How to cross the borders of Europe

Europe is a special place for general aviation. From my home base I can reach more than four countries within one hour of flying. It is the perfect setting for day trips or extended weekends to places that take you far away from your everyday life. But how exactly do we cross the borders of Europe?

Many pilots never did a cross-border flight during their flight training. I hope this post will help to learn about it.

So, let’s have a look at what you should know about how to cross the borders of Europe.

General knowledge

It always helps to understand a concept, instead of following a checklist blindly. For that matter, also don’t blindly follow free advice from the internet (always read the AIP, NOTAMs and websites of the airports).

Make sure you are familiar with the big picture.

Specifically, you should understand that there are two aspects to think of when crossing a border. One of them is that you as a person are crossing the border (immigration zone: Schengen area). The other is that you are possibly carrying goods across the border (customs zone: EU Customs Union).

Airports with customs and/or immigration

Usually, airports offer both customs and immigration. However, be aware of these two aspects if you read in the AIP or NOTAM anything among the lines of “immigration only”, or if the word “Customs” isn’t even mentioned.

Generally, it can be said that if a flight takes place within both the Schengen area and the EU Customs Union, you can fly without an immigration or customs check and simply need to file a flight plan to cross the border. Except, of course, if the AIP of both states do not even require a flight plan, e.g. Germany-Austria. But I file a flight plan anyways for the peace of mind.

For pilot’s of Switzerland or Norway, for example, it is important to note that we are part of the Schengen area, but not of the EU Customs Union. When coming from these countries, you’ll only need customs and no immigration (intra-Schengen). Even though we are practically never carrying any goods, we need an airport with customs and because we are part of Schengen, our person per se is of no concern.

The AIP of each country contains information about the customs and/or immigration of all airports (usually chapter AD 2-2). This could look like the following example, note the clear distinction between immigration and customs:

AIP example airport with customs and immigration
AIP example airport with customs and immigration

Before sending an e-mail or making a phone call, always check the airport website. They often have their own online form (usually you need to provide information on: Who is PIC/crew, names of everyone on board, ID numbers, nationality, birth date and sometimes even birth place).

After submitting that form, if there is one, it is best practice to call the airport to verify that you are all set. Don’t forget that all of this is necessary for both your departure and arrival airport.

There are, unfortunately, not too many airports with the AIP entry “H24”, which means that customs and/or immigration services are available at all times.

ICAO Flight plan

Part-SERA requires us to file flight plans when crossing borders (specifically SERA.4001), except if the concerned states opt-out from this provision in their AIPs. As already mentioned, I like to always file a flight plan when crossing borders, but that’s just me.

The only item you shouldn’t forget when crossing a border is to enter an EET/ in the field 18. You should include a waypoint where you cross the border and an estimated elapsed time when reaching it and if you file on a day before the flight, include the date of the flight (DOF/). For example, in field 18: EET/AKABI0035 DOF/180719

For guidance on how to fill in a flight plan: ICAO Flightplan Form Basics – EuroFPL
If you really want to know the details, have fun with these 674 pages: IFPS Users Manual – Eurocontrol

The Eurocontrol IFPS User Manual is in so far interesting, as it is your primary source to disprove any rumors you overheard in the hangar about flight plans. For example, many pilots think that a flight plan can be submitted the earliest 24h in advance. Actually, you can file a flight plan up to 120 hours prior to your estimated off block time (EOBT).

This makes it easier for you to find the time in your tight schedule for filing your flight plans.

Equipment codes

These codes are complicated. In the FAA world our Cessna would have the equipment code /G. In the ICAO format it’s SABDGRY/S and in field 18 PBN/B2D2S1. Yes, that’s right. To only deal with this once, simply make a flight plan template that you’ll use whenever you need to file. There is an equipment wizard on www.autorouter.aero that helps you figure out your equipment code.

Conclusion

If you want to cross a border in Europe, follow these steps:

  1. Does the flight take place within the Schengen area and/or within the EU Customs Union?
  2. Check the AIP and NOTAMs: Do the departure and arrival airports provide the required customs and/or immigration services?
  3. Follow the customs and/or immigration procedure as described in the AIP and on the airport website. If possible, call the airport if they received all required information.
  4. File a flight plan, the earliest 120 hours before EOBT, if possible at least 3 hours before EOBT. If you have a delay of more than 15 minutes, the flight plan must be amended.

Now you know the basics. Happy landings!

To read more about flying cross-country flying in Europe, I suggest you visit www.EuroGA.org and if you can’t find a thread that answers your question, simply ask the forum.

If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments below.

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