Psst. Ever consider a long-stay holiday in and around the European Union? If so, there’s something you should know right off the bat: you will have to plan your itinerary around how long you’re allowed to stay in each country you want to visit during your trip through Europe.

Europe as a travel destination is often spoken about like it’s one cohesive place, but of course it’s comprised of many different countries, all with their own rules about visas and how long foreigners can stay.

When we started planning a year of motorhoming trip through Europe we realized quite early that we would have to plan our travels around both the weather and the various countries’ visa rules.

So how long can you stay in the various countries in Europe? Well, the rule that will have the biggest impact on your trip through Europe is the 90 day limit on travelers staying in the Schengen Area (explained below). That’s right, if you’re not a citizen of an EU or Schengen country then you likely have to leave the bulk of the EU for 90 days out of every 180 days.

Don’t let that put you off. There are many wonderful non-Schengen Area countries to visit (Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Montegro, Turkey and more)! And although you can’t extend a so-called “Schengen Visa”, you may be able to work around the 90 day rule, if you’re lucky or very patient!

In this post we review:

  • the Schengen Area and its impact on your long stay holiday in Europe
  • the reason for our pre-trip rush wedding (aka the benefit of having an EU or Schengen member spouse) and
  • how long you can stay in some of the non-Schengen countries in Europe.

The Schengen Area and Your Trip Through Europe

What is the Schengen Area?  

The Schengen Area is a group of European countries that allows free movement of local citizens within its borders. Originally signed in 1985 in Schengen, Luxembourg (thus the name) the Schengen Agreement was originally signed by five member countries. Since that time travelers from outside the Schengen Area have been limited to staying in the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days out of any 180 day period.

As a traveler that means once you’re inside the Schengen Area, you can freely travel throughout the Schengen-member countries without any additional passport controls or border checks (similar to how travelers can move across states in the US).

The freedom of movement within the Schengen Area is great for people traveling in Europe for less than 90 days. But for those of us who want to travel around Europe for longer, the Schengen 90 day limit is not so awesome. There are now 26 member countries in the Schengen, so what started out as a 90 day visit to five countries (manageable) is now a 90 day visit to 26 countries – hardly enough time!

In terms of getting into the Schengen Area, citizens of a long list of visa exempt countries (including Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia) do not require a visa. If you’re from a non-exempt country like India, you’ll need a Schengen visa in order to visit.  Once you clear immigration at the first port of entry you’ll get an entry stamp in your passport and are free to travel to any of the above countries without needing to show your passport at any borders.

What is a visa, exactly?  A visa is a stamp in your passport that proves you’ve been legally admitted to a country.  The visa indicates the date you entered and may specify the date by which you have to exit. Each country sets its own rules about who can get a visa, who needs a visa, who can get a visa at the border vs who needs to arrange one in advance, and how long visitors can stay.

Schengen Countries List & Map

The Schengen Area largely overlaps the EU, but there are EU countries that are not in the Schengen and there are a few countries who are not in the EU who are in the Schengen.

EU countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non-EU countries: Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.

A map showing the Schengen Area countries, important for planning a Europe itinerary #europeitinerary #schengen

How does the Schengen 90-day Limit Work?

The basic Schengen rule is that you can stay a maximum of 90 days out of any period of 180 days.  The days you stay do not have to be consecutive. So as an example, you can go in for a month, go out for two weeks, come back for three weeks, etc so long as when you look at the most recent 180 days, you’ve not stayed in the Area for more than 90 of them.

Note that although many people refer to the Schengen limit as the “three month rule”, Schengen Area legal stay limits are calculated in days, not months. So, although 90 days is almost 3 months, it is not exactly the same, and that matters when you’re planning your travel. If you enter Schengen on, say, June 1st, then your 90 days will be up on exactly August 29th. If you stay until August 30th or 31s you’ll have overstayed and could get in trouble when you leave the Area.

