Understanding the Schengen Zone (Visiting Europe)

Europe is such a wonderful region to visit. There is a great amount of diversity in topography, architecture, culture, food, language, and so on. Thanks to a plethora of low-cost airlines and a robust rail system, you can experience a lot of countries in a short amount of time and for fairly cheap. However, if you’re not a resident of the European Union (EU) or a Schengen country, the Schengen Zone is going to prove both helpful and frustrating.

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What is the Schengen Zone?

In 1985, a bunch of European countries entered into an agreement that basically created a borderless area. This allowed for freedom of movement between residents of member nations. Most countries did away with border control within the zone.

The plus side of this for foreign (non-European) travelers is that you can move easily between member countries. Often you can cross from one country to another without needing to show any documentation. You also don’t have to worry about differing visa restrictions. We flew from Hungary to France without showing our passport to anybody.

The down side is the restriction on how much time can be spent in the zone by foreigners.

This link shows the member countries of the zone.

How much time can one spend in the Schengen Zone?

Essentially, people from many countries (including the US) are given 90 days to spend anywhere within the zone. However, that is 90 days in a 180-day period. You can spend all 90 days in 1 country or you can split it up by visiting multiple countries, but once you have used up 90 days in a 180-day period you need to either leave the zone entirely or obtain a long-term visa before your Schengen time expires.

There used to be a looser interpretation of the timing, but in 2013 they decided to make this less confusing. The time is now calculated going backwards for 180 days from the date of entry/exit of a Schengen country.

For example, if you’ve spent 30 days in France and go to Italy, they would theoretically look at the date you enter Italy and count backwards 180 days. Since you’ve only spent 30 days in the zone so far, you’d be just fine. When you leave Italy, they could again count backward to make sure you haven’t overstayed.

Why did I say “theoretically” above? Well, here’s the thing: Many Schengen countries really don’t care. France and Spain, for example, are well known for not paying much attention to the other stamps in your passport. Italy can be mercurial.

Slovenia is pickier and has been known to fine people 200€ for a slight overstay. People visiting Greece have seen border officials pull out a calendar and calculator to verify their time.

Also, because many countries no longer have physical border control, you could easily pass from France into Italy without stopping.

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What happens if I overstay?

If you’re traveling in a country that doesn’t really enforce the time restrictions, you’ll be just fine. Unless you get someone who is paying attention that day.

The big problem is that if you happen to get caught having overstayed you not may be facing a fine but also a possible travel ban and/or deportation. The ban can mean that entering any country within the zone for the next 1-3 years can be a major challenge. Want to visit France, Italy, and Spain? You’ll need to apply ahead of time with each country. Also, if your passport has the dreaded deportation stamp, many countries will deny you entry.

Not just in Europe.

A few days to a week is usually no problem (although you may still be fined), but go over that and you run a big risk. Ultimately, the country does have the right to impose jail time as well. That is extremely rare, but it is still a possibility. I have heard of a few people being detained for a few days before being deported with the accompanying ugly stamp in their passport.

Be aware that the time of the entry/exit means nothing. If you enter a member country at 11:59 PM and it turns midnight as soon as you enter the country, you’re now on day #2.

If there are no borders, how do they know when I’ve left?

There is often some form of border control available where you can request an exit stamp. If you’re flying into a non-Schengen country, you will receive an entry stamp there which proves your exit from the zone. Also, if you crossed overland and didn’t receive a stamp, you can buy something in a store and save the receipt. You can show that as proof as well.

If you have a phone with a local SIM card, you will usually get a text whenever you enter another country. You can also use this SMS to show when you left.

Resources

There is an official website where you can calculate different dates to help ensure you aren’t in danger of an overstay. However, I don’t find it to be very user friendly, and it usually creates more confusion and concern for me.

Instead, I rely on a phone app called Check Visa (Android). It is MUCH more user friendly, uses the current calculation rules, and it keeps the information up to date so that you can easily see how much time you have left. You can also enter various dates to assist with travel planning.

It’s a free app which makes it even better.

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So I only get 3 months in Europe?

Thankfully, not every European nation is a party to the Schengen agreement. For example, Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria are all members of the EU, but they are not members of the Schengen zone. They each allow up to 90 days per country. So when your Schengen time is almost up, you can pop over to any non-Schengen country in Europe to wait out the end of your 180-day period.

