-based consulate of the country where you will be staying for the longest period. If this cannot be determined because of equal duration of stay in several countries, the Schengen visa must be obtained from the country of first entry.  Also remember that if the applicant is in the UK as a visitor, they will have to obtain the Schengen visa from the relevant consulate in their own country of residence.

Is the system in the UK different for South Africans to that experienced by those South Africans applying from within South Africa?

Yes, the processes used by the different consulates of the member countries around the world will have variations. This would also be the case though for people applying to different British High Commissions around the world.

What documents are needed when applying?

Generally you would need a valid passport, original documentation showing financial means, an invitation, details regarding the applicant’s means of transport, health insurance and proof of accommodation. Supporting documents should not be more than one month old.  It would be wise to take copies of these documents with one, when you make the application.  You would, of course, need an original application form and a full colour photograph.

A practical tip: check the website of the Schengen member consulate in the country of which you are a national as well as the website of the consulate in the country where you will be applying (if different from your country of nationality) so that you can get a better idea of what may be required for your specific circumstances.

Why is it so expensive to apply?

The visas fees are set in Euros but are payable in local currency where you apply. The fees are therefore subject to exchange control variations and fluctuations.

Why do applicants sometimes get a Schengen visa specific to the dates of travel and at other times for three months or six months? And that certain applicants get a single entry visa, while others get a multiple entry Schengen?

The length of the visa depends on the personal circumstances of each applicant, including their previous immigration history when traveling to Schengen countries.

The same goes for single or multiple entry. The personal circumstance of each applicant is taken into consideration. The consulates will also look at how many times you have previously traveled to Schengen countries and consider the nature of what you have applied for.

If somebody needs to travel to Schengen countries regularly for work, can they apply for special concessions such as a year long “work” or “sport” Schengen?

Yes, you may apply for a business Schengen visa for a year, but there are additional requirements and required documents to do this. The candidate must check with the relevant consulate prior to making an application.

Are there any advantages to the Schengen?

The Schengen visa allows the holder to travel freely between Schengen countries. This is very convenient. However, remember that even if one is in possession of a valid Schengen, there are no guarantees that the holder will be granted entry clearance to any of the Schengen countries of their choice.

Detailed guidelines on Schengen visas appear on our sister website – SATimesonline.com.