How to Stay in Europe for More Than 90 Days Without a Visa
Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and citizens of several other countries can generally travel to any European country for 90 days out of 180 continuous days without needing a visa. But what if you want to travel to a bunch of European countries and you want to stay for longer than 90 days without having to get a visa? You can jump in and out of the Schengen Zone.
As an American who also has dual citizenship with Italy, I feel so lucky that I don’t have to deal with this because it does involve some math and spreadsheets. But after I made a new friend dealing with this, I wanted to break down how you can stay in Europe for more than 90 days without a Visa. I interview my new friend, who I met while traveling in Ljubljana, on Schengen details on the Postcard Academy podcast. This is definitely not legal advice. You should talk to your embassy if you have any questions.
What is the Schengen zone?
The Schengen zone is different from the European Union. The Schengen zone, or Schengen area, is an agreement that opened the borders between the countries that signed on. This means that 400 million Europeans from Schengen member countries can travel to other member countries without passports.
The agreement was signed in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg, which is where the name comes from, and it went into effect in 1995. The Schengen zone began with just five countries and has expanded over the years.
Today there are 26 countries in the Schengen area, and they’re among the most popular countries that tourists visit (surprisingly not the UK or Ireland). They are:
Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland
Internal and external Schengen borders
Citizens of these Schengen countries can drive from, say, Berlin to Krakow, like I did a few weeks ago, and not have to go through a border check because they have opened their internal borders with one another. So that’s for internal borders—imagine the Schengen countries as one big blob with no internal borders, and outlining them you have external borders.
So, an external border would be between a Schengen country and non-Schengen country, for example, if I drove from Slovenia, which is Schengen, and Croatia, which is not, I would have to go through border control.
So what does this mean for non-European travelers?
As mentioned, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders do not need a visa to travel to Europe. But they do have to follow the Schengen rule that says that they can’t spend more than 90 days in a 180-day period in the Schengen zone. But you can border hop in and out of this area to stay in Europe indefinitely (until they change the rules), keeping track of your days so you don’t ever stay in the zone for more than 90 days out of 180.
Here’s where it gets complicated
It took me awhile to understand that once you enter the Schengen zone, your 90 available days do NOT reset every 180 days automatically. It’s a moving target. What does that mean??? OK, so EVERY time you enter the Schengen zone and get your passport stamped, the border agent will be evaluating the last 180 days, from THAT moment in time, so looking to see how many days within THAT 180 that you’ve been in the Schengen zone. He or she will go through your passport and check entry stamps to see if you’ve spent more than 90 in the THOSE last 180 days in the Schengen zone. Sorry to belabor the point, but it can be really confusing for those of us who are mathematically challenged.
It is much easier to understand what I’m talking about if you look at the very low-tech Schengen calculator they have online, so I will link to that to give you a visual. Playing around with dates on their calculator was the only way my brain could compute this concept.
So, to reiterate, according to one of the EU’s websites, “The 180-day reference period is not fixed. It is a moving window, and it is based on the approach of looking backwards,” from the moment of entry into the Schengen Zone.”
The important thing to remember is that you can't exceed 90 days in the Schengen area in a continuous 180-day period, and those days are counted back at the border each time you re-enter a Schengen country. And so how long can you stay in a non-Schengen country without a visa? Generally, 90 days each, but double check with the embassy.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.