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When I returned to Spain back in March of 2011, I faced a dilemma: I wanted to stay in the European Union for the rest of the summer, but citizens of most countries outside of the EU (such as those of us from the USA) are only allowed to stay here for 3 months without a visa. I needed a legal way to stay here that did not involve paying more taxes, renting an apartment for a full year or other things that would hurt the way I travel. Here’s how I did it, as well as basic details for those of you looking for other options.
The EU, Schengen and Visa-Free Laws
First, it is important to understand the laws as they pertain to those of us from outside the EU. You are probably familiar with the EU or European Union, but not as many people are familiar with what the Schengen region is. In a nutshell, the Schengen is a border-free zone, meaning that when you pass from one Schengen region to the next you do not need to preset your passport or go through border control. This is the reason you can, for example, take a train from Barcelona to Paris without concern. The basic law is that we (from outside the Schengen zone) may stay in the Schengen region for 3 months (90 days) per 6 month (180 day) period with nothing more than a passport (no visa required). This only applies to those of us from countries like the USA, Canada and Australia who have a visa-free agreement with the Schengen region. In other words, once you enter the region, you can stay in it for only 90 days… and this all resets 180 days after entry.
So, what do you do if you want to stay longer?
Method 1: Bouncing Around
For the most part, the Schengen region and the EU are essentially the same… but not entirely. There are a some countries which are not in the EU but belong to the Schengen region (eg. Switzerland). More importantly for us, there are other countries that belong to the EU but are not in the Schengen region (like the UK and Ireland).
So, if a country belongs to the EU but not to the Schengen region, it means it operates under different visa policies. This means that even if you live in France for 3 months on your visa-free period within the Schengen region, you could immediately then travel to Ireland or the UK (for example). You would then be subject to the visa laws for the new country, and you could wait for 3 more months as your Schengen visa-free period reset. In this way, you could actually bounce around the EU… hypothetically you could do this indefinitely and legally, just as long as you are careful to pay attention to the amount of time you spend in each place.
Note: new countries are still joining both the EU and the Schengen region. Do your own research before buying plane tickets to be sure that the policies have not changed since I wrote this article! Don’t say I did not warn you.
But what if you want to stay in a single country for longer, and not bounce between them?
Method 2: Get a Visa
A visa is a legal document issued by a country that allows you to stay in the country for a specified period of time. One good thing about this method is that a visa issued in one of the Schengen countries allows you to travel between the other Schengen countries. In other words, the entire Schengen region operates under a single visa policy, so even though the visa may be issued by one country it is a valid way to move between them. On the other hand, keep in mind that most of these options qualify as holding residence in your target country, meaning that you will likely have to pay taxes on any income you make.
Of course, the policies for visas are different for each country so I again must encourage you to do your own research for the country you wish to visit. For example, in Germany you can apply for a residence permit/visa from within the country, but in France you must do so from your home country. Still, here is the basic overview of your options:
If your significant other is a resident of another country, you are more or less guaranteed an indefinite visa from that country. If you are so fortunate to be in this situation it is by far the easiest and most straight-forward. Don’t go trying to fool the system, though. Immigration policies are strict and the marriage must me legitimate.
The hardest part about getting a work visa is generally finding an employer and then waiting the required amount of time. Especially given the recent recession and state of the job market, many countries have made this option more difficult in order to protect their domestic labor force. When I looked at the policies for Sweden, I found that there were many barriers in this particular country… for instance, the company that wishes to hire you must prove that they made an effort to hire a citizen first, and even then the approval process can take months. Finding work in your target country can prove very difficult unless you can bring a skill that natives simply cannot offer (in some cases, being a native English speaker may qualify as such a skill, but usually not). Most hostels and other small establishments will be unable/unwilling to help you. You will need to find a larger company with a legitimate reason for your presence.
2.3: Start a Company
The details for this path tend to be harder to find, but I have been told by people knowledgeable in the subject that the barriers are much smaller. Most countries are very eager to bring new business to their economy and are happy to provide you with a visa if you start a company. However, keep in mind that you will definitely need to pay taxes if you go this route. I considered doing this myself in Sweden, but soon realized that I would be subject to the notoriously high tax rates in Scandinavia and decided not to.
A student visa is easy to get if you are going to an accredited university in your target country. All prominent universities will have a department whose job it is to facilitate this process for students. You can usually even work part-time with a student visa (about 20 hours a week). Some smaller schools can also offer the required paperwork to apply for a student visa, but generally the smaller the school the less likely it is. I have even known friends to apply to a medium-sized university and pay tuition simply to get a student visa and never even attend classes (keep in mind that universities here in Europe are much cheaper that in the USA). I would not recommend this because I do not know if it is strictly legal, but it is an interesting idea.
If you can rent an apartment for a year or more in the target country as well as prove that you have sufficient funds to support yourself for that year, you can generally apply for a residence visa to live in the country. However keep in mind that this does not grant you permission to work in the country, which is why you must prove that you have sufficient funds to support yourself without a job for the full time you plan to stay there. It is not uncommon to need to show bank statements to prove that this is an option. Here’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about a retiree who does exactly this in France and a great write-up on how to go about this in Germany.
Method 3: Extend the Visa Free Period
Extend the Visa-Free Period If you want to stay in the Schengen region for more than 3 months but do not want to (or cannot) become a long-term resident of a given country, this option is for you. Let’s take Sweden (where I have done the most research) for an example. Here is the information about extending a visa-free period in Sweden. There are a number of requirements to be fulfilled. For one, a friend has to vouch for you (meaning his/her name and apartment address go on to the application form). You also had to prove that you have sufficient finances to live in Sweden during this time by showing bank statements (though it is a bit unclear exactly how much money is deemed “enough”). Finally you have to pay an application fee (about $130 USD) and show that you will leave Sweden when the extension ends. It seems that such a permit could hypothetically last as much as a year, but the extension cannot last longer than the visa of your sponsor. When you are issued the card they will take your finger prints, signature etc. for their records. You are able to state on the application form that you wish to travel to other EU countries, though, so it is known and documented that you will not be in Sweden for this entire time. I know that other countries also have policies to allow you to extend your visa-free period, though I have not researched them as extensively. Still, this should provide you with a good starting point if you would like to do something similar.