We tried to create a solid itinerary before leaving on our trip around the world and we thought we had a pretty good plan despite a lot of last minute shuffles. We pushed back our departure date a few weeks to coincide with my work anniversary–that would allow me to take full advantage of my PTO. We extended our time in Germany to coordinate with Octoberfest. Then, after some China research, we discovered that the first week in October is not a good time to visit since it’s “Golden Week“–a week-long national holiday. To avoid that, we decided to just stay in Europe one more week. All of these changes were subtle, but through them all we lost track of how many days we’d actually be in Europe.
When we entered Iceland, the immigration officer asked how long we would be in Europe. We said vaguely, “about 3 months.” He was quick to remind us that 90 days was our limit. Yikes! We knew that, but were we really over the limit? We’d have to take inventory and count the days.
What is the Schengen Visa?
Visitors to Europe are limited to a stay of 90 days in a 180 day period by the Schengen Visa. U.S. Citizens automatically receive this visa on entry to any Schengen country like France, Germany and Italy (there are 26 countries total). Citizens of other countries may have to apply for the visa ahead of time, but no matter your nationality, once you’re in the Schengen region, you can cross the borders freely between all other member countries without obtaining additional visas. This makes it super convenient to visit much of Europe, but for long term travelers, it can be tricky. Ninety days isn’t all that long and, as we found out, adds up quickly.
The one thing that we overlooked was just how many countries are included in the Schengen region. Almost all of mainland Europe is included…even Scandinavia. So all of our time in Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland would count against our 90 day limit. After counting up the days in our initial itinerary, we found that we were going to overstay by more three weeks! We’d have to get out of Schengen at some point.
Getting out of Schengen
Since the Schengen region encompasses most of Europe, there aren’t many options to actually get out of the area. There’s got to be some sort of loophole, right? We looked and sadly came to the conclusion that there aren’t any viable ones. Here are the options we evaluated:
- Play dumb: What’s the worst that could happen? We’d stay for a few extra weeks and play dumb on departure. As it turns out, there can be large fines for overstaying your visa and even worse you can be flagged as a visa offender and potentially banned from entry into the Schengen region on future visits. Plus, Germany is said to be one of the most strict enforcers of the Schengen Visa. That’s our departure point and we decided it’s not worth the risk or the worry. We’re rule followers by nature.
- Exile ourselves to Russia: St. Petersberg is just across the sea from Finland. We could easily take a boat from Helsinki and spend a few weeks in Russia! As it turns out, it’s not that easy to get a visa for Russia. It can take a couple months and since we were already on the road, probably too complex to coordinate the necessary documents.
- Visit the Balkans or Turkey: Several of the countries in the Balkans aren’t Schengen members and neither is Turkey. We really do want to visit Serbia, Bosnia and Turkey, but getting there was too far out of the way and we’d have to backtrack too much with our commitments in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
- Visit the U.K. and/or Ireland: The U.K. and Ireland manage their own visas. They’re not part of Schengen. You can stay in each country for up to four weeks (obviously without counting against the Schengen limit) and since we were already nearby in Scandinavia, getting there wasn’t going to be all that difficult. This was the most viable option for us to get out of Schengen!
Scottish and Irish Detour
So, to stay within our 90 day limit, we sadly had to cut the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern Germany. In their place, we substituted Scotland and Ireland. The beauty of our initial itinerary is that nothing was set in stone. We had plenty of flexibility to maneuver around the Schengen Visa requirements and piece together a new itinerary. At this point, I can’t say I’m all that disappointed. Scotland has a lot of great history and sites to see and I’ll get to experience a real Guinness when we visit Ireland. Can’t wait!