So, you’re getting ready to head to Europe for a long period of time. You’ve got your checklist of must-see towns, your well-packed backpack, and your sense of humor (always required for travel).
But then you get to the border.
And the French say oh, la la, ma’am, no, you cannot stay in France for six months without a special visa.
Because, of course, for better or worse, there are rules.
About how long you can stay in a country and for what purposes (study, tourism, business, etc.).
And if you’ve already started researching how long you can travel in Europe, you know that those rules can get a little confusing.
Which is why I thought I’d take a moment to clear up the mysteries. To tell you about the borderless zone known as the schengen. And to tell you how I’ve managed to spend whole years of my life in Europe.
First, you should know that this info applies to USers. I can’t speak to the requirements for other nationalities (though this is probably also a good jumping off point for your own research if you’re from a country like Canada or New Zealand). The rules do vary based on where you’re from, unfortunately.
So, USers, I’m talking to you.
First, let’s talk about the schengen zone.
This is a border-free area that encompasses most of Europe. At the time of this writing, it includes: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
So, in summary: a lot of countries. And a ton of countries that are high up on people’s to-travel lists.
This borderless zone works a bit like a single country when it comes to visa-free travel for USers. You can come in, travel visa-free for 90 days, and then you have to leave for at least 90 days.
90 days in.
90 days out.
Now, you can split those 90 days up as much as you want. You could come in for 30 days, leave for 10, come back in for 50 days, leave for 10, then come back for the last 10. You don’t have to do your 90 days in one fell swoop. BUT. Once you reach 90 days out of the last 180, you need to exit the schengen and wait.
If you were planning on jaunting around Western Europe for six months, this news can be a bit of a bummer. But here’s the good news: there are still some European countries that are not schengen. And so if you want to spend six whole months or nine whole months or two whole years exploring Europe, you can still do it while keeping the schengen laws. You’ll just need to jump out for 90+ days in another country or countries.
Non-schengen European countries currently include: Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina (where we’re currently spending our summer), Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia (the country, which is technically probably Asia, but considers itself European from what I’ve heard), Ireland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Each of those countries have their own stay rules, but they’re easy to find. Just check their embassy websites.
Most of them tend to be around 90 days themselves. Which is convenient.
Keep in mind, though, that countries tend to consider a half-day in the country as a full day. So 90 days out means 90 full days out. Which also means you’ll probably need to plan for a buffer day on either end of your travels in order to comply with the rules.
What does that look like in practical terms?
Here’s some math:
Let’s say you spend 90 days in the schengen exploring Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia.
The day you arrive is day one and you leave on day 90.
Now, day 90 of your schengen time also becomes day 1 in your next country. So let’s say you cross into Croatia. Now you’re allowed 90 days in Croatia, but at the end of your 90 days in Croatia, you’ve only technically been out of the schengen for 89 days. Because day 90 schengen also counted as day 1 Croatia.
Still with me?
So you would need to go to another non-schengen country for at least one full day before heading back into the schengen.
So, you could do this in a bunch of different ways:
Maybe you book 92 days in Croatia, but head across the border to Bosnia or Montenegro for a long weekend (making sure to stay out for those full extra two days) and then come back into Croatia to complete the actual 90 days you plan on spending in the country.
Or perhaps you book a month or two in Croatia and a month or two in Bosnia.
Or perhaps you zip all over the non-schengen countries for 91+ days, visiting a bunch of them.
As long as you stay out of the schengen for a full 90 days, your time resets and you are welcome to head back in.
Slovenia’s Soca Valley.
If the math got a little confusing, here are some of my real itineraries to help you see how it works:
In end of 2016/into 2017 we went to:
Rome, Italy (schengen): December 5 – December 8
Taormina, Italy (schengen): December 8 – January 8
Rome, Italy (schengen): January 8 – March 2
Overnight in Villach, Austria (schengen): March 2 – 3
Exit schengen into Croatia: March 3
Total schengen days: 89
Zagreb, Croatia (not schengen): March 3 – 5
Dubrovnik, Croatia (not schengen): March 5 – May 5
Total days in Croatia: 63
(e.g. we still need 27+ days out of the schengen when we leave Croatia)
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (not schengen): May 5 – June 5
Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina (not schengen): June 5 – August 1
Total days in Bosnia: 89 days
(Now we’ve been out of the schengen for 152 days, so we’re more than welcome back in the schengen zone.)
Ljubljana, Slovenia (schengen): August 1 – September 1
Kranjska Gora, Slovenia (schengen): September 1 – October 1
Yet-to-be decided destination within the schengen: October 1 – October 29
Total schengen days: 90
And, again, at that point we’ll need to leave the schengen zone for 90+ days. The soonest we could come back in would be January 27th.
If the idea of doing all that math yourself for your own long European stay sounds stressful, this is the calculator I use to make sure my schengen stays are a-ok.
A farm stay in the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Okay, so that’s the schengen. But what about those of us who want to stay longer IN the schengen zone? Is it possible?
The answer is yes, but it does get a little more complicated and may require paperwork.
:: Some countries, like Portugal (I haven’t done this myself, so do make sure to confirm before attempting it), will allow USers to request another 90 days after their first 90 in the schengen.
Now, if you do this, that second 90-day stretch needs to be spent in Portugal itself (it’s not a free-for-all visa that allows you to jaunt around the schengen), but it is an extra 90 days. This is generally known as a tourist visa extension. And you could always contact other countries’ consulates to ask if they offer them.
:: Another way to stay longer is to get an honest-to-goodness visa.
The easiest ones to get tend to be student visas, which you can often get to study a language. So if you’ve been daydreaming about spending a year in France learning French, that’s an option to explore.
Other visas include marriage, family reunion (have a family member in another country? You might be eligible for residency), work, self-employment, retirement/non-lucrative (if you can support yourself without working via investments, pensions, or passive income), volunteering, research, artist visas, and religious work.
To find out if your country of choice offers these, you’ll need to check their embassy website or give them a call. But all these visas are fairly common in Europe.
Now, before you go the visa route, keep in mind that getting a long-stay visa comes with some requirements. Many countries want you to commit to being in their country for at least six months a year to maintain your visa. Most will need confirmation of health insurance. Some will want you to open a local bank account. And almost all will want to see proof of a place to live (be it your friend’s spare bedroom, a home you purchased, or a long-term lease you signed).
So, that, my friends, is the skinny on the schengen zone and long-term European travel and residency. Have something to add? Toss your thoughts in the comments!