How To Legally Travel Around Europe For As Long As You Want

Gloria Atanmo - Vienna, Austria
Gloria Atanmo – Vienna, Austria

One of the greatest privileges Americans, Canadians, Australians and others share when it comes to travel, is the Schengen Zone border-free access around Europe.

The Schengen got its name after the agreement was signed and passed in a small village called Schengen in southern Luxembourg.

Schengen Zone countries are virtually part of this massive list spanning 26 countries for seamless travel around Europe.

For gap year students, backpackers, or those who just want to travel around Europe for as long as possible, you know that there are some legality issues with that, preventing you from staying in a country you’re not a citizen of, for longer than 90 days.

But there’s a very easy way around this rule, especially if Europe is the continent you would like to stay and travel around. So listen up!

What is the Schengen Zone?

The Schengen Zone is a list of 26 countries that have signed an agreement allowing you to travel freely in and out of the zone for 90 days without needing to apply for a visa. In more casual terms, it’s called a “tourist visa” and the only paperwork or proof you need of it, is simply the first stamp you get when you fly into your first Schengen country.

The main rule about the Schengen Zone is that you can only travel in and out of these countries for 90 days (doesn’t have to be consecutive) within a 180-day period.

So essentially, you can be in the zone for 3 months, then you must leave the zone for 3 months. “3 months in and 3 months out” as some like to call it.

Your stay does not have to be consecutive. And here’s where you’re probably wondering how to get around those 180 days legally. Thankfully, there’s a handful of countries who are not yet a part of the Schengen Zone, but are in Europe, and they each have their own private rules for tourists, which in some cases, let’s you stay up to 6 months, which is more than the 3 months you need to reset your tourist visa count to re-enter the Schengen Zone.

What are the Schengen Zone Countries?

Czech Republic

What are the Non-Schengen Zone Countries?

Bosnia and Herzegovina
United Kingdom

You’ve got 14 whole countries to choose from. And what’s also extremely convenient about these non-Schengen countries, is that for the most part, they’re dirt cheap to travel through and live in.

If you’re a digital nomad, I highly recommend Romania, as they’ve got the fastest Internet in Europe, and 10th fastest in the world.

If you’re into beach life, scenic hikes, and nature, I highly recommend Montenegro or Cyprus.

If you’re into partying and a crazy night life, it doesn’t get any better than Serbia.

For an interesting, challenging, and unique experience where you don’t want to be surrounded by tourists, look no further than Albania.

How do I apply for a Schengen Visa?

You don’t! The first time you arrive in a Schengen zone country, you’ll be stamped by customs/immigration, and that stamp will have a date that serves as your 90-day countdown to begin. This is at least the case for Americans, Canadians, and Australians.

If you’re not from one of those 3 countries, check this list to see if your country has a more specific process HERE.

What happens if I overstay my Schengen visa 90-day limit?

This question used to haunt me. Because back in 2014, I was on the brink of overstaying myself.

If your paranoia leads you to the horror stories scattered around Google, fear not, because many of those tales are outdated and probably a bit exaggerated.

There is always the chance that a country can ban you from coming back for 10 years or so if you overstay by too long, but to be honest, if it’s by a few days, or even weeks, you will often get away with a finger wag or warning.

If you’re wanting to play it extremely safe, you should avoid flights and look into bussing it into a non-Schengen country and then fly back to your final destination or home country from there.

I’m also quite lucky to have my passport inundated with 70+ stamps between 2012 – 2016, filling 95% of my passport pages, so trying to track down the dates of all the times I’ve entered and left, would probably take hours.

With the refugee crisis still pushing several asylum-seekers north, crossing borders via land can take a bit longer, but it’s still the safer route if you’ve stayed over by a few days.

What happens if I fall in love and now want to live there, but have overstayed by the time I decide this?

As random as this sounds, I’ve had a handful of friends who this has happened to, and it’s been interesting watching the process unfold.

Love happens and you might also find yourself on the brink of overstaying to follow your heart (and hopefully your brain too).

I’ve met people who’ve stayed over their Schengen for 9 months and others who’ve stayed over their Schengen for 10 years, so this really is a case-by-case basis in terms of how to go about it. All of them have come away unscathed.

There are definitely specialists available who help people who’ve shown signs of assimilation and want to go through the process of citizenship which can be both lengthy and expensive if you don’t want to fly home to complete the process.

The easiest way to go about this is by marriage (#DualCitizenshipGoals, JK, not really), and that could require showing proof of your relationship via photos and any other, perhaps personal information you could offer, to make sure both parties aren’t just seeking the coveted dual citizenship that I am.

If I leave the Schengen Zone before my 90 days are up, and then re-enter, do my 90 days start all over?

Ha, I wish! While this is the case for other parts of the world (looking at you Thailand border runs lol), leaving the Schengen Zone for a couple days, does not reset your count.

You’re allotted 90 days within a 180-day period. So even if you leave and come back constantly, you still are only allowed those 90 days within those 6 months.

Again, it’d be a very tedious thing to try and track down the dates of in your passport, and many customs officers can’t be bothered to look that closely into it, so if you’ve stayed over a couple days or weeks, I wouldn’t be worrying too much.

What country is the strictest with the Schengen Visa?

GERMANY. They love their rules as it is. I wouldn’t catch myself overstaying my Schengen anywhere near Germany. That could actually be an issue, and I could see them being the kind to happily throw out fines and/or temporary bans on re-entrance to their country for ‘x’ amount of years.

What country is the most lenient with the Schengen Visa?

SPAIN. Particularly in and out of Barcelona. Tourists dominate so much of their economy, and it’s such a transient city, that many people go there to study, fall in love with the city, and end up just staying as long as they can. While I would never encourage anyone to purposely overstay their visa, if you find yourself in Spain on your 100th day, no pasa nada, as they say.

I hope this helps you guys understand ways that I and many others have been able to legally travel around Europe for over 90 days.

There’s also, of course, the option of going to other nearby continents like Asia or Africa to also reset your 90 days. But if you’re keen on staying within the European continent, then you definitely want to plan your travels around Schengen Zone rules. It’s possible with some freedom and flexibility to potentially live around Europe for as long as you please. I’m going on 3 years, cumulatively, and the Schengen has been my best friend.

Any questions, drop them below in the comments or consult this extremely helpful page of all the latest Schengen Zone information here.

Happy traveling! Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Gloria Atanmo is a world traveler and the author of the book From Excuses to Excursions: How I Started Traveling the World.

From Excuses to Excursions is available for pre-order as a physical and electronic book. You can buy it here

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