If you are planning to visit the European Union (EU) for more than 3 months, you need to know about the Schengen Agreement.
Schengen is the border control alliance between 26 EU member and non-member countries. It enables free passage between these countries without the need for individual visas or border control.
Schengen gives citizens of certain countries (including Australia and New Zealand) the right to travel freely through the Schengen Area for 90 days in any 180 day period without having a visa.
It is quite difficult to find clear advice about navigating the ins and outs of this rule. In theory there are penalties for breaching Schengen, however some countries are more vigilant than others. It is unclear what penalties may be applied for breaching Schengen.
How did we travel through Europe without breaching Schengen?
I am the lucky bearer of an EU passport; Schengen is not an issue for me. Josh travels on an Australian passport and therefore must comply with Schengen’s 90 day rule.
Initially we researched the possibility of taking an extended tourist visa with Spain, the country we planned to visit longest. The Spanish consulate advised in no uncertain terms that it was not possible to extend Schengen tourist visas through any EU country, and gave the impression that we were wasting their time.
The French Consulate to Australia’s website answers the question more helpfully and explicitly:
“The Schengen Regulation allows tourist trips for a maximum of 90 days only. If you want to stay longer, you will need to apply for a long stay visitor visa. This type of visa is valid for France only. You will be asked to provide a booking reservation, like a rental agreement, covering the whole validity of the requested visa. There is no visa allowing you to visit Europe as a tourist for more than 90 days.”
Therefore, there is no legal way to be a tourist within the Schengen Area for more than 90 days in a 180 day period.
Your 90 day allowance can only be reset by leaving the Schengen Area for an uninterrupted 90 day period before returning.
So, what did we do?
In the end we planned our trip to include extended stays in non-Schengen countries – including Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the UK. Without calculating precisely, we may have overstayed Schengen and were grateful that our exit county didn’t look too closely.
It should be noted that Romania and Bulgaria are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area; I recommend that you refer to the European Commission’s website for accurate details of Schengen Member States when you plan your trip.
Whilst we had no repercussions from a possible slight overstay, it is not to say that you will experience the same. We heard of and saw some stressful examples of border vigilance in Greece, which has earned a reputation for vigilant immigration control given its isolated location as an EU member state surrounded by non-EU countries.
Greece is certainly not the country in which to discover you’ve overstayed your Schengen welcome or that your entry stamps to the EU are not in order. We met one couple whose son overstayed Schengen by 6 months. Departing Europe from Greece, border officials charged him with a very hefty fine and the inability to return to Europe until the fine was settled. On our bus out of Greece, a pair of Aussie sisters were held up for over an hour because the Chunnel’s French border control hadn’t stamped their passports on entry to the EU.
Can you get around Schengen?
There are ways to circumvent Schengen Regulation if you have the patience and/or specific need. For these, you often need to prove 1) that you won’t be working, 2) that you have a sufficient bank balance/income to sustain yourself, and 3) you may need proof of a residential address in the destination country.
For example, you could apply for a Long Stay Visitor Visa to France. This would permit you to stay in France for up to 12 months for tourist purposes only. It is not transferable to any other country and does not extend your 90 day Schengen period.
A Long Stay Visitor Visa may not give you extended freedom of passage throughout the rest of the Schengen Area. However, it would allow you to structure your travel with a 12 month home base in one country from which to plan your 3 months of Schengen-Europe travel to suit seasonal activities (skiing, Christmas markets) or special events (festivals, concert seasons).
Young Australians under 30 are also eligible for 2 year working visas. Unfortunately this is not going to suit a mid-career professional looking to take an extended sabbatical and inject their hard-earned cash into the EU economy.
For Further Information
You can find information specific to the Schengen regulations through the European Commission’s website. They have recently introduced a short-stay calculator to help you plan your EU visit.
NB. We are not visa experts, simply travellers who want to share our experiences navigating the tricky Schengen rules. Please be sure to check with individual Consulates and the EC website for clarification.