Step two: The journey

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Since the 1980s, European and other states have sought to prevent certain categories of person, in particular asylum-seekers, arriving on their territory. A key method for doing so has been the introduction of ‘carrier sanctions’ – penalties against travel companies (‘carriers’) that transport people without the correct papers.[1]

Carrier sanctions have been heavily criticised for privatising immigration control measures, as they require that private companies take on the type of task traditionally reserved for public authorities. They are a key reason so many refugees arrive in the EU on foot or in unseaworthy boats – they cannot acquire visas and so cannot travel by plane, bus or any other means reserved for ‘bona fide’ travellers.[2] For individuals who have managed to acquire a visa or, in the future, a travel authorisation, checks carried out by travel companies represent another link in the chain of control that is being extended to all categories of ‘legitimate’ traveller.

Carriers can already make phone calls to check the validity of visas held by people travelling to the Schengen area. In the future, this process will be simplified and travel authorisations will be subject to similar checks. When the revamped VIS and the ETIAS come into use, airline, ferry and coach companies will be given access to the systems’ central databases to verify whether passengers have a valid visa or travel authorisation or not, although they will not be able to see any of the data held in the systems.

Travel companies will have to enter a passenger’s name and travel document details (such as number and issuing country) into an online portal, which may be done by scanning the machine-readable zone on their passport or travel document. This will send the information to the central database of either the VIS or the ETIAS, which will send one of two responses: ‘OK’, or ‘NOT OK’.[3]

The following step is simple enough: travellers who are OK will be allowed to board; those who are NOT OK will not. However, if a company allows an individual whose details trigger a NOT OK message to board – whether wilfully, or by a failure to check – they can be fined by the state to which they are travelling, or even punished by confiscation of property or withdrawal of transport licences. There is no systematic data on the application of carrier sanctions, but recent research suggests fines across the EU member states reach millions of euros every year.[4]

Carriers are also responsible for taking back those ‘NOT OK’ passengers they have transported, leading to further costs for the companies. For the individual, refusal of passage will undoubtedly have a financial impact – such as wasted travel tickets – but may have far more serious, unquantifiable costs, such as inability to see a loved one or, in the most serious cases, inability to find a place of refuge.

If a visa or travel authorisation holder travels to the Schengen area by plane, a separate set of personal data will also be shared with law enforcement authorities. As noted previously, under the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, this data will be handed to a ‘Passenger Information Unit’ for checks against national, European and international databases and for use in a profiling system. It is likely that there will be demands to extend this system to boat, rail and coach travel in the future.[5] A pilot project between Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK is currently examining the use of such a system for high-speed train travel.[6]

Previous section: Step one: Making an application | Next section: Step three: At the border


[1] Erika Feller, ‘Carrier Sanctions and International Law’, International Journal of Refugee Law, 1(1), 1989, pp.48-66,; The Schengen acquis - Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement of 14 June 1985 between the Governments of the States of the Benelux Economic Union, the Federal Republic of Germany and the French Republic on the gradual abolition of checks at their common borders,; Council Directive 2001/51/EC of 28 June 2001 supplementing the provisions of Article 26 of the Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement of 14 June 1985,

[2] ‘Criminalising asylum: The EU adopts the French immigration proposals’, Statewatch News, August 2001,

[3] Article 45(2), Regulation (EU) 2018/1240,; Article 45b(4), Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EC) No 767/2008,

[4] Theodore Baird, ‘Carrier Sanctions in Europe: A Comparison of Trends in 10 Countries’, European Journal of Migration and Law, 19(3), 2017, pp.307-334,

[5] ‘EU Council Presidency proposes follow-up on extending PNR to sea and rail traffic’, Statewatch News, 3 August 2019,

[6] Heini Järvinen, ‘Belgium agrees on passenger controls of international rail traffic’, European Digital Rights, 8 February 2017,


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