Ins & Outs: Schengen Visa Rules

Schengen Zone! If you live outside of Europe, you’ve probably heard the word but have no idea what it means and how it affects your European travels. I’ve broken down all the most commonly asked questions I get about the Schengen Zone and sneaky ways you can work around it!

*** Just a disclaimer, this post is targeted towards Americans! However, most of this information also pertains to Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. As always, double check all visa information before leaving your home country because the visa information is constantly changing and evolving!

What is the Schengen Zone?

The Schengen Zone is an agreement between 26 countries that allows open borders between the countries. Essentially, once you enter a country part of the Schengen Zone, you can freely travel through the rest of the countries without having to go through passport control again! However, the tourist visa for the Schengen Zone doesn’t just pertain to one Schengen Zone country but all of them!

Schengen Area participation
The map above outlines the Schengen Zone:
+ Red: countries that are not part of Schengen due to opt-outs (Ireland and the United Kingdom)
+ Green: Schengen Zone members but not EU members (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland)
+ Orange: de facto Schengen member (Monaco)
+ Dark Purple: Non-EU member with open borders (San Marino and Vatican)
+ Yellow: EU member states not currently part of the Schengen Zone but obliged to join (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania)
+ Blue: EU member states and part of the Schengen Zone (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden)

Schengen Visa Rules

As an American, you can be in the Schengen Zone as a tourist 90 days in a 180-day period. If you leave the Schengen Zone, your time doesn’t reset so it is really important that you keep track of how long you’re in the Schengen Zone. If you’re in the Schengen Zone for 90 days consecutively, you must leave after 90 days and can’t return for another 90 days! That is critical because a lot of countries reset the clock if you leave. The Schengen Zone doesn’t!

I have a spreadsheet on my computer where I keep track of when I’m in the Schengen Zone, which countries I visit, and for how long. 180 days prior from today was September 10, 2015. Since then, I’ve been in the Schengen Zone for 30 days total. As long as I’m not in the Schengen Zone for more than 90 days in the previous 180 days, then I’m fine! Remember, the 90 days in a 180-day period don’t necessarily have to be consecutive, but they are cumulative.

Here is a GREAT calculator to figure out how much time you have left in the Schengen Zone as well as your 90-day period and 180-day period: Schengen Zone Calculator

What about Ireland and the United Kingdom?

Ireland and the United Kingdom opted out of the Schengen Zone meaning that the 90 days in a 180-day period don’t pertain to them. You can stay in Ireland for 90 days in a 180-day period and the United Kingdom for 180 days in a 360-day period.

Schengen Visa Rules via Wayfaring With WagnerHow does the process work in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania?

Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania are all in the process of joining the Schengen Zone (rumor is Croatia could join as early as summer 2016). However, because they aren’t part of the Schengen Zone yet, they don’t have to abide by the 90 days in a 180-day period. Each of the four countries has their own visa policy and Americans can stay in each of the countries (individually) for 90 days in a 180-day period.

How long does my passport need to be valid?

The Schengen Zone requires your passport to be valid 3 months past your departure date from the Schengen Zone. So if you plan on spending 1 month in the Schengen Zone, your passport needs to be valid for at least 4 months when arriving in the Schengen Zone (1 month + 3 additional months). I always recommend having a passport that is valid for at least 6 months! Check each individual country though because some are stricter than others.

Schengen Visa Rules via Wayfaring With Wagner
What happens if I overstay my 90 days in the Schengen Zone?

This is a tricky question because it really varies. First off, the easiest way to avoid this issue is to NOT OVERSTAY THE 90 DAYS! However, if you do overstay the 90 days, I would suggest leaving from a country like Greece or Spain which is much more lenient with the 90 days in a 180-day period. Scandinavian countries and Germany are notoriously strict about enforcing the 90 days in a 180-day period. If you are caught violating the Schengen tourist visa, you could be fined or banned from entering the Schengen Zone for a certain period of time.

