Note while Covid-19 is in ongoing there are new rules in place that supersede the normal conditions for travel within the Schengen Zone. This article is based on our experience prior to Covid.
One of the most common questions that we are asked is how long can you stay in Europe? The short answer is simple, as Americans we can stay for up to 90 days in any 180 day period in the countries that are a signatory to the Schengen agreement. Let me begin by stating that this article is based on our experience traveling to Europe, and pretty extensive research on the internet, it does not represent in any way shape or form an official explanation of the ins and outs of the Schengen agreement. Below I will attempt to give a laymans explanation of Schengen and how we have managed travel since we began motor homing in Europe..
What is the Schengen agreement?
It is an agreement amongst the countries of the EU and Switzerland to allow for free movement of people within the borders of the signatories. Effectively there are no border controls and anyone who has legally gained entry to Schengen can cross from country to country during their stay. At this time it covers most of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. These countries do not participate in Schengen, but for Americans all of these countries have visa free entry that will adequately cover travel in them.
Do I need a visa in advance to travel?
There are a list of countries that are allowed visa free entrance to the Schengen countries. That list includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and soon Great Britain. This website has a list of countries that do and do not require visas, schengenvisainfo.com. So for us to travel to Europe, as long as we enter at an airport within Schengen and depart within 90 days, no paperwork is required beyond passports.
Managing the Time
For long term travelers managing the 90 day periods becomes an issue. If you are full timing in Europe you have to get out of Schengen for 90 days of every 180 days. Remember that list of countries I listed above, days in those countries do not count towards your 90 days, just insure that you receive a departure stamp on your passport at the border of the EU country where you leave Schengen so that the clock stops. Other options to stop the clock that are easily accessible from Schengen countries and have good tourist infrastructure are Morocco and Turkey.
Some travelers report that this requirement is not strictly enforced in all countries. We do not think this is a risk that you should take. On one of our trips when we departed Schengen thru Iceland, the immigration officer made a point of asking if we clearly understood the rules regarding length of stay, so in Iceland I can for certain say they are paying attention.
In our case we make two trips per year and try to utilize two different 180 day periods per year. This can be tricky and we have found a very good tool to help, it is published by the European Commission for Migration and Home Affairs. It is a short stay visa calculator, the website is ec.europa.eu, and it is an official EU website. In this tool you put the dates of your last visit, and the date you would like to arrive for your next visit, and it will tell you how many visa free days you can stay after that arrival date.
A personal example: Last year we arrived for our first trip to Europe on April 28 and departed on June 25 for a stay of 59 days. We originally planned to arrive for our second trip September 15, when I used the calculator it said we would only be authorized for 31 days, the remainder of the 90 days we had from our previous trip. Running thru the calculator I learned that if we arrived on September 26 we would get 31 days, but if we arrived on September 27 we would get the full 90 days.
It may have been possible to change our plans to drive to Bosnia or Serbia, and re-enter the EU after September 27 but we did not want to risk it. We adjusted our arrival date in France to be September 29 so there would be no problem. The consequences of overstaying your visa can be a substantial fine, and in the worst case a 5 year ban on travel to Schengen.
While it is hard to find someone who can clearly explain the ins and outs of Schengen, and the on line references are often contradictory, if you are conservative in your planning and use the EU calculator you should be fine. The bottom line is pay attention and you can spend substantial time in Europe every year, and with some creativity you can nearly full time in Europe.