The implementation of the common European Union Visa policy would be, if not impossible, then slightly more difficult to function without the help of technology. The EU has developed many large scale IT systems and the Visa Information System (VIS) is one of them. Its establishment represents one of the key initiatives of the EU aimed at the creation of an area of justice, security and freedom.
What is VIS?
The Visa Information System (VIS) is an IT system for collecting, processing and sharing information among the EU states pertinent to the management of the external borders.
The sole purpose of establishing the VIS is to make the sharing of information between the Schengen Area member states possible. It consists of a central IT system that is linked to the national system of each member state through a communication infrastructure and collects all of the information entered in the latter, thus permitting the Schengen countries to exchange visa data.
The central system registers every information that is entered in the national systems as decisions relating to applicants for short stay visas to visit, and also performs matching, primarily of fingerprints, for identification and verification purposes.
The VIS enables an easier way to verify the identity of the person presenting the visa at border checks in the Schengen territory thus avoiding fraudulent documents and fighting and preventing fraudulent behaviours such as “Visa shopping”. It also facilitates the process of visa issuance, especially for frequent travellers, and makes it easier to decide which of the European Union states is responsible for the examination of an asylum application.
The operational management of VIS is done by the EU Agency for large-scale IT systems, eu-LISA.
What are the Objectives of VIS?
The main objectives of the Visa Information System (VIS) are to improve the implementation of the common visa policy, consular collaboration and consultations between the central visa authorities through:
- Facilitating checks – by helping border guards to identify the identity of every person that presents a Schengen visa to them. And, also to identify persons with fake documents or no documents at all in the Schengen Area.
- Facilitating the issuance of visas – by helping the immigration authorities to confirm the identity of each applicant faster and more accurately. The VIS facilitates the visa-issuance process, especially for frequent Schengen Visa travellers.
- Fighting abuses – the VIS helps immigration authorities of each Member State to identify overstays, irregular migrants and also to fight and prevent fraudulent behaviours as “visa shopping” etc.
- Protecting Travelers – by identifying other travellers using someone else’s identity to enter the Schengen Area.
- Helping with asylum applications – facilitating the application of the Dublin II Regulation by making it easier to decide which EU state is responsible for the examining of an asylum application.
- Enhancing security – by preventing, detecting and investigating serious criminal offences as terrorist offences.
Collecting of Biometric Data – How Does it Work?
The biometric data that are collected and stored in the VIS, are valid for access by the relevant authorities of each member state, for no more than five years after their collection. After five years, this information shall be erased from the central and national systems too.
According to Art 5 of the VIS Regulation, the following categories of data shall be collected in the Visa Information System:
Alphanumeric data on the applicant and on visas requested, issued, refused, erased, revoked or extended.
A new photograph can be digitally taken at the time of the application or an already existing one can be scanned and then entered into the VIS. The photograph has to fulfill all of the standards set by the ISCO.
When you submit your application form and other documents required for a visa, on the interview day, you will also have your fingerprints scanned. Then your fingerprints will be checked through the system. If you have ever had your fingerprints scanned in the Schengen territory for reasons like criminal offences, visa fraud, overstaying etc., then the VIS will transmit this information to the national system of the Member State which is processing your application.
There are some groups of people that are exempt from fingerprint collecting:
- Children younger than twelve years old,
- Persons for whom the collection of fingerprints is physically impossible,
- Heads of State and members of National Governments, their accompanying spouses, and their official delegation when on an official visit
Once fingerprint scans are stored in the VIS, they can be re‐used for further visa applications over a 5‐year period, therefore frequent travelers to the Schengen Area do not have to give new finger scans every time they apply for a new visa. However, in case of reasonable doubt regarding the identity of the applicant, the consulate shall collect again fingerprints within the 5 year period specified above.
It is a general rule that if you have new cuts or burns in any of your fingerprints, you will have to wait until they heal to get your fingers scanned.
When the traveller arrives at the Schengen Area external borders, his or her finger scans may be compared against those held in the database. In case of a mismatch, there will be further checks on the traveller’s identity.
Links to previous visa applications
If the traveller has visited other countries before, then his visas will be stored in the VIS. The date of entry and exit, and also the country and period of stay will be entered into the system.
Which Countries use VIS?
Every Schengen Area member country is using the VIS, in order to fully implement the common visa policy of this Area. Schengen Area Consists of 22 European Union Member States and four other associated states, part of the European Free Trade Association (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland).
Who Can Access VIS?
Only competent authorities have access to the VIS, for entering or consulting data. Every data entered by one of the Schengen member states is accessible for the visa authorities of the other Schengen member states only when examining applications. The duly authorized staff of visa authorities has the exclusive right to enter, amend or delete data.
The other authorities only have access to the visa for consultative reasons. These authorities are:
- National border authorities can access the VIS to verify the identity of the holder and the authenticity of the visa.
- National authorities carrying out checks inside Schengen States
- Competent national asylum authorities can access the VIS fingerprint database when determining the member country responsible or the examining of an asylum application.
- Provided that certain legal conditions are fulfilled: Europol and national law enforcement authorities The procedures for consultations under such circumstances are laid down in Council Decision 2008/633/JHA.
The Schengen member states have agreed that the VIS data cannot be accessed by a third country or an international organization.
How is VIS Data Protected?
Only a limited number of authorized staff of each Schengen Zone member state has access to the VIS data, and that with the sole purpose of performing their duties. There are strict rules on the protection of the data, which is kept in the VIS for only a maximum of five years.
On the other hand, every person has the right of getting the information about data on him or her in the VIS, and also to request in the correction of inaccurate data, if such thing happens.
There are also the National Supervisory authorities that monitor the lawfulness of the processing of personal data in each of the Schengen Territory member states.
Where Does VIS Operate?
The VIS operates in every country the residents of which need a visa to enter any of the Schengen Area member states, and where there is at least one embassy or consulate of the member states.
However, it did not start operating on the same day or even the same year, in all the embassies and consulates of the Schengen Area member states in the world. Instead, it started operating gradually, country after country, as follows:
- North Africa – October 2011,
- Near East – May 2012,
- Gulf region – October 2012,
- West and Central Africa – March 2013,
- East and Southern Africa – June 2013,
- South America – September 2013,
- Central and South-East Asia and the occupied Palestinian territory – November 2013,
- Central and North America, the Caribbean and Australasia – May 2014,
- Turkey and the Western Balkans – September 2014,
- EU’s Eastern Partnership countries – June 2015,
- Russia – September 2015,
- China, Japan and neighboring countries – October 2015,
- South Asia region – November 2015.