The Schengen Visa Conundrum

For us American travelers, the best part about European unification is the common currency and the elimination of border controls. Imagine having to change currency and go through customs every time you crossed a US state border! This was the European reality, for both tourists and residents, until the advent of the euro and the Schengen Agreement area in the last few decades.

Everybody should be familiar with the common European currency, the euro. But many Americans might not be aware of the Schengen Agreement. This agreement abolished border controls within Europe. Well, more than just Europe, actually. Over the years, more and more countries have been joining the Schengen Area to take advantage of unrestricted travel. Currently, 26 member countries have signed on. Click here for a map of the current Schengen Area.

In addition to abolishing customs controls between member states, the agreement also created the “Schengen Visa” whereby visitors can travel throughout the Schengen Area (aka greater Europe) with a single visa. This visa is good for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. We Americans are extremely lucky. We don’t even have to apply for the Schengen Visa; we’re automatically granted one upon entering the Schengen Area. Ninety days of unrestricted travel. How sweet is that?

But what happens if you, like us, want to travel through Europe for more than 90 days? That’s when things get tricky. You’ll need a long-term visa. Problem is, there is no such thing as a long-term Schengen or “European” visa. Instead, you have to apply for a long-term visa through a single country, which then gives you unfettered access to the entire Schengen area.

So, the Schengen visa is a short-term visa only. A long-term visa (more than 90 days within a 180-day period) requires a visa from any country within the Schengen area.

This creates a bit of a conundrum. To apply for a long-term visa from any one country, you have to reside in that particular country for longer than 90 days. And you have to prove it by showing that you either own property there or you have paid rent somewhere for the length of your visa (up to one year).

We’re going to be vagabonds. We don’t intend to stay in any single country for more than 90 days, and we’re certainly not going to pay rent somewhere for 6 months! You’d think that since we’re spending less than 90 days in any single country, we’d be fine. But, alas, this is where the Schengen Agreement comes back to bite us non-traditional travelers: we can’t be issued a short-term visa for each individual country we enter, because that’s what the Schengen (European) visa is for, but we can’t stay in the Schengen area for longer than 90 days because we won’t stay in any single country for more than 90 days.

Think of it this way: You can get a driver’s license in any US state and drive legally throughout the US. But, you can’t get a driver’s license in a new state unless you prove that you’re living there. (This isn’t a perfect analogy, but stay with me.) Now, suppose you’re a foreign visitor and imagine your foreign driver’s license was automatically good for up to 90 days. Once those 90 days are up, you can’t drive anywhere in the US. In order to get a new driver’s license, you’d have to show proof of residence in a US state.  Once you got a driver’s license in one state (any state), it would again be good throughout the US.

European visas are similar. In order for us to stay or travel in Europe once our 90-day Schengen visa expires, we must have a long-term visa, which requires us to show proof of residence somewhere.

Actually, we’re really lucky. Julie has dual American/Italian citizenship, so she already has unfettered access throughout the EU. Mark is the only one who needs a visa. If we’re married, why doesn’t Mark have Italian citizenship, too? Or, if Julie is an Italian citizen, shouldn’t Italy be the easiest place for Mark to get the long-term visa? Let’s just say that in theory, these things should be true. However, the reality is that Italy’s bureaucracy is so byzantine that Mark does not yet have citizenship (although we’re working on it), and a visa is a pipe dream. (Take a look at this visitor’s experience in trying to get an Italian visa, aka “permesso di soggiorno”.)

From everything we’ve read, France seems to be the easiest (read: only) country where an American cycle tourist has a chance of getting a long-term visa. But how can we possibly show that we’re residing there?

There is a third option to prove “residency” besides owning or renting: have a friend or family member invite you to stay.  Unfortunately, we have no close friends or family in France. See, we’d essentially be asking somebody to sponsor us. They would have to formally invite us to live with them for the duration of our European visit. That’s a big ask for near strangers or friends of friends.

Long story short, a couple that we hosted through Couchsurfing in 2014 offered to help us out. Heeyoung and Remy, who now live in Strasbourg, France, stayed with us in early 2014, and we had a wonderful visit with them. (We’ll have to write a post on Couchsurfing and Warm Showers one of these days.) At the end of their stay, we exchanged emails, but didn’t keep in touch. In desperation, and completely at a loss of how to get the visa, we contacted Heeyoung and Remy to see if they had any wisdom. And they immediately offered to help us. Within days, they sent a formal letter of invitation and several other documents necessary for us to submit with our visa application.

We spent a week getting the rest of our documents together, and made an appointment to visit the French Consulate in San Francisco on Tuesday, March 8. We showed up at the consulate at the appointed time, submitted our application, forked over our money, and in just 15 minutes, we were done! (Italy, are you listening???) We should receive the visa paperwork in the mail in the next couple of weeks!

We can’t thank Heeyoung and Remy enough for their amazingly generous support of Team Lumaca. We couldn’t do this without you two!