The European Union (abbreviated "EU") is an economic and political union of 27 member states that are located primarily in Europe.
The European Union was motivated by the catastrophe of World War II. The idea of "European integration" was developed to prevent such a disastrous war from happening again. The idea was first proposed by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman in a speech in 1950, which resulted in the first agreements in 1951 that formed the basis for the European Union.
There are at least four groups of countries in Europe that overlap but are not identical:
The European Union (EU), a partial political and customs union (which Croatia will join on 1 July 2013)
The Eurozone, countries using the common European currency, the Euro
The Schengen Agreement, countries using common visas and immigration controls
The Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), which entered into force on 1 January 1994, brings together the 27 EU Member States and the three EEA EFTA States of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — in a single market, referred to as the "Internal Market". The EEA Agreement also states that when a country becomes a member of the EU, it shall also apply to become party to the EEA Agreement, thus leading to an enlargement of the EEA. The EEA used to include Switzerland and most countries' visa regimes treat Swiss passport holders as if Switzerland was still an EEA member.
Here is a table showing membership of these 4 groups:
3 Officially the whole of Cyprus lies within the European Union. However, the de facto EU border runs along the Green Line, dividing the country in a Greek and Turkish part. EU law is currently not applied in the Turkish northern third of Cyprus.
4 The first symbol is the letter code to be shown on the rear of vehicles and the second is the internet top level domain symbol.
There are many ways to enter the EEA; your best course of action is to read up on the individual nation you wish to enter.
Passport and visa requirements
You will have to get a visa from your "primary destination" country. In the case of Schengen Treaty countries, that visa is then valid for all other signatory countries. See the "Get around" section.
The 90 days visa-free stay for citizens of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America applies for the whole Schengen area; in other words, it is not 90 days per country. Citizens of the above countries who wish to travel within the Schengen Treaty region for longer than 90 days must apply for a residency permit. This is best done in Germany, as all other Schengen countries require applicants to apply from their home countries. Alternatively, you can sneakily arrange your travel to spend 90 days in the UK or Ireland (or other non-Schengen countries) to satisfy the "90 days in 180 days" provision.
The largest airports in the European Union are in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and Paris. Countless smaller international and regional airports exist.
You are legally allowed to bring through the EU border limited amounts of tobacco (exact numbers depend on your arrival country) and 1 litre of spirits (above 22% alcohol) or 2 L of alcohol (e.g. sparkling wine below 22% alcohol) and 4 L of non-sparkling wine and 16 L of beer. If you are below 17 years old it's half of these amounts or nothing at all .
Passport and visa requirements
There are no border controls between countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen Agreement signatory country is valid in all other countries that signed the treaty. Travel to and from a Schengen Agreement country to any other non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks.
These countries have implemented the Schengen agreement so far: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Denmark, France, Finland, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty and not all Schengen treaty countries are members of the European Union. Several countries are members of the Schengen Agreement, but nevertheless have not implemented it. Switzerland became a full Schengen member in 2008, as did all the other EEA members at that time. Three European micro-states – Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City – do not have any immigration controls with the Schengen countries. Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania will follow at a later date, perhaps as late as 2016.
Citizens of EU and EEA member countries don't need visas to visit other member countries.
The European Union has an extensive selection of low-cost carriers, which can fly freely within the Union.
All flights within and from the European Union limit liquids, gels and creams in hand baggage to 100 mL/container, carried in a transparent, zip-lock plastic bag (1 L or less). The bag must be presented during security checks and only one bag per passenger is permitted.
At some airports, airlines will still insist on seeing your ID card or passport.
There is a set of traffic signs valid in many EU countries. The most important are described here:
Speed limit - A round white or yellow board surrounded by a red ring with a black number in the middle. This is the maximum allowed speed in km/h. 1
End of Speed limit - A round white board with a gray number on it (speed in km/h 1), slashed with 4 thin black lines.
Stop - A red octagon with 'STOP' in white letters.
Yield - A white or yellow triangle surrounded by a red edge standing on one corner.
Priority street - A yellow square with a white edge standing on a corner.
End of priority - The same, but slashed with 4 thin black lines.
No overtaking - A round white or yellow board with a red edge and a red car on the left and a black car on the right inside. Often the sign is only valid for trucks and shows a red truck in this case. 2
1 All speed limits and distances are measured and marked in miles or mph in the United Kingdom.
Both the EU and the EEA offer limited support for Eurovelo; that is implementing cross-Europe cycling routes, linking local infrastructure into long distance touring routes.
European Central Bank, Frankfurt
The euro (Symbol: €; ISO 4217 code EUR) is the common currency of many countries of the European Union. One euro equals 100 cents, unofficially referred to as 'euro cent' to differentiate them from their US and other counterparts.
The European countries shown in the table above have replaced their national currencies with the common European currency, the € (euro). They are often commonly referred to as the "Eurozone". As well as many EU members, the euro is also the currency of Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Andorra, Kosovo, and Montenegro even though they are neither members of the euro treaty, nor the European Union. The first three countries are allowed to mint their own euro coins.
The euro has not been adopted by all EU countries. The 17 countries of the EU, that have replaced their own national currencies are commonly called the Eurozone. Some other EU countries are due to replace their currencies with the euro over the next few years. 3 countries (Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) currently have no intention of adopting the euro in the foreseeable future, however some shops accept both local currency and euros.
Established in 1999 and introduced as bank notes and coins on 1 Jan 2002, the euro removes the need for money exchange. It is not only a boon to pan-european business, but to travellers also.
It's not a good idea to accept any of the obsolete currencies. While several countries' banks will still change them into euros, it's a lot of hassle and there is no guarantee that this will be possible everywhere or on short notice. You should also expect to have to give your personal details to the bank as a precaution against money laundering. You're very unlikely to come across any of the old currencies - and if you do, they might make great souvenirs.
Throughout Europe, automatic teller machines are readily available. They will accept various European bank cards as well as credit cards. However, be prepared to pay a fee for the service (usually a percentage of the amount withdrawn, with a minimum of a few euro). Read the notices on the machine before using.