Moving To Europe II – Visa Requirements & Stay Limits (For US Citizens)
One of the first questions for anyone traveling abroad for extended periods of time is how to do it legally, without over-stepping visa limits, and it’s a most important one. If you travel to Europe and over-stay your visa limits you can be fined, or even blocked from entering EU again for multiple years, and that’s not something you want to mess with.
Paul and I are lucky in that I’m a European by birth (Danish) and carry a Danish Passport, so I have the ability to travel, live and work anywhere in the EU. By extension, Paul can apply for a visa to stay/live with me in those countries too.
But what if you’re a US citizen and you don’t happen to be married to a European passport holder like me, THEN what do you do?
Well, there are actually several options for US citizens, and once you understand the basic rules they are actually fairly easy to work around. Those are the details I hope to go through today.
Important Disclaimer: I’m not an immigration lawyer, so what follows below should not in any way be considered formal or legal advice. It’s simply my layman’s view of the matter.
It’s All About The Schengen Area
At the core of any travel to Europe is something called the Schengen agreement. Originally signed in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg (thus the name) it comprises a set of 27 countries** that all have agreed to allow free movement of their citizens within their borders. As a traveler that means that once you’re inside the area, you can freely travel throughout the 27 Schengen-member countries without any additional passport controls or border checks (kind of like the same way you’d travel across multiple states in the US).
However, there’s a really important caveat to this -> if you’re not a European passport holder there are limits to how long you can do this!
So, if you’re a US citizen your passport will get stamped when you enter the Schengen Area and then you’ll get exactly 90 days* from that date to freely travel around the various Schengen countries. Once those 90 days are up you have to be OUT of the Area for a full 90 days before you can go back in again.
The 90 days are cumulative, so you can be in Schengen for 10 days, leave the area for a while and then come back into Schengen for another 20 days (that’ll be 30 days total), but once you reach 90 days in total (within a rolling 180 day period) you’re done. If you plan to travel continuously through countries in/out of the Area the details can get complicated, so using an online calculator can be really helpful to keep track of your days and make sure you don’t overstay.
*Note1/ The Schengen Area legal stay limits are calculated in days not months. So, although 90 days is around 3 months, it is not exactly the same, and that matters when you’re planning your travel. For example, if you enter Schengen March 1st, then your 90 days will be up on exactly May 29th, NOT June 1st. Those 2 calculated days makes all the difference as to whether you remain within your legal stay limits or not. For those in doubt, check out this handy dandy free Schengen stay calculator HERE. Hat tip to Dave n’Kim in the comments for making this important clarification.
Note2/ When you enter the Schengen Area, you may be asked for proof that you intend to leave within 90 days, especially if you flew in on a one-way ticket. So, when you arrive it’s a good idea to have some kind of ticket or reservation (e.g. campsite reservation) out of the Area dated right before your 90 days are up. You may never get asked for this, but IMO it’s better to be prepared.
Note3/ For US passport holders there’s one additional requirement that you should take note of, and that is your passport expiry date. You need to make sure your passport does not expire until 90 days after you plan to leave the area. So, anyone planning to stay the full 90 days should make sure they have at least 6 months validity on their passport before they go.
The UK Is NOT Part Of Schengen
The other important thing to note about the Schengen Area is that the UK (which comprises England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) is not officially part of it. This has nothing to do with Brexit (they’ve never been part of Schengen), and simply means they have their own travel rules and stay limits.
So as a US citizen, once you enter the UK you can stay up to a total of 180 days before you have to be out again.
What about after that? Or what if you travel into and out of the UK multiple times? This is where the rules get a bit fuzzy. Technically the 180 day limit is per visit. So, you might think it would be possible to enter the UK, stay for 3-6 months, go out again, come back in again, and get another 180 day pass? Yes, technically possible, but NOT likely.
If you try to spend too much time in the UK then it looks suspiciously like you’re trying to “live in the UK for extended periods through frequent or successive visits“. This is a no-no and UK immigration will very likely deny you entry and (maybe) even ban you from future visits. So, although it’s not specifically written down anywhere, the general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t attempt to spend anymore than 6 months out of 12 in the UK on a tourist visa. If you do more than that, red flags will start to go up.
Also keep in mind that getting 180 day stay when you enter the UK is not “guaranteed”. It’s ultimately up to the UK immigration officer who stamps your passport whether they give you the full 180 days or not. Again, if they suspect suspicious immigration activity they could shorten this or deny you.
