Understanding Schengen – Know before you go – Long term travel in Europe

May 22, 2017

Traveling in Europe is great! In fact, I’ve spent the last seven months in Europe. I was able to explore Spain and the Camino de Santiago, Zagreb, Croatia, and some great cities along the Adriatic. It has been a blast, but due to the length of my visit, I had to know about the Schengen Agreement.

Every non-European traveler planning on spending an extended amount of time in Europe needs to understand the Schengen Agreement.  The Schengen Agreement affects how long you can stay in different countries in Europe without procuring a visa.  So if you are planning an around the world trip, want to summer in Europe, or are up for a massive road trip between medieval sites – read on. Understanding the Schengen Agreement can get confusing if you try to gobble the idea up in one bite. I’ve tried to break down the idea into smaller bite sized pieces.

What is the Schengen Agreement?

This is the boring part, but the history of how it came to be is important. The Schengen Agreement was enacted in 1995 by various European countries. It abolished border controls between those countries. That meant that citizens of those countries could travel between those countries without the need for a passport. It got its name from the location the agreement was signed – Schengen, Luxembourg. 

In 1999, the Schengen Agreement was adopted by the European Union (EU) making the Schengen travel policies EU law. However, Ireland and the United Kingdom were permitted to opt out and have kept that stance since. Since the EU adopted the Schengen policy, all new incoming European Union member states must agree to the boarder policies upon entry into the union.

So every country in Europe is a part of this thing? No. As stated above, Ireland and the United Kingdom do not have open boarders. It should also be stated that not all Schengen members are part of the European Union.  Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland are members of Schengen but not of the European Union, and there are many European countries that aren’t in the EU. Confused yet?

What does the Schengen treaty mean for travelers?

If you don’t hold a passport from one of the Schengen countries, your time within these countries is limited. Check your country’s particular visa guidelines before you travel but Americans, Canadians, and Australians currently have a the ability to stay for a fairly long time inside of the Schengen Zone.  These citizens can remain within Schengen for 90 days within a 180 day period. So, bask in the joys of traveling from France to Spain without having to present your passport!  Schengen rears its ugly head when you want to stay longer than those 90 allotted days.

Why is this super annoying?  Typically, if you want to stay longer in a particular area, you can apply for a longer term visa, and to be fair, this is true in the Schengen European countries as well. However, there is no such thing as a European Union Visa or a Schengen Zone Visa. A traveler must choose which country you want to apply. Obtaining a longer term visa from a single country doesn’t necessarily limit you to solely remaining in that one country, but you could read the rule in a way where the Schengen rules apply to all of the other countries except for the one from which you have a visa.

As an example, if an American traveler obtained a longer term Visa from Switzerland, then that American can stay in Switzerland all they like but are still limited to 90 days outside of the country within a rolling 180 day period. The only other option open to a traveler looking to stay longer than 90 days in Europe is to visit Non – Schengen Europe.

Which countries are in Schengen?

Map showing Schengen countries (2017)


  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxemburg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

Notes:  Schengen members outside of the European Continent:  Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands.     While not technically Schengen participants Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City have open boarders as well.

2017:  As a result of the migration crisis, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden have imposed closed boarders despite their Schengen status.  European elections of 2017 in France and Germany has also been flagged as reason for Croatia’s postponement to enter Schengen.

Which European countries are not included?

  • Croatia (expected to join in 2018)
  • Ireland
  • United Kingdom
  • Montenegro
  • Bosnia
  • Kosovo
  • Albania
  • Romania
  • Ukraine
  • Bulgaria (expected to join 2018/2019)
  • Romania (expected to join 2018/2019)


Notes:  Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania have joined the European Union buy have not yet adopted the Schengen boarder policies. They are expected to enact these policies in 2018/2019. If you have these three countries in your travel plans, monitor the status closely because it could change quickly.

Sample Travel Itineraries

If you have your bags packed and are ready to undertake the epic backpacking trip across Europe, then you need to buckle down and figure out some logistics. What does an itinerary really look like if you are obeying the Schengen laws?

For the examples below, assume that “0” stands for a Schengen country and that “1” is a non – Schengen country.  Each of these numbers represent a thirty day period. Remember that a traveler can be within the Schengen countries for 90 days within every 180. Ninety days does not equal three months. Here are some sample itineraries and the pluses ad minuses to each.

