The visa facilitation and readmission agreements
The visa facilitation agreements and readmission agreements with Albania,1 Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia entered into force on 1 January 2008, following their negotiation and conclusion between November 2006 and November 2007. All five countries now enjoy visa-free travel with the Schengen zone, but the visa facilitation agreements continue to apply to holders of non-biometric passports; they remain obliged to obtain a visa at a consular service before they travel to the Schengen zone. The visa facilitation and readmission agreements were the stepping stone to visa liberalisation. They opened the "sensitive" visa issue to political discussion, and supporters of visa-free travel in the European Commission and in EU countries were quick to build on them and go further. The situation on the ground, however, has not changed as much as visa applicants had hoped.
There are several types of Schengen visas. The most frequently used to enter the Schengen zone2 is a short-stay visa (type C), which can be valid for up to three months within a six-month period and does not entitle its holder to any kind of employment and residence. While the EU has prescribed some of the conditions for obtaining a Schengen visa, other requirements remain at the discretion of the issuing country (and also depend on the personal circumstances of the applicant). All of this was initially regulated in the Common Consular Instructions, which were later replaced by a Community Code on Visas. This new Regulation, which entered into force on 5 April 2010, modernised, clarified and made more transparent the provisions governing the issuance of visas. .
In order to obtain a Schengen visa, an applicant must justify the purpose and conditions of the intended trip. Before the visa facilitation agreements, a consular service could request a variety of documents to demonstrate the purpose of the journey. Where there is a visa facilitation agreement in place, most categories of people have to supply only one or two documents, and the visa facilitation agreements specify which ones. A businessperson, for example, needs an invitation from the host company or organisation endorsed by his or her country's Chamber of Commerce, a student needs a letter or proof of enrolment from the host university or school, and a tourist needs a certificate from a travel agency.
However, other requirements remain in force. The applicant must demonstrate adequate financial means – by showing cash, travellers' cheques, credit cards and/or bank statements – to finance the journey, including the return trip. As a rule, applicants must have proof of adequate health insurance covering repatriation and medical care for a minimum of 30,000 €. The consular service can also require the applicant to produce proof of place of residence, of ties with the country of residence (family, employment, business or property) and proof of their social and professional status. In case of refusal to grant a visa, the visa-issuing country does not have to provide any explanation.
Other changes that the visa facilitation agreements have introduced include a reduced visa fee of 35 € instead of 60 € (countries that had negotiated visa facilitation agreements were exempted when the price of the Schengen visa increased to 60 € in January 2007), and a fee waiver for many groups of applicants, such as close relatives, children under the age of 6, members of official delegations, pensioners, students, sportspeople, journalists, etc. According to the European Commission, up to 50% of the applicants in Bosnia – and around 80% in Macedonia – did not have to pay the fee in 2008, before the visa barrier was lifted for holders of biometric passports.
The visa facilitation agreements have also introduced a deadline for decisions on applications: as a rule, they must be made within 10 calendar days. Finally, they have established the categories of people who should be issued multi-entry long-term visas, in particular bona fide travellers, such as businesspeople, drivers, and representatives of organisations that need to travel frequently.
In 2008, a number of NGOs tried to assess the effects of the visa facilitation agreements. In June 2008, the European Citizen Action Network (ECAS) and five regional partners conducted hotline surveys: over the space of two weeks, people could call a telephone number advertised in the local media and discuss their experience in applying for a visa. Most people could not perceive the difference in the situation before and after the entry into force of the agreement. A number of new problems had also appeared.
Some embassies and consulates, for example, had introduced call-based procedures for making appointments for receiving visa applications, leaving their management to subcontractors. As a result, callers were made to pay a high rates (up to 1 €/minute). And although decisions on visa applications have to be made within 10 days under the facilitation agreements in order to shorten long waiting times, in Tirana the waiting time for an appointment with the Greek and Italian consulates to hand over the application was sometimes more than two months.
The European Movement in Albania, which surveyed visa applicants at embassies and consulates in April 2008, made similar findings as ECAS.
"It was expected that the VFA [visa facilitation agreement] would bring changes in the procedures for issuing visas to Albanian citizens. These procedures, which are frequently complicated and not harmonised between the Schengen consular offices in Albania, seem to have not changed essentially."
The European Commission issued guidelines for the implementation of the visa facilitation agreements. In addition, there is a joint committee of experts, composed of representatives of the regional government and the European Commission, and assisted by experts from EU countries, for each country. The committees discuss the difficulties in the implementation of the visa facilitation agreements, attempting to find solutions.
Some of the problems identified in 2008 have been resolved in the meantime. However, the visa application procedure will always remain difficult and unpleasant for the applicant. It is clear that for them the best solution is to scrap the visa requirement altogether.
Agreements and on the facilitation of the issuance of visas (in force since 1 January 2008):
Agreements on the readmission of persons residing without authorisation (in force since 1 January 2008 except for the agreement with Albania, which entered into force on 1 May 2006):
 The readmission agreement with Albania was negotiated earlier and has been in force since 1 May 2006.
 There are 25 Schengen zone countries. They include all the EU member states except Cyprus, Bulgaria, Ireland, Romania and the UK, and the non-EU members Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania will join once they have fully implemented the Schengen provisions. Liechtenstein is also expected to join. Ireland and the UK have decided to maintain border controls and are not part of the Schengen zone, though they participate in other Schengen activities such as judicial and police cooperation.