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The Schengen Area and Visa Free Travel for Nomads: How Does it Work?

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Dateline: Bogota, Colombia

Europe is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations on the globe. Among the people I work with, it is also one of the most sought-after locations for home bases, nomad bucket lists, second residencies, and long-term expat relocation.

From experience, I’ve learned that a lot of people are confused about visa-free travel in Europe. In many of my articles and videos, I have made mention of Europe’s border-free travel zone known as the Schengen Area, but today I want to talk specifically about the Schengen Area, what it is, who can go there, and how it works.

I am going to set the record straight.

There are so many rules and regulations and so many policies that vary on small issues that even when I was talking to a friend who is an EU resident, has been an ambassador to the EU and still travels there frequently- even we had some confusion. But I’ve had my team do in-depth research on the topic and, today, I’m going to give you everything you need to know about Europe’s Schengen Area.

What Is It?

In brief, the Schengen Area is a border-free zone comprised of 26 different European nations. For international travel purposes, it operates as a single state that shares a common visa policy.

While you should carry your passport at all times while traveling through the Schengen Area, once you’re in, there is no need to present a visa or even your passport when passing through different countries within the bloc.

 If you’re a non-EU citizen from a country with visa-free access to the Schengen Area ( i.e. Montenegro), you get 90 out of every 180 days to travel visa-free throughout the region. 

There are, however, external border controls where you will need to present your travel documents in order to enter or exit the area. But, more on that below.

The Schengen Area (and the EU in general) is one of the most liberal developed world blocs to allow visa-free travel. While the US, Australia, and similar countries are pretty difficult when it comes to travel and make people get visas, the Schengen Area is pretty liberal.

What is the Schengen Area and how does visa free travel work?

The Schengen Area is not just for tourists, either. It represents the abolishment of all internal borders with other member nations to allow for the unrestricted movement of not just people but also goods, services and capital. As a policy of the European Union, it allows for the free movement of over 415 million EU citizens who can live, work and travel anywhere within the Schengen Area without restriction.

This does not mean that the region is free of any type of control, though. As mentioned, there are common rules for controlling external borders, including airports. Security in Europe is typically more pleasant than in the U.S., but don’t get in the way, even unintentionally, of a German security officer “just doing their job.”- a nomad friend of mine thought of making a prank with one German cop- not a good idea!

The Schengen Area also has common rules for fighting crime, both through police cooperation via the Schengen Information System (SIS) and through a common judicial system. In fact, police have the right to chase suspected criminals across borders, so don’t think you can rob a bank and then hide just across the border! 

The Birth of the Schengen Area

Since the formation of the European Economic Community following WWII, the free movement of persons was a core part of the European project. From the beginning, citizens of EEC member states could travel visa-free from one member state to another with only a passport or national ID card.

Nevertheless, it was still a headache to travel around Europe.

Nationals of EEC member states were still subjected to systematic identity controls at a vast network of patrolled borders. And it was even worse for tourists. Many folks who wished to travel to Europe would have to obtain travel visas for every country they planned to visit. I can just imagine the piles of paperwork (and anxiety feeling that comes with it, for me at least), visa fees and other expenses kept a lot of people from even thinking of traveling to Europe.

On June 14, 1985, the breakthrough came when five of the ten members of the EU at the time decided to make an agreement of their own in order to bypass the UK, which was vehemently against opening up its borders. Leaders of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands met on a boat near Schengen, Luxembourg (where the territories of France, Germany, and Luxembourg meet) and signed the Schengen Agreement, while eating cheese and waffles and drinking Bordeaux wine. Or, at least, that is how I picture it.

At the time of creation, only seven EU countries were involved in the intergovernmental initiative. With time, however, more and more EU member states signed the Schengen Agreement. Eventually, a consensus was reached and the policies of the Schengen Area were incorporated into the procedures of the European Union. The agreement is no longer considered an external treaty and all amendments are now made according to the legislative procedures for EU treaties.

All participating states are required to remove any obstacles impeding the free movement of people and goods at internal borders. Since implementation, border posts have been closed, border traffic has been eliminated, and even though air carriers are still allowed to perform security controls, for all intents and purposes, Europe is now a single zone that can be traveled end to end without restriction, a fact I can personally attest to. 

How Does It Work?

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking by now: “Thanks for the history lesson, Andrew, but what does that mean for me? How does it affect my ability to travel through Europe?”Great questions!

There are two main beneficiaries of the Schengen Agreement: those who are citizens of a Schengen member state and those who wish to travel there.

For obvious reasons, the Schengen Area works differently for those who live in the region than for those who merely plan to visit.

Citizens and residents of Schengen member states can travel, live and work in any of the 26 member states. This is one of the reasons it is so attractive to obtain residence or even citizenship (if it’s the right country) in Schengen member states.

Currently, approximately 1.7 million people commute to work across the border of another European country each day.

In fact, there are 1.3 billion Schengen border crossings each year, 57 million of which are attributed to the transportation of goods valued at €2.8 trillion a year. And that doesn’t even take into account all of the people who have permanently moved from one country in the bloc to another. It goes without saying that the decreased costs of trade made possible by the Schengen Area have provided serious economic benefits to Europe as a whole.

