Schengen Agreement Explained

Do you need a visa for Europe?
By Therese Iknoian | Photos by Michael Hodgson

If you are traveling to Europe, you need to know about the Schengen Agreement. A number of years ago, I was going through Passport Control one summer to leave Germany after a couple of weeks of travel. After the agent flipped pages in my passport back and forth a few times, he asked me (and, no, he was not smiling), “When was the last time you entered the country?” Thinking he meant a prior trip, I chirped that it had been about five months earlier in January. He said, firmly, “You have overstayed your limit, and you don’t have a visa.”

Shocked? Yes, since I just entered the country about 18 days earlier for this trip. I replied, “But THIS trip I just entered two weeks ago.” He flipped a few more passport pages back and forth and said, “There is no entry stamp.” (And, no, he was still not smiling.) Well, dang, what do you know, it looked like the nice agent upon entry had simply forgotten to stamp my passport! “I have my boarding pass from my flight in,” I said, and my head disappeared out of his sight as I quickly fished it out of my carryon. He looked at it and said, “OK. I’ll accept this. This time. But next time make sure you get a stamp.”

I thanked him and skedaddled through security. And suddenly it was cleared that as we were spending increasingly more time in the European Union, it was high time to educate ourselves about the so-called “Schengen Agreement” adopted in 1985 that oversees entry and exit controls and visits in the “Schengen” or European Union area. You should too.

What is the Schengen Agreement?

Called “Schengen” since the treaty was signed near Schengen, Luxembourg, this agreement led to the creation of the Schengen area, which most of us would call the European Union (although it does not include all EU countries or exclude all non-EU countries). It is composed of 26 member countries, all of which have abolished passport checks and border controls on mutual borders (although some of these checks have been or can be re-instituted in emergencies, as happened on some French borders after a wave of terrorist attacks began in late 2015).

How does it affect U.S. citizens?

U.S. citizens may still (at the time of this writing, see below) enter Schengen countries for short-term tourism and business or if in transit to non-Schengen countries without the need for a special visa. As we have mentioned in our Ultimate Travel Planner for International Trips, you still must have a passport that is valid at least three months from your date of entry.

The caveat is, as I learned in that mistaken exchange, you still don’t have a free pass to come and go willy-nilly. You must be absolutely certain that you do not stay in any Schengen country cumulatively for more than 90 days during any 180-day period (loosely put, three months every six months). This time is calculated on a rolling basis, and you cannot forget to calculate your entry or travel days.

If you enter and exit the European Union area frequently, it is high time you stopped counting days on your fingers and toes, for fear you get caught up by a non-jovial agent at passport control who may be less accommodating than mine was. Go to this Schengen Calculator and then start entering your travel. It gives you a perfectly accurate picture of where you stand regarding travel days in the Schengen area.

What about exceptions or changes for U.S. citizens?

As a good traveler, you should always do research since visa and passport rules can change at any time. In fact, in May 2017, in response to some words and action by the current U.S. administration, the EU Parliament actually passed a resolution as a part of the so-called “visa war,” as described in The Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom. That resolution abolished visa-free travel and indeed required visas for U.S. citizens for any travel to Europe. But the resolution remains just a “negotiating tactic” and simply words, not action. Still, one never knows if action may happen so ALWAYS check with the U.S. Department of State prior to foreign travel.


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HITT Tip: Take a look at a good summary fact sheet from the U.S. Department of State for details and this is where one would also find updated advice or any changes to Schengen rules. 

How do Schengen rules affect citizens of other countries?

If you are a legal citizen of another country, it is important for you to check with your country’s State Department and find out how Schengen Agreement rules may affect you. Do not make assumptions. You can read more details about Schengen in this resource page from our Visa application partner iVisa.

What if I overstay the allowed Schengen time … by just a little bit?

Don’t do it. Not even an hour. In most cases countries are quite strict on stay requirements, even in the United States where an Australian man was arrested when he overstayed his visa by an hour due to various travel delays. Now, you may not get penalized if you overstay your time limit in Schengen European Union countries. You may not get a huge fine. You may not get sent to jail. You may not get deported. You may not get a ban on all future travel there…. But, on the other hand, you may get all of that and more. And who wants to take the chance?

You may hear tips, tricks or “oh, don’t worry about it,” but seriously don’t risk it. The only LEGAL way to stay longer if you are at the end of your allowed 90-day stay is to leave the Schengen area and then come back. But, remember: The rule is 90 days every 180 days, so if you try to come back before you have moved into the next period? Well, heeelloooooo, border detainment, unpleasant interrogations and who knows what else…. You may just end up feeling like Dorothy at the Wizard’s big green door being told to go away, but then again…

HITT Tip: Since all travelers know that the proverbial “s— happens” when on the road, do not shave your allowed Schengen time down to a few hours. Planes are cancelled, trains diverted, storms and natural disasters shut down roads, etc. Frankly, I wouldn’t be comfortable with any less than four or five days buffer. But of course everybody has different levels of risk aversion.

Border crossing between Bosnia and Croatia.

Lonely border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia — neither country is part of the Schengen Agreement. However, Slovenia, which borders Croatia, is, as is Hungary.

Are there legal ways to stay longer in a Schengen area?

Well, sure, but it’ll usually involve paperwork and bureaucratic hoops, like long-term stay visas, finding family in the area, getting a job there (legally), falling in love and getting married, or getting a work or study visa (a study visa for Germany is showed in our feature photo).

If you want to stay longer in a specific country, the best bet is to inquire with that country’s embassy about any special programs, since some do exist. Most of these will require processing prior to your arrival. Go to the State Department’s global country information pages where you can find links and contact information to embassies for various Schengen countries in Europe. Another excellent resource for learning more about visas and extending your stay in Europe can be found on this page about Schengen and the new ETIAS Visa Waiver from our visa partner, iVisa.

One thing I did learn from my little scare related at the start of this story: Always hang on to your boarding passes AND carry them with you. And be sure to watch your incoming border control agent to ensure your passport gets properly stamped.

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