Freedom of movement in the EU


Citizens of EU member states are automatically citizens of the European Union. This means that they can move freely around the countries of the EU, and have the right to live in those other countries if they meet certain conditions.

Freedom of movement applies to all EU member states, although restrictions can be placed on new members to the EU. It also applies to Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein (who make up the EEA alongside the 27 EU member states) and Switzerland.

UK citizens have the separate right to live and work in Ireland through the Common Travel Area. Irish citizens have the same rights to live and work in the UK.

Which EU and national laws apply to free movement?

Article 45 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union grants free movement to workers. The Maastricht Treaty 1992 created EU citizenship and widened the scope of free movement. EU treaties have direct effect in Ireland, which means that the treaties are part of Irish law.

EU Directive 2004/38/EC (known as the ‘Citizens’ Rights Directive’) sets out rules that member states must follow, including how free movement applies to family members of EU citizens, and what happens to the EU citizen’s residence rights if they lose their job, or become ill. EU Directive 2004/38/EC was transposed (or was entered into Irish law) by European Communities (Free Movement of Persons) Regulations 2015.

You can read about how EU law works.

What does freedom of movement mean?

EU, EEA and Swiss citizens have the right to move freely within the territory of the European Union, European Economic Area and Switzerland. When they are lawfully in one of those countries, they should not be treated differently from citizens of that country in terms of:

  • Access to employment
  • Working conditions
  • Taxation
  • Access to training
  • Access to trade unions
  • Access to (for example) housing, education, education for their children

Staying in another EU state for up to 90 days

As an EU citizen, EEA or Swiss national, you can travel within the territory of the European Union, the EEA and Switzerland. You do not need a visa to travel to another EU, EEA country or Switzerland and your passport should not be stamped upon exiting your country or entering another country.

EU countries must not set conditions (other than needing a passport or national identity card, or to report their presence to the authorities) for EU citizens to enter their country.

This means that you should not be asked to prove that you have an offer of employment, money to live off, are registered with a college, or have any other particular business or purpose to visiting the EU member state.

EU citizens, EEA or Swiss nationals who arrive in Ireland must have a passport or national identity card. If you are travelling in mainland Europe, you may be allowed to move between countries without showing your passport or identity card (in the Schengen Area).

Family members of EU, EEA or Swiss citizens, who are not citizens themselves, may have to apply for a visa to enter Ireland. See ‘Family members’ below.

Your right to stay in an EU, EEA country or Switzerland for up to 90 days could be cancelled if you become an unreasonable burden on the social assistance system of the member state. If you have recently moved to Ireland, have not been able to find work, and have no money to support yourself, the Irish state does not have to pay you social assistance. See ‘Restrictions on freedom of movement' below.

Staying in another EU state for over 90 days

If you want to remain in an EU, EEA state or Switzerland for more than 90 days, you may be asked to show that you are:

  • In employment
  • Self-employed
  • A full time student with health insurance and money to support yourself
  • You have money to support yourself and health insurance (for you and your family) without state assistance

Qualifying family members of EU citizens, EEA nationals and Swiss citizens from these categories also have a right to live in another state for more than 90 days. See ‘Family members’ below for more information.

If you stay in another EU or EEA state or Switzerland for over 90 days and are not in any of the above categories, you could be given a Removal Order.

In Ireland, EU, EEA or Swiss citizens do not have to register their presence in the State with the authorities. This means that you will not have to show that you are in one of the above categories unless:

  • Your spouse, partner or dependent family member is not from the EU, EEA or Switzerland and is applying for residence
  • You apply for a social assistance payment and must satisfy the Habitual Residence Condition
  • You apply for permanent residency for yourself, or your family (this is available after 5 years’ lawful residence)

You can read more about residence rights of EEA citizens.

Family members

Free movement applies to certain family members, even if they are not EU, EEA or Swiss citizens. This means that certain family members can live in another EU, EEA member state or Switzerland if you can show that you are lawfully resident there.

