What You Need to Know About Traveling in the Schengen Area

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Last Updated on: 4th May 2024, 04:37 am

Hi there, fellow traveler. Are you thinking of visiting Europe for an extended period of time? If so, do you understand the Schengen Area rules? Don’t be like Steve and me when we first started traveling (more about that below). We weren’t familiar with the Schengen Area and came very close to having a giant monkey wrench thrown smack dab into the middle of our plans.

In this post, I will explain what you need to know about traveling in the Schengen Area as it applies to North American citizens. Please note that I am not an expert. You are responsible for understanding how the rules apply to you.

Our Schengen Near Miss

In January 2018, Steve and I were just months away from beginning our full-time travel journey. We had booked a two-week cruise from Port Canaveral, Florida, to Barcelona. We had three months of non-refundable Airbnb rentals lined up in Barcelona and Paris. We were raring to go.

Then I read about the Schengen Area’s 90/180-day rule. I panicked. Had we booked more nights than we were allowed? Luckily, no. We had booked 89 nights in Barcelona and Paris, so we were good. Or so we thought.

We soon realized that we had failed to consider the days our ship was in port or in the territorial waters of a Schengen country. Fortunately, nothing came of this.

We decided to take another transatlantic cruise in 2023. I researched how days on a cruise ship are treated for Schengen purposes. I couldn’t find concrete information, so we erred on the side of caution and included every day the ship was in the Schengen Area in our calculations.

What is the Schengen Area?

It is a group of 29 European countries that have agreed to allow people within its borders to travel freely between member countries. The name comes from the village of Schengen in Luxemburg, where the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985.

For example, as a traveler, if you were to enter Spain, you could then go to any of the other 28 countries without going through border controls.

Which Countries are in the Schengen Area?

Most of the Schengen Area countries are members of the EU, but like many things in life, it is not that simple.

Of the 29 countries in the Schengen Area, 26 are EU members. Three countries, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, are in the Schengen Area but are not EU members.

Two countries are in the EU but are not in the Schengen Area. These are the Republic of Ireland and Cyprus.

You can find a list of member countries and a helpful map on schengenvisainfo.com.

Microstates in the Schengen Area

If that’s not complicated enough, there are six microstates (sovereign states that have tiny populations, land area, or both) within the Schengen area.

Three of these, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City, are de facto members of the Schengen Area. You are free to enter and exit these countries from the countries that surround them. For example, when we were in Rome and wanted to visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, it was as if we were entering a neighborhood of Rome rather than a different country.

Two of the microstates, Liechtenstein and Malta, are members of the Schengen Area.

The last microstate, Andorra, which is bordered by Spain and France, has border controls.

What is the 90/180-Day Rule?

There are many countries whose citizens need to apply for a visa (which includes quite a bit of paperwork and an 80 euro fee. Luckily, Canada, Mexico, and the United States do not fall into this category.

Instead, they are in a group of countries whose citizens do not need a visa to travel in the Schengen Area for short periods of time. If you are like me and prefer to see things for yourself, you can see that list here.

Visa-free visitors are allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days out of a 180-day period. The days do not need to be consecutive.

No matter what time you enter the Schengen area, it will count as one day. So, if you enter at 11:50 pm on January 1st and exit at 12:10 am on February 1st, this will count as 32 days even though you only spent 30 days and 20 minutes in the Schengen Area.

You can learn more about the Schengen area on the schengenvisainfo.com website.

What Happens if You Exceed 90 Days?

Firing squad!

Just kidding. If you exceed your allowed 90 days, you can be fined, deported, or banned from future entry into the Schengen area.

Practical Applications of the 90/180-Day Rule

For most travelers, the best thing is to keep it simple. Enter the Schengen Area, travel within it for up to 90 days, and get out. Since our near miss, we always give ourselves a cushion by booking less than 90 days, so if any issues arrive, we have wiggle room.

Should you choose to travel in and out of the Schengen Area, here are two calculators that can help you plan and keep you out of trouble.

The first one is from the European Union.

This one is tricky to use. When you enter your dates, you must start with a + for the entry date and a – for the exit date. The dates are in dd/mm/yy format without the / marks. So, an entry date of March 28, 2023, would be entered as +280323.

If you are confused about how to use this calculator, check the user’s guide, which you can find under the calculate button.

Here are results based on our two most recent stays in the Schengen Area with the assumption that we would reenter on March 18, 2024.

Calculator results for traveling in the Schengen Area

You can also use this calculator. It is more user-friendly and presents the information slightly differently but with the same results.

The Problem for Long-Term Travelers

Most travelers won’t come close to spending 90 days in Europe during one trip, so the 90/180-day rule won’t affect their plans. But for long-term travelers and nomads (like us), it is a big deal. And that big deal is getting worse as more countries join the Schengen Area, but the number of days travelers are allowed to stay doesn’t change.

That first year, after Steve and I had spent 89 days in Spain and France, we had to find countries to go to that weren’t in the Schengen area. At that time, there were 26 countries in the area. Our choices, since we wanted to stay in Europe, were the U.K. or Balkan countries. The U.K. was too expensive, so we opted for Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

We loved these three countries and have revisited all three. But when we went to Croatia in 2023, it was part of the Schengen Area, effective January 1, 2023. Bulgaria and Romania became part of the Schengen Area (with limitations) as of March 31, 2024. Initially, border-free travel between these two countries and other Schengen countries will apply only to entry by air or sea. This BBC article explains this in more detail.

Can You Legally Stay in the Schengen Area Longer?

Yes. There are several ways to extend your time in the Schengen Area legally.

You can apply for a long-term visa or a residence permit. Understandably, these require you to show proof of accommodation for the duration of your stay.

Steve and I had residence permits in Hungary for two years during the pandemic. We had rental agreements for the length of our permits. Signing a rental agreement wasn’t a problem since we were sheltering in place. Now that we are free to travel, we don’t want to pay rent on a place that will be empty much of the time.

There is also the cost and the hassle of applying for these permits. When we applied for our first Hungarian permit, we did it independently. It was inexpensive, but because we didn’t have representation and only spoke English, we made three visits to the immigration office and had a total wait time of 24 hours!

When it came time to renew our permit, we hired a company to represent us. This took a lot less time but cost $900.

There are several ways for North Americans to stay in European countries long-term (such as work and student visas). Still, all have strings attached that make them inappropriate for travelers looking to move frequently.

Some European Inspiration

Check out our posts on several countries in the Schengen Area:
Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.

And here are posts about four countries that aren’t in the Schengen Area:
Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and the United Kingdom.

Until Next Time

I hope this has been helpful and informative. I also hope that you have the opportunity to experience some of what Europe has to offer despite the limitations caused by the Schengen rules.

If you have any questions or anything to add, please message me in the comments section below. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I am not an expert on visas or immigration law. This is my best effort to provide information for North American travelers unfamiliar with the Schengen Area.

Happy traveling,

Featured photo: a gondolier in Venice

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