For most travelers from the United States, going to Europe is a relatively smooth experience, without the need to apply for visas or pay steep fees for short visits.
But for people like Duygu Yildirim, that isn’t the case. Ms. Yildirim, 36, holds a Turkish passport and lives in Knoxville, Tenn. Within Europe’s Schengen Area, a border-free zone allowing free movement among 27 European countries, citizens of Turkey and dozens of other countries, including India, South Africa and China, must apply for visas for stays of fewer than 90 days.
The application process is expensive, anxiety-inducing and time-consuming. For every visit to Europe, the visa costs 80 euros (about $85) and requires an in-person appointment as well as hard copies of various legal documents. These appointments, usually outsourced to for-profit companies, have been scarce in recent months. Travelers say that it’s also taking longer than the typical three-week period — in some cases, several months — to get a visa in hand. Applicants have failed to receive visas in time for their trips, or receive visas for the full duration of their travel. Some have even been denied visas altogether.
Ms. Yildirim, an assistant professor, said that she had applied for at least 10 Schengen visas in recent years. There are no visa centers in her area, forcing her to travel to other states for hard-to-find appointments.
For an upcoming academic workshop in Belgium, Ms. Yildirim wrote a letter requesting a short-stay visa of at least several months. That would allow her to make future work trips to Europe without the appointment hassle and save her additional fees. But Belgium gave her a visa for just five days, barely longer than her three-day workshop.
“You will never know whether you’ll get one month or six months; it’s very arbitrary,” she said.
“Financially and emotionally, it’s very stressful. I am jealous that people might to go to Europe for two days and come back. I don’t have this luxury,” Ms. Yildirim said.
Those caught up in these visa woes have been forced to change plans, or like Ms. Yildirim, forgo travel to Europe altogether. The bureaucratic red tape has not only caused planning headaches, but also spotlighted an uncomfortable reality: that these fees and inconveniences target a specific group of people — the billions of people around the world who have had systematic unequal opportunities and access to travel, largely those living in the Global South.
Elaine, who lives in London and has a passport from a country in South Asia, described applying for a Schengen visa as a “marginalizing experience” that made her feel like a second-class citizen. She declined to give her full name, fearing that speaking publicly could sabotage her future visa applications.
“Other people travel so smoothly. I can’t just get up on a weekend and say it’s a bank holiday, let me just go to France,” she said.
Reliance on third-party processing companies
The short-stay visa is the type most commonly used for tourism and brief business trips to the Schengen area. Since 2009, Schengen member states have had a common policy that requires nationals from more than 100 countries to apply for these visas. This requirement is intended to protect external borders and ensure the security of travelers and residents, according to the European Commission.
Nationals of the member states and citizens of many other countries, including the United States, are exempt from this entry requirement.
Governments conduct the final step of issuing entry visas, but most countries have long hired independent contractors like BLS International, VFS Global and TLScontact to conduct initial screenings of visa candidates and perform other administrative tasks. These companies, with workers and offices all over the world, meet applicants in person to collect their biometric data, photographs and other required documents, including medical insurance policies. Typically, applicants also need to supply bank statements, lodging and flight receipts, and proof of employment. They must also hand over their passports until a visa decision is made.
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.”
In addition to the standard government fee for each visit, processing companies also generally charge a service fee of about 30 euros per application. Other voluntary services, such as costs for passport delivery and in some cities, the option to pay for an off-hours appointment, can further raise the cost.
Travelers who are denied visas typically do not get a refund.
Surging demand, fewer appointments
Some European countries are receiving higher-than-ever volumes of visa applications, said Iffat Memon, a spokeswoman for VFS Global. Demand in some regions exceeds the number of available appointments, which she emphasized is out of her company’s control.
“Decisions on visa applications, including the availability of appointment slots and the timelines to process them, are at the sole discretion of the respective governments we serve and may vary from one government to another,” Ms. Memon said.
Many countries confirmed that demand has surged in recent months, compounding the wait for visas.
