Getting Prepared for Your European Adventure

By Rick Steves

Planning a trip to Europe is an exciting endeavor that requires careful preparation, especially when it comes to gathering the necessary documents. Before you embark on your European adventure, it’s crucial to think ahead and ensure that you have all the required paperwork. In this article, we’ll guide you through the essential documents you’ll need and provide helpful tips to make your journey hassle-free.

Passports: Your Gateway to Europe

For most travelers from the US and Canada, a passport is the primary travel document required to enter Europe. However, it’s important to note that the US Passport Card is only valid for travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean when traveling by land or sea. When it comes to reentering the United States, your passport will receive the greatest scrutiny from customs officials. It’s worth mentioning that the requirements are subject to change, and by mid-2025, travelers may need to register online for travel authorization to most European countries.

Canadian citizens can refer to the government of Canada’s travel site for detailed passport information.

Obtaining or Renewing Your Passport

If you don’t have a valid passport or need to renew an existing one, the process is straightforward. A US passport is valid for 10 years and costs $130, with an additional $35 acceptance fee. For minors under 16 years old, the passport is valid for five years and costs $100, along with the $35 acceptance fee. It’s important to note that minors must apply in person with at least one parent and provide the other parent’s notarized permission.

You can apply for a passport at various locations, including courthouses, libraries, post offices, and city halls. The State Department provides an online tool to find your nearest passport-acceptance facility, or you can call 877 487 2778 for assistance. However, it’s crucial to allow ample time for processing, as wait times can vary. During busier periods, such as peak travel seasons, waits of 12 weeks or more are common. To stay updated on your application status and estimated arrival date, visit the State Department website.

In cases where you need your passport sooner than the current processing times allow, you can make an appointment at the nearest US Passport Agency. By paying an additional $60 expediting fee and overnight shipping fees, you can significantly reduce the turnaround time. Details on estimated waits can be found online, or you can contact customer service for urgent situations. If you can provide evidence of immediate travel plans, such as a purchased airline ticket or a work-related letter requiring you to travel overseas on short notice, you may be eligible to receive a passport in 24 to 72 hours.

Always keep an eye on your passport’s expiration date, as many European countries require a passport to be valid for at least six months from your ticketed date of return to the United States. This means that even if your passport’s expiration is a few months away, you may be denied entry to a country. Check the specific requirements of your destination country and ensure you have at least one blank passport page. If necessary, renew your passport well in advance of your trip to avoid any complications.

Traveling with Your Passport in Europe

While exploring Europe, it’s crucial to safeguard your passport. Store it in a secure place, such as a money belt, and return it to its secure location immediately after presenting it to authorities. You’ll need to show your passport at your first point of entry into Europe, again when leaving Europe, and when reentering the US. Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls between most European countries, you’ll likely encounter few passport checks during travel within the Schengen zone. However, certain exceptions apply, particularly when traveling between the British Isles and the Continent. Additionally, some countries may implement temporary internal border checks during periods of increased security.

Replacing Your Passport Mid-Trip

In the unfortunate event of losing or having your passport stolen while traveling, having copies and passport photos can significantly ease the replacement process. It’s advisable to carry physical and digital copies of your passport and have extra passport-size pictures on hand. By being prepared, you can expedite the replacement process and minimize any disruptions to your trip.

Visas and Travel Authorizations

For Americans and Canadians traveling to European countries covered by the Schengen Agreement, visas are generally not required. The same applies to travelers going to the Republic of Ireland, the UK, and Turkey. However, it’s important to note that most European countries will soon require travelers to register with the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). This online application process is expected to be affordable and fast, with authorization typically granted within minutes. ETIAS authorization is valid for three years, unless your passport expires before then. For further details, refer to our comprehensive ETIAS explainer and visit the official EU ETIAS page for the latest information.

If you plan to travel beyond the Schengen zone, it’s advisable to consult your travel agent or check with the US State Department for information on visas and other necessary documentation.

No Visa Required

When entering a country without a visa, you are granted “short-stay visitor” status. In the Schengen area, this means you can stay for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. Most non-Schengen countries in Europe also have a 90-day limit, with the exception of the UK, which allows stays of up to six months within a 12-month period. If your trip exceeds the three-month mark, you may need to plan your travel accordingly or explore the option of obtaining a long-stay visa.

ETIAS Registration

By mid-2025, US and Canadian citizens traveling to most European countries will be required to apply online for entry authorization. The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) is expected to offer a quick and inexpensive application process, with most authorizations granted within minutes. The authorization remains valid for three years, unless your passport expires before then. Stay updated on the latest details by visiting the official EU ETIAS page.

Turkey

As of 2024, regular American and Canadian passport holders no longer require a visa to visit Turkey for up to 90 days. However, it’s essential to ensure that your passport remains valid for at least six months following your date of entry to Turkey. Sufficient space for entry and exit stamps is also required. For detailed information, refer to the US Embassy in Turkey and Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Covid-19 Vaccination Records

While most countries no longer require proof of Covid-19 vaccination for entry, some tour companies may still have vaccination requirements. To stay prepared, it’s recommended to carry a copy of your vaccine record and save a scan or photo of your Covid-19 vaccine card on your phone.

Student Cards

Students in high school or college can save money by carrying their school ID cards while traveling in Europe. Additionally, individuals under 26 years old may be eligible for various discounts throughout Europe. Simply show your ID at ticket counters, museums, and transportation stations to avail of these benefits. It’s important to note that some discounts may only apply to EU residents.

Some young travelers prefer to carry the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which provides discounts on transportation and sightseeing worldwide. The ISIC offers both physical and virtual card options, available for purchase on the ISIC website. Virtual cards cost $20 (with an additional $5 for a physical card) and remain valid for one year from the date of issue. To qualify for an ISIC, you must be a full-time student.

Driver Documents

If you plan to rent a car during your European trip, it’s essential to be aware of the driving regulations. In some countries, such as Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Italy, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is required. Individual car rental companies may also request an IDP in other countries. You can obtain an IDP for $20 plus tax from AAA before your departure. Even if you don’t plan on renting a car, it’s advisable to carry your driver’s license as an alternative form of identification for certain situations, such as leaving a piece of ID when renting a bike or an audio guide.

Back Up Key Documents

Before traveling, it’s highly recommended to make copies, scans, or photos of essential documents. Packing physical copies and having digital versions available on your phone or an easily accessible online platform, such as Dropbox, can be valuable in case of loss or theft. Additionally, leaving a physical copy with a trusted individual back home can provide peace of mind in case of an emergency. Be sure to back up the following documents:

  • Passport and any visa information
  • Car-rental voucher
  • Prescriptions for eyewear and medicine

While it’s not advisable to copy debit or credit cards, it’s recommended to keep a record of your card numbers in a secure place. Consider carrying extra passport-sized pictures to expedite the replacement process in case of a lost or stolen passport. If you’re traveling with a companion, it can be helpful to carry copies of each other’s passports and other important documents. Ensure that you safeguard your physical copies as diligently as you would the original documents. One useful method is to discreetly store them in a pouch securely attached to the bottom of your luggage.

It’s also wise to have backup physical or digital copies of your itinerary, including hotel and car rental confirmations, as well as sightseeing reservations. Utilizing an itinerary-storage website like Tripit can be beneficial. Additionally, printed copies of key reservations can come in handy when technology fails to cooperate.

By taking the time to gather and organize the necessary documents for your European trip, you’ll ensure a smooth and enjoyable travel experience. Remember to plan well in advance, keep your documents secure, and stay informed about any changes in travel requirements. With everything in order, you can focus on exploring the diverse and captivating destinations Europe has to offer.

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