This free Schengen stay calculator can help and we also get a lot of use out of this Add to or Subtract from a Date website.

What Do You Have to Show to Get Into the Schengen Area?

If you’re a passport holder of a country that is visa-exempt in the Schengen Area, then when you arrive at a port of entry you just need to present your passport. You’ll be asked questions about which countries you are going to and for how long. The border agent will seek to understand how long you will be in the Schengen Area and then will check your passport to make sure it will be valid for at least 90 days after you plan to leave.

Tip: Once you know your approximate travel dates, check the expiry date of your passport to make sure it’s valid for at least three months after you plan to leave Europe. If your passport needs to be renewed that can take six to eight weeks processing time.

The border agent may ask to see proof of onward travel. For most people this will be easily satisfied with a return plane ticket, but a hotel or campground reservation confirmation in a non-Schengen country for a date just before your 90 days is up is better than nothing.

Starting January 1, 2021 citizens of Schengen visa-exempt countries will have to complete an online pre-screen in order to obtain authorization to enter the Schengen Area. The pre-screen is called the ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) and will take about 15 minutes to apply for, with authorization normally being issued by return email within 96 hours. You won’t have to print out or bring anything with you when you travel to show your ETIAS; the Schengen border agent will look it up in the database.

If you are not from a visa-exempt country you will have to obtain a Schengen visa before you leave for your trip. Allow at least three weeks for this; we recommend applying as early as you know your travel dates, up to three months in advance. Persons who require a Schengen visa will not have to obtain an ETIAS.

For clarity, you do not need a Schengen visa if you’re from the USA or are an American citizen.

What Does Schengen Mean for My Six Month/One Year/Indefinite Europe Itinerary?

The Schengen 90-day rule means you need to include countries in your itinerary that are not in the Schengen.  Many long-term travelers in Europe do an approximate routine of 85 days in the Schengen Area, 90 days out, just to make it easy.

Tip: If you plan to stay in the Schengen Area for no more than 85 days in a row, that leaves a few days’ grace for unexpected delays in getting to the border.

Having to route around the Schengen Area is not a bad thing: for the moment, there are still enough great countries to visit immediately adjacent to the Area that it’s easy to plan for 90 days outside of it. This will become a bit harder once Bulgaria and Romania join the Schengen Area (timeline unknown).

Now, when entering non-Schengen countries you will have to know how long you can stay in each one, and whether you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance vs can get one at the border. Those facts depend on the country or countries in which you hold passports. Some of the more common visa questions about non-Schengen countries are answered further below in this post.

And finally, when planning your Europe itinerary, don’t forget to take weather into account. The only European countries that are really warm in winter are Portugal, Spain, and Turkey.  If you’re staying during wintertime you’ll have to plan which 90 days to spend in Portugal and Spain and how to get there and back at a time of year when it’s bound to be a little chilly everywhere else.

Potential Europe itineraries include:

Europe Itinerary map showing route from Scandanavia to UK to Portugal

Spend 90 summer days touring Sweden, take the ferry to Estonia, head south through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (all Schengen), stay at least 90 days traveling through Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Bosnia and Serbia (all non-Schengen) and then head to southern Spain for 90 winter days (Schengen). Sounds dreamy!

Alternatively, you could spend 90 spring days in Scandinavia (Schengen) and then travel to U.K. (non-Schengen) and Ireland (non-Schengen) for the next 180 days of Summer/Fall, and then finish in Portugal (Schengen) for 90 winter days. Nice!

How Can You Get a Schengen Visa Extension?

The short answer is, strictly speaking, you can’t. For those who can enter the Schengen visa-free, that period cannot be extended. For those who require a visa to enter the Schengen Area, the visa can’t be extended either.

However, you may be able to get further time in one or more Schengen countries under another admission category. Specifically, there are three ways that travelers commonly extend the time they can stay in the Schengen Area:

  1. Become or marry a citizen of an EU country or Schengen Area country (our solution!);
  2. historical bilateral agreements; or
  3. obtain a long-term visa.