So, when you enter the country be prepared to show that you are a genuine visitor, and do not have intentions to stay long-term. Good supporting documents for this are bank statements (= proof of funds to support yourself) and a reservation or ticket back out of the country after the end of your planned stay. As I mentioned above, you may never get asked for any of these, but IMO it’s better to be prepared.
The Republic Of Ireland, Romania and Other Are Non-Schengen Too
If you look closely at the map you might also note that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the Schengen Area. It’s not part of the UK either (in case you didn’t know, only Northern Ireland is) so they have their own, separate rules about stay limits. The same goes for several of the Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. They each have their own rules, visa and stay limits, that are separate from the Schengen Area. Here’s an overview of a few of those stay limits for US citizens:
- Republic of Ireland — 90 days
- Romania — 90 days
- Bulgaria — 90 days
- Ukraine — 90 days
Of course I haven’t even mentioned places like North Africa which are popular winter travel destinations for European RVers, and (obviously) not part of Schengen either. The possibilities are endless…
**2023 Update: As of Jan 2023 Croatia is now part of Schengen, so keep this in mind if your travels take you there.
What Does This Mean For US Travelers Wanting to RV/Caravan Around Europe?
If you come on a US passport to Europe without any special visas it’s pretty simple. You just have to plan your travel around the various legal stay limits.
That means you can travel for 90 days in the Schengen Area, and then you have to be OUT of the Area for the next 90 days. Where you go after that will just depend on the stay limits for that particular country.
The good news is that there are lots of options, and if you plan them right you can travel a whole year (following the weather too) without any hassle at all.
For example you could start off your travels in Spring with 90 days in Italy/France (Schengen), then you could travel to UK (non-Schengen) for next 90 days during summer, then over to Germany/Austria (Schengen) for 90 days of fall, then finally down to Eastern Europe (say Bulgaria or Romania, non-Schengen) for the final 90 days or so of winter. Perfection!
Alternatively, you could start with 90 days of Spring in Scandinavia (Schengen) and then travel to UK (non-Schengen) and Ireland (non-Schengen) for the next 180 days of Summer/Fall, and then finish in southern Spain (Schengen) for final 90 days of Winter. Nice, right?
And so on…..
As long as you do not over-stay the limits for any particular area or look like you’re trying to settle in any particular country, then you’re good to keep traveling like this for as long as you’d like.
Note4/ If you’re traveling around Europe like this for a year or more you will NOT want to rent an RV (way too expensive). You’ll either want to buy an RV, or you’ll want to bring one over with you from the US. Both are actually viable options for US citizens, depending on what you want, but there are positives and negatives that go along with each decision. I’ve got a whole separate blog post coming on this, including why we decided we’re going to buy in Europe, so hang on for those answers.
***Are There Ways to Stay Longer In Each Country?
In order to extend your stay beyond the regular stay limits you’ll need to get a special visa. There are MANY different ways to get this, especially if you already have family in Europe (you can apply to join them), or you’re going for work (i.e. you have a work visa) or you going to study (with student visa). But if you’re a regular US citizen with no EU ties and you just want to live/travel for a while in a specific European Country, then a long-term visitor visa is what you’re looking for.
Warning: Plan ahead and be prepared for paperwork!
Long-term visitor visas are possible in just about every EU country, although the rules will vary from country to country. Generally they allow you to stay for up to a year, with the possibility (in many countries) to renew if you so wish. You’ll have to apply for these visas from your home country (so, before you travel to Europe) through the Consulate for the country you are planning to visit, and you’ll want to give yourself good time (at least a month or more) to complete the task.
The application will typically require filling out some forms (some longer than others), paying some fees, and likely having an in-person visit at your local Consulate for an interview and to submit your documents. The exact requirements for every country will differ, but almost all of them will ask you for the following
- Proof of sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay (e.g. from savings or outside income).
- Proof of health insurance (typically with evacuation). Specifically coverage limits may also be specified.
- Proof of lodging. This can be one of the trickiest item for travelers who don’t have any friends or family in the country they plan to visit, but it can usually be overcome by booking a short-term vacation stay or equivalent.
- Guarantee that you will not seek work while you’re staying in the country.
Other requirements (e.g. medical certificate, criminal record history, return ticket (to your home country) etc.) may also be needed. Also, many countries will require you to register with the local authorities upon arrival.
As an Example: For a French long-term visa you’d apply through France-Visas.com. The website takes you through a wizard to determine which visa you need, and what supporting docs you’ll need. You complete the application online and then you’ll need to schedule an in-person interview to submit the application (and docs) at the Consulate that covers your home area (= where you have your home address). France only has 9 Consulates that process visas in USA (Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Boston, Miami, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles), so you may have to fly to get to the right location. Once you’ve been to the Consulate to submit your docs you can expect to wait up to 15 working days for the visa to be processed.