Short-term and long-term Schengen Visas (and implications)

I only bring this up because of an issue I faced when my long-term Schengen visa expired May 2015. When I started my master’s program in Germany, I was granted a 18-month Schengen visa. Under the German system, this is considered a “long-term” visa. To be honest, I’m not sure what qualifies as a long-term visa in terms of time length (I think it is anything more than 6 or 9 months but it might not be considered “long-term” until a year…this is important to note!).

After my visa expired, I was living in Croatia (but had not been outside of the Schengen Zone for more than the 180-days required) and wanted to visit Vienna. Some websites said that if you had a long-term visa (short-term visas don’t count!), once it expired you were then granted the additional 90 days in a 180-day period (as a tourist visa). Other websites said this was not allowed. From everything I’ve read, this is allowed as long as you leave the Schengen Zone before your long-term visa expires and then return on the tourist visa (this could mean even leaving just for a day). When you return on the tourist visa, it resets you to day 1 of the 90 days permitted. However, the rules are very vague and vary from Schengen country to Schengen country. I ended up canceling my Vienna trip because I just wasn’t sure and didn’t want to be in violation of any visa laws. My friend faced a similar issue when her long-term visa expired and she wanted to travel to Greece!

If anyone has any clarification, it would be much appreciated!

Schengen Visa Rules via Wayfaring With WagnerHow do I outsmart the 90-day rule?

Besides getting a long-term visa or overstaying your visa, there really isn’t a way to get around the 90 days in a 180-day period. However, you can outsmart the Schengen Zone by taking advantage of countries outside the Schengen Zone! For instance, after spending 90 days inside the Schengen Zone, why not spend 90 days in Croatia or Bulgaria before (legally) heading back into the Schengen Zone? You can also take advantage of the separate visa rules of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Romania, and Cyprus! Technically, you could continue doing this for the rest of your life to evade the Schengen visa laws.

Schengen Visa Rules via Wayfaring With Wagner
The Schengen Zone rules and regulations are quite complicated! This is not an all-encompassing guide but merely an overview to some of the more commonly asked questions.

If you have an additional question or want more clarification, please comment below and I will get back to you (or refer you to the correct website)! Also, if you notice an error, please let me know! I know that the rules and regulations are constantly changing and I definitely don’t want to be distributing incorrect or outdated information :)

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  • I’ve read many places that the best way to maximize your time is to hop in and out of the Schengen if you’re planning on spending, say, 6 months in Europe. If only I had this problem to solve! ha!

  • Oh how many hours I have researched into this stuff and it still confuses me! I as well was stumped on the issue of when my visa expires am I given 90 days on top of that to travel or not. I still have no idea about that one! Great guide Jordan!

  • Darn – I was hoping you had a solid answer after the long term visa expiration. We’re wondering the same thing. Our 2 year visa expires in July & and we’ve been wondering if we can re-enter as a tourist should we choose to stick around a bit. I’ll check back to see if anyone has any extra insight!

  • I totally forgot that you’re not in the Schengen region anymore! It must be annoying to keep up with how many days you’ve spent where, but it seems like you have a good system going! :) I think Visas can be such a complicated hassle, but I guess we’re both pretty lucky to be citizens of countries that allow us relative easy entry in most countries – I know some people who have so called “third country passports” (like Vietnam or the Philippines) that make it incredibly difficult to travel to many places, especially the US and the Schengen area and I cannot imagine what it must be like to almost always have to apply for a visa beforehand and to always face the risk of being turned away. Anyway, great informative post – it may not pertain to me, but I’m sure it’s going to be super helpful for all your US readers! :)

  • I do find the Schengen zone quite complicated so it was good to read a round up of the rules!

  • Great read Jordan. As an almost permanent resident of Germany, this isn’t really an issue, but I can see from a student point of view how this could become really complicated. Also, I never thought about the complications of living in a border country to Schengen countries. That is so complicated! As always, you make the complicated readable and interesting.