0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 – The Expensive Way

This in and out method has the highest travel cost associated with it. This method makes the most sense, if the traveler is going to stay relatively close to the Schengen Zone Boarder in order to minimize the cost. For instance, a traveler in Slovenia just needs to jump across the boarder to be in Croatia. Until Croatia starts following the Schengen Zone By the time you get to the seventh month, the first month’s travel is falling off the travel calendar so you can continue this method indefinitely.

0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 – Maximizing the Time with Minor Math Needed Way

The two months in and two months out model cuts down on travel costs compared to the expensive in and out method stated above. This model gets complicated in the fifth month when the Schengen stay has to be limited to one month. Staying longer than thirty days on the second pass through would result in overstaying the visa. Upon the third trip into Schengen, the calendar gets a little icky. Since it is a rolling 180 days, each day you stay in the zone one day will fall off from your previous visit. 

0 0 0 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 1 – The Play it Safe Way

The three in and three out has the least amount of travel cost associated with it. The only tricky part of this model is counting by days and not months. Most likely you will need to leave two to three days before the third month is up to stay under the ninety allotted days. The 180 days is a rolling period.

It is pretty easy to jump over to Croatia or Montenegro from Italy, or Morocco from Spain, or the UK from Denmark. With a little planning you can create an itinerary that will satisfy the pickiest of travelers.

What happens if you overstay the 90 days?

The short answer is “it depends.” The long answer is complicated but expect a fine and possible deportation. Variations on the repercussions to overstaying the visa stem from which country you attempt to exit from to how long you have overstayed. The general consensus is that if you overstay by one or two days you should expect to pay a fine and get a warning. To the other extreme, some punishments have included being barred from visiting any Schengen country again without prior approval. My advice, do the math and get out on time.

Oops, I overstayed. Now what?

Call you gut out on the floor and figure out what you want to do. Not that I condone any of the following behavior…..but here a few things that I have heard might help mitigate the costs.

  • Lose your passport. Oops! Get to your embassy and see about getting a replacement passport.
  • Leave from the southern regions. I can only assume that since these countries tend to have higher amounts of tourist traffic that it is a little bit easier to sneak by.
  • Leave by train. Don’t fly. Get on a train and get to a non-Schengen country ASAP.
For anyone wanting to travel in Europe for an extended period of time, understanding the Schengen Agreement is key.

Understanding Schengen can be tough.

Can you stay longer than 90 days legally?

Sure, but you need to apply to a particular country. Many European countries offer a work or long term tourist visa. Check the particular countries immigration website for details. Expect paperwork and the possibility of having to apply from your home country.

Visas to look into:

The Retirement Visa.  (I’m counting the years before I can apply!)  Portugal and Spain are the two I have my eyes on. Each country is different with their requirements. Most require criminal background checks, proof of funds, and a lot of paperwork. The age for qualification also varies country to country. If this is something that might catch your eye, start looking up the requirements to your favorite countries in your forties.

The Work Visa – Most countries have a work visa. If you have found a job and have an offer letter, this is the visa type for you. Again, check each countries specific needs to apply. Most large companies will help negotiate the paperwork for you. Germany is notable for having a self-employed work visa. Tricky to get. It can be done, but you will find this process much easier if you have a German friend that will rent you a room. If not, you can get stuck in the chicken and egg cycle  – you need a German residence to apply for the visa, but you can’t get a German residence without a visa.

Marriage Visa – If you haven’t already gotten hitched, you can gain the residency of your new spouse. None of the European countries support polygamy, so if you’re already hitched – too late!

Student Visa – Want to learn a language? Take some college courses? The student visa has a large upfront cost (you must pay for the course) but it is an easy way to get a visa. Take your time to research the school in which you want to study and make sure that the schedule will fit your needs. Check with the particular host country for specific application details.

Navigating your itinerary to comply with Schengen can be complicated, but it is important to understand the rules so you can maximize your time in Europe!

Resources to help understand and navigate the Schengen Zone

The calculator.  There are many Schengen calculators out there if you google them. They allow you to put in the dates of your previous trips inside the Schengen zone and then they will tell you how many days you have left. WATCH OUT! They aren’t all correct. I’ve caught a few that were wrong by a few days when I double checked by hand. This is the one I use most of the time. That being said, I still do my own math check if I think I’m planning a trip down to the wire.

The European Commission.  So this site isn’t the most user friendly, but it will keep you up to date on boarder crossing and news regarding Schengen Countries. The ones to look for are the impending 2017/2018 entries.

Enjoy your European Experience!


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The Schengen Agreement isn't impossible to understand. If you want to travel in Europe for longer than 90 days, you need to understand how to abide by the rules. Read this before traveling to Europe for a long term trip.

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