My Experiences With Schengen in the EU

This was an email that I recently sent to a friend that wanted to know how it worked.

I’ll do my best to help. I’m sure that you know that the answer depends on what country your passport is from. In the beginning we would often get advice from people from other countries, that did not apply at all to what Americans need to know.

Question, "Have you been able to stay longer than 90 days in Schengen countries while living on your sailboat?"

Yes. When we were in Portugal, some Canadians showed us how to go to a carefully hidden office in Porto Mao, that gave work permits and visa extensions to foreigners. Most of the people there were from countries looking for work permits inside Portugal.

As I recall, back in 2006, we spent most of the day waiting in line, and then filling out some paperwork, and giving them some photographs of the correct size and location of your head, similar to passport photos. It is possible that they use passport photos. I do not recall. Many places have a different requirement.

As I recall, it cost us €45 each, for an extra 90 days. And we were able to renew it at the end of that time, for an additional 90 days.

I believe that it only allowed us to stay in Portugal. I think if we had traveled to any other country after the initial 90 days was up, we would’ve been breaking the law.

Before the end of the third 90 days, we were in Spain. At that time, dozens of people told us that Spain did not care how long we stayed. If we were there three or four years, then they might come after us.

Our British friends were quite concerned, because when the time ran out, they believed that they would then be liable for attacks on their total net worth. Not just the value of their boat. They were wealthy, so that really frightened them. I think they felt it safer to leave after a year, and be out for a time before returning.

We flew from Spain to Houston, by way of Frankfurt and several officials looked at our passports that clearly showed that we had overstayed, but said not a word. And the Immigration Official in Frankfurt was REALLY angry with the man he had just waited on ahead of me.

When I walked up he was still FURIOUS and I am sure that if he could have, he would have loved to fine me, just on general principles.

When we got into Italy, we were told virtually the same thing. We were told that the Italians were quite aware of how long we were in the country, but they did not care as long as we did not break any other laws and that we could stay for several years if we wished. This was back in 2006 through 2008. We did meet one American couple, that I think had a problem in Genoa related to overstaying. So, it may depend on which official you are talking to, on the day that you are talking to them. And, it may well have changed by now.

We flew in and out of Rome and were clearly over our time, but not a peep at the airport.

And, I think you are aware that it is now gotten very easy and relatively inexpensive to get a two year residence permit in Turkey. We did.

A Canadian boater recently posted that they could get an official extended visa. I think it was for one year in France, but they believed that they would then have to pay VAT on their boat. The % required for VAT varies a LOT by country, so, if you plan to pay it, do it in the best Country and low-ball the value of your boat as much as you legally can. Cruising boats are sometimes selling for VERY low prices in some ports.

I have some American friends that were able to get a six month visa before flying to Florence, Italy. They were not boaters. They got it at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC. And, they said it took several trips. One of the problems was they had to show that they had health insurance that would cover them while in Italy. That was annoyingly expensive.

Ironically, the wife had to go to the hospital while they were there and was treated extremely well. When they were done, my friends asked where is the office that we go to give you our insurance information to pay for the service that we received?

This was met with total confusion. No one that they could find, and they tried, was able to find any way that they could compensate, or file insurance papers, for their healthcare.

You actually asks several questions, but I believe that I’ve answered all of them. Please ask more if I was not clear, or you think of something else.

I would suggest that anyone always get several opinions of local knowledge. This is sometimes harder to do than you would think as most of the people you would talk to, do not need to deal with Schengen, because they are not Americans, so they did not have any correct information but think that they do. Ask many Americans, Canadians, or whatever country you are from and then take your best guess. Greece has its own system. The EU is NOT homogeneous and does NOT clearly spell out the rules. Similarly, RECENT info about specific ports where the officials are nasty, or friendly is valuable intel. usually has excellent, up-to-date information.

An boating acquaintance spent a year in Greece, illegally, in 2006 & 2007, without permission and when he was about to leave the particular Immigration Office that he went to, was as nice as they could be. I think they fined him 300 Euros or some-such and strongly suggested that he just leave with his boat for Turkey without telling any of the other offices that legal people need to visit for checking out. Your experience may be quite different. We are told that some Greek Islands had nice officials and some had BAD officials. We used the good ones and avoided the bad.

And, that is a good question to ask people that have been through various offices. We a Canadian friend that, when they entered Greece at Corfu, the wife’s passport was not stamped. Her husband is British. When they left Greece, some Greek Port of Entry, near Bodrum, the official was going to fine them a lot of money because of that.

I have never understood that when a professional official makes a mistake, that I am supposed to pay a fine. They are the ones that are supposed to know what the laws are. If you want to fine somebody, fine them!

Therefore, when we entered at Corfu, Janet made sure to get both passports stamped. The official swore up and down that it was not necessary, but she politely insisted until it was done.

She also asked, very carefully, where else do we need to check in with an official and get stamps on our paperwork?

The agent quite clearly said only in Thessalonia, or Athens. Nowhere else. When we got to Itea, Greece, and official came down to all the boats in our part of the harbor and said that we must come to the office at specific times to deal with our paperwork. He gave each boat a slightly different time.

Several boats immediately left rather than have to deal with that. But, we had just arrived and wanted to spend three days and go to Delphi by bus.

So we went and were charged about four times the going rate for the Moorage. We were surprised that it cost so much to stay there, and asked a neighbor when we returned to our boat. He decided that they had misread our documentation and thought that we were a dramatically larger boat.

He suggested that we go back and get a refund. We had already formed the opinion that the person we were dealing with, was an idiot. The amount of money was not gigantic, and we thought it unlikely that we could get a refund. But, we went anyway.

Happily, there was another man in the office, who, especially by comparison, was quite bright. He immediately saw the problem and order the other man to give us the appropriate refund.

And, when we checked out of Greece at Simi, Janet was mildly criticized that we had not gotten our papers stamped every few weeks. "For our safety". What??? But, there was no drama. Just different rules in different offices.

In Mexico, and some other countries, the normal situation was that you officially entered Mexico, at the first port of entry. Then, you have to check in when you pass another administrative office for that part of the coast. In Mexico, that was every 150 miles or so. As I recall, there was no money involved, just lots of walking kilometers in the hot sun to find offices that were carefully hidden.

Therefore, when we first checked in and the Azores, we asked where else do we need to check with officials. We were told that the answer was nowhere. If an official asked to see your papers, then you must display them, but you were officially entered and did not need to go to another official office until you were ready to leave the EU.

When we got to Cascais, Portugal, there was a customs office nearby, and so we took our paperwork to see if we had understood correctly.

It was curious that she very carefully copied all of our paperwork for her records, but then she told us that we did not need to check in anywhere in the EU, and did not stamp anything that gave us a record of having checked in. So, why did she photocopy everything?

Once, or twice in our travels, as we were rowing ashore, some official did ask us for our paperwork, so we went back to the boat and got it.

I’m pretty sure that I remember all of the above quite clearly, however, it covers the time from 2005 until 2008, so much may have changed.

Each Summer we sailed to Morocco or Tunisia or Turkey, for a few days to re-set the 18 month VAT exemption.

Many years ago now, we heard that Brussels was changing the law, so that cruisers could easily stay for a year or two without leaving. But, I think that idea never materialized.


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