European Union For Members

9 things you need to know about the EU's freedom of movement

Claudia Delpero, Europe Street
Claudia Delpero, Europe Street - [email protected]
9 things you need to know about the EU's freedom of movement
Flags of Europe. (Photo by Daniel ROLAND / AFP)

Moving within the European Union has been relatively easy for EU citizens thanks to freedom of movement but the European Commission has recently published some new guidelines for member countries to make sure they apply the rules correctly.


These rules cover a number of rights, such as the right to enter, work, study, set up as self-employed, reside and be treated equally to citizens of the host country. Some of these rights extend to non-EU family members. But there are pitfalls too.

The European Commission has recently published guidelines to member states on the application of the free movement legislation to clarify situations that have emerged over the years and incorporate the rulings of the EU Court of Justice. Here are 9 things you may not know about free movement.

1. Three months and more

EU citizens and their family members can move to another EU country for an undetermined period of time if they work or are self-employed there, have sufficient resources and comprehensive sickness insurance cover, or are studying and also have comprehensive sickness insurance.

When looking for a job, the right of residence in another member state without any formalities is for up to 3 months. The only condition during this time is to have a valid passport or identity card.

However, this period can be extended. EU law requires member states to grant jobseekers from other EU countries a ‘reasonable period of time’ to ‘allow that person to acquaint himself or herself with potentially suitable employment opportunities and take the necessary steps to obtain employment’. A period of 6 months is generally considered sufficient. During this time, the host country can require evidence that the person is really looking for a job. 


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2. Access to healthcare

EU workers or self-employed persons and their family members are covered by the social security system of the EU country where they work. If they reside in a different member state, they have access to healthcare where they reside under the same conditions as citizens of that country on behalf of the country of employment on the basis of the S1 form.

Students who temporarily study in another EU country have the right to receive any necessary medical treatment there using the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), the guidelines explain.

Economically inactive EU citizens who move to another member state for more than 3 months have the right to be affiliated to the local public sickness insurance scheme, but the host country can charge for that before a person acquires permanent residence “to prevent the person from becoming an unreasonable burden”.


3. What about pensioners?

Of course, pensioners also have the right to move to another EU country. Those who make this decision remain covered by the public health scheme of the member state that pays their pension. They can access healthcare in the country of residence under the same conditions of citizens in that country using the S1 form.

4. Permanent residence

EU citizens, and their family members, who have resided legally (meeting the conditions set out in the directive) for a continuous period of 5 years in the host member state have the right of permanent residence there. The 5 years do not have to immediately precede the moment when permanent residence is claimed, as the right takes effect ‘from the actual moment at which they are completed’.

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Absences are allowed without interruption of the 5-year count if they do not exceed a total of 6 months a year or if the reason is compulsory military service. One absence of maximum 12 consecutive months is also allowed for important reasons, such as pregnancy and childbirth, serious illness, study or vocational training, or a job posting abroad.

The right of permanent residence can be lost with an absence from the country for more than 2 consecutive years (as a comparison, this is 5 years for the beneficiaries of the EU UK withdrawal agreement).

5. Free movement for family members

The right of free movement “would not have any useful effect without accompanying provisions ensuring that EU citizens may be accompanied by their families,” the Commission says. In practice, requirements that risk separating families would become an obstacle to the free movement principle. Therefore, EU law includes a derived right of free movement for family members of EU citizens.

Same-sex couples and same-sex parents attested by a certificate issued in an EU member state are covered by these rules too, even if such relationships are not recognised in national law in the host country.

6. Who are the family members

‘Core’ family members of EU citizens, irrespective of their nationality, have an automatic right of entry and residence when moving to another EU member state. EU law defines core family members as the spouse, the partner with whom the EU citizen has contracted a registered partnership if the legislation of the host country considers them as equivalent to marriage, the direct descendants who are under the age of 21 or are dependent, those of the spouse or partner, the dependent direct relatives in the ascending line and those of the spouse or partner.

The Court of Justice has clarified that ‘spouse’ is gender-neutral and covers same-sex couples.

Registered partnerships have to be concluded on the basis of the legislation of a member state, so those concluded outside the EU are not covered.

The ‘direct descendants’ and ‘dependent ascendants’ cover both biological and adopted children of the EU citizen.

Non-EU citizens who are primary carers of minor EU citizens exercising free movement rights must be granted residence rights in the host member state too, says EU law.

In contrast to ‘core’ family members, ‘extended’ family members do not have an automatic right of entry and residence. But they have the right to have their entry and residence ‘facilitated’.

7. When free movement rights are triggered

The rights to free movement are triggered in ‘transnational’ situations. EU citizens residing in the country of their nationality do not benefit from the rights granted by EU law, so if they want to be joined by non-EU family members, they are subject to national legislation.

In a similar way, people who arrive in the host member state as non-EU nationals and then naturalise in that country are not covered by free movement rules because this is considered a “purely internal situation”. So they won’t have an automatic right to be joined by non-EU family members. But free movement rules will be triggered if they move to another EU country.


8. Easier visas

Member states may require non-EU family members moving with or joining an EU citizen under free movement rules to have a visa. But unlike other non-EU citizens such family members have the right to enter and obtain the visa.

EU member states “must grant such persons every facility to obtain the necessary visa, which must be issued free of charge, as soon as possible and on the basis of an accelerated procedure,” the guidance document specified.

Non-EU family members of EU citizens living in an EU country with a valid residence card or permanent residence card are exempted from visa requirements in the EU.

9. Returning nationals

The EU Court of Justice has established that EU rules not only apply to EU citizens moving to another member state, but also when they return to their own country after having exercised free movement rights. While EU citizens’ entry and residence in their member state of nationality will be governed by national law, their family members may be granted a derived right of residence on the basis of free movement rules under certain conditions, including having previously resided in the same host country.

This article was produced by Europe Street news.


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