Do you need a visa?

What is a Schengen Visa and do you actually need it?

Thanks to EU regulations, those who wish to travel to the Schengen Area fall into two different categories: Annex I and Annex II countries.

Individuals who hold a passport on the Annex I list are required to obtain a short-term stay visa before visiting the Schengen Area. This visa is commonly known as the Schengen Visa. Annex II countries, on the other hand, can visit the Schengen Area visa-free.

While it is certainly more advantageous to be from an Annex II country, even passport holders from Annex I countries are better off today seeing that they now only need one visa to access the entire region — versus needing a visa for every country they plan to visit — and they can travel unimpeded throughout much of Europe once they enter.

The process to obtain a Schengen Visa is much like any other visa process. You must apply and then send in your passport. If approved, your passport will be stamped and returned to you.

The Schengen Visa costs €60 ($66), although Russians, Ukrainians, and citizens of select countries only have to pay €35 for the short-stay visa. The fee must be paid upon application and cannot be refunded, even if the visa is refused. The fee is waived for students of an official school or university trip, as well as for the spouse and minor children of EU nationals. Children younger than six do not have to pay the fee, regardless of their nationality.

If you are from an Annex II country, you can skip the visa application process and enter the Schengen Area by simply presenting your passport upon entry. Over the years, the EU has enhanced and expanded the list of qualifying Annex II countries. Just recently, they added countries like Colombia, Kiribati, Timor Leste, Vanuatu, and Moldova. And Georgia will be added in the near future. But there are a lot of countries from Peru to the South Pacific that can visit visa-free for those 90 out of 180 days.

External Border Controls

Once inside the Schengen Area, visa holders and visa-free travelers alike can travel throughout the internal borders of the region without border checks, irrespective of nationality. As such, the largest concern for travelers when visiting Europe will be entering and exiting through one of the Schengen Area’s external borders. Anyone crossing an external border, be they a citizen of a Schengen member state or a foreign national, will be checked by a border guard. Regular cross-border commuters are the only exception.

These external border checks are located at road crossings, seaports, trains, and airports. If entering via air, the airline must check that you carry the correct travel documents before allowing you to board to ensure that you can enter the Schengen Area upon arrival.

I made the mistake once of showing a passport that did not have visa-free access to the Schengen Area to airline staff and they almost refused to allow me to board until I realized my mistake and whipped out a different passport.

At every external border location, the checks are coordinated by the EU’s agency Frontex. All details of the border check are outlined in the Schengen Borders Code.

In summary, they will check your travel documents, including your visa if required, they will ask you to justify the purpose of your stay, and then they will check the SIS and other relevant security databases for any alerts that would justify refusal of entry. Pretty standard stuff.

Traveler’s Tip

The most probable cause for refusal of entry would be if your passport or other travel document was due to expire soon. You must have a travel document that is valid for at least three months and was issued within the past ten years. However, it is best if your passport has more than six months left before it expires. The officials will want to know that you can legally reside in the Schengen Area for the full 90 days available to you and that you have the financial means to return home or move on to another destination once that time is up.

However, it is best if your passport has more than six months left before it expires. The officials will want to know that you can legally reside in the Schengen Area for the full 90 days available to you and that you have the financial means to return home or move on to another destination once that time is up.

Where Can You Visit?

The Schengen Area is made up of twenty-two EU countries and four non-EU countries (although they are still technically part of Europe). At present, that means you can visit a total of twenty-six different countries inside the Schengen Area. However, there are also three microstates that are considered de facto participants — Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City — bringing the total to twenty-nine.

There are, however, several EU countries that currently do no participate in the Schengen Area.

Four out of the six non-Schengen EU countries are legally obliged to join at some point in the future but have yet to do so. These countries are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Romania.

The other two countries — the UK and Ireland — selected to opt out of the Schengen Area indefinitely. The UK chose to opt out because it never agreed with abolishing border controls, and Ireland chose to follow suit in order to maintain its Common Travel Area (CTA) with the United Kingdom and keep its open border with Northern Ireland.

At present, there are twenty-six official members of the Schengen Area.

 Of those countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland are the only countries that are not members of the EU. They have each signed agreements in association with the Schengen Agreement in order to participate in the border-free zone.

Furthermore, the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands are also included in the Schengen Area as special members of the European Union.

schengen area visa free travel nomad

The Immigration Crisis

While Europe’s Schengen Area is the result of forward-thinkers dedicated to the concepts of free movement and open borders, there are always those who question the wisdom of such an open door policy.

In 2015, the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia and then to other countries in the Schengen Area led to an immigration crisis. In the midst of this crisis, the November 13 Paris attacks took place and much of Europe was suddenly on the defense and ready to close their borders, if only for a short period of time.

While I don’t buy into the fear of imminent terrorist attacks in Europe, because of these events, some have questioned whether there will be enough political consensus in the future to extend the Schengen Area beyond its current borders. For now, the main response to the immigration crisis and terrorist attacks has been to reinstate certain internal borders for temporary periods during justified crisis situations.