1. Become a Citizen of an EU or Schengen Country by Descent, or Marry One

Citizens of an EU or Schengen Area country can work and live anywhere in the EU and Schengen Area.  If one of your parents or grandparents were or are citizens of any of those countries, you might be able to get citizenship “by descent”.

This map on Reddit’s I Want Out subreddit shows which countries accept ancestral claims and for how many generations. If any of your parents or grandparents were born in Europe, contact that country’s embassy or consulate and find out whether you can pursue citizenship.

Map of Europe
If you have any relatives who are from the blue or orange countries, investigate citizenship by descent!

As we headed into our last year of saving for our family sabbatical I realized that because my mum was born in London I was eligible for U.K. citizenship by descent. At the time I was born, only people with a U.K. citizen father (or a pair of grandparents) could qualify, but a number of years ago that eligibility was extended to people whose mother is a U.K. citizen. It wasn’t a difficult process but it took about 6 months.

I pursued citizenship just because I’d meant to for a long time and because we though it might allow me to work a bit as we traveled to help pad the travel fund. We didn’t realize unti three weeks before our sabbatical trip started that if one member of a family is an EU or Schengen country citizen, all of their immediate family members also have the right to accompany that citizen in the EU and the Schengen Area.

This realization changed our itinerary entirely!  It means if you’re traveling as a couple or family, and one of you can obtain citizenship in an EU or Schengen country, then you can all stay in any EU or Schengen country for up to three months no matter what citizenship your family members have!

The fact that immediate family can accompany a traveling EU citizen isn’t well known (at least, this is what I’m telling myself to make me feel better about the fact that we only learned of it a month before starting a trip that I had been researching exhaustively for the better part of a year). I had the following verified by a lawyer:

  • If you’re an EU citizen then under European Directive 2004/38/EC you and your immediate family members can travel to any EU or Schengen Area country and stay for up to three months with no restrictions. After three months, you can travel to any other EU/Schengen country and live in or travel there for up to three months. And so on, indefinitely.
  • Border agents of EU countries can’t give you or your family members a hard time crossing the border just because your family members are not EU citizens.  So long as everyone can show passports and proof of your relationship (we are carrying our marriage certificate and the kids’ birth certificates), they usually have to allow you to cross.
  • The definition of immediate family includes legally married couples or those who are in a registered partnership that is recognized in the destination country.

That last one can be tricky. Wandering Family Man and I weren’t legally married, but who wants to figure out which European countries recognize Canadian common law spouses? So, with three weeks left before departure, we planned a wedding to take place two weeks later!  

It was really quite lovely. We held the ceremony inside Harvey the RV, with Wandering Family Girl and Boy, our parents, and three friends attending. Without us even having to ask, the officiant started off with…..


Some people may think that the EU right of free movement is not a romantic reason for marriage, but we beg to differ. When you hatch a crazy plan, it’s one thing to have your spouse say they’re into it over a glass of wine one evening; it’s a different feeling entirely when they take an active step toward your vision. Getting married was one of so many steps we’ve taken over the last five years that showed one another we were committed to making a year of travel happen. Every next step makes you feel like a real team working together to execute an exciting secret mission.

In any event, if you’ve suspected that you might be able to leverage the fact that your poppa is from a small town in Italy, get that citizenship application in!

2. Bilateral Agreements

A bilateral agreement is one between a Schengen country and another country that preceded the establishment of the Schengen Area. Many Schengen countries still honor their old bilateral agreements.

For example, Denmark has bilateral agreements with Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and USA. Under these agreements, nationals of these countries can stay in Denmark for 90 days immediately following having spent up to 90 days in other Schengen Area countries.

Australia and New Zealand have bilateral agreements with several individual Schengen countries that allow a visa-free stay in that country for 90 days without that time counting against your time in the Schengen. Similarly, the U.S. has bilateral agreements with France, Poland and Denmark.

