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Schengen opens borders for foreigners in Switzerland

Border police still do spot checks

(Keystone)

As of Monday, holders of Swiss residence permits no longer need transit visas to travel through countries which are part of the European Union's Schengen area.

The new rules will make life easier and cheaper for an estimated 500,000 non-EU nationals resident in Switzerland.

Natives of the Balkans were among the first to take advantage of the eased restrictions, leaving Zurich by car on Monday armed with only their "B" or "C" permits and their passports.

The new rules will be of particular benefit to nationals of the Balkans and Turkey, who previously needed transit visas for Austria or Italy, depending on their route.

Under the new rules, non-EU nationals with Swiss permits can spend up to five days travelling through Schengen states without a transit visa.

Border controls

Swiss voters decided in a nationwide ballot last year to join the Schengen area. Once the accord is in force between Switzerland and the EU – on or after 2008 - it will effectively scrap border controls between the alpine nation and 15 other Schengen states.

Several non-Schengen members – Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus – have also agreed to scrap requirements for transit visas. Hungary is expected to follow suit from September.

Scrapping transit visas will significantly ease the administration and costs incurred by both travellers and embassies and consulates in Switzerland. The Italian embassy, for instance, was issuing up to 25,000 visas a year, 95 per cent of which were for transit purposes.

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In brief

In June and September 2005, Swiss voters came out in favour of government proposals to work closely with the EU on crime fighting and asylum, and to gradually open the labour market to nationals of the EU's newer member states.

Relations with the EU are defined by two packages of bilateral treaties.

To improve the working of these agreements, which cover several areas, the possibility of a "framework agreement" is being mooted.

Before the summer, the government plans to publish a report on relations between Switzerland and the EU.

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Key facts

94% of visas handed out in Switzerland are transit visas.
More than 700,000 foreigners in Switzerland come from non-EU countries.
Until now they have needed a special visa to cross Schengen countries to visit their homelands.

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