Americans are privileged to be able to travel to many countries in the world without obtaining a visa beforehand. Typically, you receive a tourist visa for a country upon entry, and this is generally enough time to travel within it, even by slower methods such as we do, by motorhome.
The situation is a bit different in Europe. Beginning in 1985, a collection of countries in Europe signed an agreement creating the Schengen Boundary Area , which has many benefits for those living within it. It allows you to cross between member countries without having to go through a border and customs, like traveling between states in the United States. Today the area encompasses 25+ countries, but the downside is that the tourist visa for ALL the countries is only 90 days. In other words, you only have 90 days for all the European countries combined. (Special note: Member countries can set up border crossings if necessary, as is currently happening between Denmark and Sweden, but this is generally the exception rather than the rule).
This time limit of 90 days may be a problem for the full time motorhomer or other slow travel visitors and it is further complicated by the fact that you can’t just go over a border for a day and come back for another 90 days, like in some parts of the world. The rules are that you can only be in the Schengen area for 90 out of the LAST 180 days, so even if you leave after 90 days, you can’t come back for 90 days.
If you are popping in and out of the Schengen area, it gets even more complicated as you are working with a moving target of sorts as the calendar rolls forward. This means you need to look at the last 6 months from today’s date, and determine whether you have been in the Schengen area for 90 days. If it is only 89 days or fewer, you can stay, and if the last date you were in was six months ago a day drops off the calendar and you can stay another day. It gets more complicated when you go in and out of the Schengen within the 180 days.
All this is somewhat confusing and difficult to track. Fortunately, there is an online tool provided at European Commission website to help you calculate your stays. While it is not intuitive at first, once you get the hang of using it, it is fairly easy and VERY useful.
Despite this difficulty of limiting stays, there are ways for non-EU slow travelers to make it work. As we have found, the simplest is to be in the Schengen region for your 90 days, then leave to a non-Schengen country or countries for 90 days and then return. Once you come back, as the calendar rolls forward, days drop off one end as you add them on the other, allowing you to stay another 90 days. For instance, we started our visa ticking once we landed in Iceland and it kept ticking when we traveled on to the Netherlands, through Belgium and Luxembourg, through France and then finding ourselves 88 days from the first day in Iceland and were now in the south of Spain. We ferried across the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco to sit out the next 90 days.
This works well and encourages you to explore some of the lesser traveled areas in Europe, which are every bit as interesting, less touristy, and often easier on the wallet. Countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Russia, and the Balkan countries like Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and others are all outside the Schengen area. They are every bit as picturesque and steeped in history as the rest of Europe so you can really reach into lands remote.
Other options are the United Kingdom and Ireland, though they are as expensive or more so than mainland Europe. As we found out, Morocco is easily accessible and offers many camping options. It is heavily traveled by European motorhomers so it is easy to do, but being a developing country, the amenities are not quite as nice as Europe and some of the backroads can be a bit rough.
While this is the easiest means of handling the Schengen Visa issue, it is frustrating as it is difficult to travel at a slow pace and explore an area thoroughly. When you need to be at the edge of the Schengen area within 90 days, it is difficult to linger in France and explore all it has to offer.
An alternative is to try and get a longer stay visa, which is possible, but it is better done in advance in most cases, requires a lot of paperwork, and may still be denied. A longer stay visa is done with a specific country, and you apply directly to their embassy or consulate to get this. Some of the things that may be required are having a bank account in the country, that you have sufficient funds to support yourself or can demonstrate that your work will not take employment from a citizen, that you have an address there, etc. For more information about the long term visas in various European countries, download this wonderful guide put together by travel blogger Christine Gilbert.
One option we have been considering is the non-lucrative visa from Spain. This allows you one year visa, renewable up to five years. For step-by-step instructions on how to get this Spanish visa, visit Wagoners Abroad web site and purchase their book on it.
Once you have your longer term visa and enter through the issuing country, thanks to the Schengen rules, you can move about freely within the Schengen area for as long as your visa allows. Now you can explore each country at your own pace and linger in the places that capture your heart.
-written by Aaron, photographed by Tammy and Mali