Before you plan an extended stay in Europe, be sure you know the visa restrictions. “Can I stay in Europe for a year (or more)?”, “Do I need a Schengen visa from the USA?”, “What IS a Schengen visa, anyway???” are all questions a US citizen should ask. Not knowing the answers could create problems during your trip.
One of the most common questions we’re asked is, “how do you pick destinations?” Certainly a large part of that decision involves places we want to visit. But it also involves visa considerations, how easy they are to obtain, and how long you can stay in each country. Europe has some rules that can be pretty confusing. After over 8 years of full-time travel (which includes a lot of bouncing in and out of Europe), we share what we’ve learned.
Visa requirements for US Citizens: can I stay in Europe for a year or more?
The short answer is “Yes.” The longer answer is, “Yes . . . but.” But . . . what, exactly?
All countries (including the US) offer short-term visas for travelers. This is essentially the passport stamp you receive when you arrive in a new country. That country is allowing you to visit for a specific period of time. Typically the term limit of these so-called “tourist visas” in Europe is 90 days. For most people taking a vacation, this is more than sufficient to cover their trip. But if you’re long-term traveler, these visa time limitations will impact how long you can stay in any given country.
And just to make things interesting, this 90-day tourist visa applies to staying within a 180-day period. (Spoiler alert: These are the sort of rules that make your head want to explode!) What this means is that the “clock” starts ticking when you enter, and it doesn’t reset until 181 days later. So you can’t enter Ireland (for example), stay for 90 days, leave on day 91, then return on day 92 and get a fresh new tourist visa. You would actually have to leave Ireland for the next 90 days, until day 180. Then you could return on day 181 and the clock would start all over again.
Iceland is part of the EU, and certain European visa restrictions apply when visiting
The next logical question would be, “what if I stay in Ireland for 10 days, leave for two weeks, come back and stay for 30 more days, etc?” Yes, that’s OK; the visa is valid for the TOTAL number of days you spend in the country within that 180-day period, not a consecutive 90 days. You can use up your 90 days all at once, or you can go in and out as often as you like in the next 180 days.
HOWEVER, after you’ve spent an aggregate of 90 days in the country (whether it took you 90, 138 or 164 days, whatever to get there), you must then leave the country. Failure to do so could result in deportation and a hefty fine. (You do NOT want to mess with Border Control in ANY country.)
You cannot return until 181 days after you received your initial visa (i.e passport stamp). So if you enter on January 1, for example, you can stay for any combination of 90 days until June 29, which would be day 180. June 30 would be day 181, when you then could re-enter the country and start the process all over again.
You may be thinking, “OK, I’ve got 90 days in each country, I’ll go to Ireland for 90 days, then head to France for 90 days, then on to Germany, etc. . .” Not so fast. We’re about to enter . . . The Schengen Zone. ( Yes, you can cue “The Twilight Zone” music here if you’d like.)
Western Europe and the Schengen Zone
The Schengen Agreement allows for border-free travel between member countries in Europe
Okay, more head-exploding visa fun. Virtually all of western Europe (26 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, etc.) is part of something called the “Schengen Zone.” It represents a collection of European countries that formed an agreement in 2005 to create a sort of joint international border. (The agreement was signed in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, hence the name.)
This was a giant step in making intra-European travel easy and smooth. What this means for citizens of those countries is they can travel between the “Schengen” countries without needing a passport. No more border crossings when driving between France and Belgian, for example. Forget about customs and immigration on a flight from Greece to Spain. No railway checkpoints along the way between Germany and Italy. Yay!
Schengen visa from the USA
As an American citizen, your US passport is sufficient to enter the Schengen Zone. You do NOT need a special Schengen visa from the USA to enter the countries that are part of this agreement. Nor do you need something special for each country, such as a Schengen visa France. Your passport is enough. The stamp you get upon entering a Schengen Zone country will be your “tourist visa” for the entire region.
You can now travel between these countries without border controls, just like the local citizens-YAY again! This is terrific when planning a vacation that involves multiple European countries. It really does make intra-European travel simpler and less time-consuming.
HOWEVER, long-term travelers must take heed. What this Schengen Agreement DOES mean, is that entering the Schengen Zone is like entering a single country. As an American citizen, you only get a 90-day visa for THE WHOLE SCHENGEN REGION. Yep, if you enter France, your 90-day tourist visa clock starts ticking for Germany, Norway, Italy, etc. as well. You can enter and leave the Schengen Zone as often as you like, but you’ve only got 90 days within a 180-day window.
