For tourists traveling around Europe, there is a lot to think about. For those traveling more than 3 months, there’s even more! Something that is often overlooked by long-term travelers is the Schengen Agreement.
I’m no expert and this is just my understanding of the situation. As far as I know, all the information below was correct as of February 2011.
The Schengen Agreement is a pact between 25 countries which eliminates the borders between them. So, when you cross the borders of the Schengen countries, there is no passport control and no real physical border- traffic keeps moving and trains keep flying right over the border even though the language and currency might change. This is a dream for traveling who don’t want to be held up at border crossing, wasting precious time while someone looks over their passport. But for those traveling more than 3 months, it is something that must be understood in order to plan accordingly.
First off, an important distinction needs to be made between the European Union (the EU) and the Schengen countries. It’s a common mistake that the EU is the same as the Schengen countries. While they do have similar member countries, they are not related at all. For example, Ireland, the UK, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria are members of the EU, but not part of the Schengen Agreement and Switzerland and Iceland are Schengen countries, but not EU. A map of the Schengen countries can be found here.
If you are planning to travel in Europe more than 3 months, it can all be very confusing to plan your time. Hopefully I can ease some of the confusion over the issue. Of course, each country has different visa requirements to follow, but everything here is applicable to Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Australians and some other countries which you can find of the map here.
In a nutshell, you are allowed to stay in the Schengen countries for 90 day in a 180-day period. So, you can be in the Schengen Countries for 90 days but then you must be out for 90 days. You can’t be in for 90 days, then out one day because if go back in, you will be overstaying your visa.
The 90 days doesn’t have to be consecutive, so if you are in for 30 days, then out for 60 days, then in for 60 days, you have be out for at least 30 days before coming back in, so you are in for 90 days in that 180-day period. The 180-day period is 180 days back from the current date, not from when you started your time in Schengen or from any stationary date.
If you are in a Schengen country for any part of a day, the entire day counts as an ‘in’ day. So, if you leave France and enter the UK (exiting Schengen) on 1 January and leave the UK to enter France (entering Schengen) on 3 January, you only get to count one day (2 January) as an ‘out’ day. Needless to say, you must count carefully if you don’t want to overstay.
The Schengen Agreement is certainly a great thing for those traveling less than 3 months and for Europeans who regularly cross borders, but for the long-term traveler, it can be a nightmare. Or, it can open you up to the wonderful world of Eastern Europe (mainly non-Schengen)! That is what happened to me and I discovered I love Romania, Albania and Turkey! All conveniently non-Schengen… for now at least (Romania is projected to join October 2011). For those travelers who the Schengen Agreement affects, I hope this makes it easier to plan!