How I'm legally able to keep going to Europe - Schengen Agreement
I've been to and lived in Europe for a total of six months now (three total in the Netherlands, three in Norway) and am about to do so again for another three. At the beginning, though, I had no idea how I'd go about doing this, or if it was even possible without painstakingly acquiring several visas. The answer for going to the majority of European countries is "yes"...depending on which country you're from!
The Schengen Agreement (named after the town in Luxembourg in which it was signed) is a treaty signed in 1985 that abolishes the internal border controls of as well as gives a common visa policy to the Schengen Area. The Schengen Area is like a single state for international travel purposes: it has external border controls for travelers entering and exiting the area, but lacks internal border controls, allowing free and painless passage between its member countries.
Which countries does this zone contain, you may wonder? A whopping 26 countries in Europe! It consists mostly of European Union countries (except for the UK and Ireland, which have their own, slightly similar rules, and Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania, which are legally obligated to join at some point), but the Schengen Area also includes four non-EU members - Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland - as well as three European microstates - Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican.
Gravy. So how does this apply to me, and allow me to stay for so long? Well, as a rule of the Schengen Area, if you are a native from certain countries (the US included), you are allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for three months every six months on a Schengen visa. That's right - you are allowed into the country just for tourism and leisure purposes if you want. If you are from one of the countries allowed by the Schengen Area countries to enter their zone without a super special and specific student, work, etc. visa (check the map of such countries out here; it's the vast majority of places such as the US, the UK, etc.), you can just hop on a plane and fly there worry-free. The rule of thumb is "three months in, three months out": you can stay three months in the Schengen Area, then must stay out of it for three more months until your Schengen counter resets. To emphasize, no matter what you do, your Schengen counter will not reset until you have stayed three months/90 days outside of the Schengen Area.
Here's the list of countries and microstates that comprise the Schengen Area:
- Czech Republic
- Denmark (excluding Greenland and the Faroe Islands)
- France (excluding overseas departments and territories)
- Netherlands (excluding Aruba, Curacao, Sint Maarten, and the Caribbean Netherlands)
- Norway (excluding Svalbard)
- San Marino
- Spain (with special provisions for Ceuta and Melilla)
Because both the Netherlands and Norway are on that list, traveling to them is simple...and traveling between them even moreso! So, for example, if I ever want to go to Denmark from Norway (which I do!), which are both on the list, then the process is as simple as flying or driving to Denmark from Norway; no hassle involved, and no passport checks to slow me down. Convenient, right? I certainly think so.
Now, to give you an example of the time constraint, let me tell you some specifics about my travel dates. I lived in the Netherlands for two months last summer from May 8th - July 4th, 2012. That used up ~60 of my 90 allowed days in the Schengen Area. These 60 days counted toward the three month limit; that is, they comprised two of the three months I could stay; my Schengen time counter would not reset until I had been out of this zone for 90 days. At the end of my two-month stay in the Netherlands, I could have gone to any of the other Schengen states for another thirty days before I had to go back to a non-Schengen place, such as the UK, Ireland, or obviously, the US. If I had not gone back to the US and had instead stayed in the Schengen Area until early August, I would only have been able to go to Norway on November 4th at the earliest. However, because I returned to the US and no longer was using up any Schengen time, I was able to go to Norway on October 4th (October 3rd was my flight but I didn't get my passport stamped until the day afterward). I left January 1st in the interest of attending my uni classes.
If you plan on taking advantage of this incredibly convenient treaty (and I suggest you do!), remember that you should always check on websites like this and this to make sure your stay follows the latest, most up-to-date rules of the Schengen Agreement.
Got a question? Is any of this different in your experience? Let me know in the comments!