Denmark, which relies on VFS Global for visa processing in the United States, is “experiencing an extraordinary demand” for tourist visas after the elimination of most pandemic travel restrictions, said Jens-Jacob Simonsen, a spokesman for the Danish consul general in New York. It has caused “prolonged processing times,” he said, adding that members of the consular staff have regularly worked overtime to manage the backlog.
Visa processing can take up to 80 days, the country’s website for foreign affairs warns.
Some travelers turn to small third-party visa agents who say they can more easily book appointments and thus ensure a swifter approval — generally, at an additional cost of hundreds of dollars.
But even some of these agencies said there was little they could do right now. Tanya Guseva, the managing director of London-based VisaPoint, said that she believed the backlog was continued fallout from pandemic restrictions, when travel and visa services were significantly reduced and even temporarily halted.
“At the present moment, all Schengen consulates and visa centers representing relevant consulates, such as VFS, TLScontact, etc., that we have working relationships with, appear to be fully booked for weeks and months in advance,” she said.
Exasperation with the system
Visa seekers have taken to various corners of the internet to air their exasperation. One Reddit community devoted to Schengen visa gripes is an endless scroll of nightmare travel scenarios and pleas for guidance in understanding the application process.
Every year, Francois Haasbroek, a 44-year-old South African winemaker, applies for a Schengen visa to attend trade events and visit wine importers and distributors. He travels mostly to France and Belgium, and he says he has grown weary of the onerous entry requirements, the time and effort it takes, and the underlying stress of whether he’ll get a visa in time for travel.
“How many times over do I need to prove that I’m a trustworthy traveler, whatever that means?” said Mr. Haasbroek, who lives in Paarl, east of Cape Town, and will travel to Belgium and the Netherlands for a business trip later this month. “We’ve got these cumbersome, pointless rules and layers of bureaucracy. But we better just keep jumping through the same hoop over and over and over again.”
Travelers admit to visa shopping, or applying for appointments to less competitive countries that aren’t their intended destinations (once admitted to one Schengen country, they can cross borders without further documents). One poster on Reddit shared a strategy of applying to countries rumored to be more generous in granting short-stay visas than other member states.
The Danish government has noticed an increase in this prohibited practice, Mr. Simonsen said.
“We are obliged by the Schengen rules to refuse such applications, leading to frustrated travelers, further increased processing time for travelers who have Denmark as their main destination, and a general waste of time and money,” he said.
The European Parliament is considering legislation that would improve the application process by moving it online into a single portal used by all Schengen Area member states.
“The goal of the proposal is twofold: to make the visa application procedure more efficient and to improve the security of the Schengen area,” according to a statement released in June.
In-person appointments would be required only for first-time applicants, and a digital visa would be issued, instead of a sticker inside a traveler’s passport. But this change is not on the near horizon, said Christine Sullivan, a partner at the global immigration firm Fragomen, adding that any provisional rules must be adopted by member states.
Broader ripple effects?
Industry experts said the Schengen visa backlog has had broader ripple effects in the rest of the world. Destinations with fewer visa requirements, such as the United Kingdom, Turkey and Mexico, saw a faster and stronger tourism recovery than countries where visas were required, according to an economics insights report from Visa published in May.
“Global tourism could get an additional boost if current backlogs in visa processing were cleared,” said Richard Lung, principal global economist for Visa.
Tim Fairhurst, director of the European Tourism Association, a trade group for tour operators and suppliers, said that the member states seemed to operate on the assumption that people would “just get in line and be patient” to visit Europe.
“The evidence suggests that they might go somewhere else,” he said. “It’s deeply exasperating that member states don’t appreciate that providing visas is a service and that takes place in a competitive market.”
Non-European countries, such as Kazakhstan, are seizing the opportunity to woo travelers by eliminating visa requirements, said Reto Kaufmann, a director who oversees South and Southeast Asia for the travel agency Kuoni Tumlare. This month, Thailand’s government approved an exemption that gives Chinese citizens visa-free entry through February of next year. (Chinese nationals are among the travelers required to apply for Schengen visas.)