All You Need to Know About Europe’s Schengen Zone

Miss Switzerland and the Eiger Mountain
Miss Switzerland and the Eiger Mountain

“Is there a problem? The border agents sure are taking a long time with my passport” I wondered as I waited inside the train that would take me from Slovenia to Croatia.

“You have to come outside with us. Now” the Slovenian border agent said in a raspy and serious tone. “What? Why?” I replied. “You have exceeded your Schengen Zone days. This is a big problem,” he said as we walked outside and I watched how my train departed to Zagreb without me.

“It’s alright, there’s another train in one hour.” I thought. In hindsight, I laugh at how foolish I was thinking I would be sleeping in Croatia that night.

The Man of Wonders in Lisbon, Portugal
The Man of Wonders in Lisbon, Portugal

The Interrogation at the Slovenian-Croatian Border

“So what do you do? Are you a student?” the border agent asked. “Well, that’s a hard question to answer. I mean, I do carry with me a valid student cards to get discounts at museums and if you make a call to my university in France they will tell you that I have yet to complete two final tests in order to graduate from my Masters degree so in theory I’m still enrolled at said school. In a way, you could say that I’m a student of life”.

“Very well then. So what do you do for a living? What is your profession?” he asked again, more curious than ever this time. “I’m a Professional Travel Blogger. A Photojournalist if you will. I work independently on my own and I publish my works in my own website. I mostly get my money from donations of brands and readers alike plus other online businesses that I have on the side as a Digital Nomad.” I said.

It took a few minutes for the border agent to come to his senses. It was as if a nuclear bomb had just detonated and nobody knew where to take shelter. Finally, he just muttered, “So you get paid to travel the world?”.

“I can show you my website if you have Wi-Fi in this detention centre. I have taken some really cool photos of your country, sir.” I replied in order to break the ice in the room.

Schengen Zone Countries
Schengen Zone Countries. Note: Croatia should be Red in the map as well.

All you needed to know about Europe’s Schengen Zone

Thankfully, the border agent that was in charge of me was a very nice man and he actually explained to me slowly how the Schengen Zone Agreement has changed lately and now, the 3 months within 6 months period takes place counting backwards from today’s date.

Before the new changes, the way it worked was that the 6-month window was created upon your first entry to the Schengen Zone and closed after the last day of those 6 months after which your 90-day Schengen counter hits 0 and resets.

This old scheme allowed for travellers to enter to the Schengen Zone for the first time on January 1st, leave the Zone on January 2nd , re-enter again on April 1st and then be able to stay for 6 continuous months without any worry (3 months at the end of the January 1-July 1 window and 3 months at the beginning of the July 1-January 1 window).

“But wasn’t that actually very good for the local economies and tourism? I mean, if travellers with enough money to stay that long in the Schengen Zone were allowed to stay even longer, it would actually benefit the economy of all the places they visit no?” I asked to the border agent.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting an answer since I was just talking to myself out loud but I was actually surprised by what he said after:

“Of course. I totally agree with you. But not everyone comes here as a tourist. This is done mainly to deter those who come here to work illegally.” He answered.

“I see. I understand completely now. Let’s got on with it then, shall we?” I said defeated as I began to reflect in how dumb I was not to keep up to date with the new changes in Europe’s Schengen Zone.

Top things to do and see in Interlaken
Paraglading over Interlaken. Adrenaline rush for the win, players!

In case you want to know, this is what my Schengen Zone entries looked like at the point of checking them on March 10th.

Starting Point: 01 July, Spain

Departure: 04 July, Spain-Morocco (04 Days Total)

Arrival: 27 July, Morocco-Spain

Departure: 03 September, Hungary-Turkey (42 Days Total)

Arrival: 10 October, Turkey-Italy

Departure: 05 November, Greece-Macedonia (69 Days Total)

Arrival: 12 November, Macedonia-France

Departure: 2 December, France-United Kingdom (90 Days Total)

The Fireworks at Hogmanay 2014
The Fireworks at Hogmanay 2014

Basically, I thought that the 1 July-1 January 6-months window was closed off for good and I re-entered the Schengen Zone in Finland during the 7th of January of 2015 believing that a new 6-months window opened up. But I was wrong.

Turns out that the only days that matter now is the last 180 days starting to count backwards from the moment of checking them (in this case, the 10th of March) so to them, my Schengen Zone entry log looked like this:

Starting Point: 10 October Italy

Departure: 3 November Greece-Macedonia (26 Days Total)

Arrival: 05 November Macedonia-France

Departure: 2 December France-United Kingdom (47 Days Total)

Arrival: 07 January United Kingdom-Finland

Departure: 10 March Slovenia-Croatia (110 Days Total)

Be sure to use this Schengen Zone Days Calculator in order to know how many days you have been inside the Schengen Zone at the moment that your passport is going to be controlled and be sure to read ALL of this document in order to avoid any future problems.

