The process of getting a visa to visit Europe is pricey, exhausting and time-consuming. And it’s gotten worse over the past year—especially for Indians. We look at what’s up with the Schengen—in the context of ‘passport inequity’ and ‘travel apartheid’. This is not just about hanging in Paris.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
Editor’s note: When there isn’t a big headline making news, we often pick a Big Story on a topic that we think will be interesting to you. We’d be just as happy to take requests from you. Do write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. ICYMI: Our recent less-newsy stories include complicated truth about narcissism, ‘philanthropy’ of the very rich and the problem with pandas.
Remind me about the Schengen…
The Schengen Area was established to enable free movement inside Western Europe. In other words, travel without border checks except in special cases. The original treaty was signed in 1985 by five countries: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Today, the Schengen Area includes 27 countries—of which 23 are EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. It is the largest passport-free zone in the world.
FYI: Schengen is the name of a small village in Luxembourg—where the original agreement was signed.
The Schengen visa: is a short-stay visa that allows you to enter any of the countries within the Schengen Area. They can get a visa for a maximum of 90 days over any 180-day period. Some Schengen countries like Germany, Czech Republic and Spain require a transit visa even if you just have a layover in their airport—while travelling to a different final destination.
Who needs a visa: Unsurprisingly, these are mostly residents of the Global South—and that includes India—but also Russia, China and Turkey. Yes, there are many African countries on the list, as well. Exempted from this requirement: countries have a visa-free agreement with the EU or one of the Schengen countries. This means the US, Australia and the UK, of course—but also many of the South American countries like Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico.
As the vast grey swathes in map below show, there is very clear geographic line that divides who needs a visa and who does not:
And the Schengen visa has problems….
In theory, getting a single visa to visit all these countries below (purple+blue) sounds terribly convenient:
But the reality is quite different.
Rejection rates: The Schengen is not an easy visa to wangle. That’s because a person has to file their application with the embassy of the country they plan to visit. And some countries are notoriously difficult. Just three countries—France, Germany and Spain—are collectively responsible for 66.5% of all rejections. France is the worst—since it gets the most visa applications and denies the most (21%).
As for Indians: We are among the top three countries who apply for a Schengen. And we are among the top three who are most likely to be denied one. Turkey is #1 in applications—followed by Russia. In 2022, Indians filed over 600,000 applications—of which 18% were rejected. OTOH, France, Switzerland and Spain received the most visa applications from Indians (thank you, Bollywood!). At least two of those countries are notorious for denying entry across the board. But here’s one odd bit: the greatest percentage of Indian applications were rejected by Estonia, Malta and Slovenia.
The great Schengen jugaad: Since some countries are more rejection-happy than others, applicants have resorted to visa shopping—“or applying for appointments to less competitive countries that aren’t their intended destinations.” After all, once you’re in, you can travel to any of the other 28 countries. This is one reason why Denmark suddenly became a wildly popular destination—until its officials cottoned on to the scam.
Process is the punishment: Applying for a Schengen is notoriously “expensive, anxiety-inducing and time-consuming.” The visa itself costs around €80 (Rs 7,035)—and there’s a processing fee to boot. This can range from Rs 11,000 to Rs 18,000. In 2022, Indians paid Rs 870 million (87 crore) in fees for applications that were rejected. Now add the long waiting periods. Thanks to the pandemic backlog, it is a herculean task to just get an appointment.
The real “humiliation”: lies in the sheer weight of proving you are not trying to illegally migrate to the country. An Indian, for example, has to have a return ticket, travel insurance, bank account statements and proof of employment. Also: an invitation letter and guarantee form signed by your host—and their passport/residency permit. A person on Twitter shared this pic of the sheer amount of documentation involved:
Point to note: It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been invited to a conference or going on a vacation–every one is a potential illegal migrant:
Despite having an official invitation letter for her workshop, Ms. Yildirim said the Belgian consulate required her to show additional financial documents, including tax forms. The demand felt invasive. “I am going on an invitation and they want to see my monthly bank statements?” she said. “They want to be sure that I’m not illegally immigrating there, just because I’m Turkish. It feels kind of strange, and humiliating, to ask how much money do you make.”
