Schengen shenanigans

imageSomething happened to free travel in the EU between the year 2000 and 2013 and no-one told me about it! One year I’m happily backpacking for 6 months around Europe without any consequence and then fast forward to 2013 and I’m told I have 90 days in total (within a 6 month period) in the schengen area.. schengen what??

Yes, that was pretty much my reaction…what is this schnegen and why is it the cause of my European vacation woes…..not too mention some anxious itinerary juggling, some last minute add ons, nervous finger counting on the calendar and missing out on visiting a host of countries not because I ran out of money but because I ran out of time.

So what is schengen and what does it mean? It is basically a convention – a signed agreement between a number of European countries (about 26 to date = most of Europe!) which removes the need for internal border controls and operates a common visa policy across the signatory countries. Yes, a shame not to collect all those country stamps in your passport, but great you say….no border controls…..in and out when you please?!

Well, not exactly….unless you hold an EU passport! For everyone else, its 90 days for the whole schengen area! That’s right, not 90 days for Italy, and then 90 days France or even Greece…no it’s 90 days all up and schnegen, take careful note is different to EU.

You see, countries not even in the EU have signed the schnegen agreement. So if you thought you could escape schengen by going to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway or even Iceland you would be schengen mistaken!!!

So two months into the European leg of our trip, and we suddenly discover schnegen. There goes our one year plan out the window, in supposedly border and visa less Europe. Even if you spent 4 days in each schnegen country you still wouldn’t get to see all of them!!

However, I still wasn’t too phased. Surely, we could fly out and fly our schnegen behinds back within a day/week/month to continue our trip ( by this time we had already bought a boat hoping to cruise the canals and the meditterrean schnegen sea). Unfortunately, its a 90 days in and 90 days out rule (not necessarily consecutive….e.g 90 days within 180 days….so you can fly in and out but goodluck keeping up with your 90 schnegen day count). So suddenly we were faced with the other devastating non schnegen prospect…..of spending 3 months in Gibraltar or the Vatican city or somewhere like that!

Did we want to test the enforcement capacity of the schnegen treaty? Not really, we had already heard about another canal cruising Australian couple who got fined 5000 schnegen dollars for overstaying their 90 days in Holland. We also had read countless of forums, of people who had overstayed their 90 days (either wittingly or unwittingly) and were trying to work out what the schnegen next to do…. and others who were quick to point out the legal and immoral implications of being so unschengenlike. It may not look like the immigration person behind the schnegen counter is checking your passport but believe me, it doesn’t take long to calculate 3 months in their head and the last exit stamp is always beside the last entry stamp….they find these stamps even amongst your hundred other ones from Asia or America etc… they know.

Whether they choose to pull you up on it or not is up to the schengen gods. The schnegan agreement doesn’t keep people out, it keeps people in. This is fine if you never plan to return home but for those who do they might just find themselves travelling from one schengen country to the next for 10 years unable to leave the “EU”, until they finally miss family, friends and home cooked meals and turn up at an international airport somewhere prepared to face the fine and the never to return to Europe stamp…..

We almost thought of getting away with it when the immigration officer was about to give us the schengen wave through after seeing my husband’s British passport but no we made mention of the rest of the family’s Australian passports….stupid or schengen smart?

I would like someone to enlighten me on the rationale behind the schengen agreement. Why a bunch of countries, including those not even in the EU and as far away as Iceland chose to open their borders to everyone in the EU but exclude everyone else…. Essentially, give some of us, who are the furthest away, as little time as possible to travel through a glomerate of countries and spend as little of our tourist dollars as possible…. !!!

Isn’t there an economic schengen crisis in Europe? Wouldn’t Spain or Greece like some of our tourist money? Apparently not…UK on the other hand, has benfited the most from our EU “out” time, taking up about 5 months of our total European stay… The UK, like Ireland decided to opt out of the Schengen agreement, controlling their own border entry and exit points.

