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Travel in the Schengen Zone

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Europe is a continent that is small but has many independent states. Under normal circumstances, travelling through multiple states should mean having to go through visa applications, passport control multiple times. However, by entering through any of the member states of the Schengen zone, you will generally be able to access any of the other member states without going through passport control checkpoints again. Similarly, by having a Schengen visa, you do not need to apply for visas to each of the Schengen member states separately/individually hence saving time, money and paperwork.

Countries of the Schengen Zone include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Microstates within or between Schengen states like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Vatican City and San Marino, whilst not officially part of the agreement will recognise a Schengen visa to allow you to enter.

Understand

The Schengen Zone is not necessarily the same as the European Union (EU). Not all EU states are part of the Schengen zone and not all Schengen states are part of the EU. As such, when you go to an EU member state that does not participate in the Schengen agreement, you will be subject to their completely separate visa, entry requirements and passport control systems. The most notable example of an EU non-Schengen member is the United Kingdom. Newer EU member states such as Bulgaria and Romania are not yet part of the Schengen zone but will do so in the future. Likewise, Norway and Switzerland are examples of Schengen zone members that do not belong to the EU.

The Schengen Zone only covers immigration controls whilst the EU is effectively a customs union. Therefore, you do not need to pass through customs when travelling between a Schengen and a non-Schengen EU country, but you will need to pass through immigration controls (e.g. UK to Germany or vice versa). The converse is true for travel between EU and non-EU Schengen countries: you must pass through customs, but not immigration (e.g. Switzerland to France or vice versa).

Requirements for a visa

Some nationalities do not require a Schengen visa for tourism purposes. These include members of the European Economic Area (EEA), the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand just to name a few. Non-EEA nationals are allowed a maximum of 90 days within a 180-day period in the entire Schengen zone. This section will primarily focus on requirements to get a short-stay/visit visa.

In general, if your nationality needs a tourist visa, you usually will need to procure the following documents (specific requirements vary slightly per embassy so check with the embassy where you're applying at for the specific requirements):

  • Basic requirements
    • Completed application form (the form can be downloaded from the website of the embassy concerned) and some member states may also request you to fill-out an additional form
    • Passport (both original and photocopy of bio-page) which must be valid for at least three months from the day you return
    • Residence permit (if you are not a citizen of the country you are applying; both original and photocopy) which must be valid for at least three months from the day you return.
    • passport-sized ID photograph (please check the website of the embassy you are applying to determine how the photo should look like)
    • Application fee
      • €60 for most applicants
      • €35 for children at least 6 years old but younger than 12 years old and nationals of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova
      • free for children 5 years old and below as well as pupils/students accompanied by teachers on a school trip
      • The fees are usually payable in the local currency equivalent (the exact/actual amount will be specified by the embassy concerned).
      • If the embassy/consulate outsources the administrative aspects of the application to a third party (e.g. to VFS), then a fee may be charged by these third parties in addition to the above fees.
  • Proof of ties and finances
    • Employment certificate and recent payslips (if employed), or enrolment certificate/letter from institution (if a student). As much as possible, they should state the period in which you are allowed to go on holiday. In some cases, if you are unemployed or a dependant on someone else financially, you will have to procure an affidavit of support and/or a declaration form.
    • Bank statements covering the last 3 months prior to the application. The specific amount required to be in the balance depends on the member state whose embassy you are applying at (typically €40-60 per day per applicant on your party plus enough to cover unpaid ticket costs, accommodations, pre-booked tours). In case you do not have a bank account, traveller’s cheques might be accepted by some (but not all) embassies. Raw cash is unacceptable but that is also for your security anyway.
  • Proof of travel arrangements
    • Confirmed Transport arrangements (it is recommended if they have been paid for).
    • Confirmation of Accommodation arrangements. If you intend to stay with friends/relatives, they may need to course their invitation through local authorities, fill-in official paperwork and post it to you.
    • Travel insurance that covers at least the entire Schengen Zone for the duration of your trip and at least €30 000 in emergency treatment and medical repatriation.


Please do not give your only copy of the above-mentioned documents as the copies you submit to the application centre will not be returned to you (except the passport of course).

The application form may have an option of whether you want a single or multiple entry visa. However, the latter is rarely granted for first-time and not all countries (notably the Netherlands) grant it at all unless you can demonstrate that in between two Schengen states, you intend to visit a non-Schengen country.

Setting an appointment

Before choosing an application centre to apply at, it is very important that you identify your main destination. That is, the destination where you intend to spend the longest time in your trip. It is in that country’s embassy/consulate which you must go to. This also means that if you intend to visit only one Schengen state, you must go to the application centre representing that state. If you will spend exactly the same amount of time in each of your destination countries, then you may apply at the embassy/consulate of the country you will first visit. You should include your arrival and departure dates from the Schengen zone in determining your main destination and count each of them as 1 day.

For example, if your itinerary says you will spend 2 days in Germany, 4 days in Sweden, 3 days in Poland and 1 day in Belgium, in this case you must set an appointment with the Swedish embassy/consulate. Check the relevant embassy’s website for more details on how to set an appointment, where you need to go, and what else you need to bring.