This Schengen Zone bit can really throw a monkey wrench into your plans if you’re looking to do extensive travel in Europe. Most Americans are unaware of the regulation because it does not impact them. The typical vacation to Europe is about 2 weeks. If you return to Europe the following year, the “visa clock” will have started all over again, and most American visitors are none the wiser.
That’s the bad news. The GOOD news is you still have 90 days within a 180-day period, and if you’re planning to travel for a year, you’d have two “visa clock” cycles. That means you can spend 180 days per year in the Schengen Zone . . . which is pretty good!
Check this page on the US State Dept website for more information about visa requirements for US citizens.
Schengen and non Schengen countries
The following map, from the European Commission, shows countries in the Schengen Zone, along with non Schengen countries in Europe:
All the countries in green are part of the Schengen Zone. Those in brown are non Schengen. [The gray area represents countries that are not in the E.C. (European Commission) at all.] As you can see, the majority of Europe falls into this Schengen Zone. It’s also limportant to note that Iceland, the Azores, and the Canary Islands are included as well. Check the European Commission’s website for more information about the Schengen Zone.
GOOD NEWS: Each of the non Schengen countries [Ireland, the UK, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus] have their own visa requirements an allowances. This is good news for the long-term traveler. You can spend time in each one of these countries for up to 90 days after you’ve used up your time in the Schengen Zone.
Romania and Croatia are a particularly good value, have lots to see, English is widely spoken, and they are friendly to Americans. We’ve spent a LOT of time in Bucharest, Romania over the past few years, which is home of the world’s heaviest building (no kidding!) Read about the time we got excellent, affordable dental work, because it was easy to find comfortable, well-priced apartments to stay on a monthly basis.
American citizens can stay in the UK for up to 6 months
BETTER NEWS: Our good friends in the United Kingdom are the exception to this 90-day rule. American citizens in good standing can stay in the UK for up to 6 months (!). It’s easy to spend 6 months there: explore free sights in London or check out spooky, foggy Dartmoor, which has a unique American history connection. With an extended amount of time to visit, you can learn to drive on the left, then take a Scotland road trip to see some stunning scenery. Rule Brittania! 🇬🇧
Planning a Europe itinerary for long-term travel
What all of this Schengen Zone and 90-day tourist visa stuff means is that you can’t simply pick a European destination and stay there for a year. You have to more or less play “visa hop-scotch” in Europe. This is what Michael and I do. We pick a place that is interesting to us, get an apartment for 1-2 months, then move on to somewhere else. In between “monthly stay A” and “monthly stay B” we might transit through another city and visit for a few days. Or we might rent a car and explore the countryside before moving on to a new destination.
With a potential 180 days/year in the Schengen Zone, 6 months in the UK, and up to 90 days in the 5 remaining non Schengen countries, you should have plenty of time to explore. The key is not to overstay your welcome in any one country or region.
Following is a summary of the various countries/regions in Europe and how long you can stay:
- Schengen Zone (see map above for countries): 90 days per 180 days
- United Kingdom: 180 days per year
- Ireland: 90 days per 180 days
- Croatia: 90 days per 180 days
- Romania: 90 days per 180 days
- Bulgaria: 90 days per 180 days
- Cyprus: 90 days per 180 days
So if you literally went from one region/country to the next on the final day of your visa, and you added up the time, you could spend 2 years in Europe before repeating destinations! The reality is that would be a logistical nightmare, but what you can see is that with a little bit of planning, you really can stay in Europe indefinitely if you so choose.
When Michael and I travel in Europe we keep an eye on the visa limits in given countries/regions to be sure we’re not running afoul of our time limits. For example, we don’t rent an apartment for 3 months when we know we have a 90-day visit limit. That’s cutting it too close. We always give ourselves a week or so of “wiggle room” for unforeseen issues. For example, what if you’re planning to fly back to the US from Paris or Frankfurt on day 90 of your Schengen visa? And then the flight gets cancelled . . . uh oh! you find yourself in airport purgatory.
Planning long-term travel in Europe can be a little daunting at first, especially if you don’t know the visa limitations. But once you know the rules, you can plan accordingly. And even see some countries you might not have otherwise considered visiting.
We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.