Back in 2017, the European Commission had voted to require a visa for United States citizens to visit the Schengen Zone in the EU. The parliament eventually decided not to go ahead with the rule, but now things are changing. United States citizens will be required to hold a ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) to visit the EU countries, as of Jan. 1, 2021.

But the EU is saying the new rule is not exactly a “visa.”

“The ETIAS authorisation is not a visa,” the EC said. “Nationals of visa liberalisation countries will continue to travel the EU without a visa but will simply be required to obtain a travel authorisation via ETIAS prior to their travel. ETIAS will be a simple, fast and visitor-friendly system, which will, in more than 95% of cases, result in a positive answer within a few minutes.”

The EC wanted to assure that because it is not a visa, the process will not be as difficult as a visa. It will be around $8 for visitors between 18 and 70, and is an online application.

Residents in some states will need a passport for all flights [2019 update]

“An ETIAS travel authorisation does not reintroduce visa-like obligations. There is no need to go to a consulate to make an application, no biometric data is collected and significantly less information is gathered than during a visa application procedure. Whereas, as a general rule, a Schengen visa procedure can take up to 15 days, and can in some cases be extended up to 30 or 60 days, the online ETIAS application only takes a few minutes to fill in. The validity will be for a period of three years, significantly longer than the validity of a Schengen visa. An ETIAS authorisation will be valid for an unlimited number of entries.”

“The ETIAS travel authorisation will be a necessary and small procedural step for all visa-exempt travellers which will allow them to avoid bureaucracy and delays when presenting themselves at the borders. ETIAS will fully respect this visa-free status; facilitate the crossing of the Schengen external border; and allow visa free visitors to fully enjoy their status.”

The European Commission said the new rules are an effort to increase international security.

Current visa rules for United States citizens to visit Europe

Currently, all that is needed is a passport to visit any of the countries within the EU borders.

The move is not exactly a surprise, as the commission put the U.S. on notice back in 2014, because the United States currently requires visas for visits from EU countries Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania.

New ETIAS rules for United States citizens visiting Europe, effective Jan. 1, 2021

The new ETIAS rules will only affect 22 countries within the Schengen Zone, which includes Germany, France, Austria, The Netherlands, and Italy; four non-member countries in Europe, including Iceland and Norway; and Monaco, Vatican City, and San Marino. See the full list here. The United Kingdom will not be included in the ETIAS requirement, so you will be able to visit with only a passport — like you can now.

Currently, U.S. citizens can stay within the Schengen Zones for up to 90 days without the ETIAS.

The ETIAS will be valid for three years and you will not be required to re-apply every time you visit (within that three years).

So when should we start to worry?

Back in 2017, many analysts were saying this is nothing more than a negotiating tactic, but with the current state of foreign relations in the United States, there may a chance this will go into effect.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to make it harder for Americans to travel to Europe,” Tom Hall, Lonely Planet editorial director, told NBC News. “The continent’s travel industry — and that of the United Kingdom for that matter — will be hoping for strong visitor numbers from the U.S. to make the most of the advantages of the currency situation. For this reason, there’s a long way to go until any changes to the visa regime come into force, if at all.”

It’s important to stay informed on what will happen with the requirements, especially if you have an upcoming trip already booked.

“It seems action could be one or two years away,” Jack Ezon of Ovation Travel told NBC. “But my advice is to never take visa-free travel for granted anywhere these days. Always check on the U.S. Department of State website for entry requirements anywhere you travel in the world.”