The rules differ from country to country and so you’ll need to research the specifics, but typically if your country of citizenship has a bilateral agreement with an EU or Schengen country, you can spend 90 days in the Schengen Area and then go spend another 90 days in the bilateral agreement country. However, you then have to leave the Schengen Area altogether.

If you plan to leverage a bilateral agreement, definitely do your research so that you can ensure you don’t overstay anywhere. Get your information from the country whose agreement you plan to leverage, not from one of the many “informational” websites online who purport to summarize your rights accurately.

3. Obtain a Long-Term Stay Permit

Another way to stay in the Schengen for longer than 90 days is to obtain a visa to stay in a Schengen country. This is not a particularly easy thing to do and will require advance planning, research and time to complete the application process.

There are special visa or permit categories for people who have family or will be working or attending school in the Schengen, but if you’re like us and just want to travel in the Schengen Area for longer than 90 days, you’ll need to apply for a long stay visa.

Many countries offer working holiday visas to citizens of other select countries. Americans of any age who have graduated from a post-secondary program within the last 12 months can obtain a one-year working holiday visa in Ireland, which allows for travel elsewhere in the EU. Ireland hosts working holidaymakers under 36 years of age from a number of other countries including Canada, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Those of us who don’t qualify for a working holiday program may be able to apply for other types of long-term visas. Popular countries for long-term visa applications include Germany (which offers a freelancing/artist visa for up to a year), Spain and France, although other Schengen countries have their own long-term visa possibilities.  Generally, the application process takes months, a lot of paperwork, payment of a fee and a visit to a local consulate. You typically need to show:

  • Your reason for wanting to reside in that country, and for how long;
  • A rental agreement or other proof that you have a place to live in the country. The rental agreement doesn’t have to be for the entire time you plan to stay in the country, but does need to be for at least a few months.
  • Proof of sufficient funds to support yourself during your stay (e.g. from savings or outside income);
  • A passport that doesn’t expire until at least 90 days after the end of the long-term visa;
  • A guarantee that you will not seek work while you’re staying in the country; and
  • Proof of health insurance.

Note that getting a resident visa in a Schengen country for say, a year, doesn’t allow you to freely travel throughout the Schengen during that year. The Schengen rules will still apply when you’re outside the country for which you have a long-term visa.

Obtaining a long term visa generally requires a few months, some fees, and a helper – at minimum a friend who can translate forms and visit the offices with you if you don’t speak the language. Many people retain an immigration lawyer or agent.

How Long You Can Stay in non-Schengen Countries in Europe?

Each non-Schengen country has its own admission rules and so you’ll need to familiarize yourself with how long you, based on your citizenship, can stay in each one.

The information is usually on-line, although to get specifics you may have to visit a consulate or embassy of the country you want to go to. I personally wouldn’t trust information in any website that isn’t operated by the government of either your own country or that of the country you plan to visit.

My review of such websites shows the following visa rules for Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Americans. The links below will take you to each country’s government website about visas, so you can look up the rules that apply to you no matter what country you’re from.

Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia, Ireland, Croatia, Montenegro, Morocco, Romania – Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians visit visa-free for 90 days per six month period.

Albania – Canadians New Zealanders and Australians can visit Albania with no visa for 90 days per six month period. Americans can stay a full year!

U.K. – Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders can usually stay for up to six months without a visa.

Turkey – Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders can obtain up to three consecutive one-month visitor visas and can arrange an e-visa online in advance or pick it up at the border. E-visas have lower fees than at-the-border visas.

The first thing you need to know when planning a trip through Europe - how long can you stay?  And how might you stay longer and maximize your mobility? #europetravel #schengen
Please pin this image to Pinterest

Anyone who takes a long trip overseas has to deal with visas and time limits eventually, and Europe is no different. I hope this post helps you understand any potential options you have to travel in Europe for as long as you want, whether that be a season, a year, or even longer!