Get all your paperwork in order as early as possible especially if it takes days to process and/or needs to be posted to you. Appearance at the application centre is usually by appointment only, walk-ins are only allowed in a few cases. Appointment slots run out quickly so book an appointment early. The application may be filed up to three months in advance of your scheduled trip.

On the appointment itself

In general, personal appearance at the application centre is compulsory, that is an agent cannot lodge the application on your behalf. Make sure you be at the application centre at least 15 minutes before your appointment and that your documents are in order.

The staff at the window will inspect your documents, ask routine questions about your trip and may take biometric fingerprints and digital photographs. If your documents are insufficient, out of order or are requested to submit more, then you will usually need to make a new appointment. Your application will not be processed until this is satisfied.

Processing time depends on a variety of factors. They include the applicant's nationality (some nationalities are subject to consultation with other member states), purpose of visit, time of the year, outstanding documentation, referral of application to different government departments, staffing levels at the embassy. Before the appointment is over, the application centre will advise you on how you can claim your passport (either by returning or by post).

After applying

If you receive a Schengen visa, make sure you check to see the information is correct. Contact the application centre immediately if you notice any discrepancies (take note that even if you applied for a multiple-entry visa, the consul may still grant a single entry visa).

In case your application is unsuccessful, you will be given a notice explaining the reasons for such a decision. The process and grounds for appeal varies between each embassy/consulate but you are strongly advised to refer to the notice and address the reasons/issues outlined before returning to the embassy. Unless the refusal notice states that you are ineligible to apply for a certain amount of time, you can lodge a new application anytime (with a corresponding fee) but make sure you address the issues that caused your previous application to be unsuccessful.

Keep your documents and be sure to bring them with you as border officers may ask to see it upon your arrival. Just like with other visas, a Schengen visa does not automatically entitle you to enter the Schengen area. Even if you possess a valid visa, actual entry may still be denied/refused if you are unable to satisfy the border officer's questions and/or requests to see documents.

Interpreting length of stay and number of entries

Pay particular attention to the validity dates and length of stay: make sure to leave before they expire (whichever comes earlier/first).

If you were given a multiple entry visa, the number of days indicated on the visa will refer to total amount of time you can spend regardless of the number of entries you plan to make or are allowed to make. Hence if you are given a multiple-entry visa but valid only for 10 days, the 10 days won't be reset by you leaving the Schengen zone and returning later, you may only be readmitted for the remaining time you have. Arrival and departure dates are included in the number of days you have stayed in the Schengen zone regardless of actual arrival and departure time so plan accordingly to maximise time.

Likewise, if you were only given a single entry visa for 30 days but have decided to cut your trip short by leaving only 20 days into your trip, you can no longer use that same visa anymore and the remaining days you have left on that visa are forfeited (though this will not be taken against you when you apply for another visa in the future since you did not overstay). Keep this in mind if you wish to visit non-Schengen states (e.g. UK, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria) in between two Schengen states and make it clear in your application that you need to do so (though you may also wish to visit such non-Schengen states only before entry or after visiting the Schengen zone).

If you have been issued a multiple-entry visa with a long validity period (i.e. more than 6 months) or several single-entry visas, please be aware that you are only allowed a combined maximum of 90 days within a 180-day period in the Schengen Zone.

Entering the Schengen zone

Unlike most other countries, incoming passengers are not required to fill-in any additional paperwork to present to passport control officials. That said, a Schengen visa does not automatically allow entry into the Schengen zone. As such, you must still demonstrate to passport control officers that you are genuinely entitled to the visa you were issued.

In most checkpoints, two sets of lanes are provided: one for EEA/Swiss nationals and another for all other passport holders. To facilitate and expedite your clearance, please go to the appropriate lane.

When travelling through a Schengen airport, flights are separated into schengen and non-schengen flights which are effectively domestic and international flights as known elsewhere respectively. This means if you flight originates from a non-schengen country but are connecting via a schengen airport to another schengen country (or vice versa), you must clear passport control first at your connecting airport. Hence where a connection is inevitable, consider the connection times and the potential for queues when booking your flights.

Going around the Schengen zone

Once you are allowed into the Schengen zone, you can generally travel to any member state without going through formal passport control procedures again. When using a plane to travel between two Schengen points, it will be as if you are taking a domestic flight.

However, part of the Schengen agreement has provisions for allowing individual member states to temporarily reinstate border controls in certain circumstances. In addition, expect random passport checks when crossing borders at anytime, as well as when boarding a plane at the airport. Hence, even if there are no border (immigration) controls between Schengen states, you are strongly advised to carry your passport with you when crossing borders between Schengen states.

Take note that for a flight whose origin is in an EU-Schengen state, if you connect via a major Norwegian, Swiss or Icelandic airport to any other destination in Norway, Switzerland or Iceland respectively, you will need to collect your baggage, clear customs, re-check your baggage at a designated counter and go through security again. This can be avoided by making an EU-Schengen city as an area to make your connection (e.g. whenever possible, if you wish to go from Warsaw to Bergen, avoid connecting through Oslo and try airports like Frankfurt or Copenhagen).

When you check-in at your hotel, you will need to present your passport to the hotel staff as they need to register their guests with the local police.

See also

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