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How Europe stops Russians from traveling

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On September 9, the Council of the European Union completely suspended the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia as part of the sanctions imposed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Travel to the EU has thus become more difficult and expensive for Russian tourists.

Some Eastern European, Baltic and Nordic states have suggested adopting a complete visa ban. Given the current situation, they argued, Russian tourists should not be allowed to visit Europe without any limits. But the EU at that time was too divided to agree on a full ban.

Several countries, such as Estonia and Lithuania, have decided to restrict the entry of Russian citizens at the national level. Others (Latvia and Finland, for example) have said they will not welcome Russians fleeing the military mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21. The EU eventually decided to further tighten visa regulations in response to the growing number of Russians trying to enter the bloc.

Let’s see what the data tells us about Russians traveling to Europe.

How much do Russians travel?

According to data published by the independent polling agency Levada Center, the number of Russians traveling abroad has steadily increased over the past decades.

In 1996, 16% of people questioned said they had been abroad. In 2022, this figure was 41%. The highest share was recorded in Moscow (62%) and cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants (45%).

In 2019, Turkey was the most common destination for Russians. Nearly 7 million departures were recorded that year. Russians also made more than 16 million trips to European Union countries, with Finland, Estonia and Germany being the top destinations.

How do Russians arrive in Europe?

To travel to the EU, Russians must apply for a short-stay visa. If the country they are going to is a member of the Schengen area, they apply for a short-stay Schengen visa. An application form, passport, itinerary and other documents are required, as well as a visa appointment at one of the Schengen consulates in Russia.

Five EU members – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania – are not members of the Schengen area and therefore cannot issue visas for the whole area. Visa requirements are similar, but the visa is only valid for the country that issued it.

On the other hand, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are not members of the EU but are members of the Schengen area. Therefore, they can issue visas for the whole region.

Between 2012 and 2021, approximately 123 million short-stay Schengen visas were issued at Schengen member consulates around the world.

Nearly 38 million (or around 30%) of them were issued at consulates in Russia – far more than any other country during the same period. Consulates in China, for example, issued around 14% of all Schengen visas.

Between 2014 and 2021, 4 million additional visas were issued worldwide to enter Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. Almost half of them were issued in Russia. However, these visas do not allow holders to visit the Schengen area.

The highest number of Schengen visas issued in Russia was granted in 2013, almost 7 million. The lowest number was in 2016 at nearly 3.5 million. Even fewer visas (about 600,000) were issued in 2020 and 2021, mainly due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Short-stay Schengen visas can be issued for single or multiple entry purposes. As the name suggests, holders of Single Entry Visas (SEV) can enter the Schengen area once and must obtain a new visa for each trip, while holders of Multiple Entry Visas (MEV) can enter and leave the Schengen area. as many times as they wish. The 90/180 rule, which allows holders to spend up to 90 days in the region during a 180-day period, still applies.

Globally, the share of all VEMs increased from 42% in 2012 to 59% in 2019, and up to 72% in 2021. Visas issued at consulates in Russia followed the same trend, but at above the world average. In 2012, about half of the visas issued in Russia were VEM. The share exceeded 80% in 2016 and reached nearly 88% in 2021.

The fact that VEMs are usually granted after obtaining and using several VSEs suggests that visa applicants at consulates in Russia are frequent travelers rather than occasional ones.

Schengen visas are generally valid for all countries in the Schengen area. However, visitors should keep in mind that they should apply at the consulate of the country they intend to visit (or their main destination, if they plan to visit multiple countries).

Between 2012 and 2021, Finland was the top destination for people applying for a Schengen visa at consulates in Russia, followed by Spain and Greece.

Bulgarian consulates in Russia also issued a significant number of visas, around 1.8 million, between 2014 and 2021 (previous data is not available). These visas were only valid domestically, as Bulgaria cannot issue Schengen visas.

The Russians in Europe after the invasion

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, more than 1.36 million Russians have entered the Schengen area legally through land borders, mainly via Finland and Estonia (data as of October 5 ). More than 1.31 million Russians have returned to Russia via its land borders with the EU.

According to Frontex, these travelers were probably finding alternative routes due to restricted flight connections.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military mobilization on September 21, the number of entries at the EU land border increased by 30% (in the week of September 19-25 compared to the week previous), according to Frontex. There has also been a spike in Google searches for ways to leave Russia and reports of one-way airfares from Russia have skyrocketed. Frontex foresees an increase in illegal border crossings and illegal stays.

Close the borders

Opinions on whether Russian tourists should be banned from the EU are still divided. Showing support for Ukraine, reducing security threats and putting more pressure on Moscow are among the main arguments for the ban. On the other hand, those who oppose the ban cite the need to help people fleeing Russia and a desire not to contribute to anti-Western Kremlin propaganda.

By September 19, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland had almost completely restricted border crossings for Russians with Schengen visas. In August, Finland announced it would reduce Russian visas by 90% and then closed its border due to recent developments, with a few exceptions. The last remaining part of the land border with the Schengen area, in Norway, is now guarded with tight security and may also be closed in the future. Other countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have said they will not issue humanitarian visas to Russians trying to avoid mobilization.

After reports of thousands of Russians fleeing to Georgia, Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries, German embassies in the region reported an increase in visa applications. However, according to the latest EU guidelines, member states should not accept visa applications from Russians in a third country, further narrowing the window of opportunity to travel to the EU.