Oh, Schengen!

Before we began our travels earlier this year, I had done a reasonable amount of research and planning–my former job title was “Research Analyst” if that gives you an idea of how my mind operates.  I booked airfare, cruise tickets, Airbnb stays, and even found an apartment to rent in Madrid for a couple of months. I was on a mission to limit our chances of any big missteps/mistakes–finding good travel health insurance, checking to see if we needed any vaccinations, figuring out what we needed to do with our cell phones, and even finding travel-friendly financial tools (cards and accounts). I did a pretty good job, but missed one major detail related to our time in Europe.

In 1995, an agreement was signed that established the Schengen Area. The idea of the Schengen was to eliminate borders among European member states. Today, 26 countries participate (see the map I made below), and travel within most of Europe is a breeze–for Europeans. Most border crossings and checkpoints have been completely eliminated, so driving from Portugal to Spain is just like driving from Indiana to Ohio. The kicker for non-Europeans is that it can limit the amount of time available to explore Europe, especially for long-term travelers.

When you enter the Schengen, you receive a visa stamp (below) that basically starts a timer. US travelers are allowed 90 days within 180 days of entry. So, if you spend 90 consecutive days in Spain, for example, you would then have to stay out of the entire Schengen for another 90 days before re-entry. The US State Department could probably do a better job explaining this, but it does have a page discussing the Schengen. My problem was that I had no idea what the Schengen was (ignorance is not bliss), and when you click on a specific country for travel information (like Spain or Portugal), it shows that you can stay for 90 days as a tourist. In my ignorance, I began planning our never-ending European adventure. “We can stay in Portugal for a few weeks, then we’ll stay in Spain for a couple of months. Maybe we can find an apartment in Italy after that.” These were my “plans”.

Schengen Exit Stamp from Spain
Schengen Entry Stamp from Portugal

Sadly, we didn’t even figure this out until we were riding in a BlaBlaCar from Porto to Salamanca. A Canadian-Polish girl who was in the car asked us how we managed to get visas to stay so long in the Schengen. Initially, we thought she had sneezed, so we replied with a quick “salud”. Then I began to realize that I had probably missed a major detail. I asked her, “How do you spell that?” and  “Is that an acronym?”. When we arrived in Salamanca, I realized that I had indeed missed a major piece of information. I began to try to see if there were any loopholes.

After reading quite a bit, I realized that there really aren’t any easy loopholes for people in our situation (not a student, not on a work visa, etc.). Luckily, the UK and Ireland do not participate in the Schengen, so trips to London and  Dublin that we’ve made don’t count towards our time in the rest of Western Europe. Another thing to consider is that if you have a lot of time to travel, and really want to stay in Western Europe, you can. If timed right, 90 days in the Schengen can be followed by 90 days in the UK/Ireland. This cycle can be  repeated indefinitely, as far as I know (you might want to check that given my recent track record). Another option is to explore soon-to-be members of the Schengen Area (such as Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, etc.) or many Balkan countries.

In conclusion:

For some odd reason, this situation makes me think of a series of Directv commercials.

  • When you’re in a hurry and don’t know much about Europe, you miss the part about the Schengen Area.
  • When you don’t know about the Schengen Area, you make less-than-ideal European travel plans.
  • When you make less-than-ideal travel plans, you consider overstaying your Schengen visa.
  • When you overstay your visa, you get deported.
  • Don’t get deported. Learn about the Schengen Area before traveling to Europe.

For full effect, watch the video below.


Thanks for reading!





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