France has ordered 544 special ‘data kiosks’ for travellers and 250 tablets for ferry passengers in cars in preparation for the launch of new EU digital border checks.
Officials hope this will reduce queues at ports, stations and airports when the Entry/Exit System (EES) scheme begins and photos and fingerprints of millions of people need to be taken.
Watchdog claims check-in time will double
Concerns have been raised over passport control delays, especially at the start, when all non-EU travellers entering France from outside the Schengen area will need to have this data taken and entered into an EU-wide database.
Those in the Schengen area when the checks start will also be affected on leaving.
Check-in time will at least double, even with kiosks, a report by France’s public finance watchdog the Cour des comptes estimates.
The same passengers will also be required to pass in front of a border official’s booth to ensure they are the person on the passport.
Doubt kiosks will be miracle solution
It is hoped, however, that Americans, Britons and many other nationalities can avoid this second step after first entry and subsequently use the automatic Parafe passport gates, said Nicolas Paulissen, general delegate of the Union des Aéroports Français.
“However, the Parafes would need to be adapted and that’s a challenge,” he said.
“The kiosks have been tested in Paris and are being reworked for improvements. But we will be ready, especially as we are sure now EES will start after the Olympics, even perhaps at the start of 2025.
“The only question is: will the booths be a miracle solution, which we seriously doubt.”
Digital tracking of 90 in 180 day rule
Once travellers’ biometric data is entered into EES, with passport number, name, date of birth and gender, it will be stored for three years and subsequent border crossings should be faster.
After three years, the data is needed again.
Those in the system will also have their entries and exits from Schengen logged, so any overstaying beyond ‘90 in 180 days’ is automatically flagged.
Passport stamping will end.
What does kiosk company say?
Thales, the French company that is making the kiosks for airports, ports and stations, claims it is possible to use them “in less than a minute”.
There will be a scan and check of the passport, capturing a facial image and an image of the four fingers of the right hand.
An immigration questionnaire will also be completed.
Thales says the process is designed to give a high level of security and for people to “validate entry or exit rapidly”.
French residency card-holders will bypass system
EES will affect non-EU/EEA/Swiss nationality visitors – including those who do not need a visa for a short visit to the Schengen area, such as Americans and Australians, and those who do.
Post-Brexit Britons are included, though EES was not triggered by Brexit.
‘Smart borders’ to fight irregular migration were proposed by the EU in 2015, and EES was formally adopted by the Commission in April 2016.
French residency card-holders will bypass EES requirements but could be caught in slower queues for passport control.
No time frame yet
Implementation delays, both for the IT system, overseen by agency EU-Lisa, and border infrastructure, have seen EES put back several times.
A new timetable will be presented by EU-Lisa in October.
Six months after EES starts, no-visa visitors will also have to complete Etias, a €7 online pre-approval to enter the EU.
What to expect at airports, ferry ports and Eurostar
The kiosks will be used in 15 city airports and at the Gare du Nord.
Eurostar says it is working with HS1, operator of the rail network to the Channel Tunnel, to install kiosks at London St Pancras, where French checks are carried out on UK soil.
The Cour des comptes raised concerns over the readiness for data to be transferred from French border control at St Pancras, Dover port and the Channel Tunnel into the EU-Lisa database but Eurostar claims it is not aware of problems.
Ferry passengers in cars will be handed a tablet to give data, fingerprints and images. Even so, the Cour warned of a risk of significantly increased checking time at such ‘vehicle borders’.
The ministry has agreed with French firm Thales on supply of kiosks and tablets and is putting in place deployment agreements with ports, stations and airports.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said booths will “limit the increase in waiting times due to the new border checks.
“Preparation of the most-affected infrastructure on French soil is being finished and eight sites have already signed agreements.
“Preparation of the British infrastructure is under way via cooperation with their management companies and the French and UK authorities.”
The EU reported it was considering a phone app to gather some passenger data pre-arrival but no update has been given.
Airports and ports will have to recruit some 90 new agents to help people use the kiosks, which will have instructions in English and French only.
Airports concerned how passengers will cope
Mr Paulissen of the Union des Aéroports Français said buying the equipment and employing agents is costing airports “a small fortune” but “should help”.
The ministry has promised an extra 1,000 border police, he added. “The Olympics have helped as the government didn’t want to start the games with border queues,” he said.
Tests show the process including the kiosk is liable to double the average border control time in large airports, he confirmed.
Some delay appears inevitable although it is difficult to predict the precise impact under real circumstances.
“We are worried,” he said. “By the time people have understood how to place fingers, how to line up for the photo... Plus some of them will be less used to digital equipment and might not speak English or French.”
Extra complications include that for regulatory reasons it is necessary to re-do fingerprinting at the passport desk, even if prints had already been scanned at one of the kiosks. It is hoped this issue will be resolved soon.
Travellers will also have to provide some ‘immigration questionnaire’ information at kiosks, Mr Paulissen said.
This relates to travel information that border guards can, under Schengen and French rules, ask no-visa visitors to provide.
It includes accommodation plans and whether they have sufficient funds and medical insurance for their stay. In practice this is rarely requested.
EU sources we have seen do not link such questions to EES, but Mr Paulissen understands it is planned that visitors will now be asked systematically. This is among information that could also potentially be provided pre-arrival via an app, he said.
Small airports, such as La Rochelle or Carcassonne, have borders manned by the Douanes customs service rather than the border police. They will not have kiosks but the Douanes says it has extra staff post-Brexit so there may not be more delays to using larger airports with kiosks, Mr Paulissen said.
Ports in daily contact with ministry
In ports, car passengers will use tablets to avoid having to get out of vehicles. Coach passengers, who get out and are treated as pedestrians, will use kiosks.
The director of the Boulogne and Calais ports, Benoît Rochet, said “the ports are actively preparing for EES and are in almost daily contact with the ministry.
“There is a risk that it’s going to make checking time longer but we will do our maximum to absorb the flow of traffic and welcome customers in the best possible conditions.
“We will have people going up and down the queue of cars, scanning in people’s passports on the tablets and collecting their prints and photos, so things will go quickly when the car arrives at border police.”
They have seen the tablets but have not had chance to test them. They aim in the year ahead to “do as many tests as possible”.
Eurotunnel want an app or risk delays
Getlink is in talks with the UK and French governments and EU officials and for now it has not agreed tablets for Eurotunnel LeShuttle users as it fears they may create unnecessary delays.
Spokesman John Keefe said: “We propose that data is collected as far in advance as possible, using an app, so it only has to be validated by a border officer. It would keep people moving.”
The app could take a photo and passport image, he said. Fingerprints might be possible in the future, Getlink hopes, or perhaps, it suggests, may not be asked for systematically.
Mr Keefe said, if done correctly, it may not affect traffic flows as had been achieved, he claims, post-Brexit with lorry checks. It is also hoped that Etias will gather part of the data in advance.
Mr Keefe said questions on accommodation or funds could be left to border security as now.
Getlink hopes an implementation plan will be clear by October to give time for testing.
Work is already under way to update the UK terminal layout and further adaptations will be made depending on what system is agreed.
An EU-Lisa spokesman said it is making an “intense drive at all levels”, along with EU states and its IT contractor, to have the IT system ready but that a new timeframe has not been finalised.