Why can’t schengen countries determine on a case by case basis whether someone has the funds/ability to remain in their country/area just like the English do… the English are quite happy to ask interrogative questions if they think they need to.

What’s even worse, unlike other countries you can’t even apply for a schengen visa extension! Technically, as a US/Australian/Canadian citizen you don’t have a “visa”, you have a stamp, a stamp that entitles you to 90 days….. PERIOD…. maybe a few more days if you have a medical emergency… In trying to do the right thing, I spent a whole day trying to get someone, somewhere in France to stamp my damn passport so that there would be no dispute when I had entered the country – thats’s how I spent my first schengen day…..and now here I am, with my 90 days ticking away, while I’m motoring at 8 kms an hour along a canal in France, only half way across the bloody schengen country….so what to do?

So where to go besides Ireland and UK, because lets face it, who wants to escape the European winter and head to the UK? So, if it wasn’t for the schengen agreement we wouldn’t have spent 3 interesting months in Morocco…..(we considered Tunisia and Turkey also, as the closest countries to Europe with milder weather). Driving and camping through Morocco was great and wouldn’t have otherwise happened if not for schengen however, a visit to the Canary Islands would’ve been nice, or even Portugal and Spain on the way through but no……By the time we left Morocco three months and counting was far too schengen long and we were all feeling a little schengened out!

So we tried option 2

Apply for a permission to stay in an EU/schengen country. I have family in Italy, speak the language and the funds to support myself so I decided to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (carte du sejour in France) based on family connections and tourism motives (as suggested on their website). Did this work out well…. no, not really and 3 offices later (including a visit to the citizenship office) we left Italy in the same position as before. What I could have applied for, was a permission to stay as a spouse. So, my husband as an EU member would need to register as a resident with the local council and I apply based on my relationship with him. All fine, if we were in a stable address in Italy, but a boat even if parked in Italy does not count as a residence. All we really wanted, was to spend a schengen winter and summer in the Mediterranean (preferably Italy to stay close to relatives) but these was not to be. So off we went twice, for 3 months to a non schengen country, wishing I had an EU passport or even a NZ one… somehow unbeknown to me, there has been some “agreements” made between certain schengen countries and NZ to allow 90 day stays in these individual countries…. how?? now thats what I would like to find out…..!!

Visa free borders, well not really

There are currently 26 countries in Schengen.

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland , Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non schegen countries:

Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia (this may change in the future)

Other options

Before leaving home, find out if you or your partner can apply for an EU passport. Do your research. Is there a maternal/paternal grandparent somewhere that you didn’t know about who is really from Bulgaria, Croatia? Dulve deep into your ancestral roots.. a country that wasn’t EU 10 years ago, might just be now!!

Ask your government why NZ can strike a deal with EU schengen countries and yours can’t….time to look at your countries foreign relations….

Re-think an extended trip through Europe before you leave!

Plan your trip through Europe so that you are in non EU territory when 90 days expires

You can’t apply for a visa extension on your stamp. Visit a country’s embassy from your home country to apply for an extended stay before you depart

Apply for a permision to stay (carte de sojour, permesso di soggiorno etc) immediately on arrival to the immigration officials of the country you wish to apply for, usually within 8 days. You need to meet their requirements. Italy’s familial connections law changed in 2009. Do you intend to travel and study? Also check the countries residence requirements if your partner or family member carries an EU passport.

Choose another continent such as South America for your travel of a lifetime dream. We entered several times back and forth between countries e.g. Chile and Argentina, and there are enough countries to visit to keep you busy travelling for a long time.

Sympathise with all those visitors much worse than yourself who are at the constant mercy of a country’s strict visa rules and regulations

Think Karma….there is a reason why strict visa rules apply to you….and also lots of visa charges. Its more expensive to travel on an Australian passport than a British one…we know, as we forked out ridiculous visa fees every time on our Australian one, while my husband on his British passport never paid once…not even in Argentina, and Britain went to war with them!