The Schengen Visa Explained

There’s literally thousands of websites with contradicting information about the Schengen Visa. As you can imagine, it can make planning a trip to Europe especially difficult. But after spending almost two years traveling through Europe, going through airport customs, and overstaying my Schengen time (it was by accident, I swear!), I can finally tell you how the Schengen Visa is explained.

What is the Schengen Area?

To start, it’s important to understand what the Schengen area is.

Schengen is a designated area in Europe that allows for border-free travel.

That means if you’re a citizen of Schengen country, you are able to travel to another country in the Schengen area without your passport. So if you are a German citizen, you can freely travel to Italy, Spain, Greece, etc without stopping at border control or getting a stamp in your passport.

What is a Schengen Visa?

Like most visas, the Schengen Visa allows citizens of other countries to visit and stay in the Schengen Area for up to 90 days for business or personal reasons.

If you have a Schengen Visa, you can travel border-free to any members of the Schengen area, just like a normal European citizen. It’s the most common visa for visitors to Europe, with over 14.2 million visa holders in 2018 alone.

What Countries are in the Schengen Area?

There are currently 26 countries that have signed the Schengen agreement, and are therefore considered inside the Schengen area.

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

While many European countries are part of the Schengen Area, you should not confuse the two. The EU is different from Schengen. In fact, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Lichtenstein are members of Schengen, but are not considered part of the EU!

There are six other countries in Europe that are part of the European Union, but are not part of the Schengen Area. This means that you are not able to travel border-free to these countries from other Schengen countries.

  • Ireland
  • The United Kingdom
  • Romania
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus

Do I Need a Schengen Visa?

Now, if you’re a US, Canadian, or Australian citizen, you can visit Schengen countries without applying for a Schengen Visa.

I repeat – US, Canadian, and Australia passport holders are not required to have a Schengen Visa!

You can book your flight, land in one of the Schengen countries, and walk through border customs with just your US passport. We’ll get into the specifics about visitation length and countries in a little bit.

If you’re a citizen of another country such as Vietnam, South Africa, or Fiji, you’ll need to apply for a Schengen Visa. You should always check to see if you’re home country is required to obtain a Schengen Visa before traveling.

How to Apply for a Schengen Visa

If you do need to apply for a Schengen Visa, the process is fairly straightforward.

When to Apply for a Schengen Visa

According to the European Commission, you should apply for your visa at least 15 days before the start of your trip. However, waiting two weeks to apply for a visa is playing with fire in my opinion. If there’s any delay, or if the consulate needs additional information, then you’re pretty much screwed.

That’s why I advise applying for the Schengen Visa ideally 1-2 months before your trip. Keep in mind you cannot submit an application any earlier than 3 months before you plan to go.

Where to Apply for a Schengen Visa

You are required to apply for the visa at the consulate office of a Schengen country in your home country. Yes, that’s a little confusing I know.

But for example, .et’s say you are a Cambodian citizen who plans to visit France later this year. In order to get a Schengen Visa, you will need to apply in person at the French consulate in Phenom Penh (your home country).

If you plan to travel to multiple countries in the Schengen Area, then you can visit any one of the consulates. However, it’s a good idea to apply at the consolute of the country where you plan to spend the most time.

What You Need to Apply for a Schengen Visa

Once it’s time to apply for the visa, you’ll be required to have the following documents in hand:

  • A completed and signed Schengen Visa Application Form
  • Your passport
  • Two recent color photographs
  • Visa application service fee (EUR 35 – 60)
  • Supporting documents that prove the purpose of your travel. This can be proof of flight, accommodation, bank statements etc.

Final Thoughts

As an American, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Schengen countries with little hassle (0f course, moving to Germany and claiming residence is a completely different story). However, I understand the struggle many people face when simply trying to go on vacation or visit a family member in Europe.

Hopefully this clears up some information on who needs a Schengen Visa, and how to go about obtaining one. The process may be tedious and long, but trust me, it’s worth every penny and second of your time.

The feeling of seeing that airport customs guard stamp your passport is a feeling that simply can’t be described. And that alone makes the visa process worth it.

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