It would take me several blog posts to cover the specifics of each country, but I’ve known US citizens who’ve gotten long-term stay visas in several countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden. Here’s some good external posts:
- Applying for a Long-Term Stay Visa in France: Click HERE (by luxeadventurer.com) and HERE (by TwoBadTourists)
- Applying for a Long-Term Stay Visa in Italy: Click HERE (by USAtoday)
- Applying for a Long-Term Stay Visa in Spain: Click HERE (by TwoBadTourists)
- How To Legally Stay in Europe For Longer Than 90 Days: Click HERE (by NomadicMatt)
Note5/ If you apply for a long-term visitor visa you should be aware that the long-term visa will only apply to the specific country where you get the visa, not the entire Schengen Area. So, for example if you apply for a long-term 1 year visitor visa in France, then the 1 year only applies to France. If you travel outside the country to other Schengen countries during that time, then the regular 90 days (within 180 days) Schengen rule will apply to any time spent outside of France.
Note6/ For US passport holders make sure your passport expiry date is 90 days beyond whatever visa limit you apply for. So, if you’re applying for a 1-year visa your passport expiry must be, at a minimum,1 year and 3 months after that. If your passport expires before that, then you’ll have to renew your passport BEFORE you apply for the visa. US Passport renewals can take 6-8 weeks (unless you pay for expedited service), so give yourself extra time for that if you need it.
What If You Have European Family Or A European Spouse?
If you’re like us and lucky enough to either have family already living in Europe, or you happen to be married to a European, then you’ve got more options.
If you’re interested in residence you can apply for an EU family visa or EU spousal visa within the country that you plan to stay in. There is still an application process to go through, so you can’t just fly over with your EU spouse and expect to stay indefinitely wherever you land, but it’s a different process from a long-term visitor visa and, as a bonus, you can usually do it in country (i.e. after your arrival in Europe).
For example if you’re married to an EU spouse and you plan to stay permanently in France, you can make an application for a specific type of residence permit (“carte de sejour de la famille d’un citoyen de l’Union/EEE/Suisse”) at your local préfecture within three months of your arrival in the country. You’ll have to present documents proving your family link, as well as proof of lodging and financial resources, but the permit is free of charge, valid for up to 5 years and renewable.
What About Traveling Around EU with An EU Spouse? In addition to the right to residence, if you happen to be the family member of an EU citizen, then you have additional travel rights too. Thanks to European Directive 2004/38/EC you have the right to live and travel anywhere in EU with your EU spouse, as long as you abide by local residence laws. Now, most EU countries require you to register if you stay longer than 90 days (this is true for EU citizens too, by the way), so in essence what this means is that you can travel freely throughout EU with your EU spouse as long as you keep your stay within each EU country below 90 days. This is different from the 90/180 rule and gives you a ton more flexibility! Note that if you plan to stay longer than 90 days in a specific country, then you need to register and get a long-term residence card for that country.
What About Brexit?
If you follow international news you’ll know that the UK voted to leave the EU (commonly known as “Brexit”) several years ago and that the official exit date was 29th March 2019. So, what has that changed?
Well, it’s not changed anything specific to US travelers.
The UK was never part of Schengen, so as far as traveling they always had their own entry and exit rules (see above). The biggest impacts have been in regards to residence rights (EU citizens can no longer live and work in UK without a visa, and visa-versa) and UK citizens who must now adhere to 90/180 just like Americans when traveling around Europe.
Bottom line, it doesn’t affect anything if you’re a US citizen traveling to UK.
What About Your Paws?
The paws are going to require a whole separate blog post. There are special requirements for getting your paws from USA to Europe (which I’ll go through in my upcoming paws post), but once you’re in Europe traveling around with them is really easy.
You just need to get a European Pet Passport from a local vet (yup, they get their own passport!) and then they can follow you around pretty much anywhere for any length of time. Certain places require extra steps for entry (e.g. UK requires a tapeworm treatment for dogs), but other than that the pet passport takes care of everything. Easy peasy, right?
That’s it really. The good news is that US citizens can travel to EU without any kind of special preparation as long as they’re willing to abide by the various stay limits. And longer-term stays are also possible, if you’re willing to do the right paperwork ahead of time. We’re currently in process of renewing Paul’s passport (he only had one year left on it) and then we will likely look at a longer-term visa for him in either UK or France. We’ve got a few months left to figure it all out, so ask me again in ~3 weeks and we should hopefully have it sorted (paws & fingers crossed).