“110 days in total? Damn, I’ve made a huge mistake.” I said.

Street Art at Metelkova, Ljubljana
Street Art at Metelkova, Ljubljana

So how did the Man of Wonders avoided getting deported?

Well, turns out that each individual Schengen Zone country has different laws when it comes to what do with travelers who exceed their time in the Schengen Zone. Some countries are famous (or should I say infamous?) for not only deporting but also banning travelers for one year (or five) from the Schengen Zone.

So how about Slovenia? In Slovenia you only have to pay a 250 Euros fine and after that you get a slap in the wrist and are told not to do it again.

The problem? If you don’t have enough cash with you to pay, they have the legal right to withhold your passport and since it was already 17:00 I had no way to arrange for a wired money transfer in order for me to withdraw the cash from an local bank or Western Union office.

The result? I had to backtrack two hours by train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, spend another night there and take an early morning train back to the border town of Dobova where I was escorted by a police officer to the nearest Western Union where he momentarily gave me back my passport in order for me to withdraw the money.

This was also my first time inside a police car abroad so that’s another item crossed off from my endless bucketlist of wonders now!

Miss Switzerland and the Eiger Mountain
Miss Switzerland and the Eiger Mountain

But in the end, this was a blessing in disguise… I hope.

Truth to be told, I cannot really complain about the facilities of the detention centre since it had drinking water and the border agent was kind enough to use his mobile as a hotspot so I could send an e-mail to my family and update my Facebook status.

But since there was no unlimited tea or coffee (not even a pool table? Come on!) I cannot really give 5 stars to the detention centre so it has to settle with only 4. But hey, there are worse places you could get yourself into, no?

Joking aside, I’m really glad that this incident took place in a country where the border agents are honest and polite with confused travelers like me.

As I said before, some Schengen Countries have really harsh punishments against people who exceed their Tourists Days mainly because they have so many illegal immigrants from everywhere in the world.

Sunset at Dubrovnik, Croatia
Sunset at Dubrovnik, Croatia

Also, I would like to give a special thank you to the staff of the Celica Hostel of Ljubljana who allowed me to stay one extra night with them free of charge (read all about their unique charm in my article about Slovenia) since otherwise I would have had to spend the night in the lonely train station.

As a fun fact, the Hostel used to be a former Yugoslavian prison so it is quite fitting that even after all the ordeals of the day, I ended up spending the night behind bars one way or the other. Silver linings, right?

Last but not least, don’t forget to use our Booking.com Affiliate Link of Wonders for making hotel reservations.

Same price for you and a small pocket money commission for this website of yours.

Sweet deal, uh?

Have you ever exceeded your Schengen Zone Days? How was your experience like? Share your thoughts and let me know what you think, player!

NOTE: This article was written in 2015 and ever since, border security has tightened in Europe more and more. Fines and sanctions might have radically changed. Proceed with caution.

The Ultimate Schengen Zone Travel Guide (1)
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46 Comments

  • Talking to you and reading this probably saved me from overstaying. I actually changed my whole trip to START the Schengen time zone in January. wasted weeks of travel and time and money for nothing. Hope this helps others – good article Raphael!

  • Thanks for writing up the info so quickly, Raphael! Very useful to know that there’s actually a Schengen calculator! :) I’m glad you’re fine and only suffered a little dent on your wallet.

  • Wow…what an experience you had. Now I am doubly grateful I am a holder of a US passport. No need for visas for 174 countries!

  • What a funny story, great tips and advices and very important to have Visas are changing very often these days! It’s really a mess sometimes with this kind of Visas, and nice to hear officers there were nice to you and gladly you’ve got some new fans, lol. It almost happend to me while I was visitin Turkey…was planning to stay longer as they didn’t have this kind of Visa, but they just changed it when I was there and now is very similar to the Schengen Visa…could be really bad idea to overstay there maybe.

  • Hahah, I’m sorry for your misadventure, but on the other hand I’m really happy that Schengen zone border states do their job well! :)

  • Wow..sorry for that experience. If it’s any consolation, the first time I came to Croatia (from Belgium), I was held up briefly at the airport and questioned. I have a Kenyan passport but a dutch resident card and I was pretty surprised as I knew that Croatia is part of the EU. My child has a dutch passport so no problem for her. It ticked me off, but they let me into Croatia after a few minutes. Thanks for this post, just a reminder as to how important it is to be upto date with visa and immigration changes to avoid inconveniences.

