By Molly McCluskey
When Croatia became the 28th nation to join the European Union on July 1, officials from across the continent lauded the expansion of Europe — a plan that ultimately includes all of Eastern Europe. But what some see as an expansion, others see as a contraction, as Croatia also has its heart set on joining the Schengen Area, the borderless zone within Europe.
The Schengen visa is the standard tourist visa issued to visitors from most non-EU countries, and provides for passport-free travel within 26 European countries that have signed onto the 1985 Schengen Agreement.
Even those who hold passports issued from countries with the most liberal Schengen policies — most North and South Americans, and folks from Oceania – are entitled to stay for a total of 90 days within a given 180-day period.
This limitation may not be an issue for, say, if you’re planning a vacation to Paris or visiting relatives in Estonia, but for frequent long-term or business travelers, having only three months to explore a region so rich in culture, history, and culinary delights seems downright oppressive.
For those travelers who return to Europe frequently for short visits or wish to legally stay for longer periods, the eastern edges of Europe have long provided welcome respite from the Schengen visa limits.
Ireland and the United Kingdom, while part of the European Union, have maintained their visa independence from Schengen, with Ireland allowing travelers a standard three-month tourist visa, and the U.K. allowing six months. Travelers could spend close to a year legally exploring the region before taking the Chunnel from London to Paris for a mad-dash 90-day exploration of the Schengen countries before being forced to leave (at least for another 90 days).
But there’s another way. Visitors can wait out the required three-month interlude before re-entering the Schengen while exploring much of Eastern Europe in greater depth. Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina each maintain independent visa policies, and generally issue a 90-day visa to U.S. passport holders within a 180-day period.
Like Croatia, EU members Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, while Schengen Area candidates, retain similar visa policies. Many issue visas upon entry, but others, like non-EU members Ukraine and Belarus require advance planning.
Most visitors to Europe won’t ever have to worry about overstaying their visa, Schengen or otherwise. But those who count countries, and days spent in each, in anticipation of maxing out a 90-day stay eye the European expansion plan warily.
If exploring 26 countries in 90-day increments seems like a stretch, exploring a fully executed Schengen Area comprising more than 35 countries in that timeframe would be a farce.
And overstaying isn’t an option. An increasingly sophisticated Schengen Information System can readily flag overstayed visas, and penalties and fines for pushing the limit (which vary by member state) provide reason enough to comply.
The ease of getting around Europe by rail and bus, and the still unspoiled experience of traveling through Eastern Europe, prevents waiting out the Schengen in other European countries from being a true hardship. For now.
The landscape is sure to change in coming years, as Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro progress along various stages of negotiation for EU accession, and Schengen candidates within the EU continue along that path.
But there are bright spots on the colored-coded Schengen map, too; EU accession of member candidates isn’t a quick or easy process, and adoption of the Schengen takes even longer. For instance, EU newcomer Croatia isn’t expected to join the Schengen for another three years.
Until then, with 12 countries each offering three-month visas, and the UK offering a six-month visa, travelers can legally stay in Europe for three and a half years before visiting the same country twice, or ever stepping foot into the Schengen Area at all.
Molly McCluskey is a full-time freelance journalist covering finance, culture and travel for a variety of publications. Her last piece for Intelligent Traveler was about Galway, Ireland. She is currently living (legally) in Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.