How to get the most out of visiting the Schengen Area

Cory Mayfield
Updated on
June 10, 2020

The Schengen Area is a backpackers dream. 26 European countries united under the banner of borderless travel for both citizens and tourists, making it possible to travel from Sicily to Svalbard without a passport (well, at least in theory!).

There a wide variety of options for travelling the Schengen Area (both with and without multiple visas) but this very much depends on what kind of trip you’re planning on taking. Whilst applying for a visa might seem unnecessary if you’re not planning to be away for longer than a few months, proceed with caution. Without prior research or planning, you could end up running into some unforeseen issues visiting Europe, as not every country has borderless travel.

This article will cover some of the more basic points about visiting countries within the Schengen Area, but also provide you with a few handy travel tips for visiting with and without a visa to make sure you get the most out of visiting the Schengen Area.

What is meant by the Schengen area?

A common misconception about the Schengen Area is that whilst it is most definitely located in and makes up a significant chunk of Europe, not every country, is included in the Schengen Area of borderless travel.

Currently, the 26 participating countries in the Schengen Area are:

• Austria,

• Belgium,

• 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,

• Switzerland.

Ireland is not a member of the Schengen Area despite being an EU member. But whilst Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania have all opted to join Schengen, but they are not yet members so keep that in mind when making plans to travel to these countries!

Another common misconception is that certain Islands such as the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands are not included in the Schengen Area of travel. This is inaccurate as all these islands are the territories of Schengen members ( Spain and Portugal) and therefore travelling to them is the same as travelling to any other part of the Schengen Area which again, is worth remembering when making travel plans.

How long can I stay in the Schengen area?

Now, this very much depends on what country you are from. If you are a dual national with a passport from a country that allows you to enter the Schengen Area without a visa, you can stay for up to 90 days every six months before being required to leave the area for the same amount of time before returning. This is known as the 90/180 rule.

So, if you enter the Schengen Area on the 1st of January you can stay there up until the 31st of March and then only return on or after the 30th of June for an additional 90 days, but no longer. In essence, due to the flexible nature of travelling to and staying in other European countries, you can spend an entire year in Europe without having to apply for one visa. But we will talk more about that topic later.

However, if you’re planning too or wish to spend a longer period than this in either a particular country or the Schengen territories in general, then you will need a visa. To do this, you will have to go through the national visa program of an individual country (but be mindful that the 90/180 rule applies to most of these visas if you leave that country to visit any other in the Schengen area). Study and work visas usually only last for one year but can be extended without the need for formal applications as long as you remain at your place of work or study.

If you’re from a country which does not grant you visa-free travel to the Schengen Area then you must apply for the Single-Entry Uniform Schengen Visa as a minimum requirement if you intend to visit any of the countries within the area. You can apply for Multiple Entry Schengen Visa that is valid for up to 5 years, but you must still abide by the 90/180 rule throughout the time you use it.

What countries can enter the Schengen area without a visa?

If you’re from countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada or the U.S. then you do not need a visa to enter the Schengen Area, yet travellers from India, Russia and South Africa for example do. Why? This is purely determined by existing international relations and agreements between countries like these, and those of the Schengen Area.

But, if you have dual citizenship or nationality with a country that has a visa-free travel arrangement with the Schengen Area and a passport for that country, then you can travel to the Schengen Area on that passport and don’t require a visa. However, this must be the passport you use to travel to and enter the Schengen Area with.

If you’re unsure of whether or not you can travel to the Schengen Area from your country of origin without a visa, then check out our guide for further information.

Make the most out of flexible travel to other countries

As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to spend an entire year (and potentially longer if your bank balance can afford it!) travelling around Europe without a visa.

Thanks to the amazing agreements in place with countries like the UK and Ireland, as well as many other European nations that are not full members of the EU or the Schengen Area, visitors from countries like the U.S., Australia, and Canada can all benefit by travelling to these countries once they have maxed out there 90 days visiting the Schengen Area.

To put it simply, as an Australian citizen, you can travel the Schengen area for 90 days and then spend the next 90 days either exclusively in or travel between countries like the UK, Croatia, Cyprus, or Ireland whilst you wait until your able to enter the Schengen area again. However, it is advisable that as these countries have similar rules to the 90/180 Schengen rule, you keep a close eye on your travels and the days you spend in each country.

If you’re not able to travel without a visa then fear not. The aforementioned Multiple-Entry Uniform Travel Visa for the Schengen Area allows you to enter other European countries in the same way as non-visa holders and travel around, as long as your country of citizenship’s international agreement allows you to.

It is always better to max out the amount of time you spend in one area first before you travel to another or, only plan to make small trips of a few days throughout the time you travel in case you need to go back to any of these countries, for whatever reason. Having a flexible travel schedule is always more fun, but you need to keep a close eye on the days you spend in each country or region, as the consequences can be severe.

Word of warning: Don’t overstay your welcome

Penalties for staying longer than your permitted limit within the Schengen Area can be harsh whether you have a visa or not. The consequences of overstaying your welcome can range from fines up to thousands of euros for repeat offenders, deportation, or temporary to permanent bans from visiting the Schengen Area. It can also cause issues when trying to enter other countries around the world as your record has been stained by your overstay in the Schengen Area.

There is not much leniency or leeway to be had with overstaying your allocated period to visit the Schengen Area. There may be a temptation to try dodging the rules, believing that every country within the Schengen Area can't keep tabs on individuals entering, but the risk is simply not worth taking. The immigration and border authorities of these countries work incredibly closely with each other and cannot be fooled or duped so easily.

The best thing, even for solo and spur of the moment travellers who don’t have a firm-set itinerary or return date, is to calculate in advance the date you must leave the Schengen area and workout where you will be either before, or on that date. This will save you multiple headaches and frenzied last-minute bookings.

For further reading or, answers to any other questions you might have about visas and travelling within the Schengen Area, check out our other resources for more great articles and insights!