Additionally, to create a more responsive system, the European Commission has proposed a major amendment to the Schengen Agreement. On September 13, 2017, the president of the European Commission made a proposal to update the Schengen Borders Code. The change would affect the rules regarding temporary internal borders.

Under the new proposed changes, the temporary internal borders could be reinstated for up to a year (instead of the previous six months). In extreme cases, this timeframe could be extended for an additional two years.

As I said, the EU is pretty liberal about this stuff and is really committed to the concept of open borders and the freedom of movement. To safeguard against abuse of the new law in the future, member states must prepare a detailed risk assessment justifying the use of internal border controls and outlining the length of the intended reinstatement.

The EU has already made other small adjustments to improve security. For example, all EU nationals now have their details checked against all relevant security databases at external borders. Previously, only non-EU citizens were checked. Since the Paris attacks, ID checks within the Schengen Area have become more common. As of the summer of 2017, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden all have temporary border checks along their borders.

What If I Want To Spend More Time In Europe?

One question I get a lot from people, especially in the nomad community  is, “What if I want to spend more time in Europe?”

One of the little-known tricks I have found is to strategically choose where to be based and travel in between.

Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Croatia will all eventually join the Schengen Area, which means that while they have the same policies, they still have their own 90-day window.

For example, when I was living in Slovenia and traveled to Croatia, I had to exit the Schengen Area and I got a new 90-day stamp in Croatia. The same thing happened when I left Italy and flew to Romania, and then when I left and went to Moldova. The clock reset.

Essentially, you could spend 90 days in the Schengen Area, then another 90 days in any of the four countries listed above plus the UK and Ireland, and then an additional 90 days in the Schengen Area, and finally back to either Cyprus, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, the UK, or Ireland before the annual clock resets and you can start the whole process again. And that’s not even considering all of the non-EU countries in Eastern Europe like beautiful Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia.

I have spent this summer based in Belgrade with my team, while spending sunny weekends relaxing in my beach house in Montenegro ( 40 minutes plane ride from Belgrade), had occasional week in Ireland for a client meeting and some TV appearances around Balkans- without paying much attention, I have spent more than 3 months outside Schengen Zone. 

So, while you can only spend up to 180 days in the Schengen Area, it is still possible to spend the entire year in Europe.

This does, however, necessitate frequent travel. If you would prefer to stay in one place for most of the year, or at least within the Schengen Area, you will need to hold either a long-stay visa issued by a single country of interest or a residence permit. Long-stay visas are only good for one year, so you will need to obtain a residence permit to remain in the Schengen member state for more than twelve months.

Long-stay visa holders and those with a residence permit issued by a single state can travel throughout the rest of the Schengen Area for the same 90 day period out of each 180 days. Long-term residents can also apply for the right to move to and settle in another Schengen member state without losing their residency in the first country and the social benefits that come with it.

A few select countries have another way to stay in the Schengen Area year-round. For example, thanks to bilateral agreements made before the Schengen Convention of 1990, New Zealand citizens are allowed to stay in each separate Schengen country for up to 90 days.

In addition, citizens of non-Schengen countries that are located along the Schengen’s external border can qualify for five-year permits that allow them to stay 90 days in the Schengen Area every time they cross the border. These permits are only issued to lawful residents of the border area who can demonstrate legitimate reasons for frequent border crossings. However, if you fit the bill, 90 days every time you cross the border is much better than 90 out of every 180 days.

Such agreements exist between Ukraine and Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Poland, as well as Moldova with Romania, Belarus with Latvia, and Russia with Poland, Norway, and Latvia. There is an additional agreement between Croatia and Bosnia that is awaiting ratification and there are plans for agreements between Lithuania and Russia, Poland and Belarus, and Bulgaria with Serbia and Macedonia.

If you have a business that serves the EU market and can be manufactured at lower costs in one of these countries, this could be a potential solution for you to live in the Schengen Area by means of this special visa.

What If I Get a Second Passport?

The other question I get quite often is: “What if I get a second passport? Could I enter the Schengen Area one day as an American and the next day as a Moldovan?”

The answer is… maybe, but you’re really not supposed to.

Again, this is one of those areas where there are a lot of different rules. In general, the understanding is that you, as a person, get 90 days out of every 180. The idea that you can go one day as a US citizen and then leave and come back as a citizen of another country is probably not what you’re supposed to do.

But that’s where the confusion lies. People think that they can just go to Europe any time that they want, but if you spend more than 90 days there, it is very likely that they’re going to say, “No, you can’t come back, you have to go somewhere outside of the Schengen Area now.”

If you want to spend more time in Europe, then you should either get a European residence permit or a European passport in and of itself. There are many different ways to obtain European passports and residencies. They are often far more expensive than many other second passport options, but if you plan to live in Europe long-term, it may be worth it.

If you simply want to visit Europe visa-free, just make sure that your first or second passport is on the Annex II list.

Considering how liberal the Schengen Area is, if you get a passport that is not on that list, you are probably missing out. Just recognize that your second passport doesn’t necessarily help you to spend more time in the Schengen Area unless it’s a passport from a member state.


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