What is the Schengen Agreement? The Visa To Visit Europe

Any non-European backpacker spending an extended amount of time through Europe knows of the limitations of the Schengen zone and understanding Schengen travel.  Even though there are government and state-run guides explaining what the Schengen agreement is, it’s still hard to wrap heads around. That’s because the Schengen visa is a blessing and a curse and it’s confusing as hell when you are there.

Personally, I have abided by all the rules of the Schengen zone.  I have sadly left Europe way too soon because I was on my 90th day of travel, I do this because the fear of being deported or having my passport red-zoned keeps me tossing and turning at night.

What is the Schengen Agreement?

For those that don’t know the Schengen Visa allows the holder to a total stay of up to 90 days within a 6 month period for tourist or business purposes. You may leave and return any number of times within the 180-day period, but the combined stay within the region must not total more than 90 days.

The countries participating in the Schengen Zone are:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.

Read More: {How Much Does it Cost to Backpack Europe?}

The view in Switzerland
The view in Switzerland

The goal of the Schengen visa is to eliminate border checkpoints and controls, allowing free movement throughout most of the small continent.  For tourist that are spending a couple of weeks in Europe, the Schengen Zone is a blessing.  There is no need to apply for a visa ahead of time, and crossing borders will save you time and money on your vacation. As a long-term backpacker, the Schengen zone was more of a curse as I toured the continent. I was limited to 90 days in the entire zone when I could have spent an entire month in just Italy alone. This caused me to move quicker than I wanted to, and I had to be strategic about where I went. (I also didn’t get any stamps in my passport – white girl problem). However, I didn’t have to deal with any visa applications/fees and was able to move seamlessly through most countries.

I encountered many travelers who were dealing with the Schengen restrictions.  Some were waiting out their time in awesome places like Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Ireland while others I met said screw it and overstayed. I was, for the most part, confused about what I could and couldn’t do.  The internet was vague, and even a visit to the US Embassy in Florence didn’t help me. 

My Advice and Best Shot at Explaining the Question “What is the Schengen Agreement?”

US Citizens do not need to apply for Schengen Visa.  

Once you arrive in your destination the customs officer will ask you how long you are planning to stay and stamp your passport.  This stamp will be the only one you receive until you leave the zone.  Citizens from the following countries can enter Europe this way:

  • Albania
  • Andorra
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Bermuda
  • Brazil
  • Brunei
  • Bulgaria
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Costa Rica
  • Cyprus
  • El Salvador
  • Greece
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Japan
  • Macao
  • Macedonia
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Moldova
  • Monaco
  • Montenegro
  • New Zealand (Including The Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau)
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Romania
  • San Marino
  • Serbia
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • United States of America (including the Virgin Islands of The United States, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico)
  • Uruguay
  • Vatican
  • Venezuela

Citizens from the countries not listed, mainly African and Asian nationals will have to apply for a visa beforehand, but always check your countries government travel website for the most up to date information.

You have 90 total days for every 180 to stay in the Schengen Zone.  Not consecutive.

Understanding this better really could have changed my Eurotrip around.  You have 90 total days to travel freely from the date you first enter the Schengen zone, this resets every 180 days.  Once you leave the Schengen zone, your timer is on pause until you re-enter again.  For example, we traveled into Romania from Hungary, we were stopped by border control and got Romanian stamps in our passport.  Our Schengen time was now on pause and not counting the 90 days.  We traveled onward to Bulgaria and Turkey – non-Schengen countries who have their own visa requirements.  Weeks later we entered Greece via ferry from Turkey,  meaning we were now back in the Schengen zone, our passports were stamped upon Greek entry, and the clock started again.

I remember sitting in a hostel, countlessly going through the stamps in my passport and counting all the days to tally up to 90.  If I was going to be questioned when flying out of Germany (which I was!) then I was going to have a full-blown defense on how I did not break any rules.

It’s up to your discretion if you want to overstay or not.  I have heard that overstaying by a couple of days is fine, as most customs officials aren’t going to waste their time counting your passport stamps but overstaying for a long chunk of time may be more suspicious.

Schengen Travel: Understanding the Schengen Zone
Jumping around Europe so much was a result of Schengen Zone restrictions

Immigration is subjective.

Some countries are very strict on the Schengen visa, and will likely question you if you are in breach of the visa.  Iceland, Germany, and Switzerland are notoriously strict regarding entry and exit.  However, I have heard of travelers leaving from Italy, Greece, and Portugal that have no issues crossing the border whatsoever. Again, I have been too chicken-shit to try these. I don’t ever want to be banned from Schengen zone countries or pay an enormous fine.  

Things to know before going to Italy
On the Cinque Terre trail

There are many Beautiful European Countries not in the Schengen Zone.

Go hang out in some neighboring countries for 90 days while you wait for your clock to reset. The Balkans are wonderful (and cheap!) to travel through and the Brits and Irish are very welcoming.  NonSchengen countries are:

Pondering What is the Schengen Agreement?

These countries have their own visa stay requirements. Many are 90-180 days for US citizens. Always check with your embassy before arriving.

This is solely advice for those traveling through Europe.  There are ways to stay in Europe on a more long-term basis such as studying, working, marrying in, and ancestry.  If you are taking an extended break in Europe, try jumping in and out of Schengen countries,  it will bring you to countries a little more off the beaten path.  

About Natasha

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

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