Guest Column: David Cullum, Chambers-CTM

Changes to the Schengen and ESTA arrangements could have major consequences for businesses travelling around Europe and to the US

As a specialist passport and visa department, staying on top of changing rules and application processes for each country is an essential part of our job. And we are certainly watching what’s happening in Europe closely. Talk among European (EU) ministers that the Schengen Area scheme may collapse is something that’s very much on our radar.

The Schengen Area was established in 1995, abolishing most of the EU’s internal border controls. The original signatories to the preceding Schengen Agreement in 1985 were Belgium, France, (West) Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; now there are 26 Schengen countries.

But the huge influx of migrants and refugees into Europe in 2015, and the Paris terrorist atrocities last November and this week’s bombings in Brussels, have prompted an urgent rethink. EU ministers are on the verge of suspending Schengen’s passport-free travel in Europe for two years and, one by one, EU states are reimposing temporary border controls.

What does this mean for corporates? For EU passport holders, they will face border checks and longer queues at immigration when travelling between any EU country – crossing from Austria into Germany, for example. In other words, a degree of additional hassle during a trip. However, for non-EU passport holders, the inconvenience and uncertainty are far greater, as it means business travellers will potentially need a separate visa for each country in Europe.

Chambers-CTM currently handles Schengen visa enquiries on a regular basis for clients who are Indian or Chinese passport holders. Until such time as we know for definite that the Schengen scheme is being suspended, we will continue to advise clients on how to apply.

We provide each client with a detailed list of all the documentation they need to present in person at the relevant embassy. If you are going on a trip to Germany, Sweden and France, for example, but will be staying in France longer than the other two countries, then you need to apply at the French embassy, who will issue your multiple-entry Schengen visa.

The process is already becoming more stringent. Applications are taking longer – some embassies are taking up to four weeks. So make sure your travellers allow plenty of time before the travel date to apply for a Schengen visa.

If the Schengen scheme is abolished, our visa team will be ready to handle the fall out. Will each country become purely nationalist? Or will they introduce some bilateral visa agreements? Will those states with struggling economies have the resources to process visa applications efficiently?

At this stage there are many unknowns, but it’s a case of staying as up-to-date as possible with developments. The only certainty is that the collapse of the Schengen scheme would cause more red tape, so keep in contact with your travel management company’s (TMC’s) visa department regularly if you know that you are likely to be travelling within Europe on a non-EU passport in the future.

If you also know that you are likely to have travellers to the US, then it would be worthwhile seeking the advice of your visa specialist about recent changes to the US’s ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa-waiver programme. Those who previously would have qualified for ESTA but have a second citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan, or have visited those countries in the last five years, will now have to apply for a visa.

This is having a major impact in terms of business travel to Iran, which had started to see an upturn since economic sanctions were lifted. Chambers-CTM had begun to see a significant increase in enquiries from clients looking to explore commercial opportunities in Iran. However, many of them are deterred from travelling when we advise of the US visa-waiver exclusion.

The new rule means travellers would need to apply for a separate visa in order to enter the US if they have an Iranian ‘stamp’ in their passport. This doesn’t just apply to visiting the US for business purposes, but also if they want to go on holiday to the States.

The latter is definitely causing corporates to think twice about travelling to Iran. If they’ve been to Iran on business, do they really want to have to put themselves through a rigorous application process at the US embassy to get a visa to travel to Florida with their family this summer?

David Cullum has extensive experience and knowledge of visa processes from both a TMC and embassy perspective. He joined Chambers-CTM in 2013 as an elite visa and passport coordinator, having previously worked as a visa officer at the Chinese embassy in London.

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