Before traveling to Europe we’d never before heard of the “Schengen Area” but now we can’t stop hearing about it. Basically, European countries that are included in the Schengen area enable their citizens to cross international borders without being subject to border checks, allowing people to travel within the zone freely. The Schengen area loosely includes countries of the European Union, with a few exceptions (i.e. Switzerland and Norway participate in Schengen but are not members of the E.U. whereas the United Kingdom is a member of the E.U. but does not participate in the Schengen agreement.)
Adam and I so far have experienced this participation twice – when we flew to Paris we had a layover in Iceland where they briefly checked our passports. When we landed in Paris, we were surprised to find that we did not have to go through customs. Since Iceland is part of the Shengen area, we had unwittingly gone through customs without even realizing it. When we drove to Spain from France, we crossed the border without stopping – or even noticing there was a definitive border.
From an American tourist perspective, there are great benefits in the Schengen agreement – with no border checks, no customs and no visas, it really simplifies that aspect of traveling through Europe. Additionally, the rules are the same in every country that participates in Schengen, which saves on the research, bureaucracy and expense of securing individual visas. (Note that citizens of many countries outside of the Schengen area are required to apply for an all-encompassing Schengen zone visa ahead of time. The United States is not one of those countries.)
Now for the downside – you can only spend 90 out of 180 days within the Schengen area (days can be nonconsecutive). Considering that most of Europe participates in this agreement, it really limits your travel options and trying to work around it can get extremely complicated, with the risk of a heavy fine and deportation.
If you are planning a Europe trip that exceeds three months, here are some resources (and potential workarounds) that may help you with your planning:
How to (Legally) Stay in Europe for more than 90 Days – Nomadic Matt
The Schengen visa: 90-day buzzkill – Matador Network
Schengen Calculator – simple online tool to help you count your remaining travel days
Everyone you talk to will have a different opinion about the best ways to workaround the 90 day rule and the likelihood of getting caught. We recently met an American who moved to France a year and a half ago (and even bought a house!) before obtaining a French residency visa. He was able to travel back and forth from France to the United States with no problem – which I think is more of the exception than the rule. Everything we’ve read indicates that countries are getting stricter about enforcing penalties.
Adam and I will be approaching our 90 day mark at the end of February. Since we are flexible and have no reason to risk it, we’re Balkans bound for the spring!