For many travelers to Europe, the word “Schengen” has no relevance or importance in their lives. In fact, this word usually has zero impact on travel itineraries and people can continue living without the fear, panic, and loathing of the dreaded Schengen.
But the limitations of a Schengen visa are a reality for those of us who are long term travelers (WWOOFers, couchsurfers, volunteers, and vagabonds). To those of us who’ve hopped and bounced around Asia or South America without fear of visa hassles, Schengen is a blinking red eject button from a cluster of European countries. Years ago, representatives from many European nations met in a small Luxembourg town called Schengen where they drafted the guidelines of visas granted to tourists. At the surface, the landing visa looks pretty straightforward.
General Guidelines for Schengen Visa to EU
Visitors from the US and other nations, receive 90 days to tour countries in the Schengen zone, free of charge with no hassle… until your 91st day that is. In many other parts of the world, Neil and I were granted 90 day visas for a single country. In Ecuador, we crossed from Loja into Peru with literally minutes to spare on our 90-day visa though we could have stayed for dinner and crossed right back. In Bolivia, we had to jump through a few paperwork hoops and pay a hefty fee, but entered with a multi-year visa. We enjoyed ourselves at a leisurely pace, seeing little nooks and crannies of the countryside. We even managed longer stays too and lived in Baños, Ecuador and volunteered in Cusco, Peru too. As we proceeded south down the Andean mountains, we never had to worry about our visa since 3 months was a long time to spend in any one country.
The trap with a Schengen visa is that you have 90 days for 25 countries. This means that when Neil and I landed in Reykjavik, Iceland to see the midnight sun, we had already started the clock. We never even bothered to count the days between our road trip in Iceland and the TBEX travel bloggers convention in Spain. We lucked out. It was 85 days so we will be able to attend the convention.
Unlike Thailand you can’t just hop across the border for a visa run and receive a fresh 90 days after a weekend in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Though some people have pushed the envelope and overstayed.) In the Schengen EU countries, your visa is good for 90 days within any 180 day period. In other words, citizens of countries that need a Schengen visa can travel for 90 days out of next 180. If you travel for 90 days straight in Schengen countries, you have to leave this union of nations for the next 90 days before you can return to any of them to get a new 90 days. You also can’t use any Schengen countries as a means of transport to other countries (including no flight layovers).
When we were enlightened about these restrictions,we had to pull out our maps, mark the Schengen zone and strategically plan our path through Europe, seeing the Schengen countries first and booking a flight out after TBEX for the nearest and cheapest non-Schengen nation. We scored a US$106 one-way flight to Dubrovnik, Croatia where a seaside rental awaits us on Hvar Island. For now, we are running through our itinerary fast, seeing as much as we can as quickly as possible. We hit the ground running in Amsterdam, flew through Venice and Florence, hiked Vesuvius, and saw the Roman Coliseum in the early morning and late night.
For your long term travel plans, check the official sites for Schengen countries, especially since each year more sign up. As of today, the Schengen zone consists of: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.