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How Europe’s Schengen Visa Works

Planning a European vacation? You will need to understand how the Schengen Tourist Visa works. How do you get the visa? How long is it good for? Can you really only stay 90 days? These questions and more answered, read along for more on the Schengen Visa.

If you are traveling to Europe from outside of the European Union, you will have to get a visa called the Schengen Visa. It is defined by the European Commission as a “short-term visa.” The visa is an agreement between 26 countries that allows visitors to Europe a one-visa visit without border controls. Basically, with a few exceptions, the Schengen Tourist Visa is a European visa allowing you to stay in the “zone” for 90 days.

Frankfurt Airport arrivals - where the Schengen begins.
Most European visitors will enter the Schengen region via air. The Border Patrol will closely scrutinize your entry and exit dates.

What is the Schengen Tourist Visa?

The Schengen Visa is good for any 90 days within a 180 day period, with the intention that no one on a short-stay visa will need longer than 90 days. If you are someone that would like to stay longer, you will have to apply for a different visa with the country that you want to stay in. If you just want to travel to a few different places, though, you must stay within the 90 day limit.

Ferry arriving into the Schengen zone.
Visitors can enter one of the Schengen countries via various modes of transport, but don’t think that the border controls will be more lax. They won’t.

The Schengen Visa was designed to make it easier for the citizens of member states to travel and work freely within Europe.

The following countries are part of the Schengen agreement: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It does not currently include these European countries that are not in the Schengen: Albania, Andorra, Bulgaria, CroatiaCyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom.

The way the Schengen Visa Works

The Schengen agreement that each member country signs does away with routine border controls, but in doing so, it has increased its security when it comes to entries and exits from non-member countries. What this means is that in the past a country that was less strict about visa limits may have become much more strict.

Palace guard in London.
Schengen versus non-Schengen areas. The United Kingdom is not a part of the Schengen agreement.

When you first arrive at a Schengen country, the border guards will stamp your passport. This is the official start date of your visa. However, when you leave the Schengen area the clock stops and that time out of the Schengen is not calculated towards your 90 days (even though you might still be in a European country).

Since 2013, the Schengen Visa is calculated in days and it is on a rotational basis. Therefore when you are trying to enter, the calculator will check your entry and exit days for the 180 days prior to see if you have days remaining. It’s important to remember you’re 90 days Schengen visa restarts after being out of the Schengen area for 90 days

It does get a bit tricky when you are coming and going into the Schengen area. When you do come and go, the border guards use the short-stay Schengen calculator to determine if you are able to enter and for how long. The calculator provides the guards with 2 sets of information: 1) whether or not you overstayed your Schengen visa during the previous 180 day period, and 2) How many days you have until your visa expires. You do not want to overstay your visa, because fines are very expensive.

Passports and Schengen stamps.
Planning and knowing the entry and exit dates of your Schengen will make your trip much less stressful.

Please note that the calculator program allows them to put in multiple date sets to check if you have overstayed your Schengen at any point.

Counting Schengen Visa Time Examples

Scenario 1) On your last European vacation, you entered through Paris at Charles De Gaulle airport on March 3, 2017. You traveled to three different Schengen countries then leaving the Schengen Zone from Frankfurt Airport in Germany on April 10, 2017. You used 39 days. You then had to go to Vienna on a business trip for 10 days in May. Now you have used 49 days. In August, you want to take another European vacation, but in your planning you think you have 41 days left on your 90 days Schengen visa. However, counting back from the 1st of August your 90 days outside of the Schengen started counting on the 4th of May. Counting those 10 days in May, you now have 80 days left on your 90 days Schengen visa.

Scenario 2) You have been traveling around Europe for the last four months. You entered the Schengen zone on 16 May 2017 and then went to Belfast in Northern Ireland on 10 August 2017. During this time you spent 87 days in the Schengen zone. You spent the next 60 days traveling around Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and now it’s the 9th of October and you want to go back to France. If you do travel now, you can only stay in the Schengen zone for three days. However, if you wait until the 8th of November, your Schengen clock is restarted, and you can stay in the Schengen zone for another 90 days.

Frankfurt town center.
Germany is in the Schengen zone, along with most European countries. It pays to know which countries fall under the Schengen Agreement and which ones do not.

The bottom line is that travelers must understand the visa requirements for the countries they visit. The Schengen visa makes travel between member countries incredibly easy, but the 90 day limit can be quite a constraint. No matter what, it’s important to calculate how long your Schengen tourist visa is good for, and make sure to not overstay.

Do you have any Schengen Visa advice?

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

Pin the Schengen Tourist Visa for later!

If you are planning some European travel, you will have to abide by the Schengen Tourist visa.

Emma Campbell

Monday 7th of June 2021

Wow, had no idea! We're entering the UK on a two year work visa (from the US) and we're planning on traveling Europe. So, it sounds like we also need a Shengen Visa, how do we get one? This is going to make planning even more challenging!!! Any more advice is welcome!

Corinne Vail

Monday 7th of June 2021

Emma, You will need be under a different system with your two year work visa. Check with your authorities. I'm sure you'll enjoy traveling all over Europe.


Saturday 4th of November 2017

And we are thrilled to finally have our Greek residency permits and no longer need to be doing the Schengen Shuffle. Great post about a topic that we've found so few travelers even know about let alone worry about (until they exceed the limit!).

Corinne Vail

Saturday 4th of November 2017

So, so true! It's really only those long term travelers or frequent ones that need to think about it, but for me it comes up a lot. Good for you having the Greek permit now.

Amber Tallon

Friday 27th of October 2017

Wow, I had no idea about this visa! Thanks for the info

Corinne Vail

Friday 27th of October 2017

Amber, I hope you find it useful. thanks, Corinne

Libbie Griffin

Thursday 26th of October 2017

This is a really useful and well-done post. Thanks! I'm planning a year. I will add long stays in Ireland, UK, Croatia and Bosnia, and Morocco.

Corinne Vail

Thursday 26th of October 2017

Libbie, Yes, just remember to spread out your longer stays. It sounds like you have a good plan so far. Your trip sounds really wonderful!

Niki Gordon

Tuesday 24th of October 2017

Interesting! I didn't know the European visa had a special name!

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 24th of October 2017

Niki, It's a name that's hard to forget once you start trying to figure out how to stay in the Schengen zone longer than 90 days. Trust me.