Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stumbling Around Schengen

Brent and I spent about four years planning a big cycle tour in Europe.  We diligently researched the visa requirements for each of the countries we thought we might visit, and each one indicated that we could stay for up to three months.  Easy peasy.  We weren't planning on spending nearly that long in any one country, so we didn't spend any more time or effort on that aspect of our trip planning.

We plotted out a rough route, which evolved over time.  When we left Canada on May 1st 2015, our plan involved touring in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, then heading over to Frankfurt to leave our bikes there while we went to visit Ireland and the UK.  We would return to Frankfurt in mid-July to collect our bikes and meet up with Laura and Gabi to ride the Danube Cycle Trail from Donaueschingen to Budapest.  After Budapest, we would travel southwest to visit Slovenia, then Italy, Spain, and back to France to fly home on October 31st.

Aside from specific dates with friends, we left the plan completely open.  We'd learned from experience (ahem... Australia) that it was difficult to determine where we'd be at any specific time, and we didn't have any reason to box ourselves in unnecessarily.  Good thing because our best laid plan was out the window before we'd been in Europe five minutes.

When we arrived in Iceland and went through customs, the lady asked us about our plans, and we told her the high-level plan as described above.  Her chilly question: "You know you can only spend 90 days in Schengen, right?"  Our response: "What's a Schengen?"

We had a whirlwind itinerary in Iceland, and wouldn't have time to take care of anything there, so we decided to visit the Canadian Embassy in Paris as one of our first "things to do" and get our visas straightened out so we could spend longer than the default 90 days in Schengen.

On our first day in Paris, we found an address for the Canadian Embassy and used Metro to head down.  When we got there, we were told that they couldn't do anything for us - we needed to contact the country we're visiting (not our home country).  I had no idea how to contact a French Embassy from within France, or even if that was the right thing to do for Schengen, so I sent off an e-mail to the contact listed on the Schengen support web site inquiring about options.

We started talking about adjusting our plan so that we would only be in Schengen for 90 days.  We could spend about 45 days cycling within Schengen and then head over to Ireland and the UK (which are not part of Schengen).  That would still give us 45 days to spend on the Danube with Laura and Gabi, which was more than ample.  We didn't have any other confirmed plans with folks within Schengen, so worst case scenario... only 90 days in Schengen.

Using Google as our guide, we learned more about Schengen.  The Schengen Area is a collective of countries, sort of like the European Union, which does not have international border crossings between the member countries.  It's sort of like one big "country" encompassing a bunch of European countries.  Some people from the "online community" indicated that they would just "pop out" of Schengen, then go back in to start a new 90-day visa.  Several people suggested the same on my Facebook.  But, as I dug deeper, I learned that that, unequivocably, is not the solution.  It just doesn't work that way.  The way it works is simple:
- When you enter the Schengen area, a "counter" starts lasting 180 days.
- Of the subsequent 180 days, you are only allowed to be in any Schengen countries for 90 of them, regardless of in-and-outs.
- After 180 days have elapsed, you can re-enter Schengen to start a new 180-day counter.
- There is no such thing as a "long term visitor" visa for Schengen.
- Some Schengen countries offer long-term visas for a variety of purposes - most commonly: student visas, working visas and retiree visas.  Any one of those visas allows the holder open travel within the whole Schengen area.

Many people over-stay their Schengen visa, and many of those people do not get "caught" or suffer any consequences.  Some web sites recommend departing from France if you're going to do this because they seem to be the most lax about it.  But, if you are over-staying your visa and something happens (say, you are the victim of a crime, or are injured and require medical attention) you will most certainly be found out.  And if you are found out, you get a "black mark" on your passport/record which makes it difficult to visit the Schengen area in future.  You can be banned from entering Schengen for five years.  Brent and I decided that it absolutely is not worth it to us to "take our chances" as some people suggest.

So, what to do to ensure that we don't violate our 90-day Schengen visa?  Reluctantly, we decided that once we were done the Danube tour, we would exit Schengen - we just had to figure out where we would go.  We had lots of options... the biggest problem was going to be finding an option with decent cycle infrastructure.  We could "convert" from a cycle holiday to a hiking holiday (or some such), but this was supposed to be our six-month cycle tour and we really didn't want to do that.

