Four French police boarded the front carriage of the 0749 Paris Gare de Lyon – Milano Garibaldi TGV at St Jean de Maurienne on 9th October. The train was running with a delay of around 55 minutes, hence departing from St Jean at around 1230. At 1240 the four police entered the second class carriage in which I was sitting. At least eight passengers were sat between the entrance to the carriage and my seat, and every single one of the passengers was controlled before the police reached my seat. Below is a translation, word for word into English, of the conversation that took place in French. The conversation was with one male policeman (‘MP’ below) and a female policewoman (‘FP’ below).

MP: Passport, please? Identity card?

Me: I would like to know, sir, why you have controlled all the passengers in the train. This is the Schengen article (I show him a printout of Article 21 that I carry with me – see end of blog post for the full text, legislation here). France and Italy are in the Schengen area. How are you conforming to the Schengen rules? Would you like to explain please?

MP: I would like a passport please

Me: I would like to know how Schengen applies to this.

MP: You want to get out of the train? I can take you to the services?

Me: We are in the Schengen zone. I have my passport here…

(MP interrupts)
MP: Your identity card, sir? This is a police control.
(I hand him the passport as his manner becomes threatening)

Me: I would just like to know how this conforms to Schengen.

FP: What do you do in England?

Me: No, it’s not that.

FP: There [meaning in England] it’s the same.

Me: This is Article 21 of Schengen. One cannot have systematic controls at the frontier that have, as their objective, border controls. What you are doing here, in the train, is exactly a border control. So how are you conforming with Schengen?

FP: You haven’t learnt it by heart, the whole Schengen book. It’s like this (she holds up fingers to indcate how fat it is) the Schengen code. Do you know how many pages it is, sir?

Me: Yes, I do know, because I give courses in European law

FP: We have the right to control at the borders

Me: No, you do not have the right to control.

FP: Yes, yes.

Me: Explain how you are in conformity with the Schengen rules, with the four points listed here (I point to points (i)-(iv) as shown below)

FP: We control punctually at the border. We absolutely have the right, if not it would not be our job.

Me: So can I take note of your name then?

FP: No, absolutely not.

Me: And you’re noting my name there! (FP was busy scribbling away – my name was noted somewhere)

I have full documentary evidence of the entire exchange, and this will be sent to the European Commission.

So what does all of this tell us?

Firstly, and rather unsurprisingly after my recent experience in Padborg, flagrant breaches of both the principle and letter of the law of Schengen are commonplace.

Secondly, when asked multiple times about the applicability of Schengen, these two French police had no answer to give. Checks are what they have the right to do, and when asked about it, they just become threatening. “We have the right to control at the borders” were the words spoken by the policewoman. They are not even trying to pay lip service to the principles of Schengen.

Thirdly, when confronted by a passenger, they do not know how to behave, and no other passenger in my carriage even raised a question about the checks.

Anyway, I consider this a warm up… I am crossing Austria twice by train later this week, and that will for sure provide more examples of breaches of Schengen.

Full text of Article 21:

Article 21
Checks within the territory

The abolition of border control at internal borders shall not affect:

(a) the exercise of police powers by the competent authorities of the Member States under national law, insofar as the exercise of those powers does not have an effect equivalent to border checks; that shall also apply in border areas. Within the meaning of the first sentence, the exercise of police powers may not, in particular, be considered equivalent to the exercise of border checks when the police measures:

(i) do not have border control as an objective,
(ii) are based on general police information and experience regarding possible threats to public security and aim, in particular, to combat cross-border crime,
(iii) are devised and executed in a manner clearly distinct from systematic checks on persons at the external borders,
(iv) are carried out on the basis of spot-checks;

(b) security checks on persons carried out at ports and airports by the competent authorities under the law of each Member State, by port or airport officials or carriers, provided that such checks are also carried out on persons travelling within a Member State;

(c) the possibility for a Member State to provide by law for an obligation to hold or carry papers and documents;

(d) the obligation on third-country nationals to report their presence on the territory of any Member State pursuant to the provisions of Article 22 of the Schengen Convention.


