Schengen Visa: What you should know

It wasn’t our proudest moment: sitting around a picnic table half way down the Adriatic Coast of Italy, as our new friends asked us, mouths agape, “How are you still here?” We were six and a half months into our year long cycle tour that would take us from London, UK, to the deep south of Tunisia and back,

We looked at each other. What did they mean how were we still there? We just… were.

“How did you get around the newly implemented Schengen Visa requirements and limits?”

Schengen Visa? Limits?

In that moment, we became illegal aliens. Actually, we’d been illegal aliens for more than three months, but we were blissfully ignorant of our serious visa overstay. It was 2008. The Schengen Visa wasn’t a new thing, but I had, for whatever reason, not bothered to do adequate research. We’d simply flown into the UK (a non-Schengen country) and bicycled off on our merry way.

” I’d seriously dropped the ball. How could I not have researched that? But I didn’t.”

Part of the problem was how we’d entered the Schengen Zone, by ferry, from Newcastle, UK to Amsterdam. Virtually everyone on the boat held a UK or an EU passport. When the port custom’s officials, working out of the back of a pickup truck, got to us, they rummaged around in the glove box for a while and finally appeared with an old school rubber immigration stamp and a red ink pad. Stamp, stamp. We were in.

Nothing was scanned, so our presence wasn’t in any database. He scribbled an arrival date on the stamp, but not an expiration date, and it never occurred to us that we couldn’t spend a month in each country in Europe. Thirty days is standard, for a visa on arrival, right? Right. We expected to have the stamping repeated at every border and were surprised when it was not. No one told us. We didn’t ask. Our assumptions were wrong, and you know what they say about assumptions! This is how ill prepared we were. I’d seriously dropped the ball. How could I not have researched that? But I didn’t.

And so, we cycled happily down the coast of the North Sea, across the rolling hills of Belgium into Germany, merrily, merrily, merrily down the Rhine River and all over the Schwabisher Alb and back up to Berlin before heading for the Czech, blazing a hops littered trail across the home of some of the best beer in the world. We waltzed our way, leisurely, through the vineyards of Austria and across the Alps down into Italy, where we were lazily sampling every town’s local red, weaving our way towards Rome; well over six months later. Whoops.

I will say, loudly, if not proudly, that there is no excuse for that.

We should have done our homework. I should have planned better. It was my responsibility to figure it out. I learned from that, and we sweated it for the next three weeks as we worked our way toward the port at Civitavecchia and hoped that they’d let us out without impunity.

What you need to know about the Schengen Visa

It is ONE visa that applies, simultaneously, to 26 countries who are members of the Schengen Zone

There is a lot of overlap with the EU, but not all EU members are Schengen signatories and not all Schengen signatories are EU members. This map will help you sort it out.

The Schengen Visa allows three months of travel within any six month (180 day) period

This is for within all of the countries of the Schengen Zone combined. When your 90 days are up, you must get out of the Schengen Zone until the beginning of the next six month period. So if you land January 1, you may be in and out of the Schengen Zone as you wish to be until June 30 for a total of not more than 90 days.

Citizens of some countries must apply in advance

Many of the first world countries have Visa On Arrival (VOA)status with the Schengen Zone, which means that you can book your flight in and you’ll be issued your visa at the airport as you arrive. It is still valid for the 90 of any 180 day period. Here’s the list of countries that need to apply in advance, vs. those who will be issued a VOA.

Extending your Schengen Tourist Visa is basically impossible

You get 90 days. Period. If you find a way to extend it, email me. I want to know.

You can get a longer stay visa through one of the member countries

France and Italy are two popular choices; which will give you up to a year within that country. So, you could come and go on your Schengen Visa to the other member countries while calling that one country your base.

Citizens of Commonwealth Countries qualify for work stay visas

The Commonwealth includes Australia, Canada & New Zealand. Passport holders can get up to two years of a work-stay visa within the Schengen Countries. The catch: you have to be under 30 years old. You don’t necessarily have to work, but you have the right to if you wish. In my opinion this is the way to go if you’re lucky enough to hold a Commonwealth passport.

What happens if you overstay?

Isn’t that the question everyone is asking? I know that’s the question I was asking in the many nights I lay awake in Italy sweating bullets over what the consequences were going to be when we tried to leave.

“If there’s one thing an avid traveler doesn’t want, it’s a flag in the computer at every border crossing that you’re prone to visa overstay.”

The official answer is that if you are caught overstaying your Schengen Visa you can be detained, deported, your passport flagged as an illegal immigrant and denied reentry to the zone, permanently.

What actually happens to most people is somewhere down the scale of severity from that. If you’re only over by a couple of days, it’s not normally a big deal. There may be a fine to pay. If you’re over by a couple of weeks, you’re likely to get a slap on the wrist, maybe a flag in the passport. Longer than that and you’re risking your ability to travel back to Europe in the near future and you’re pretty much guaranteeing a paperwork rodeo if you do want to try to reenter. If there’s one thing an avid traveler doesn’t want, it’s a flag in the computer at every border crossing that you’re prone to visa overstay.


How to stay in Europe longer. Legally.

The obvious answer to this is to plan carefully to split your time between countries within Europe that are NOT members of the Schengen Zone. The UK, for example, will stamp you in for 180 days at a time, as an American passport holder. So take a three month tour of that country while you wait for your Schengen clock to reset. Or, head east and visit some of the Eastern European Countries that are not members of the Schengen Zone. Many travelers nip down into Morocco (a short boat ride from the south of Spain) and soak up the sun while they wait it out.

“I swear that it was a coincidence that our ship left at midnight on a very rainy night, but it made for the perfect movie backdrop of our skulking out of Schengen Zone. “

We opted for Tunisia. I swear that it was a coincidence that our ship left at midnight on a very rainy night, but it made for the perfect movie backdrop of our skulking out of Schengen Zone. We couldn’t have picked a better country to try to sneak out of. Italy isn’t known for it’s strict adherence to rules. We held our collective breaths and admonished the children to keep their mouths shut as we smiled sweetly and tried to look legal at the port authority office.

“How long have you been in Italy?” the officer asked.

“A little over a month,” I tried not to squeak.

“What was the best part?”

“The wine, and the Italian grandfathers,” I winked at him.

He belly laughed, and winked back. Stamp, stamp. We were out. Whew.

Needless to say, we stayed in Tunisia the full 90 days allowable and hoped the extra 24 hours on the ship back to Marseille, France would be enough to get us back in, legally. Which it was.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Read more about travel in Europe, inside and outside the Schengen Zone:

Photos  by: Gl0ck, Peteri, Martynova Anna