Bulgaria in Schengen. The important changes for foreigners living in Bulgaria

Published On: 03/04/2024

Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area is important news for foreigners who are residing in the country or want to visit Bulgaria.

With the EU Council Decision, the Bulgarian visa or residence permit become an extremely valuable document.

It is important to note that in Article 1 of the EU Council Decision, the EU member states agree that: “From 31 March 2024, checks on persons at internal air and sea borders with and between Bulgaria and Romania shall be lifted and the provisions of the Schengen acquis referred to in the Annex shall apply to Bulgaria and Romania between themselves and in their relations with […]”, following a list of the countries that are part of the Schengen area. Subsequently, a further decision should be taken by the Council to establish a date for the lifting of checks at internal land borders.

However, despite the fact that for now Bulgaria’s border controls are lifted only for the air and sea borders, the EU Council Decision approves of the full application of the provisions of the Schengen acquis in Bulgaria.

Therefore, we will further analyse what are the changes resulting from the EU Council Decision for the different groups of foreigners residing in Bulgaria, as well as for the Bulgarian citizens.

I. Changes at the borders.


 1. Air borders.

According to the Schengen Borders Code, citizens travelling to and from Schengen countries are not subject to passport control.

Considering the air border checks, from the end of March 2024, Bulgaria has  to ensure that the airport operators at Sofia, Varna, Burgas and Plovdiv airports separate passenger flows – those for flights within the Schengen area and those travelling to and from third countries outside the Schengen area. In the cases of passengers travelling to and from third non-Schengen countries, passengers’ ID documents will be checked as before – at the passport control point of the departure airport as well as the destination airport.

On connecting flights to third non-Schengen countries, where the initial passage is through a Schengen country, the check will be performed at the airport of entry or exit to/from the Schengen area as well as in the third non-Schengen country. For example: if one flies from Sofia to Tbilisi with a stopover in Athens, there will be no passport control in Sofia airport before Sofia-Athens flight, as this flight is carried out within the Schengen area, but there will be passport control in Athens airport before boarding the second flight Athens-Tbilisi as well as on arrival in Tbilisi airport.

  1. Sea borders.

The Schengen Borders Code states that in cases where the ship does not leave the Schengen borders, people on board “shall not be subject to systematic border checks”.

  1. Land borders.

For this moment, Bulgaria’s border checks with Romania and Schengen countries are lifted only by air and sea. In the EU Council Decision, it is mentioned that: “The Council shall endeavour to take a decision lifting checks on persons at internal land borders. That decision shall be taken by the Council acting by unanimity […]”. Therefore, the internal border checks when travelling by land, remain unchanged for the time being.

Bulgarian citizens enjoy full freedom of movement within the European Union. Hence, the admission of Bulgaria to the Schengen area means that Bulgarian citizens would travel faster due to the lifting of the border checks on passengers at air and sea borders between Bulgaria, Romania and Schengen member states.

II. Changes for the third country citizens with a residence in Bulgaria

Before the EU Council Decision, a foreign citizen for whom a Schengen visa is normally required (e.g. citizen of Belarus or the Russian Federation) would require a Schengen visa to travel to a Schengen country and would not be able to travel to Schengen counties visa-free with a Bulgarian residence card.

One of the most significant changes for the foreigners holding a valid long-term or permanent residence permits in Bulgaria, regardless of their citizenship, is that they will be able to travel visa-free to all Schengen member states only with their residence permits from Bulgaria and a valid international passport according to Art. 21, Para. 1 of the Convention implementing the Schengen Agreement.

From 31 March 2024, it will be possible to visit other Schengen countries visa free and stay in the Schengen area for a period of up to 90 days within every 180 days, with a third country foreigner’s passport and a valid Bulgarian residence permit, regardless of the date of issue of such residence permits.

Schengen visas.

From 1 April 2024 Bulgaria is entitled to issue Schengen visas. A Schengen visa issued by Bulgaria will be valid for travel to Bulgaria as well as to all other Schengen member states. Hence, from 1 April 2024 foreigners are able to use their Bulgarian short-stay visas to access all Schengen countries.

The Schengen visa is valid for short stay of up to 90 days within a 180-day period. The exact duration of validity is explicitly stated on the visa sticker.

Before Bulgaria’s Schengen membership, Bulgarian national visas were valid for travel to Romania and Cyprus. From 1 April 2024, the holder of a Bulgarian multi-entrance Schengen visa are able to visit other Schengen countries, as well as Balkan countries that allow visa free entrance to holder of valid Schengen visas, i.e. Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia. However, it is important to understand that a Schengen visa does not guarantee entry into the country. The visitor may be asked to present additional documents at the border such as proof of sufficient funds, documents showing the purpose of the visit, etc. However, this applies to all Schengen visas, irrespective of the issuing country.

IV. Summary 

  • Overall, the main beneficiaries from the EU Council Decision on Bulgaria becoming a full member of the Schengen acquis are third country (non-EU, non-EEA) nationals for whom a Schengen visa was normally required, legally residing in Bulgaria.
  • All residence permits issued by Bulgaria, including long-term and permanent residence permits and EU blue cards, regardless of the date of issue of these residence permits, will entitle their holders, regardless of their citizenship, to travel visa-free to other Schengen countries and remain there for up to 90 days within a 180 days period, including by air, sea and land borders.
  • The air and sea border control between Bulgaria, Romania and Schengen countries have been lifted after 31 March 2024, which will allow faster travel for any passengers traveling between Bulgaria and other Schengen countries.
  • Land border control will remain between Bulgaria and Greece, and Bulgaria and Romania, however, this will be equivalent to internal border control between Schengen member states.
  • The holders of residence permits issued by Bulgaria will be able to travel visa-free to Schengen countries for a period of up to 90 days within a 180 days period only on the basis of their Bulgarian residence permit, including by air, sea and land borders.
  • As of 1 April 2024, Bulgaria is issuing Schengen visas and therefore short-term tourist, business and other Schengen visas issued by Bulgaria will be valid for transit through and stay of up to 90 days within a 180 days period within any other Schengen country.
  • As of 31 March 2024, holders of Bulgarian residence permits or short-stay visas are eligible to travel visa-free to other Schengen countries, as well as to third party countries that allow visa-free travel for Schengen visa holders, such as (but not limited to) Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia.

Dafina Chobanova

Polina Berg

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