  1. European Citizen

    I was pleased to read you will be forwarding this to the Commission! I’m really curious about their reply. The police woman’s reply is indeed ignorant: she could have at least said something about the checks not being ‘at the border’. In any case, Article 21 (a)(ii) seems pretty broad to me so I would not be surprised if the governments used it as an excuse.

    The police’s response seems typical of those given by people vested with some authority: refusal to have a rational argument; obscure reference to some ‘rules/guidance/procedures’ with the assumption that you, mere mortal, could not possibly comprehend; and threatening you with refusing service/calling the police (in your case a possible arrest even!).

    Just another note in passing: airlines check IDs quite carefully because they would be liable to a huge fine (£ 2000 at the moment) of they bring a person without the appropriate documents to enter the country. This applies to ships as well but not to trains, hence, the need to have such checks of dubious compatibility with Schengen rules.

  2. Kim Gammelgård

    My Polish girlfriend also had a strange experience in Denmark the other day relating to passport control(! – yes, inside Denmark, not even close to a border.). She has a temp-job at a hotel, and the police had apparently had a standard check the week before, and they had demanded that the hotel not only at all times had a copy of her passport, but that she should always carry the passport with her, so the hotel demanded this from her too. I am fairly certain that it is a breach of the Udlændingelovens §39 stk.3, given that she already is carrying her Polish ID at all times, but what does a layman know in the hands of bureaucrats? It may also just be the hotel that does not understand what the police was asking for of course.

  3. John Smith

    I have been in the same or almost the same train connecting France with Italy and have witnessed these controls several times. Not only the trip is delayed by at least 30 minutes or more, but these police officers are not at all well-mannered. Notably in my recent trip, they stopped two people who did not have “Caucasian characteristics” – and while searching for their suitcases I was asked if I knew to whom one suitcase belonged; I did not understand the police officer was referring to me so when I did not reply promptly, he shook my seat quit roughly. Sorry to say but this confirms the stereotypes we know about police officers – no matter where they come from.

  4. @Kim – does she have a Danish CPR number / Sundhedskort? Because if so that should be enough in Denmark. As for passport vs. ID – if a Polish ID card is good enough to travel with in Schengen then it is also good enough as ID within Denmark. All this sounds over the top to me.

    @John – if you experience the same again then do ask them about Schengen (try quoting Art 21) and see what happens. Complaints from other people would also be most welcome. Further, judging by the size of the police station at Modane station then there are quite a lot of people policing this border!

  5. Kim Gammelgård

    @Jon – Yes she has, but it is not considered enough, not even by Schengen standards, as it does not have a picture on it. That is probably why you often get asked for passport in Denmark, as we are not used to ID-cards with pictures on it.
    But keep up the good work controlling the border controls: we want to be free here!

  6. Hi

    I had a similar experience going from Liège, Belgium to Paris, France with the TGV at the end of 2010. There were 4 police officier ( 2 belgian and 2 french ) who were checking the paper from anyone in the train.

    As i’m a quite “tête en l’air” i had forgotten my id. I was working on the presentation i had to do latter this day when one of the belgian policemen ask for my paper. I return all my wallet on the table in a very confused and quite stressed manner.

    The policeman see my old university card (with a picture) and my sis ( social security ) card and told me that “as he knows what it is” it would close his eyes but i should be carefull in Paris as it wouldn’t be sufficient if i was controlled in the street. Told me also that i was lucky it was him and not his French colegue who checked me…

    Got back in belgium the day after without any control …

    They probably could easily justfy themself with the “vigipirate” law which permit almost anything in term of arbitrary checking in France …

  7. Thierry

    I’m not going to argue about the legality (or lack thereof) in applying Schengen.
    However, I believe the crux of the article is a tad misleading : rather than “border control”, it’s actually “identity check” that are performed.
    the distinction can be misleading, but they don’t target the same objective

    By identity check, the Police Officers wouldn’t be looking after EU citizens (part of the Schengen Agreement or not), but rather clandestine or illegal migrants who uses train and road connections to move from one jurisdiction (say Italy) to another (say France).
    As such, it will look like “border control”, but no EU citizens would be stopped from travelling (as true border controls have the right to do with near-absolute powers).

