Starting in early 2021, Americans will need authorization to travel to about half of the countries in Europe.

In the documentation and rollout of the new European Travel Information and Authorisation System, or ETIAS, the European Commission sometimes calls the new authorization a visa waiver, sometimes a visa and other times simply an authorization. But no matter what you call it, obtaining ETIAS authorization should be much easier than getting a visa. Here’s how it will work.

What’s changing?

Right now, to enter any of the 26 countries that make up Europe’s Schengen area (a single jurisdiction that shares a common visa policy for international travel), Americans don’t need a visa, nor do holders of passports from any of 60 other countries, including Mexico and Canada. Starting in early 2021 (authorities aren’t sure exactly when), these travelers still won’t need a visa, but they will need to obtain an ETIAS authorization to get into the Schengen zone.

The United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen area, nor will it be after the implementation of Brexit when the U.K. leaves the European Union. So visa-free travel from the U.S. to the U.K. should remain unchanged. But most other popular European travel destinations will be affected, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands.

Currently, once you’re inside one Schengen zone country, there are no visa or authorization requirements to travel to the others. When you’re in, you’re in. While the “when you’re in, you’re in” rule won’t change in 2021, getting into that first Schengen country will require an extra step.

How do I sign up?

You’ll fill out an online application, which the European Commission estimates should take about 10 minutes to complete. Then you’ll need to enter the number of your travel document, which for most people will be a passport. Make sure that passport is valid for at least three months after your return date. Finally, to apply for authorization, you’ll have to pay a fee of 7 euros, or about $7.

That’s it. No visit to a consulate required. No need to submit a photo. And no need to wait days or weeks for approval as you might for a standard visa.

If the Commission’s predictions are right, about 95% of applicants will be approved in a matter of minutes. The remaining 5% will have to go through longer manual processing. Of that group, many will receive approval by email. For travelers whose applications are rejected, there’s an appeal process, which you pursue through the specific country that rejected you.

Once you get the authorization, it’s good for three years. When you enter one of the affected countries, your airline, cruise line or travel provider will confirm that you’re authorized to enter. Your ETIAS authorization will be checked by border authorities, along with your travel documents. It’s unknown whether the ETIAS authorization will be a paper document or a number similar to those used with TSA Precheck. Until an official date start date is set, travelers will have to wait a little longer for the nuts-and-bolts details of the new system.

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