I arranged to borrow our "Danube Cycle Trail 4" book back from Frank, which describes the route east of Budapest to the Black Sea.  That portion of the route is outside of Schengen as soon as it leaves Hungary.  We learned a lot about that route, though, and decided that we weren't really interested.  Not only does it look like kms and kms of "flat and boring", it also sounds like it has some sketchy bits (for example, sections where panhandlers will block the trail and not let you pass unless you give them money... in the wild west, I think these were called highwaymen).  I'm not interested in encountering highwaymen, nor am I interested in cycling kms and kms of flat and boring just for the sake of cycling for our remining two months.  We considered many many options, and ultimately decided to spend some time cycle touring in Croatia.  I'd heard good things about cycling there, and I managed to get ahold of a map for Istria (northern peninsula) that shows cycle routes on it.  Brent talked to a couple from New Zealand who'd done some cycling there and they declared it to be quite wonderful (albeit expensive for camping).

About a week before we were due to be done our Danube tour, I did a last-minute search for any other options for staying in Schengen.  I discovered that France offers a long-term visitor visa!  Sonofagun!  I don't know how I missed that earlier!  Well, I do know how I missed it... I had been searching for countries that we wanted to visit at the end of our trip, not countries that we'd already visited.  I did some more research, and started pulling together the information we needed to apply for the visa.  One web site said that you could apply from outside of your own country, as long as you explained your reason for doing so.  We planned to apply for the visa in Vienna.  If you're rejected in one place, you can still apply from another place, so we thought that would also leave us back-up opportunities to try from Budapest, and then from Croatia.  We tried to apply in Vienna, but the visa application department of the French Embassy in Vienna is almost closed down... you need to make an appointment ahead of time just for them to show up.  Brent did a little more research into how to apply, and he found that, to apply for the visa you need to have an in-person interview (at an Embassy... ie in your home country), you need a police clearance, and you need to provide three months of "original source" bank statements.  "Original source" meaning hard-copy bank statements from your bank.  Bank statements printed off the internet only count if they're stamped by your bank.  Realizing that it would be pretty much impossible for us to provide those things without being physically in Canada, with lots of lead time, we finally gave up.

After our time in Budapest, we zoomed down to Croatia and had a great time.  We spent seven weeks there altogether.  At the end of the sixth week, due to autumn and scary traffic conditions, our cycle tour was completed.  We gave away our bikes and shipped our cycling and camping gear home.  We shifted to a "backpacking" holiday, touring around the Dalmatian Coast for a week, then headed over to Sarajevo (Bosnia), then to Cappadocia (Turkey).

At the time we left Hungary, we still had 11 days left on our Schengen "ticker".  Our 180 days actually expired on October 28th and we weren't heading home until October 31st, so if we left Schengen on (or before) October 28th, then went back in on October 29th, we could technically have 14 more days in Schengen (11 on our original visa and 3 on a new visa).

Brent mapped out a plan for us to do a whirlwind train tour across Europe after we left Turkey.  I created a spreadsheet to help us confirm the number of days we had remaining in Schengen (and also as backup documentation for our passport stamps for any Passport Control personel who may want to see it).

We did our 11-day train trip from Venice to Bruges.  Brent had tried to find a way for us to pop over to the UK on the 28th and return to France on the 29th.  He was very vexed to discover that, without a vehicle, it is very difficult to use the ferry crossings between France and England.

Finally I suggested using Dublin instead, which worked out great.  Passport Control questioned us quite thoroughly coming into Ireland, and Brent went on a bit of a runner explaining what we were doing and why. We got passport visas valid until the 29th only... no messing around!  But that was all we needed, so it was all good.

On October 29th we headed back into France and Passport Control didn't even blink at us (nevermind ask us a question).  Wow.  That was easy.

On October 31st, we had our final trip leaving Schengen.  We flew from Paris to Iceland, which was our final exit point from Schengen, 183 days after we arrived on May 2nd.  When we got to passport control, the fellow asked us the date we first entered Europe.  I told him, and in dismay he exclaimed "MAY SECOND!?" I could tell he was steeling himself for dealing with the Canadian scofflaws standing in front of him (I'm sure it's not his favorite thing to do).  Then I clarified: we were in and out of Schengen during that time: 90 days within Schengen, and another 90 days outside of Schengen.  He was relieved and we were golden.  He happily gave us our exit stamps and sent us on our way.  I didn't even have to show him (or anyone else) my fancy spreadsheet.

My advice for visiting Schengen: follow the rules.  I'm glad I didn't have to experience the consequences if we'd over-stayed our welcome.  Some folks risk it and some folks get away with it.  If you want to stay longer than 90 days within Schengen, apply for one of the approved visas from one of the member countries well in advance of your visit.  That's it.

We will probably never have to follow our own advice again, though, as it's unlikely that we'll plan another six-month vacation.  I think a month or two is a nice amount of time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for passing on the benefit of your experience. Good karma for sure!