Some countries aren’t a member of either and have their own time periods. For example, Albania allows US citizens to stay in the country for up to 1 year. If you leave the country for 3 months and return, the 1-year period restarts.

You can also mix things up. For instance, we entered the Schengen Zone when we flew into Iceland. We were there for 2 weeks before flying to the UK and Romania, both of which are non-Schengen countries. When I returned to the zone 3 months later, we still had plenty of time because we had only spent 14 of the 90 days in the zone. By the time we left France, those original 14 days had almost completely reset because they were past the 180-day mark.

Because not every European country is a member of Schengen, we’ve spent almost 8 months in Europe so far. By the time we reenter the zone, we will have spent a year in Europe already.

It is doable. You just have to be a bit creative.

Czech, Germany, France, and reportedly Hungary make it fairly uncomplicated to get a long-stay visa, i.e., temporary residency. If you’re looking at spending more than 90 days in the region, you’ll want some form of a longer visa. Generally speaking, once you have residency in a Schengen country, you enjoy the same rights as other Schengen residents, and the time restrictions are no longer a major complication for you.

Also note that if you get residency in an EU country (even if it isn’t a party to the Schengen agreement), you also enjoy fewer hassles because most Schengen countries are also members of the EU. Residents of the EU have similar rights when traveling to/within member states.

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Exceptions, exceptions!

Some countries have specific agreements with countries within the zone that supersede the Schengen rules. For example, US citizens can stay in Poland for 90 days beyond their Schengen time. They also allow you to leave the country and return to restart another 90-day period.

Kiwis can stay in 17 different member countries for 90 days (in a 180-day period) each. So, they can spend 90 days in Austria, 90 days in Greece, 90 days in Belgium. . . Since not every Schengen country is part of this bilateral agreement, you should double check the list of participating countries when traveling within the zone on a New Zealand passport.

There are many other exceptions depending on your country of residence, so it pays to do a bit of research first.

What other questions or tips do you have about traveling within the Schengen Zone?

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11 Comments

  1. I’ve been a resident of Portugal for almost 10 years. I let the residency expire and am moving to Serbia. I was in the Schengen Zone about 85 days. After 10 days I’ll need to reenter to finish shipping my household goods and pay final bills. It looks like I’ll need to have been in the Schengen Zone 95 days because the drive from Portugal to Slovenia is so long. Will I face jail time or deportation? Or is it possible driving Portuguese registered vehicles on a Portuguese Driver’s license with Portuguese address I won’t be hassled?

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  2. I am a U.S. citizen that travelled to Romania and overstayed my visit by about 12 days. I filled out paperwork to exit the country and was only given a warning because it was my first time overstaying. I am now back in the states and want to take a short vacation for a few days to Greece with my boyfriend. Will I run into any trouble? I know Romania isn’t a part of the Schengen zone, but will Greece see that I’ve overstayed my trip to Romania and not let me enter? What about if my flight lands in another country first to transfer to Greece?

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    • If they didn’t stamp your passport for the overstay, which it doesn’t sound like they did, you’ll be fine. None of the other countries will know. Enjoy your trip!

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  3. Is there an iPhone equivalent to the Check Visa app for android?

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  4. Really interesting, I had no idea! We are an American and a Kiwi, so even more complicated! Definitely need to do our research.

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  5. How complicated! I’m so grateful for my EU passport! The UK and Ireland are also in the EU but not in Schengen zone, meaning they would be good places to leave the Schengen zone to, no? We really need a three-way Venn diagram of the EU, Schengen zone and Eurozone to properly understand what we talk about when we say ‘Europe’, especially as many people from the UK talk about Europe as somewhere else, as though they don’t already live there – duh!

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    • If you have the budget for it, yes they are pretty good places to visit to get out of the Schengen area.

      I’ve seen a few good maps that show Schengen, EU/EEA, non. But if you’re a non-EU/EEA resident, you really only need to worry about the Schengen since it’s the most limiting and has the broadest restriction.

      I’m jealous people that have an EU passport! lol

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  6. Wow! I didn’t know we have such policy toward US citizens in Poland. I guess it was a government attempt to encourage the US gov to cancel visas for the Poles, which is never going to happen 😉

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