Travel in the Schengen Zone
This article is a travel topic
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.
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).
A Schengen visa and visa-free travel to the Schengen area (for eligible non-EEA or Swiss nationals) is valid for only short stays (those that are 90 days or less within a 180-day period). Any non-EEA or Swiss national who wishes to stay for a longer period must apply for an appropriate long stay national visa, which is technically good for a particular country only. Moreover, a Schengen visa might not be valid to visit overseas territories of a particular Schengen state (e.g. French overseas territories, Greenland). This article will focus on short stay tourist, family visit and business visit visas as well as visits to the Schengen zone for the said purposes.
Requirements for a visa
Some nationalities do not require a Schengen visa for tourism, business or family visit 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 Schengen visa for either business, tourism or family visits, you usually will need to procure the following documents (specific requirements vary slightly per embassy and jurisdiction so check with the embassy where you're applying at for the specific requirements), and you will often need one set of original copies and one set of photocopies per applicant:
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
In applying for a Schengen visa, it is important to note that there is NO such thing as applying at any member states' embassy/consulate/visa application centre of your choice. The embassy/consulate/application centre you need to proceed to will depend on where you plan to actually go, how long you plan to spend in each of the states and what the main purpose of your trip is.
You can only apply at the application centre that has jurisdiction over the country (and possibly city) where you live in. If you are a temporary visitor in third country, you cannot apply for a Schengen visa in the country you are visiting. You will need to present your residence permit at the appointment (if you are a not a national of the country where you are applying) and proof of your address to show that you are entitled to apply at the application centre you are proceeding to.
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. In rare cases however, if a member state has no mission in your homecountry, you may need to lodge the application at another country which contains the embassy that serves your area, or at another fellow Schengen state's embassy in your home country that has formally offered to accept and possibly process applications on behalf of the Schengen state you intend to lodge your application at.
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).
If you receive a Schengen visa, make sure you check to see the information is correct. In particular, check that the visa says something to the effect of "Valid for the Schengen States" (usually written in the language used by the embassy that issued the visa). The validity dates must match your original travel dates and not expire earlier. 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 copies of the documents you used in your application and those that will establish your purpose of visit, and be sure to bring them with you as border officers may ask to see them upon your arrival.
If you have been issued a Schengen visa but later you have been notified that the main purpose for your visit no longer exists (e.g. the conference you are scheduled to attend has been cancelled) yet you still want to pursue your trip to the other countries, then you may need to inform the embassy that issued you the visa about the change in circumstance and apply for a new visa with the pertinent embassy.
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).
The validity dates simply provide the window in which you can travel to the Schengen area. If you decide to postpone and shorten your trip however, the original expiry date will still stand and you must still exit on or before this date even if the allowed number of days stated in your visa won't be totally used-up by this said date.
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 for three months but the length stay only allows 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.
Just like with other visas, a Schengen visa does not automatically entitle you to enter the Schengen area. As such, you must still demonstrate to passport control officers that you are genuinely entitled to the visa you were issued. 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.
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. In some countries, the main airports may also provide a premium lane for eligible passengers (usually those who travel in first and business class); your airline will hand you a voucher which you will show to the staff upon arrival (ask your airline for more information).
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). Likewise, at the land border crossing between an EU and non-EU state in the Schengen zone, spot customs checks on both sides may also be enforced. Check these articles for more information about customs declaration requirements:
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. Visitors staying in private accommodations may need to visit the local police themselvse.