Trip planning

What the heck is a Schengen Area?

By Melissa

David was in Burlington, Vermont at a work conference when I called him and told him all was hopeless. Yes, that dramatically.  Earlier that day, I had innocently added a column to my spreadsheet and thought I’d poke away at educating myself about visa requirements by country.  I was thinking I would do a couple countries a day and plug the $100 or $200 Visa fee in the spreadsheet.  I was once again smug thinking of how impressed our financial advisor would be when she reviewed the plan.  “Wow, she’s really thought of everything,” she’d think.

Just like the Rome2Rio realization, as I scanned the requirements of traveling in a newly learned about “Schengen Area”, I came to the conclusion that we’d planned our trip in the wrong order. You need to be able to get from one place to another and, once you get there, they actually need to let you in.  I have an admission to make.  As an American, I thought I could travel to anywhere in the world (well just about, I knew we couldn’t go from the US to Cuba, for example or that Iran may not be a place to hang in today’s geopolitical environment) and stay for as long as I fancied.  I figured there would be some fees, maybe a little paperwork, but that was it.  Tops.  That is wrong.  Every country in the world has a set of requirements that you must meet to enter and a restriction on how long you can stay.  In fact, being an American (and not a European) traveling in the aforementioned Schengen Area was going to be extremely difficult and actually impossible at the pace we originally planned.  I had never heard of this cryptic area before and neither had anyone else I spoke to on the subject.  However, when I referred back to the trusty travel blogs they spoke of Schengen rules prolifically.  I read all their travel trails with an increasing sense of doom.  There was no loophole.  We were screwed.

The Schengen Zone is a coalition of 26 European countries. It is almost entirely EU nations but there are countries that are part of the EU like Switzerland and the UK that are not in the Schengen Zone and countries like Iceland and Norway that are not part of the EU but are part of Schengen.  So what is it?  It’s a pact between these nations that allows open borders for traveling between them.  It makes tourist travel much easier and makes it less costly and more efficient for these countries to transport goods across borders because they won’t be bogged down by border patrols.  In addition, it’s a cost savings for all those nations because they don’t need to maintain manned border crossing with any adjacent Schengen country.  Sounds great and it is for a lot of people.  Here’s the rub:  As a non-resident of a Schengen country, if you travel for 90 days within any country in the Schengen Zone, you must leave the entire Schengen Zone for 90 days.  So, in a 180 day period, you can only reside in the Schengen Area for 90 of it.  This area encompasses essentially all of Europe.  To travel out of it for 90 days every 90 days was not the plan.  I tried to come up with a way to rework it, but suddenly we were spending inordinate amounts of time in Bulgaria and Romania and winters in the UK.  I doubted David would love that angle.  Reworking was not going to be possible.  We needed to scrap the plan and start again.

So, on a gorgeous late August afternoon, we locked ourselves in our study. On one laptop we Rome2Rio’ed every option, on the other we checked the option against Visa requirements.  All the pins came out of the map and got replotted.  As dusk approached, we looked at each other and smiled.  No longer smug enough to high five, we now had a new, third (or maybe fourth) version of the plan.  This new plan navigates the travel from point to point and takes into account Visa requirements at every stop.  Some countries were removed and new ones added, but the core of the trip stay intact.

Our map

Here’s how we did it: We want to spend a lot of time in Europe. We love the cultures and the people and feel like we’ve only explored the tip of the iceberg.  In order to comply with Schengen requirements and still spend the amount of time we want to in all those areas, we are going to need to apply for residency at different times, in three different countries.  To apply for residency in a county, you need to personally appear at your designated consulate (ours is L.A.) and show records that you can afford to live there without working and proof that you’ve secured residency there, i.e. a signed lease.  Our new plan stretches out the trip to eight-ten years (and over 80 countries) because applying for these Visas is time consuming and, not only do you need to apply in person, you must also retrieve the visa in person, so we need to wait out the processing in the states.  We were planning on spending significant time in these countries anyway (Spain, Italy and France) so we reworked the trip to allow for travel back and forth to the U.S. and consolidated our travel in each of these countries into the years we plan to apply for the visas.  We may not get them.  I’m still unclear how much evidence we need to produce of proof of secured lodging.  I’m hoping if we purchase AirBnb apartments in many different cities in a country and produce those receipts that will work.  We’ll keep you posted on our progress.


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