hamburg airport terminal

Visas aren’t the most interesting subject to read about though they happen to be the most discussed topic on this blog. Much of the confusion that fuels the questions behind that forum revolves around the continent where 50.7% of all people (477 million) [PDF] travel per year – Europe. The Schengen Agreement and Area are both visa topics you should brush up on if you’re headed to Europe for more than 3 months in any given 12 month period so you don’t unwittingly break any rules.

That Europe, by the way isn’t just the European Union (EU) and in fact isn’t all of the EU anyway, here’s what you need to know.

copenhagen bicyclesWhere Is The Schengen Area?

The Schengen Area currently consists of 26 countries in Europe including Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, and Greece. You can see the full list of current members here. Some notable exceptions are England and Ireland (both EU but not Schengen). Several countries you might not expect also part of the Schengen Area include Estonia, Latvia, and Malta. Bulgaria and Romania are likely to join the Schengen club later this year.

So Why Should You Care About This Funny Sounding Area?

Because in terms of travel and visas, Schengen member states are essentially the same country. Across the Schengen Area, those of you from countries who do not require visas (including the United States, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Brazil) are permitted to stay 90 days out of every 180. That means the entire Schengen Area, not just the Schengen member country you’re visiting.

This is where most people get confused – you can only stay within the entire Schengen Area for 90 days out of every 180. So, if you spend 1 month in Germany, then fly to France for a month, go visit your friends back in Turkey (not Schengen) for 2 weeks, then head to Spain for 6 weeks you’ll officially be overstaying your Schengen welcome. Want to spend two months in Austria then hop a train to Slovenia for 2 months? Well, that’s a no-no too.

These rules are, of course, the general ones and apply to most people but not all. For instance, New Zealand citizens have visa-free travel for 90 days out of every 180 in each individual Schengen nation. (A rare exception.) Check with the appropriate embassy for the specifics given your circumstances – don’t just take my word for it as visas can be complex and laws change quickly.

Only 3 Months In 26 Countries? The Reasoning Behind The Ridiculousness

Yes, these are the same folks who came up with the bright idea of a single currency without a framework to support it but actually the Schengen rules are very convenient – especially for Schengen residents. Citizens of member states can travel and live in the others without visas. Plus border crossings are more efficient without constant passport checks. (Checks are optional for each country at their discretion so always bring your travel documents when crossing any border.)

houses in portugal

Most people take vacations and trips much shorter than 3 months and the Schengen Agreement while driving up visa costs (for those who need them) has steadily increased tourism to Europe. The Schengen Area isn’t going anywhere but rather, will continue to grow.

valancia streetsHow Can You Stay Longer Than 3 Months In The Schengen Zone?

Residents of most countries will need to fill out a long-stay visa application at the embassy of the specific country they’ll be arriving in first (e.g. Sweden). Generally, long-stay visas must be applied for from outside the Schengen Area.

Long-stay visas are only allowed for up to one year. Afterward, from your point of entry into the Schengen, you’ll be free to visit the members states within that time. The Schengen rules don’t allow you to travel for more than a year within the Area so if you really fall in love with a country and want to stay longer than 12 months, you’ll need to file for a residence permit with that specific country.

What Happens If You Overstay?

That’s a question I’ve covered in depth before but to sum it up for short overstays upon leaving the Schengen Area you may face a fine. For longer overstays a ban for a number of years is possible. An overstay of even 1 day (remember it is 90 days not 3 months out of every 180 days) can hit your pocketbook and cause you problems so don’t risk it if you don’t have to. Finally, if you are behind the Schengen borders and simply couldn’t pull yourself away on time, you’ll likely find it easier avoiding being caught at passport control if you leave from countries that aren’t as culturally diligent about timekeeping. (*cough* Greece, Spain *cough*)

The more punctual peoples of Europe (Germans are notorious for catching short over-stayers) could cause you problems but in the end it all depends on the person you come across at passport control. The only way to not have any problems is to know and follow the rules.