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, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Microstates within or between Schengen states like Andorra, 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.
Visa and non-visa nationals
Holders of any European Economic Area (EU, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein) or Switzerland passport do not need a visa for the Schengen area, and are generally allowed to stay for as long as they want.
Only the nationals of the following non-EEA countries do not need a visa for entry into the Schengen Area: Albania*, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominica, El Salvador, Georgia_(country), Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Kiribati, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia, Monaco, Montenegro*, Nauru, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan*** (Republic of China), Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Vatican City, Vanuatu, Venezuela, additionally persons holding British National (Overseas), Hong Kong SAR or Macau SAR passports.
These non-EU/EFTA visa-free visitors may not stay more than 90 days in a 180 day period in the Schengen Area as a whole and, in general, may not work during their stay (although some Schengen countries do allow certain nationalities to work - see below). The counter begins once you enter any country in the Schengen Area and is not reset by leaving a specific Schengen country for another Schengen country, or vice-versa. However, Australian and New Zealand citizens may be able to stay for more than 90 days if they only visit particular Schengen countries—see the New Zealand Government's explanation.
- while British subjects with the right of abode in the United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories citizens connected to Gibraltar are considered "United Kingdom nationals for European Union purposes" and therefore eligible for unlimited access to the Schengen Area,
- British Overseas Territories citizens without the right of abode in the United Kingdom and British subjects without the right of abode in the United Kingdom as well as British Overseas citizens and British protected persons in general do require visas.
However, all British Overseas Territories citizens except those solely connected to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas are eligible for British citizenship and thereafter unlimited access to the Schengen Area.
Further note that
(*) nationals of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia need a biometric passport to enjoy visa-free travel,
(**) Serbian nationals with passports issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate (residents of Kosovo with Serbian passports) do need a visa and
(***) Taiwan nationals need their ID number to be stipulated in their passport to enjoy visa-free travel.
Requirements for a 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:
- 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. Parents will need to sign the application form of minors whether they will accompany them or not.
- Passport with at least two blank pages, 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) 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)
- copies of previous Schengen visas (if previously issued)
- 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, spouses and minor children of EU nationals 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.
- Minors who are travelling alone (or with an adult who is not a family member) and in some cases with only one parent may need to secure a permit to travel form or its local equivalent from local authorities in their home or resident country signed by the parents or legal guardian who is not accompanying the minor. This requirement depends on the local laws.
- Proof of socio-economic 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. Cash is unacceptable but that is also for your security anyway.
- Proof of travel arrangements
- Confirmed transport arrangements .
- 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.
- Official letter/invitation from organisers/sponsors, if you are on a business trip or conference.
- 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.
- Additional requirements for spouses and children of EU nationals only
- copy of passport of the EU national
- marriage certificate (for spouses)
- birth certificate with the name of the EU national parent (for children)
- other proofs of relationship as may be requested by the consulate
Please do not give your only copy of the above-mentioned documents as the copies you submit to the application center 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 visitors 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 the member states' embassy/consulate/visa application centre of your choice. The embassy/consulate/application centre you need to apply at 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.
- If you only intend to visit one country, then you must go to the designated application centre for that particular country. Do not visit the visa application centre for Spain if you will only visit Austria; go to the visa application centre servicing Austria.
- If you intend to visit more than one country, then you must identify the state which is your main destination . A main destination is defined as the destination where you will spend the longest time in if the purpose of your trip is the same for each of the countries you will visit, or where the main purpose of your trip will take place if you have more than one purpose. Your main purpose will also depend on the visa you are ultimately applying for.
- 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 all for a holiday, you need to apply for a visa at the Swedish embassy/consulate.
- If you will spend 5 days in France for a holiday but you will do this after attending a 3-day conference in Italy, you must go to the Italian embassy.
- If there is no clear main destination and the purpose of your trip is the same everywhere, that is you will spend almost exactly the same amount of time in each member state then you should lodge your application at the application center of the member state where you intend to first arrive at. For example you will enter through France and spend three days there, then three days each in Denmark and finally Switzerland all for a holiday; you must go to the French consulate/embassy for the visa.
Generally speaking, you can only apply at the application center 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 proof of residence in a third country in order to qualify to apply for a visa.
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 home country, 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. Personal appearance is generally required and 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 center is required; that is, an agent cannot lodge the application on your behalf. Make sure you be at the application center 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, collect the application fee, and normally will 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; for example, États Schengen). 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).
If your application is unsuccessful, you'll normally be given a notice explaining the reasons for such a decision. The process and grounds for appeal vary between each embassy/consulate but you are strongly advised to refer to the notice and address the 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 at any time (with a corresponding fee), but make sure you address the issues that caused your previous application to fail.
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 the total amount of time you can spend in the Schengen area, regardless of the number of entries you plan to make or are allowed to make, in a six-month period. 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 maximize 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 C 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 stay of 90 days within a 180-day period in the Schengen area.
Entering the Schengen Area
Unlike most other countries, incoming passengers are normally 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 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, similar to domestic and international flights elsewhere. 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 at the first (or last) airport you travel through within the Schengen area. When a connection is inevitable, consider the connection times and the potential for queues when booking your flights.
If you are a non-EU/EFTA national (even if you are visa-exempt, unless you are Andorran, Monégasque or San Marinese), make sure that your passport is clearly stamped both when you enter and leave the Schengen Area with all the pertinent dates visible. Without an entry stamp, you may be treated as an overstayer when you try to leave the Schengen Area; without an exit stamp, you may be refused entry the next time you seek to enter the Schengen Area as you may be deemed to have overstayed on your previous visit. For those who need another visa in the future, the application may be refused or the processing of your application may experience further prolonged processing. If you cannot obtain a passport stamp, make sure that you retain documents such as boarding passes, stamps of passports from other countries, transport tickets, financial documents, attendance records at work/school, which may help to convince border inspection staff that you have stayed in the Schengen Area legally.
At the moment, do not assume that all border officers at the different Schengen area states have access to the database of other member states (they generally don't). Make sure, if a stamp isn't automatically put into your passport, that it is.
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 airports within the Schengen area, it will be as if you are taking a domestic flight.
However, some countries like France, Italy and the Netherlands require non-EU/EEA/Swiss nationals to declare their presence to relevant local authorities even if they arrived from another Schengen member state. This may be taken care of by the accommodation they are staying at upon check-in but otherwise, the guest will have to visit the relevant authorities themselves. Check the Wikitravel pages of the individual countries as well as the websites of their respective immigration authorities for more information.
Part of the Schengen agreement also 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 any time, 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.
Be aware that Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, while in the Schengen area, are not in the European Union and, accordingly, customs controls are in effect for all arriving travellers, regardless of point of origin. When crossing the border by train, customs officers may enter the train; and when crossing by car, customs officers may stop your vehicle and inspect it. It is possible that inspections may happen twice in a single journey: once by the customs officers of the outgoing country and another by the customs officers of the incoming country. Normally, if transiting through an airport in one of these four countries, you may not be required to clear customs in the transiting airport.
Check the following websites for more information on customs declaration requirements:
Finally, even within EU-Schengen states where technically customs checks are not carried out on importing or exporting goods, customs authorities of individual EU-Schengen states may still carry out checks to ensure that prohibited or controlled items (e.g. illegal drugs, firearms) are not transported across the border.