Understanding the Schengen Zone

Understanding the Schengen Zone

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Different countries have different rules for visiting as a tourist. These rules determine how long you’re allowed to stay, if you need a visa ahead of time and how much it costs, and more. But traveling to Europe can be a bit different. More than half of the countries in Europe are part of the Schengen agreement, which sets up border rules for the whole group. In some ways, this simplifies things, but it can also get complicated. Here’s what you need to know to understand the Schengen zone.

Which countries are in the Schengen zone?

Not all of Europe is in the Schengen zone. There are 26 countries, most of which are also part of the EU. But some are not part of the EU. And there are countries in the EU that are not in the Schengen zone. Confused yet? Don’t worry, for travel purposes, you really only need to know which countries are part of the Schengen zone. They are:

  1. understanding the Schengen zoneAustria
  2. Belgium
  3. Czech Republic
  4. Denmark
  5. Estonia
  6. Finland
  7. France
  8. Germany
  9. Greece
  10. Hungary
  11. Iceland
  12. Italy
  13. Latvia
  14. Liechtenstein
  15. Lithuania
  16. Luxembourg
  17. Malta
  18. Netherlands
  19. Norway
  20. Poland
  21. Portugal
  22. Slovakia
  23. Slovenia
  24. Spain
  25. Sweden
  26. Switzerland

What does this mean for travelers?

It means that once you enter any country within the Schengen zone, you can cross into another country in the Schengen zone without passport checks. So, for example, you could fly from the US to Paris, then travel to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy without having to go through formal border checks.

Be aware that they still could ask to see your ID at the border, but it doesn’t happen often, and it won’t be the same level of screening as at the external borders.

On the other hand, if you trip involves flying to London, and then traveling to Barcelona and Lisbon, you will be checked entering the UK, leaving the UK, and again entering Spain, but you will not have to go through border checks between Spain and Portugal. This is because the UK is not part of Schengen but Spain and Portugal are. Here is a good map of the Schengen and non Schengen countries.

How long can you travel in the Schengen zone?

Instead of having a time limit per country, there is a time limit for the entire Schengen zone. It probably won’t affect most travelers, but you are allowed to be within the Schengen zone for 90 days within a 180 day period while on a regular tourist visa. This won’t be a problem for those of you going to Europe on vacation for a few weeks.

However, if you are traveling for an extended period of time, you need to be aware of it. So if you’re traveling throughout Europe for four months, 90 days of that can be within the Schengen countries, but the remaining 30 days must be somewhere else, such as the UK, Ireland, Croatia, Romania, etc. The 90 days don’t have to be consecutive though, just within the 180 day period.

So there’s the Schengen zone in a nutshell. It makes traveling in Europe within the Schengen countries much easier without all the border checks, and your entry stamp is valid for the entire group. If you’re from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, you don’t need a visa. Just watch out for that 90 day rule, and enjoy your trip to Europe!

Read more about planning your trip:

Understanding the Schengen Zone

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  1. Matthew Cheyne

    Thank you for spelling out the Schengen Zone in this article. One remark I would like to make is that it is quite strange that the UK, being such an important member of the EU, is not part of the Schengen Zone yet Iceland, a non-EU member actually is in the zone. Your article spells out the real world implications of the Schengen Zone in an easy to read manner and for that I am deeply grateful.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Glad to help, Matthew! I’ve had this sitting in my drafts for awhile, so thanks for asking questions about the Schengen zone on my other site last week, it nudged me to finish this post.

      I don’t really understand why certain countries decided to become part of Schengen and others didn’t. I can only guess that the UK decided they wanted their own control over their own borders. In theory, you can get up to 6 months on a tourist visa to the UK, which is obviously even better than Schengen, but then I’ve heard soooo many stories from people (long term travelers really) who have had problems with UK passport control/immigration giving them a hard time, denying them entry for no real reason, or just giving them a week or two. Who knows.

      But yes, Schengen, the EU, and the use of the euro are all mostly separate.

      1. Matthew Cheyne

        I can understand the obvious reasons why Europeans want closer integration but they have made a total mess of it. Europe needs to decide whether it becomes one federated super state or not with all the problems, rights and responsibilities that that entails for all of its citizens.

        Imagine the United States (or Australia) being run according the the European example. It would be totally ludicrous to have a common border policy in the US but have different currencies in operation in say New York, Chicago and LA. It would be even stranger if Americans in Chicago had a different visa rule applying to them when they travel abroad to Americans in New York or LA. But that’s the reality for Europeans and they wonder why their continent has so many problems.

        I’m not trying to say that the United States or Australia are superior countries to Europe because at least in terms of education outcomes and the state of their infrastructure, the complete reverse is true. But the day is coming in my opinion, at least in a practice sense whereby Europe will have to decide whether it goes down the federated albeit mega nation state model and abolish the Schengen Zone, the different currencies in play across the EU, and even the EU itself as in this case it may no longer be relevant in a federated union of states. From the outside looking in, its just too complicated, costly and unwieldly to maintain forever.

        And there you have it. My take on the Schengen Zone 🙂

        1. Author
          Ali Garland

          I think it’s that they’re NOT one country, it’s many countries. So it makes things more complicated. And I think the Schengen zone is actually the least of the issues. I think if Schengen didn’t exist, it would be too easy for people to “live” in Europe without getting a visa because they could easily bounce around from one country to another. They can still do it now, but it’s a little harder when they only have 90 days in this block of 26 countries. The euro is good for a lot of things but also causes lots of problems for some countries. They’ll never fully merge into one country because they all have such different cultures, languages and histories, and I can understand that. But because they’re mostly small (geographically) countries, it makes sense to have these agreements in place to make things less complicated, even if it sometimes adds complications in other ways. I can’t imagine having to deal with passport checks every time we went to France or Switzerland. I’m no expert on the EU (which is really separate from Schengen) but it does seem to have its problems.

  2. Daouda

    If I am a permanent resident in the us & don’t need a transit visa in a schengen airport does it mean I have access to the baggage claim & recheck my luggage on a different airline company ?

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Hi Daouda! If you have two flights that are not on the same itinerary (you booked each one separately) then you’ll have to go through immigration and customs, claim your luggage, and check it with the next airline. It helps that you don’t need a visa for the Schengen Zone, but it doesn’t really affect having to claim and recheck your luggage. If you’ve booked your flights on the same itinerary, your luggage should get tagged to go to your final destination, even if they’re on different airlines, as long as the airlines are partners. Which they are in most cases if you were able to book them on the same itinerary. I hope that helps!

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