  • Overall I’m glad this experience didn’t go as bad as it could have for you! Thank you for sharing this very important information for those who wish to travel the EU.

  • Haha, this is good to know! 6 months in Europe was my first trip abroad, and I spent the few months just before leaving searching for loophole after loophole of how to get around the Schengen zones. It was so funny — I’d call tourism embassies and they had no idea what the policy was. Sounds like it’s confusing for everyone. You should make a tripadvisor page for the detention center, it doesn’t sound like a bad place :P

  • Hahaha, you are a marketing machine! I love that you offered to show your web site to the guys at the border. I’m definitely going to try that one next time! Awesome post, Raphael! x

  • Haha! I love how you never panic, but choose to look at the brighter side of everything!! That was quite an adventure you had! If I was in your shoes I’d totally freak out though. Maybe never even travel back to the area in months! lol. Anywhos, very well written piece. Loved it! :)
    http://dianaratemo.com/

  • Hey mate.
    sounds really confusing?
    Trying to work out my trip now and fit it all into 90 days.
    Which Countries are the really strict ones?

  • I am Australian and overstayed my Schengen visa by 40 days. Due to recent circumstances in Europe a few borders were closed and border control getting very strict. Hungary was the Schengen country I was leaving from to go into Croatia. My friend actually picked me up in a car and then we drove across the border where we were stopped for ID and passport check. The female Hungarian officer took for passport for several minutes to then tell me I had overstayed. I got a 6 month ban from re entering the Schengen zone and a 70 euro fine which gets sent to your home. This meant I could not get my flight home from Budapest 2 weeks later, but I was easily able to change the destination out of London and had no issues at the airport!

  • Bureaucracy is always bad but actually the visa system in the US seems to be much more strict. You cannot just come with your passport…

  • Thanks for the info. Researching a year long trip for 2017, and yours is the first really clear answer to this confusing issue.

  • Hey Raphael,

    I am so glad I found your blog. I had similar problem in germany. didnt know this 90 days rules apply to all schegen zone in total. do you have any problem re-enter them? I have duo passport. I am thinking to use a different passport just to be sure.

    Thanks,
    Nicky

  • I actually met an old American named Willie in Sevilla, Spain about a year ago who told me he had been staying there illegally for 14 years. He was a trust fund baby who moved there because he could smoke hash legally apparently :) He admitted that every other year or so he’d go back to the US to visit family and take care of medical items, but that over those 14 years he’d never once had an issue with leaving. The only caveat he said was that when he did go home, he had to wait 6 months to come back as apparently they are much stricter about checking the passport upon entering than leaving. He also said it was important to fly out of Spanish, Italian, or Greek airports as they were far more lax on exiting passport control than the more nordic regions.

    Sadly, he did tell me that he felt being a white english speaking person helped dramatically when leaving. In his opinion, the authorities were much more critical of people who did not fit the profile of your average North American or Western European.

  • I still do not really understand will I be in trouble if I stay 110days in 7 months.
    Please could you help

  • I hold an American passport and was fined 600 euros leaving Athens airport in 2015, having inadvertently overstayed the 90 days allowed by about a week and a half. Prior to that, I had been coming and going to Greece for at least a dozen years and often stayed more than 90 days without any problem. It appears that Greece now enforces the rule. However, not all Schengen immigration officers even in Greece enforce it, and not all Schengen countries enforce it. Somewhere on the web there is a document that details, for every Schengen country, exactly what immigration officers MUST check for, and what they MAY check for, on both entry and on exit.

  • I am in this position now. I have lived in Greece for just over seven years and have always come and gone without a problem. This time (December, 2016) they got me when I went home for Christmas for not having a visa stamp, and I must pay 1200 euros before I can return. What I need to know is: where do I pay this fine and will I be able to get back in once I’ve paid it? I have an apartment in Greece with a contract in my name, a Greek tax ID number, and utilities and services in my name, but I telecommute as a freelancer for a US-based company.

  • Hi, there!

    I’m planning to go to Germany for an international student festival. I got my visa already (Type C, Multiple) and the thing is the date on the visa stamp said from 7-21 May. I, however, have the flight back on 22 May around 11 a.m. Should I be concerned that I overstay the duration of my visa based on the dates stamp on my passport or is it okay because of the 90-day stay rule (using the tourist passport). I’ve been reading online and am still confused of how this works.

    Thanks!

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