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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!
Table of Contents
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!
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.
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.
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!
How 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.
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’re looking for more information about applying for a Schengen visa (because you don’t get the 90 tourist days automatically), please check out this post!
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 :)