The right to free movement

All EU citizens and their family members have the right to move and reside freely within the EU. This is set forth in Article 21 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

The rules on free movement as established in Directive 2004/38 stipulate that

  • EU citizens can live in another EU country for up to three months without any requirements other than holding a valid identity card or passport
  • In order to stay in another EU country for more than three months, EU citizens have to meet certain conditions depending on their status (e.g. worker, student, etc.) and they may also be asked to comply with administrative formalities
  • EU citizens have the right to permanent residence in another EU country after legally residing there continuously for five years. They may be temporarily absent (e.g. for illness, study or posting)
  • Family members of EU citizens have the right to accompany or join them in another EU country. They may be asked to comply with certain conditions or formalities

EU citizenship and the right to free movement are regularly taken into consideration in the judgments of the Court of Justice.

Legislative proposals, studies, support and funding

New rules on identity cards and residence documents

In June 2019, the European Parliament and the Council adopted Regulation 2019/1157 on strengthening the security of identity cards of EU citizens and of residence documents issued to EU citizens and their family members exercising their right of free movement. The Regulation will introduce minimum common security standards making identity cards and residence documents more secure and reliable.

Security features of identity cards will be aligned with those of passports, as both types of travel documents will contain a highly secure contactless chip with the holder’s photo and fingerprints. Member States will start to issue the new identity cards in 2021. Identity cards currently in circulation that do not conform to the new standards will have to be replaced within five or ten years, depending on their security level.

EU citizens frequently use identity cards to travel but also to establish their identity in everyday situations, such as contacts with public authorities or with airlines, banks or the healthcare sector. Residence documents support EU citizens and their non-EU family members when exercising their free movement rights as well as when they need to prove their residence in an EU country. The new rules will help EU citizens and their family members to exercise their right to free movement, as well as contribute to the fight against the use of fraudulent documents and false identities.

The new rules do not oblige Member States to issue identity cards: they will continue to decide whether to make them voluntary or obligatory or not to issue identity cards at all. Member States can maintain their national design features and e-government services. However, all new identity cards will have to comply with the new security standards.

What will change with the new rules on identity cards? - Factsheet

Press release

Other documents on free movement

To help national authorities fight potential abuse of the right to free movement, the Commission published guidance documents in 2014 to address the issue of alleged marriages of convenience

Communication

Staff working paper

In 2014 and 2013, two studies were commissioned to evaluate how EU free movement rules were applied on the ground.

2014 study

2013 study

In November 2013 the Commission published a document setting out five actions to help EU countries apply EU laws and tools to their full potential, including the full use of EU structural and investment funds.

Free movement of EU citizens and their families: five actions to make a difference

In 2013 the Commission published a guide with comprehensive information on the right to move and reside freely within the EU.

Guide to free movement

New rules on identity cards and residence documents

On 2 August 2021, Regulation 2019/1157 on strengthening the security of identity cards of EU citizens and of residence documents issued to EU citizens and their family members exercising their right of free movement enters into application. The Regulation introduces minimum common security standards making identity cards and residence documents more secure and reliable.

Security features of identity cards will be aligned with those of passports, as both types of travel documents will contain a highly secure contactless chip with the holder’s photo and fingerprints. As of 2 August 2021, Member States have to issue the identity cards in a format that complies with the requirements set out in the Regulation. Identity cards currently in circulation that do not conform to the new standards will have to be replaced within five or ten years, depending on their security level.

EU citizens frequently use identity cards to exercise their right to free movement to travel to other Member States but also to establish their identity in everyday situations, such as contacts with public authorities or with airlines, banks or the healthcare sector. Residence documents support EU citizens and their non-EU family members when exercising their free movement rights as well as when they need to prove their residence in an EU country. The new rules will help EU citizens and their family members to exercise their right to free movement, as well as contribute to the fight against the use of fraudulent documents and false identities.

The new rules do not oblige Member States to issue identity cards: they will continue to decide whether to make them voluntary or obligatory or not to issue identity cards at all. Member States can maintain their national design features and e-government services. However, all new identity cards will have to comply with the new security standards.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate, vaccinations and travel restrictions

On 14 June 2021, the European Parliament and the Council adopted the EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation. As of 1 July 2021, every EU citizen has a right to obtain an EU Digital COVID Certificate (previously called “Digital Green Certificate”) proving their vaccination, negative test for SARS-CoV-2 infection or recovery from COVID-19 following a positive test. Non-EU nationals legally staying or residing in the Member States and who have the right to travel to other Member States are also eligible to receive such a certificate. Where a Member State accepts proof of vaccination, testing or recovery to waive certain restrictions to free movement, they are obliged to accept the EU Digital COVID certificates issued by other Member States under the same conditions. 
The certificate is a proof of vaccination, test or recovery that is legally valid EU-wide. A separate Recommendation adopted by the Council covers the question of easing the restrictions to free movement within the EU. As this is a non-binding Recommendation and not a Regulation, Member States have some discretion in how to apply it. Therefore, while all Member States have to accept the certificate as valid proof, there is some variation on the consequences for the holders.
Safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 are the best way out of the pandemic. Via the EU Strategy for COVID-19 vaccines, the Commission has secured access for everyone in the EU to such vaccines as soon as they became available. Four vaccines – from BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen – have been authorised for the EU market, and vaccination is ongoing in the Member States. The safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines offered to the population in the EU is of key importance for the Commission. All vaccines in our portfolio have received a positive assessment from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and were subsequently granted conditional marketing authorisation by the Commission.
Many citizens have asked the Commission questions about the vaccination campaigns in Member States, the ongoing travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the EU Digital COVID Certificate in particular. This FAQ seeks to cover the issues raised most frequently. It will be regularly updated based on the questions received. 

Further information

  • Your Europe is a portal with information for EU citizens and their families
  • Your Rights has information to help citizens and businesses to defend their rights
  • Social security rights: information on social security rights abroad

If you think that your free movement rights have been violated, the most effective means to assert your rights is to file a complaint with a court at national level. Only national courts can award you reparation for damage suffered. You may also wish to contact a local solicitor to provide you with legal advice. The EU’s SOLVIT service can also help you work with your national authorities if you encounter difficulties.

Documents

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