Free movement does not generally apply to EU, EEA or Swiss nationals, when they are living in their own country of nationality. This means that family members of EU, EEA or Swiss nationals may have stronger residence rights in a particular country than a family member of a national of that country.

If you are an EU, EEA or Swiss national and you plan to move to Ireland with your non-EU/EEA or Swiss family, you should check if they need a visa to enter Ireland. They can only apply for residence from within the State. The application process for a visa and for residence depends on the relationship between you and your family member.

Qualifying and permitted family members

Visas for qualified family members should be free of charge and fast-tracked, and applications for residency should be free of charge and processed within 6 months. The following are qualifying family members:

  • Your spouse or civil partner
  • Your child or the child of your spouse under the age of 21
  • Your grandchild or your spouse’s grandchild under the age of 21
  • Your dependent parent, or dependent parent of your spouse
  • Your dependent grandparent, or the dependent grandparent of your spouse
  • Other direct, dependent descendants or direct, dependent relatives in the ascending line (for example, great grandparents or great grandchildren) of either you or your spouse

Children over 21 are generally considered qualifying family members if they are in education, or are dependent on you due to an illness or disability. You will have to show that your parents or grandparents (or the parents or grandparents of your spouse) were dependent on you before they came to Ireland.

Other family members may also be given residence. They are permitted family members and include:

  • Your partner
  • Any relative who is part of your household
  • Any relative who needs your personal care because of illness or disability

Other family members have rights of residence based on decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (for example, parents of EU citizens and parents of Irish citizens).

The residence rights of the non-EU/EEA/Swiss family members may continue following the death of, or break-up in relationship with, the EU/EEA or Swiss citizen if certain conditions have been met.

When lawfully resident, those family members are also entitled to work in the host country. After 5 years of legal residence family members may apply for permanent residence.

You can read more about residence rights of family members of EEA citizens.

Restrictions on freedom of movement

A member state can restrict free movement on the grounds of:

  • Public policy
  • Public security
  • Public health

This means that you could be expelled from the EU/EEA country or Switzerland where you live in some circumstances. The longer you have lived legally in that country, the stronger the safeguards against being removed and returned to your country of nationality.

A Removal Order cannot be disproportionate. In other words, a country could be breaking EU law if they remove you without good reason and without an examination of the facts of your case.

Before a decision is made on granting a Removal Order against you, the member state must consider:

  • The length of your stay in the country
  • How well you are integrated (for example, your work history)
  • Your age and health
  • How removing you would impact other family members who would remain in the State
  • The links you have to your country of origin

You may also be removed if you have lost your residency rights. This could happen if you have not found work after 3 months of residence and are not able to support yourself.

What to do if your free movemen trights are denied

Freedom of movement rights can be denied in a number of ways. For example:

  • You could be denied entry to another EU/EEA country or Switzerland
  • You could face discrimination in another EU/EEA country or Switzerland that prevents you from accessing the labour market
  • You could be removed from an EU/EEA country or Switzerland for reasons other than those that are allowed in EU law
  • Your family could be denied the right to join you in the EU/EEA country or Switzerland where you live
  • You have been denied healthcare, public housing, or another State service that is provided to nationals of the country
  • Your qualifications have not been recognised in the new EU/EEA country or Switzerland

You can contact one of the organisations listed below if you want advice on your rights as an EU,EEA or Swiss national, or wish to make a complaint about your treatment in that country.

Europe Direct offers advice on its Freephone number and runs local offices in each member state.

Your Europe Advice offers information and advice about EU rights on its website and through its legal advisers.

You can make a formal complaint to the European Commission if you believe your rights as an EU citizen have been breached.

You can make a complaint to SOLVIT. SOLVIT can investigate complaints about EU rights. It will not generally investigate complaints where court action is already underway, and it does not handle consumer complaints.

Refugees and asylum seekers

If you have claimed asylum in an EU member state, then you must stay in that country while your application is being processed. The Dublin III Regulation sets out the rules on where a claim for international protection (asylum) should be made within the European Union.

Further information

You can read more about the EU and how it works in our documents:

Page edited: 21 June 2022