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One thing you may have come across in your travel preparations for Europe is the Schengen Area. If you’ve never traveled in Europe or don’t know anything about border crossing on the continent, then the Schengen Area is likely a mystery to you. Likewise, you should know what the Eurozone is if you’re planning a trip to Europe – and it’s not the same as the Schengen Area. And the Schengen Area and the Eurozone are not the same as the European Union or EU, either.

With these three distinct groups of countries on the European continent, the uninitiated traveler might be a bit confused. I’ll break down what each group is and why it matters, and how each is relevant to the others. After reading this guide, you’ll be a pro on the EU, the Schengen Area, and the Eurozone.

Planning a trip to Europe? Check out stories about my favorite destinations here.

The EU

The EU is an international organization, partly intergovernmental and partly supranational. Which basically means that it’s:

  1. an organization whose members are countries (international)
  2. a group of countries that agree to share common policies (intergovernmental)
  3. a group of countries who have given up part of their sovereignty to a higher level of governance (supranational)

I won’t get into much more with defining the EU. Just suffice it to say that it’s a political and economic union of 28 countries. As of 31 January 2020, though, it’ll only be 27, once the UK leaves.

Here are the other 27 EU member countries:

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden

When it comes to travel arrangements, it won’t have much of an impact on you which countries are official EU members and which aren’t. There are policies about tourism at the EU level, but you won’t have to know these to plan a vacation in Europe. It’s just nice to have the list of EU members for your reference.

The Schengen Area

Unlike the EU, the Schengen Area impacts travelers directly. The Schengen Area is a group of countries based on an agreement that allows free movement across borders. Twenty-six countries make up the Schengen Area.

The Schengen Area countries are:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

As you can see, there is a significant overlap between the EU countries and the Schengen countries. There are a few, like Iceland and Switzerland, which belong to the Schengen Area but not the EU. That means you can freely cross borders from France to Switzerland to Italy, without having your passport checked. Generally, “free movement” implies that you can cross the border without stopping by border patrol. If you hop on a plane in Florence and get off in Paris, you won’t have to go through customs in Paris because you moved from one Schengen country to another. This applies even if you have a non-Schengen Area passport, like a US passport.

mini car driving over Europe map

The Eurozone

Finally, we have the Eurozone. This is the group of countries in Europe that use the euro as their currency. The Eurozone only comprises 19 members.

The Eurozone countries include:

Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain

Some countries that belong to the EU, like Denmark, have chosen not to use the euro. Denmark uses Danish krones instead. When making travel arrangements, don’t assume that if a country belongs to the EU that they automatically use the euro (a mistake I’ve made).

Example Itinerary – The EU, the Schengen Area, and the Eurozone

Let’s run through an example itinerary to see how this all works. Let’s say you arrive by plane in Berlin, Germany, from the United States. You will have to pass through border patrol on arrival in Germany since you came from outside the Schengen Area.

After a few days touring Berlin, you’d like to go to Zurich, Switzerland. You take a train from Berlin to Zurich and face no passport checks since you’re moving between two Schengen countries. You will, however, have to exchange your euros for Swiss francs since Germany is a member of the Eurozone and Switzerland is not.

To end your trip, you’re flying from Zurich to Dublin, Ireland. You will face border checks upon arrival in Dublin because Ireland is not a member of the Schengen Area. And you’ll have to convert your Swiss francs back to euros since Ireland is a member of the Eurozone.

points pinned to a map of Europe

Confused yet?

It might sound complicated but once you start planning your trip, it’ll be easier to grasp. The best thing you can do is double-check before settling all your arrangements. If you prefer not to have to exchange currency so much, then avoid visiting countries both inside and outside of the Eurozone on the same trip. And if you don’t mind, just be prepared before you go. As long as you keep these lists handy while planning, you shouldn’t face any nasty surprises.

And for the most up to date info on visas for Schengen countries, visit Schengen Visa Info.

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.