Can a non-EU travel within the Schengen Area with only the EU residence card? The short answer is no.
Wait, what? I thought there’s free movement within the Schengen Area? Well, not really, it depends.
Here’s the long story about how I found that out the hard way.
My flight from Madrid to Toulouse (France) was at 6:30AM, I was going to spend the weekend for a good friend’s birthday. No, I didn’t oversleep. I actually woke up at 4AM (no snoozing!) and got an Uber to pick me up on the dot at 4:30AM headed to Madrid Barajas airport. The problem was during these 30 minutes, I realized I didn’t have my (by the way Vietnamese) passport with me!
What kind of traveller that doesn’t have a passport with her? Well, the kind that needs to apply for visa constantly.
Where the heck is it then? Recently I applied to the UK tourist visa. Unless you already have visa-exemption to enter the UK, EU residence doesn’t grant free access to the UK even if you’re traveling from mainland Europe. This definitely won’t get any better soon with Brexit.
Anyway, the application went okay, not particularly terrible but not great. I paid 176 EUR for just the application fee with no guarantee whatsoever. The decision makers are in the UK. The visa office in Spain could not even tell if I had turned in enough paperworks. “We don’t know,” they said, “you’ll get notified in about three weeks!”. No wonders they have all these expedite services at additional costs. And if you want to withdraw your passport during the processing time, you’ll need to pay 80EUR! Eh, that is f*cked up! I mean, first of all, they’re asking people to pay to keep their possession. Secondly, they can still process the visa without the physical passport, which can be re-submitted for the visa stamp when it’s ready! It’s THAT simple.
So there you go, my passport got imprisoned at the UK visa center.
Okay… fast forward to the date of my flight to Toulouse, when immigration was not too loose and I had everything to lose (yes, puns intended). I freaked out but I also thought – well, let’s just give it a shot with my Spanish residence card. After all, there’s free movement within the European Union or so I thought. Also, I reckoned it could help to bring along my UK visa receipt – where it said my passport had been kept hostage.
FYI, flying from Spain to France generally is a piece of cake, there are tens of airlines operating daily routes in multiple cities between the two countries. Aaaaand, EU nationals can cross any border within the Schengen Area passport-free, their national IDs would be enough.
Not the case for non-EUs!
Passing through security wasn’t so difficult since all I needed to do was scanning my digital boarding pass. However, when I got to gate, the truth revealed. The airline (RyanAir) agent – a Spanish lady – couldn’t be more rude:
“I currently don’t have it. I submitted for a visa application, I thought I could travel with my resi…”
She cut me off and held up my residence card, “Get a temporary passport. This card is for Spain only. Next in line!”
(The above conversation has been roughly translated, everything was in Spanish.)
I was so speechless I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t pull out any proof saying that it’s allowed for legal non-EU-national residents to travel with just the national permits anyway. Most of the time, the airports barely look at one’s document in case of Schengen travels This time, this lady just had to disregard my residence status and humiliate me in public. She was not even an immigration officer! Why making it hard on everyone?! I do know non-EU peeps who have crossed borders (including via plane) without having to worry about their visa or passport; however, that argument didn’t appear too convincing at that moment. I’ve been researching left and right since to find a proper and legal answer for my case but didn’t have much luck. Either my case is so rare or people don’t talk about it openly.
I know I know, I should have my passport under any circumstances! But you see, I don’t always have control over keeping it!
Back to the airport, I didn’t fight for it, I wasn’t sure how, moreover I thought I’d had enough records with the customs. Maybe if I had encountered a less strict agent, things would have been different. I don’t know, but I would much rather be stuck in Spain where I can legally reside than get into trouble with the French immigration customs. I returned to my apartment when the first rays of sun touched the city. Many were still asleep but for me it felt like like a really long day already.
That said, I am grateful for that I didn’t have any travel buddy so no one else got affected. I am grateful that I didn’t lose money for accommodation on top of the non-refundable flight because I was going to stay at my friends’ apartment. I am grateful for having a means to contact and let my friends know the situation immediately. And I am grateful that I have visited Toulouse before so this is not my only memory about this beautiful city!
My problem now is not missing my friend’s birthday weekend but that I’m trapped for a while until my passport is back. That UK visa just added some hundred euros (flight + uber) to its original cost. All this money and effort still don’t guarantee that I will get the visa. Moments like this make me want to change my identity, specifically the color of my passport. However, they also make unique and amusing stories, and I can deal with that for now!