Photo: DoctorTac

Schengen visa rules may seriously screw up your plans to kick it in Europe for the long-term.

IN 1985, A HANDFUL of diplomats gathered in the small village of Schengen, Luxembourg, to destroy any plans I might one day have of WWOOFing in Europe for an entire year.

What they created was the Schengen Area, a conglomeration of 26 European states that act as one in terms of international travel. Under the Schengen Agreement, border controls between members are eliminated (if you have a Schengen visa –- we’ll get to that in a minute), while border controls with non-member states are strengthened.

The agreement also introduced a swanky information system shared between member states, along with a variety of other acquis. In short, it takes a lot less paperwork to hop around Europe now than it did in pre-Schengen days. However, you now have to play by Schengen rules or risk some pretty steep consequences.

The 26 Schengen countries are the following:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.

The countries on the list are a strange subset of EU countries, coupled with several (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein) which are not. The UK and Ireland are not on the list, having opted out during the Treaty of Amsterdam for complicated reasons having to do with their being large islands. Also missing are Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania, but they’re mandated to join the club by July, 2012 (Cyprus is putting up a fight because of concerns surrounding Turkish Cypriots).

So the Schengen visa will serve as a single visa for all of the listed 26 countries, with the addition of probably three more by July, 2012.

Who it affects

Short answer: if you’re a Canadian or US citizen, kinda. Long story: if you’re a passport-holding citizens of one (or more) of the following countries, you can travel anywhere in the Schengen Area visa-free, but only for visits of up to 90 days out of every 180:

Any EU state, the UK, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland (and all of the preceding countries’ member territories), in addition to any country on the following Schengen “white list”: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vatican City, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Romania, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, US, Uruguay, Venezuela.
Not on the list

If you’re not from one of the above visa-free countries, you need to apply for a Schengen visa to move freely about the Schengen Area for up to 90 days. This can be tricky, and it’s frustrating that international mobility is hindered simply by birthplace. It’s also not the focus of this particular article, but I encourage anyone in this boat to read How to travel on a third-world passport.

90 days is the limit

If you live in one of the visa-free countries or have a Schengen visa, you can now stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days out of every 180-day period.

This one’s the kicker, folks. The year-long-EuroTrip-ruiner. A common misconception is that tourists in Europe can simply duck into a non-Schengen country like England or Morocco for a day or two and then re-enter with a brand new 90 days to play around with. Not so. You’re allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for 3 months out of every half-year. That’s it. This effectively eradicates (or causes serious problems for) the “perpetual Euro tourist.”

If your goal is to travel for years at a time, you can spend 3 months in the Schengen Area, then a minimum of 3 months elsewhere (Morocco? England? Nepal?), and then re-enter the Schengen Area with the clock reset.

Visa overstays

And what if you overstay your 90 days? Experience dictates one of the following things will happen:

  1. Nothing. Many travelers report that during inter-Schengen border crossings, officials don’t add up the passport stamp dates, and they can get away with more than 90 days in half a year. Apparently this is more common at some borders than others, particularly those states who have joined the Schengen Area recently (like the Czech Republic). However, if officials do check, as they’re supposed to on entry and exit, and do increasingly often…
  2. You’ll get fined (anywhere from $500-$1000, varying by country), possibly deported, and possibly even banned from the Schengen Area for up to 3 years. Ouch.
Stays of more than 90 days

If you want to stay in the Schengen Area for longer than 90 days, you need to apply for a long-stay visa for a specific country.

If you apply for and obtain a long-stay visa for a particular Schengen Area country, you can stay in that country without eating into your 90-day Schengen time. This option’s viability depends entirely on the nature of your work/travel in the specific country.

Most long-stay visas require work permits or residence permits, which often in turn require concrete offers of employment or proof of permanent housing. This makes it difficult to get a long-stay visa if you’re a tourist, WWOOFer, or other itinerant job-seeker. Further reading: How to get an EU work permit.

Long-stay visas have myriad application requirements, varying by type of visa and by country of issue. Many countries, like Norway, allow applications for long-stay visas while you’re already in the country on a 90-day visa; others, like Italy, require that you apply from your home country. Be sure to check how long application processing takes and apply long before it’s critical.

There are many types of long-stay visas. Student visas are fairly standard for those enrolled at a foreign university. Others range dramatically, from Germany’s general employment visa to Norway’s seasonal worker visa to Spain’s non-lucrative visa for really wealthy people. Search in online forums for specific country and specific visa requirements that cater to your situation.

Wrap-up

Find out if you need a Schengen visa to move about the Schengen Area. If you do, get one. If you don’t, you’re all set.

Roam freely in all Schengen Area states for 90 days out of any 180-day period.

If you need or want to stay longer in one Schengen country, do your research and apply for a long-term visa.