Website Update Log

You and the Schengen Treaty
[NB:  This was written in 2004 and, as with all things involving cruising, events bring change with the march of time.  The number of Schengen Treaty members has expanded  since I wrote this and now (the end of 2009) consists of 25 countries – most but not all of them EU member states.  (The only only new signatories in 2007 that might be relevant to cruising boats are Malta and Norway).  To my knowledge, however, there are no broad changes in how the Treaty is administered that significantly change the observations and conclusions I wrote below.
Introduction:  This is one of those topics that we cruisers hate to hear about, but hate to not know about even more.  I could make this sound forbidding and a Big Problem…when in fact it only rarely seems to surface as an issue.  But in the belief that having information is better than being ignorant, and because the occasional European cruiser has been wounded by this treaty’s restrictions in one way or another, here’s my best effort to offer info, show where the problems might arise, but not blow it out of proportion.
What is it?  The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 in the village of Schengen, on the borders of Luxembourg, France and Germany. It established common immigration procedures between the signatories to the treaty…so this isn’t about how long your boat can be somewhere, but rather how long YOU can be somewhere.  This treaty is not related to the European Union, although many of the Schengen countries are also members of the EU, so don’t think “EU” as you read on.  And to add a last layer of complexity, you may be familiar with the typical process whereby you enter a country by boat, clear in and are then granted a period of stay in that country, usually indicated by a stamp in your passport.  When you clear out and subsequently arrive at the next country, you expect things to start all over again.  But when moving between Schengen countries, officials will often not want to see your passport BUT the duration of your stay is determined by how long you’ve been in ALL the Schengen countries, combined.  OK, everything clear so far…?
Who Are the Schengen Signatories:  There are now 15 Schengen countries (as of the date this was written) who have chosen to “harmonize” their immigration policies and act in a uniform manner.  They are:

















Duration of Stay:  You may wish to research this topic in more detail based on your cruising plans by visiting the websites of the Schengen countries of interest to you.  You will usually find Schengen restrictions on their ‘Visa’ page.  But here are the basic rules that apply to a North American cruising sailor:

  1. A non-Schengen citizen is allowed to spend up to 90 days in one or more Schengen countries.
  2.  Once you have been in one or more Schengen countries for 90 days, you must remain outside ALL the Schengen countries for at least 90 days.  So:  “Only 3 months in every 6”.
  3. If you wish to stay longer in a Schengen country, you should check with them about seeking a special visa for an extended stay.  Whether this is available or not, for how long, and how involved – or simple – the process is will depend on the individual country.
Note:  When an extended stay visa is not possible, some countries will instead offer residency as an option, which can be easy or difficult to obtain, and which will have a cost…but perhaps not as much as leaving and then returning to the country.  Residency isn’t necessarily viewed by governments as the ‘permanent and irreversible’ status that it may sound like.
As you review the list of Schengen countries, note how contiguous the land masses are as represented by these signatories, and reflect on your own cruising plans.  For example, how does one plan a May through September cruise of Scandinavia and the Dutch Canals without violating the terms of the treaty, or linger in the German and French canals for a full season?  How can you winter over in Spain or Portugal after arriving from the (Portuguese) Azores?  How do you winter in the Greek Islands?  Ahhh, now you see the rub.  While we never gave it a thought when forming our own first-year European cruising plans, not needing to deal with this issue was one of the benefits of cruising in and then wintering over in the UK, which is not a Schengen signatory.  Again, consider inquiring about an extended stay visa if you plan to winter over in one of these countries.
Is This a Big Deal?  Probably not, so let’s not get too worried about this issue…but it does depend a bit on circumstance.  Here’s part of an email I received from a U.S. cruiser who’s been in Northern Europe and the Med for some years now, unintentionally violating these immigration time limits on occasion, which I think reflects the normal level of yachtie knowledge on this topic and also the degree to which it seems to be an issue for officials.
“As for Schengen countries, I wasn't even aware of this until last summer when I caught up with my good friend, Dick.  Dick was nailed for 200 or 250 euros in Greece.  He was over the three months by one day.  I guess they had a push on Schengen violations and Dick showed up at the wrong time.  Schengen is very difficult for a cruiser to comply with because you can only be in the EU three months out of six.  I have not personally had any incidents about Schengen…”
We’ve been exposed to a fair amount of Euro-oriented dock gossip by now, visited the normal web bulletin boards, read the SSCA Bulletins, corresponded with other Bermuda-Azores ‘Class of 2003’ crews, and so forth.  So far, I’m only aware of one other recent situation (other than the Greek fine mentioned above) where Schengen restrictions worked against a yacht, and that was when a U.S. boat was seeking a “Schengen Visa” so they could winter in Paris with a clear conscience.  (To read about this incident first hand, note MARIAH’s letter in the December, 2003 SSCA Bulletin).  In a classic case of no good deed going unpunished, the French officials decided that an extended Schengen visa made the crew instant residents of France, which in turn obliterated their 18-month VAT-free exemption as non-EU citizens.  (For more on this topic, see my VAT article).  The French authorities’ position was that this visa thereby obligated MARIAH to pay VAT on their boat, even though they had been inside the EU less than 18 months ago.  After a week of the boat being impounded and with the help of a sympathetic French-speaking friend, their VAT obligations were removed…but not many of us would choose to struggle through that kind of experience.
While writing this article, I also inquired of American boats wintering in Spain and the Mediterranean coast of France if they were hearing anything from their local officials about Schengen restrictions.  In both cases, the answer was ‘No’.  The same was true when I asked friends who just returned from a summer in Scandinavia.  Does that provide comfort and assurance for the next boat? I’m thinking it probably should…but welcome to the often fuzzy and grey world of rules and regulations in Europe.
Netherlands:  A special exception?  The Netherlands’ London Embassy website ( states that one may be allowed to remain in the Netherlands longer than 3 months.  To quote the website:
“To stay for an uninterrupted period of more than three months, you will require a special visa called an authorisation for temporary stay (MVV). Such a visa is required by the nationals of all countries except the EU member states and a few other countries.”
The embassy identifies two of those “other countries” as the United States and Canada.  This would suggest that a Summer cruise in the Baltic can come to a relaxed end in the Dutch canals absent any concerns about Schengen restrictions.  It also suggests a North American sailor would not even need to seek visa-related paperwork regarding their extended stay.  But in typical contradictory fashion, the website for the Netherlands Embassy in Washington, DC ( says special permission for an extended stay must be sought, involves much proof of solvency and insurance, and is difficult to obtain.  Perhaps you might want to make your own inquiry if thinking of stopping in Amsterdam after a run through the Baltic.
So what is the bottom line?  While there are occasional reports about the Schengen Treaty creating problems for cruising sailors who are not EU citizens, I think it's fair to say these reports are a) very rare, b) seem to primarily (if not solely) occur in Greece, and c) non-EU crews generally needn't shape their cruising itinerary around the Schengen Treaty (although I wouldn't recommend staying in Greece longer than 90 days).  There have literally been thousands of non-EU boats and crews cruising in European waters in recent years.  Given the lack of immigration restrictions and fines forced on 99+% of them during that time, it simply doesn't warrant the attention that, for example, observing the VAT time limits do.
© Jack Tyler – February, 2004
WHOOSH, currently lying St. Katharine’s Haven, London