When you hear the word Schengen you either have never heard of it, know it’s related to Europe, or it’s the bane of your travel plans. Whichever category you’re in if you’re planning a trip to Europe the Schengen Area is a concept you need to be familiar with. Fortunately the Schengen Area rules are not nearly as complicated as people often make them to be. Here’s the simplest way to understand the Schengen Area.

What Is The Schengen?

The Schengen Area comprises of 29 European countries and is is not the same as the European Union although they overlap quite a bit. Norway for example is part of the Schengen Area but not in the European Union. Also, Ireland and the United Kingdom are notably not part of the Schengen Area or European Union (after Brexiting from the latter). The Schengen is a group of European countries but for travel purposes, you can simplify things by forgetting about national borders for a second.

One Area, Many States

Many travelers from various countries are permitted a 90 day visa-free stay in the Schengen Area out of every 180 days. You might be thinking alright, I’ve got a trip to Germany and the Netherlands planned, what does this mean for me?

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It depends on where you’re from but to give an example – if you’re an American citizen who is traveling to a Schengen country – you have a visa free stay of 90 days within every 180 days.

So in the case of a 21 day trip to Europe say you spend 10 of those in Germany then 11 in the Netherlands, it’s all part of your 90 day allowance. It’s not 90 days in Germany then 90 days in the Netherlands, it’s 90 days in the Schengen Area.

It’s kind of like the United States. You get a visa to visit the US of say, 30 days, but you can freely go to California, New York, and Michigan, the days of your visit are counted when you enter the country.

You can think of the Schengen Area member countries as US states when it comes to travel. There are open borders between them and you can visit Germany, Spain, then hop over to Greece without having to go through immigration but your stay is counted by the total number of days in the Schengen Area, not each country.

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Counting Passport Controls

The Schengen Agreement is why you’ll only go through passport control when you first enter the Schengen Area from say, Berlin, then when you leave the Schengen Area via Amsterdam, as an example. But flying between Germany and the Netherlands, you won’t go through passport control.

For most travelers, the Schengen Area rules only come into play if you’re planning a longer visit to Europe. When your plans start getting close to 90 days, it’s important you remember the specific rules for your nationality. For many, that’s 90 days out of every 180. The easiest way to count is to take a day on the calendar, go forward 90 days and back 90 (total 180), then make sure you aren’t in the Schengen Area for more than allowed resulting in an overstay. Longer (legal) stays will require paperwork but most tourists just need to remember every Schengen country counts toward your visa free stay.