When is it illegal to cross the EU borders? The European Union has defined a set of guidelines that explain what is considered an illegal entry into EU territory. However, each Member State provides its own administrative penalties for specific cases.

In order to analyse Europe’s migratory situation, it is important to first address the question of what is an illegal border crossing.

The Schengen Area functions as a single country with border checks only at its external borders —but not within member nations. In this sense, an illegal border crossing in Europe could be defined as crossing external Schengen borders into a member state without the necessary permission or required documentation.

The Schengen Borders Code provides European Member States with a unified set of rules that govern external border checks on persons, entry requirements and duration of short stays in the Schengen Area. These rules have been unified to make border control more efficient and transparent.

Europe takes these infractions quite seriously. However, the consequences of an illegal entry when immigrants crossing the border do so without complying to these regulations may vary from one state to another.

Is Crossing the Border Illegal in Europe?

With the foundation of the Schengen Area came the abolition of internal borders between Schengen territories. However, freedom of movement within the European Union does not come at the expense of security.

The entry requirements for Europe depend on a passenger’s nationality, the purpose of their visit, and the duration of their stay.

For short trips, under 90 days’ duration, where the visitor enters Europe for tourism, business or transit, the following applies:

  • Non-EU citizens from ETIAS eligible countries such as the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Japan, and others can currently cross the external Schengen borders with just their passports.

  • From the end of 2022 onwards, when the ETIAS is scheduled to launch to the public, they will be asked to register online for an ETIAS before their departure towards the EU.

  • Non-EU citizens from countries that do not have a visa waiver agreement with the Schengen Area need to have a valid Schengen visa as well as their passport and other requirements to cross the external borders of the Schengen Area.

ETIAS, which stands for European Travel Information and Authorisation System, was approved in 2016 with the primary purpose of further improving security within the Schengen Area. This modern and more efficient system also aims to aid Europe in the fight against illegal border crossings.

Travellers wondering “Is it illegal to cross the border?” now have a clearer answer: it is illegal to enter the European Union if passengers do not comply with entry requirements.

Illegal border crossing law, however, does not apply to asylum seekers, nor does it contemplate their regulated arrival. This is due to the fact that these persons often lack the necessary documentation and/or enter the Schengen Area using unauthorised border crossing points.

In Europe, irregular immigrants are refused entrance to Schengen member nations while asylum seekers are not.

What Happens to Illegal Immigrants in Europe?

Border crossing in Europe is taken very seriously, especially when offenders repeat their actions after being ordered expulsion, deported or previously penalized in another way.

Several Schengen Member nations exempt undocumented asylum seekers from penalties when they apply in a timely manner or are otherwise qualified for international protection.

Exemptions, like punishment and penalties, vary from one Schengen nation to another, as seen in the information below.

EU countries where illegal entry is a crime

There are several EU countries that consider illegal entry a crime, which means these Member States have established prescribed punishment or administrative penalties in those cases:

CountryIs Illegal Entry a Crime? Prescribed Punishment or Administrative Penalties
AustriaYes Fine or imprisonment for up to 6 weeks. No punishment for persons recognized as in need of protection or refugees. Administrative prosecution process suspended during asylum application process.
BelgiumYes 8 days to 3 months of imprisonment, fine, or both for first illegal entry; 1-month to 1-year imprisonment, fine, or both for repeat offenders or previously deported persons during the last 10 years.
Czech RepublicNo Illegal border crossing punishable by imprisonment of 1 to 5 years only if threat or violence used.
DenmarkYes Monetary fine or up to 6 months’ or 3 years’ imprisonment, depending on the crime. Entering/exiting outside of designated border crossings punishable with monetary fines or imprisonment; repeat offenders subject to a more severe sentence. Persons who illegally enter to seek asylum not punished.
EstoniaYes Imprisonment of up to 1 year or fine; enhanced prison term for aggravating circumstances. Up to 10 years of imprisonment for carrying weapons, or endangering human life or property while entering illegally.
FinlandYes Monetary fines or up to 1 year of imprisonment, depending on the crime. Illegally crossing the border or reentering in violation of deportation punishable with fines or imprisonment of up to 1 year. Asylum seekers or victims of human trafficking not punished for illegal entry.
FranceYes 1 year of imprisonment and/or fine; 3 years’ imprisonment for illegal reentry. Unless perpetrator is caught in act of illegal entry, or immediately afterwards, charges can´t be brought; undocumented immigrants prosecuted for unlawful stay.
GermanyYes Imprisonment of up to 1 year or fine. Criminal charges can be avoided by immediately seeking asylum.
GreeceYes Fine and imprisonment for at least 3 months, deportation with or without detention. Persons not dangerous or a flight risk may be asked to self-deport within max. 30 days. Asylum seekers and refugees not deported.
HungaryYes Imprisonment of up to 8 years, deportation, and reentry ban.
IcelandYes Monetary fines or up to 6 months’ imprisonment. Entering, re-entering, or residing illegally subject to fine or 6 months’ imprisonment. Persons arriving directly from region where persecuted are exempt.
ItalyNo Fine; 5 to 15 years’ imprisonment and fine for aggravating circumstances. Penalties for illegal entry of non-EU persons, reentry after expulsion, reentry of previously removed EU citizens, and stay following the expiration of residence permit. Penalties increased if aggravating circumstances present.
LiechtensteinNo Fine. Administrative offence. Immigration and Passport Office responsible for illegal entry offences unless an individual is repeat offender, in which case Court of First Instance (Landgericht) is the responsible authority.
LithuaniaYes Imprisonment for up to 2 years, detention, or fine. Asylum seekers not punished.
LuxembourgYes 8 days to 1-year imprisonment, fine, or both; 6 months to 1-year imprisonment, fine, or both for illegal reentry. 1 month to 2 years’ imprisonment, fine, or both if entering illegally with forged papers.
Netherlands Illegal entry, no; failure to present travel document, yes. Imprisonment up to 6 months or fine. Criminal penalty when a person fails to present a valid travel document, illegal entry not penalized.
NorwayYes Monetary fines, or up to 6 months’ or 2 years’ imprisonment, depending on the crime. Entry outside designated border crossing from non-Schengen country or residence without proper documentation subject to fine or 6 months’ imprisonment. Reentry after expulsion punishable with fine or imprisonment for up to 2 years. Timely asylum seekers exempt.
PolandYes Imprisonment of up to 2 years or fine. Illegal entry by groups or using violence face stricter penalties.
PortugalNoExpulsion order.
SlovakiaNoVaried administrative fines.
SloveniaNoFine.
SpainNoFine.
SwedenYes Monetary fines, or up to 6 months or 1 year of imprisonment depending on the offense. Timely asylum seekers exempt.
SwitzerlandYesImprisonment of up to 1 year or fine.