Americans accustomed to visa-free travel to most of Europe — specifically the Schengen zone, which consists of most of the European Union (EU), plus a few additional non-EU countries — will need to adapt to some new regulatory changes on the horizon.
Effective in 2021, these changes will require U.S. citizens to apply and be approved in advance for a European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) visa prior to boarding a ship or airplane. Although described specifically as a visa, enrollment and approval, or denial, takes place online, dispensing with the need to appear before a consular officer of the primary European nation of destination. There is, needless to say, a fee for filing the application.
You may be wondering what has prompted the changes. The Europeans describe the new system as an aid to detecting and interdicting terrorists, and no doubt that is true. I'm hard pressed to remember any American being involved in a terrorist attack on European soil, but I have no problem recalling American victims of terrorism in Europe (see, e.g., here and here), and even Americans foiling terrorist attacks in Europe.
In fairness, though, various U.S. citizens, native-born or naturalized, plus quite a number of permanent residents, have been convicted here in our own country of terrorism-related offenses, which no doubt makes Europeans nervous in the same way that we worry about jihadists holding British or French (or German or Swedish or Dutch, etc.) citizenship being able to travel visa-free to our country and engage in terrorism or criminal acts. But while terrorism is one legitimate rationale for the system, it is almost certainly also a question of reciprocity, which is always a principle that looms large in international relations.
ETIAS is Europe's way of maintaining balance and reciprocity in its travel requirements with those imposed by the United States on Visa Waiver Program countries (mostly in Europe) through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Like ETIAS, ESTA is also a pre-travel requirement that may be fulfilled online for a nominal fee. Upon approval, nationals of Visa Waiver Program countries may then board their ship or plane for the United States, where, on arrival, they will have biometric data taken by inspecting U.S. officers and briefly questioned as to their travel plans. Absent any wrinkles, these individuals are then admitted to the United States as nonimmigrant visitors.
While both ETIAS and ESTA are an additional bureaucratic procedure imposed by their respective nation(s), each has been made as least burdensome as possible through online registration procedures and, in a world beset with radical ideologies and horrific terror attacks, they are a small price to pay for the added security of knowing that the fellow sitting next to you on an airplane or the next cabin over on your vessel, whether going to Europe or coming back, has had at least some small modicum of vetting.