  • So, could you spend 90 days in say Italy and France and then go to Ireland and the UK for 90 days and be good to head back into Italy and France again? I think you explained it really well, but I’m still a little fuzzy on some things.

    • Exactly! :) Are long as you are not in Schengen for more than 90 days in a 180-day period, you’re good (so in a broader perspective, only 6 months in a 12-month period through 3-month increments…so 3 months in, 3 months out, 3 months in, etc.). Can I answer any other questions for you? I know it gets super confusing!

      • No that’s super helpful! I’m a US citizen hoping to spend more time in Europe as I build my travel planning business. I have friends in Ireland and Switzerland and connections for the UK. I would love to spend a year in Europe but always struggled with the how. I think I now have it figured out!! Thanks :)

  • I should probably pay better attention to this than I have been. I know on our current visa we are only allowed to be in California for 45 days out of the year before something bad happens* but it never occurred to me to look into how much time we could spend in other EU countries during our two-year stint here in Ireland. I’m going to have to get someone in the legal department at my husband’s work to look into this for us because I’ve stared at several websites now and I’m more confused than ever! I’m beginning to think immigration rules are purposely tricky to catch people out. ;-)

    • Hey Becky! I see that you are an American! Is your husband American as well? What is your visa situation like in Ireland (what kind do you have)? Hopefully I can help you :)

      • We’re here on a two-year work visa for my husband’s American company. I’m not entirely clear on the particulars but I know it’s one that doesn’t go toward citizenship. In looking into it further we think it probably won’t be an issue for us, we’ll just have to track it closely in case we go hog wild with European travel during the summer months. :)

  • Just stopping by and poking around.. still loving the new blog face!! ;) When we started our trip (almost two years ago.. what?!!) we didn’t plan for visa until we were in. the. air. on our way to Europe! So dumb haha. But as a Swiss, I’d never needed a visa before and didn’t even think of it. Tyler on the other hand does not have that advantage soo he did have a panic moment when he realized we hadn’t thought of that. The solutions though, as you said, are so easy! We ended up doing the hop between mainland Europe and England/Ireland for about eight months of our travel year. It worked really well for us; we just had to keep an accurate count of the days we were back in the Schengen region. (I think we ended up pushing it to the last few days of our limit.) It’s the long term visa stuff that still has me stumped. Not sure what route we’d take if we wanted to relocate permanently!

  • Hi, firstly, thanks for this post! It was very informative.

    Currently, I am in a bit of a predicament. So, I hold a US passport and entered germany feb 13 2017 – march 26 2017 (41 days). My 180 days is up aug 12 2017.

    I am looking to return to germany in June 23rd and use up my remaining days. To be safe I plan to leave for the UK aug 8 (by then i will have used up 87 days) and stay until aug 16th (therefore, past my original 180 days). If I try to return to germany on aug 16th, will I be granted a new 90 days?

    I’m sorry I know my question is a bit complicated but I’m trying to ask as many people as I can as i want to avoid breaking any rules.


  • Thank you for your information above. I too have the same question as Jamie in the pervious post. That is :
    When my 180 days is finished how soon can I return into a Schengen area? My country of preference is France. Is there a ‘waiting period’ or can I return after a few days?

  • Hello! I love your blog layout! Great to see another blog updating people on this issue. I also write about Schengen visas. However, I just wanted to let you know that Greece is not the ideal country to leave from if someone has overstayed. Having lived there myself and witnessed many getting caught, they are more strict on their borders due to refugee influx and knowing that people ‘hang out’ in Greece and work under the table. Just a suggestion from my side!

    • Yes definitely! Ideally (and as I mention in my post), I would NEVER recommend anyone ever overstaying their visa. While southern countries tend to let you get away with it a *bit* more, it always just depends on the border patrol officer you get. Thanks! :)

  • Do I need to exit from same Schengen country that issued my visa originally and was my point of entry or can I exit from any schengen country?

    • Hi BJ! It doesn’t matter where you enter or exit so you can exit from a different Schengen country than you entered. It is just most important that you don’t overstay! :)