Reminder: Turkey is in talks to enter the EU—and is already a member of NATO.
So this is about race…
This is about privilege. There is an unmistakable divide between those who have the right to effortlessly travel around the world—and those who do not. In fact, the insane requirements also determine who can afford to even apply for one—and who cannot. As Asia Nikkei observes:
A Canadian, for example, can throw their passport, plus vaccine proof, and a toothbrush into a travel bag and head overseas without the need to plan. An Indian has to plan weeks in advance because to get a visa to travel to, for example, a European country requires not only a confirmed air ticket and proof of medical insurance, but proof of funds and proof of where you are going to stay every night that you are in that country… This makes such travel infeasible except for the most privileged in the developing world.
Yes, it is also about race: People of colour are viewed as potential illegal migrants—even when they are well-known academics or experts. Irony alert: Cameroonian researchers were denied a Schengen to attend a conference in Germany on arts looted from the colonies. Yet one of the rejection letters said: “There are reasonable doubts about your intention to leave the territory of the [EU] member states before the visa expires." One South Asian describes the process of applying for a Schengen visa as a “marginalising experience” that made her feel like a second-class citizen.
A Dutch report of note: A 2022 study commissioned by the Foreign Affairs ministry found that immigration officials were using an illegal algorithm to racially profile visa applicants. It used nationality and other variables to assess the risk of overstaying in the country. And applicants who were labelled ‘high risk’ were automatically moved to an “intensive track”—which involved extensive investigation and delay:
Examples of so-called “risk profiles” used by the algorithm include Surinamese men aged between 26-40 who applied from Paramaribo and unmarried Nepalese men aged around 35-40 who applied for a tourist visa.
And religion? Some researchers point out that with the exception of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates—residents of all Muslim-majority countries have to apply for a visa to enter the EU. A staggering 45.8% of all Algerian applications were rejected in 2022. The rejection rate for Turks has been steadily climbing—from 4% in 2014 to a peak of 19% in 2021. In the same year, France decided to hack its visa quota for Morroccans by 50%.
FYI: The same seems to hold true for Hindu and Buddhist countries in Asia, as well. Reminder: Most South Americans—who also belong to the Global South—are Christian.
Point to note: That said, the strongest correlation remains the average GDP of any given nation. As Devex reports, it is routine for development experts from the global south to be denied visas for conferences overseas. In fact, there is now a debate as to whether such events should be held in higher income countries.
The big kicker: is that the harassment often doesn’t end after you get the visa. Even though the Schengen Area is supposed to be border-free, there are now strict checks while crossing from one country to another—as a Financial Times investigation found:
Fahad and his family had to wait for more than half an hour at the border post, until they were given a pass to drive from Austria into Germany. During the FT’s three-hour stay at the checkpoint, non-white drivers made up about 70% of cars selected for further checks. Fahad was one of a few drivers with beards, while others included women wearing headscarves and motorists who at first sight did not look like white Europeans. All were waved through once their IDs were checked, vehicle boots searched and luggage examined.
The bottomline: European nations are increasingly moving to the right—and taking a hard stance on immigration. The status of the Schengen visa itself has become more precarious: “There is such a fear that Schengen won’t survive that countries are being given the discretion to do whatever they can to keep it alive.” As border controls increase, “The EU’s principle of free movement of people is at risk of becoming a privilege enjoyed only by white Europeans”—well, white people, in general.
The best info on Schengen visa requirements for Indians is here. New York Times has a great report on how the Schengen has turned into a nightmare for people from the Global South. The Hindu and Economic Times are good on rejection rates for Indians. You can read the report on Dutch racial profiling here. Forbes looks at the broader problem of ‘travel apartheid’. Devex is excellent on the impact on global development experts—and conferences.