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Kosovo: What has changed with visa-free travel to the EU?

January 17, 2024

Kosovo was the last Western Balkan state to be granted visa-free travel to the EU. While the long anticipated — and feared — mass exodus from one of Europe's poorest countries has not materialized, things have changed.

A woman with long hair and glasses smiles broadly as she holds up a blue bag that reads 'Visa liberalization for Kosovo #NoVisa'
A woman at Pristina Airport holds up a bag that reads 'Visa liberalization for Kosovo #NoVisa'Image: LAURA HASANI/REUTERS

For years, Miliana Lasku Canaj from Prizren in southern Kosovo has dreamed of visiting her son Patrik. He emigrated to Germany 15 years ago and now lives in Munich with his wife and children.

Canaj, 62, has never been to Munich. She missed the birth of her grandchildren and most of her son's and grandchildren's birthdays. She just didn't have the energy for the complex procedure involved in getting a visa.

Until December 31, all Kosovars needed a visa to enter the European Union. Kosovo was the last Western Balkan state — and the only remaining country in Europe apart from Belarus and Russia — whose citizens still needed visas to travel to the EU.

A long line of passengers snakes around the departure hall in the terminal of Pristina Airport, Kosovo, January 1, 2024
People queue up to check in at Pristina Airport on New Year's Day 2024Image: LAURA HASANI/REUTERS

But all that changed on New Year's Day. Since January 1, Kosovars have been permitted to stay in the European Union for up to 90 days without a visa.

Canaj, who runs a flower and decoration shop in Prizren, is thrilled. "Now I can travel to my son, no matter what the occasion, without all the hassle. I'm really happy about that," she told DW.

A long time in the pipeline

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly in the EU, and Kosovo fought for this new visa regime for almost 12 years.

The German Embassy in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, issued its last tourist visa on December 18.

Political scientist Mehdi Sejdiu was involved for a time in the Pristina government's bid to secure freedom of travel for Kosovars. He was head of its working group on visa liberalization.

A man with short dark hair and a beard (Mehdi Sejdiu) stands smiling on a square
Kosovar political scientist Mehdi Sejdiu welcomes the end of visas for Kosovo's 1.8 million citizensImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

"Visa liberalization has many, many advantages. We are no longer isolated. It was an injustice that affected 1.8 million Kosovars alone," Sejdiu told DW, adding that "many Kosovars were not even able to visit relatives who had fled during the war almost 25 years ago."

Travel hampered by high visa costs

Over the years, many Kosovars have traveled to Germany by coach and, in the off season, by plane. This meant that they could make the journey for less than €100 ($108) each way.

In comparison, the cost of a visa was conspicuously high. The application for a visa at the German Embassy in Pristina, for instance, cost €35. On top of this came at least €25 for the agencies that helped applicants navigate their way through the bureaucratic jungle as well as the cost of copies, translations of official documents and insurance.

In total, travelers had to fork out about €100 before they were even able to book their journey.

Agencies and embassies

The Arberia district of Pristina is full of beautiful villas, many of which are used by foreign embassies and consulates, including the German Embassy.

A man with short gray hair (Gazmend Klinaku) sits smiling at a computer in the office of his visa agency in Pristina, Kosovo
Gazmend Klinaku, owner of the visa agency Incoming-G, is now considering moving into car rentalImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Unusually for such a neighborhood, there are signs everywhere, advertising the services of agencies that until now helped Kosovars apply for visas.

The agency Incoming-G, which specializes in applications for German visas, is housed in a converted garage right beside the German Embassy.

A warning against unrealistic expectations

Gazmend Klinaku, 46, owns the agency and has earned a good living from it for many years. Now, however, the new visa regime means he has to change career.

Nevertheless, he's delighted for his compatriots and feels very strongly that students and businesspeople will benefit most from visa liberalization.

At the same time, he cautions against unrealistic expectations: "Life in Europe is expensive," he says. "Many are going to be disappointed that it is not the Europe they imagined, that it is not paradise."

New freedoms

Kosovars are now allowed to visit relatives in the EU or travel around the bloc as tourists for up to 90 days. Anyone who wants to work in the EU, however, still needs a visa.

A young woman (Anduela Binakaj) with long dark curly hair stands on a traffic island in the middle of a street in Pristina, Kosovo
School-leaver Anduela Binakaj is not planning to leave Kosovo despite visa-free travel to the EUImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Lirim Krasniqi of the NGO Germin, which supports members of the Albanian diaspora all over the world, anticipates that this could be a problem: "I think that there will be cases where visa liberalization is abused," he said. "Kosovars have many relatives living around Europe, so many will consider working illegally."

The pull of higher wages

The pay gap between Kosovo and Western European countries is likely to be the biggest incentive for Kosovars to leave their country.

The average income in Kosovo is €400 a month. While the cost of living is much lower there than it is in Western Europe, most Kosovars just about manage to make ends meet on an average income.

"There's no such thing as a minimum wage in Kosovo," says Krasniqi. "When the people read headlines that say that people in Germany get paid €12 an hour and more, it's a big draw. It sounds like paradise."

Businesses fear labor shortages

Many businesses in Kosovo now fear that they will not be able to find enough staff as a result of the visa liberalization scheme.

Talking to people in downtown Pristina, however, it is evident that the situation is not quite so clear cut.

A young man with short dark hair and a beard (Driton Selfiaj) stands in front of a row of trees in a square in Pristina, Kosovo
Student Driton Selfiaj loves to travel but does not intend to emigrateImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Anduela Binakaj, a school-leaver from the capital, welcomed the change in travel regulations: "I'm happy about visa-free travel because I love traveling to other countries," she told DW. "I don't actually want to leave Kosovo because I was born here and grew up here. But I haven't yet decided what I want to do for a living, so I don't know whether I'll be able to find a good job here."

Driton Selfiaj, a student in his early 20s, is delighted to be able to travel "anywhere" without a visa. "Most of my friends want to leave," he told DW. "Personally, I think that young people will use the visa liberalization scheme to leave the country, but I don't intend to."

No mass exodus

Indeed, the same is true across the board: There is — as yet — no sign of a mass exodus. Nevertheless, several airlines have increased the number of flights to Western Europe, and telecommunications companies are now advertising rates and SIM cards that allow for Europe-wide communication.

Gazmend Klinaku, owner of the visa application agency, says that he's known for a long time that visa liberalization would come one day. He's now considering opening up a car rental company at the airport.

Miliana Lasku Canaj is busy going for medical check-ups. She wants to be sure she's healthy for her trip to Germany. In addition to her son, she has two daughters, both of whom live abroad: one in Serbia and one in the Czech Republic.

She cannot imagine living abroad herself, if only because she wants to go on running her flower shop in Prizren. "But," she says, "at last I'll be able to attend all the family celebrations."

This article was originally written in German.

A young woman (Vjosa Cerkini) with long black hair
Vjosa Cerkini Reporter focusing on Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries