As I’ve been planning my move to Sweden, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get past the 90-day limit placed on tourist visas. This is a problem encountered by travelers every year and a question that regularly pops up in my inbox.
“How can I stay in Europe for more than 90 days?” I am asked.
It’s a great question with a very complicated answer. I’ve always known it to be difficult but until I started researching on how to stay there, I never knew how difficult. But in the process of this research I’ve come to learn there are a few ways to stay in Europe longer than 90 days, they just aren’t well known.
First, it’s important to note that Europe isn’t a monolithic area – there are a number of visa rules happening throughout the continent – but when people talk about the “90 day limit”, they are talking about restrictions on the Schengen Visa, which is the visa rule that governs 26 countries in Europe. It includes all the European Union except Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as a few non-EU countries.
What is the Schengen Visa?
The Schengen visa is a 90-day tourist visa for Schengen zone countries that include:
Romania and Bulgaria are set to join later this year.
These countries have a border-free visa agreement that lets residents move throughout the zone without needing a passport. Essentially, it’s as if they are one country and you can move as freely as you would like. Residents of the UK and Ireland, while not Schengen, are still allowed limitless entry. For non-Schengen citizens, you are allowed entry into the zone for 90 days within any 180 day period. These days don’t need to be consecutive – the total is cumulative. Once day 181 hits, the count resets itself.
Citizens of most countries are allowed to enter the Schengen area without having to get a visa beforehand. Your passport simply gets stamped upon your arrival and departure from Europe. You are allowed to enter and leave from any country you want – they do not have to be the same. I fly in and out of different countries all the time. Once you are in, your 90 day counter starts.
However, not all countries are allowed such freedom. Citizens from many countries of the world need to apply for a Schengen visa ahead of time. You will be required to fill out paperwork beforehand and will have to fly and in out of the country for which your visa is issued. (Even then, as this post shows, you still might not be granted a visa.)
You can find the specific rules regarding your country at the European Commission website. (Spoiler alert: Citizens from African and Asian countries get screwed.)
Staying in Europe – The Easy Way
With so many visa rules, it’s so easy stay in Europe beyond 90 days as a tourist – you just need to mix up the countries you visit. The United Kingdom has their own rules that allow you to stay 180 days. Most non-Schengen countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Croatia, and other Balkan countries allow you to stay for up to 60 or 90 days. So all you need to do is spend 90 days in the Schengen zone, visit the UK, go to the Balkans, hang out in Ukraine, or drink wine in Moldova. If you align your schedule right, you can easily be out of the zone for 90 days but still in Europe.
That’s the easy way to stay for more than 90 days. Just vary your location. I spent 3 months in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and England as I waited for my clock to reset then headed back into Germany for Oktoberfest.
Can You Stay in Schengen More Than 90 days?
When most people ask me about staying in Europe, they mean staying longer in the Schengen zone. After all, it covers 26 countries and visiting so many destinations in 90 days can be a little rushed (it is an average of 3.4 days per country).
If you want longer time in the zone to travel, live, learn a language, or fall in love, then the “move around” option isn’t going to work for you. You need something else. Luckily, there are a few ways to do this – and I can’t stress the importance of the word “few.” Staying more than 90 days in the Schengen zone is not easy.
The Schengen law states that you can’t stay in the area more than 90 days. If you do, you are subject to a fine and deportation. How that rule is enforced, though, varies greatly between one country and another. If you overstay by a few days or even a week, you’ll probably be OK. If you overstay longer, you might have problems.
For example, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, and Scandinavian countries are all very strict about entry and exit. If you overstay your visit by longer than a week, there is a good chance they will pull you aside. Two Australians I know were detained leaving Switzerland due to overstaying their visa by two weeks. They were allowed to go with just a warning but they had to book new flights.
I know of someone who overstayed by 6 months and now has an “illegal immigrant” stamp on her passport. In order to enter Europe again, she must apply for a visa at an embassy from now on and be pre-approved. A reader sent me an e-mail about a similar experience: “I made the mistake of attempting to leave from the Netherlands after overstaying a Shengen visa and was caught. I overstayed by about a month and they hand drew some sort of insignia in my passport to note my overstay. They told me I’d have to contact the IND and find out if I would be able to enter the Schengen states again.”
Yet if you leave from Greece, France, Italy, Spain – the southern European countries – you won’t have any problems provided you a) haven’t stayed over too long and b) didn’t catch the immigration officer on a bad day. When I left Greece, no one even looked at my passport. One of my friends met a boy in France, fell in love, and decided to not leave. A year later, when she finally did, the French officials didn’t even look twice. Another friend flew into France and didn’t get an entry stamp. Spain is notorious for not caring and Americans who decide to overstay for months mention that as the easiest country to exit from.
That being said, I do not think it is wise to overstay. No matter where you are, you can get away with a few days. Maybe a week, especially if you are heading home. But a few weeks? A few months? Don’t risk it.
Can you just extend your Schengen visa/stamp?
The Lonely Planet thorn tree forums, while a mess of random posts, are good for one thing: stuff like this. I came across one great quote: “This topic has been discussed ad nauseum here on the boards for years. If someone found a way to extend a Schengen, we would have heard of it by now.”
He’s right. Simply put, you can not extend your visa or entry stamp. There is a 90 day limit and that is that.
So then what’s a tourist to do?
3 Visa Loopholes Anyone Can Use
Unfortunately, the majority of the countries do not allow long-term stay visas for visitors. In my pursuit of a long-term visa for Sweden, I found that there is no universal long-term tourist visa for the Schengen zone. Schengen allows for a D or C class visa (letter varies on the country), which is a semi-permanent residence visa for up to one year. But the specific visa and requirements vary from country to country. Some countries are harder, some are easier, and others are near impossible despite being in the same visa treaty zone. (I don’t understand the variance either. Same zone, different rules – it makes no sense. You would think if they were to all have the same rules they would abide by the same visa.)
But there are a few countries that do offer long-term visas and these countries are the way into Europe:
France offers a long-term visitor visa for a period of up to one year. The application process takes up to one month. According to the French Embassy, “The ‘visitor’ visa (or visa “D”) allows you to enter France and stay for more than three months. Long stay visa holders will be allowed to reside in France for up to 12 months according to the validity of their visa and purpose of stay.”
To get this visa, you must set up an appointment at the French consulate near you. You can’t walk in – you must make an appointment.
At this appointment, bring the following documents:
- One application form filled out completely and signed.
- One ID picture glued onto the application form.
- Your original passport, which must have been issued less than 10 years ago, be valid for three months after your return and have at least 2 blank pages left.
- A letter promising not to engage in work certified by a notary public.
- A letter of employment stating current occupation and earnings.
- Proof of income (you’ll need bank statements or copies of your investment portfolio).
- Proof of medical insurance that includes evacuation insurance.
- Proof of accommodation in France. (The French consulate never returned my e-mails so I was unsure how you could have this before you even get to France. One could use a friend’s address or, lacking that, “rent” a place (one where you can get a refund) for the purposes of the interview. It’s a little fuzzy.)
Note: you can’t apply for this visa more 3 months before your arrival date.
You can visit the French Embassy for links to local embassies and consulates for more information.
Sweden also offers a long-term stay tourist visa for a maximum period of 1 year. The process is easy but long – taking up to 8 months! It’s not something to do at the last minute. You will need 2 copies of the following documents when applying for the visa:
- Residence permit for visitor’s application form.
- Notarized copies of the pages of your passport that show your identity and the validity of your passport as well as copies of all the other visas/stamps you have.
- A Bank statement showing the means to support yourself for the duration of your stay.
- a return airplane ticket.
- A letter from your insurance company stating you are covered overseas.
Applications can be delivered in person during visiting hours (no appointment needed) or mailed to a Swedish consulate.
After your documents are received, you will be required to have an interview with one of the immigration officers. Most people who apply for this visa tend to have family in Sweden. If you don’t, you will need to have clear reasons as to why you need to stay longer and show ample proof that you can support yourself.
You can find a list of Swedish embassies here.
Like the other countries, Italy will let you in if you can afford it and promise not to work. You’ll need the following documents to apply:
- A long-term visa application filled in and signed at the consulate. The applicant must appear in person.
- One passport-style photo.
- Your passport, which has to be valid three months over the planned stay in Italy. The passport will be kept during the application process.
- Documented and detailed guarantee of steady income. Proof of financial means, such as letters from the bank indicating the status of your account, including amount of money in the account.
- Proof of lodging in Italy.
- A letter from where you specify the reason for your stay in Italy, length of stay, and where you plan to reside.
- A notarized background check.
This visa is issued solely to those who are planning to move to Italy and not work.
For more information, visit the Italian Embassy website.
P.S. – Spain and Portugal offer long term stay visas but they are geared to people who are retired and have lots of assets. They aren’t meant for people passing through but you can always apply and try.
- Citizens of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are eligible for one to two year working holiday visas, which allow them to stay and work within the Schengen zone. Applicants must apply for this visa from a specific country and be younger than 30. I would apply for this visa even if I didn’t plan on working simply to get the extended time in Europe.
- Rules are not universal. In some cases (depending on your country of citizenship), additional documents my be required. You’ll want to check with your local embassy for specifics but you aren’t restricted from applying for this visa from your home country.
- All of these visas will require you to show proof that you either have income, have a high savings, or both. They are adamant about not letting theses visas be someone’s back-door way of getting into the E.U. and finding a job. While most didn’t give an exact number, I would say that if you don’t have at least $30,000 USD in your bank account when you apply, you shouldn’t apply. It is hard to say for sure how much you really need as the embassy websites aren’t specific. It is most likely at the discretion of the immigration officer but the more money you can show, the better. This is about proving you don’t need to work. For citizens coming from developing countries, this number might be even higher and you may even need someone to vouch for you.
Because of Europe’s open border policies, you simply need to enter and exit from the country that issued you the visa but you can be anywhere in Europe during the length of your visa. Once a country has issued you one of these short-term stay residence visas, you are a “resident”, allowing you access to anywhere in Europe. Since the Swedish visa takes so long, I am applying for a French one but after I get to Paris, I am simply going to fly to Stockholm.
Other Ways to Stay in Europe
Study – All Schengen zone countries offer student visas that are not hard to obtain so long as you are enrolled in a recognized university program. This would require you to pay for the course but it will virtually guarantee you a visa.
Marry – Fall in love with a European (or at least a friend) and apply for a marriage visa!
Be Self Employed – Germany offers a “self-employment” visa. If you are a freelancer and have some form of income, this is the visa to get. It’s perfect and will give you one to two years in the EU. This isn’t a business visa where you move your company to Germany but a visa for contract workers, artists, web folks, and other freelance type jobs. You need to apply for this visa when in Germany.
You can apply for this visa while you are in Germany and the process usually takes about a week. You simply need the following documents to your visa appointment:
- A completed application form.
- 2 passport photos.
- Bank statements – Like the other visas, they want to know you have money just in case you don’t find work. As before, the more money the better.
- A copy of your resume.
- Proof of residency – You’ll either need to be on a rental contract or be on someone’s rental agreement. You need to bring an official copy of the rental agreement to the immigration office. Adam of Travels of Adam, says “All I’ve ever had are short sublets. You still have to register at a local city office but all I’ve done is show up with a printed-out lease from the Internet, and submitted that. Once you do that, you get the official form from the local office and that’s all the visa people wants to see.”
- Health insurance – You need to have German insurance that is valid for at least 1 year. It’s easy to get once you are in Germany and you don’t need to be a citizen of Germany to get it.
Bring a German speaker with you just in case there is a need for translation.The process is pretty straightforward. You might get lucky and get the visa that day. Or they might review it over the course of a couple of weeks. But if they do that and your 90 day Schengen visa is close to expiring, they will give you a temporary 3 month visa extension while they process your request. In theory, one could apply for the visa knowing they won’t meet all the requirements simply to get the 3 month temporary visa.
It’s very rare someone is denied for this visa if they can show they have a job and proof of income. You can find out more information here.
The Greatest Visa Trick Known to Man?
Don’t want to study? Don’t want to wait for a visa? Don’t have a freelance job? Luckily, you have one fabulous loophole to keep you in the Schengen zone past 90 days. It is by far the best loophole/hack out there.
All you need to do is enter France (Schengen zone) via the Chunnel (train service) from England. England doesn’t issue exit stamps (so there’s no outbound immigration) and France does not have entry stamps in the Chunnel. So technically there is never any proof of when you entered the Schengen zone. All you have is the entry stamp you got when you flew into England. (When you enter England, you’ll need to show proof you are leaving – I would simply buy a cheap flight exiting the country.) Since England gives allows you to stay for 180 days and Schengen gives you 90 days, in theory you could stay in the Schengen zone for 270 days, telling the immigration officer you left England on the 180th day (180 + 90 = 270). There’s no proof you didn’t do that. And by coming through the Chunnel, it is impossible for you to even have an entry stamp into France. (The reverse does not work. When you leave France, you will get an exit stamp and receive an entry stamp from England.) This method gets you into the Schengen zone without a dated entry stamp.
Immigration officials can’t prove you were in the Schengen zone for more than 90 days, but they can’t disprove it either. It’s a great loophole. It’s also very high risk. They might not buy your argument and require additional proof to prove you aren’t lying. We are always at the mercy of immigration officials and, while the loophole is on your side, they might not appreciate you using it. If I were to use this loophole, I would fly out of Europe from one of the southern countries that is less likely to care about my entry and exit dates. I would also consider buying a train ticket leaving England on day 180. That way you can have at least “some proof” you “took” the train. (After all, who saves train ticket stubs? It’s more likely you would have a receipt than a ticket stub. )
Disclaimer: Use at your own risk. When dealing with immigration officers, nothing is ever 100%.
Addendum: Two people have noted that they indeed received an stamp by French officials when they entered the country. Then a handful of other people noted that they did not (including my friend who is currently in Europe). There is also this recent article about a loophole that lets you back into the UK without a stamp. You are technically supposed to get a stamp when entering France but as so often happens (especially with French officials), the application of this rule is unevenly applied.
The best, easiest, and most effective way to stay in Europe long term is to vary the amount of countries you visit so that you are in the Schengen area for only 90 days. As I said, there are a lot of countries not in the zone so this is easy to do.
If do want to stay in the Schengen area beyond the 90 day limit, you need to apply for one of the visas listed above. When you go to the interview, make it crystal clear that you have enough money to support yourself, you are not looking for a job, and give good reasons why you need to stay longer. I doubt “I want to spend more time drinking in Greece” will get you anywhere.
If you are like me, and want to stay longer than 90 days, be prepared to work the system. I decided not to apply for my Swedish visa because of the wait time and go for the French one instead. If I am denied that visa, I will enter on a normal, 90 day tourist visa and head to Berlin for the independent work visa. But that’s because I can show proof of income. If that’s not you, be like my friend Mike, who is currently bouncing around Europe after entering using the Chunnel trick.
In the end, it is not impossible to stay longer in the Schengen zone. By working the system a bit and using the few loopholes that do exist, one can legally stay past 90 days and enjoy all Europe has to offer without worrying about being barred for life.