    Identity checks are allowed as part of fighting criminal activity. But its use against “illegal” migration within the EU is subject to controversy (as you pointed)

    Best regards,

  8. @Thierry – are you essentially saying that if I could prove I am an EU citizen but did not have a passport with me they would let me carry on across the border? I would love to see it happen!

    And yes, I am aware of the technical difference between an identity check and a border control, but they have in this case absolutely the same purpose – and indeed Article 21 of the Schengen code more or less acknowledges this – stating that checks “must not have border control as an objective”. Tell me please how what I document here did NOT have border control as an objective?

  9. Thierry


    Actually, yes I do believe it.

    They might ask for other evidences (train ticket with driving license, phone number, proof of residence or someone to vouch for you, if not consulate card), and they’ll be investigating afterwards.
    Unless you cause a ruckus, they would be pretty much looking for racial profiling or languages that suggest a non-EU traveller, and leave it at that.
    What they look for is a confirmation of your identity.

    Otherwise, they’ll ask you to leave the train and if your explanations (or your bullying) satisfy them, then they’ll let you off after a stern advice to comply gracefully with police officers next time (rather than “throw a tantrum”, as they’d see it).

    You are a frequent European traveller, so you should know how frequent it can be for police officers to ask for your identity papers.
    It’s all about circumstances and local communities.
    But that’s a really different practice from border checks.

    You don’t see it in Britain for the simple reason that ID cards are not a requirements for citizens to hold at all time.
    And honestly, I don’t think that most Continentals are bothered by it or see it as an abuse of their “rights and liberty” …just a

    Best regards,

  10. Thierry

    just a legal minor annoyance

  11. Leon S Kennedy


    As a continental, I can assure you that I see it as a big, unnecessary, useless annoyance. Sure, for anyone who just gets out of their home state once a year to go to the beach in Malaga or Sardinia, this is no big deal. For people like me who cross EU internal borders several times a month, having to deal with rude, pompous border police forces who clearly think they are over the average citizen (see Jon’s case and the policeman refusal to identify himself as he was ordering Jon to do), it’s a hindrance. Why would I have to swallow that crap when I know it’s not even fully compliant with legality?

    Why exactly should the taxpayer pay for internal EU border police controls, that are not even legal? Why did most EU countries sign and ratify the Schengen Treaty, conferring citizens the right to border-less travel withing Europe, but they do not respect it? As an individual, if I do not honour a contract, I am in big trouble. Especially when it comes to one that deals with other people’s rights and I am denying them.

  12. oipoisoifaps

    I have never experienced anything like this when crossing Schengen borders. All I have experienced is a customs check somewhere between Kastrup and Hyllie, where three customs officials and a dog walked through the train, questioning no one, at least not in my carriage. Also, I have sometimes seen manned customs offices when travelling by sea outside the EU VAT area (on trips to, from or via Åland), although it seems more common to have unmanned customs offices with a note saying that you should call the customs authorities if you have goods to declare. On the other hand, I’m mostly travelling around northern Europe and the Baltic states, so I’m probably not very often crossing the same borders as you.

  13. found this. Entry requirements for UK citizens:

  14. Nick Collins

    I was interested to experience a baggage and passport check on the line between Chambéry and Modane a few days ago. At Chambéry five policemen got on, some at least armed, along with a similar number of customs officers, wearing sashes stating ‘Douane’ but otherwise in jeans and casual tops, without visible insignia. This was the third time I have witnessed these inspections, but the first time I have been checked. I was asked by two of the customs officers where I was going – Greece via Italy, as it happens – and what my suitcase contained (it was then cursorily examined). What interests me is the purpose of these inspections – are they for customs purposes or are they identity checks? Perhaps they are identity checks posing as customs inspections? On this occasion the two ‘douanes’ who questioned me were very pleasant and polite, but on a previous occasion I observed rudeness and what I can only call a ‘casually threatening’ manner from the ‘officers’ (if such they be) in question. I was interested, just after the inspection reported above, to see a couple of Italian officers (in uniform) remove a man of Middle-Eastern appearance from the train at the first stop inside Italy, and am wondering if and how the two events were connected.

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