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Schengen agreement: Understand the 90/180 rule before European travel

Going to Europe? Read up on the Schengen agreement before leaving

Question: Twice a year for more than 10 years, I have been flying to Zurich, Switzerland, from LAX. Each trip I stay for about a month. In September, when I was checking in at LAX, the airline agent asked whether I had spent more than 90 days in Europe in the last six months. I had never been asked this, so I asked her why she wanted to know. I was told that a person cannot spend more than 90 days in Europe during a six-month period. Can you please explain this? What does a person do if they want to spend more than 90 days in Europe during a six-month period of time?

Orrin Turbow

Oxnard

Answer: We can both thank and curse the 1985 Schengen agreement for the 90/180 rule. The thanks: If you're traveling on a vacation of less than three months, moving between countries that are part of the agreement — and please note that this is not every European country — is relatively easy. The curse: If you're staying longer than 90 days, you'll probably have to contend with visas.

On June 14, 1985, representatives of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and what was then West Germany signed an agreement (in Schengen, Luxembourg, hence the name) that facilitated the movement of people among those countries, creating a sort of borderless travel.

By the time the accord went into effect more than a decade later, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain had joined the party, and more have continued to join. The agreement was created outside the European Union but was folded into EU law in 1999. Not every Schengen country is part of the EU and not every member of the EU is part of Schengen; for a list, see the State Department's Schengen FAQ site at www.lat.ms/1BnKkps.

What this means for U.S. travelers, generally speaking, is that you can stay 90 days within a 180-day period in a Schengen country and never worry about a visa.

If the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct — its 2012 statistics say a worker with 20 years of service with a company gets an average of 19 days of paid vacation — you can cross that worry off your list because you're 71 days away from running afoul of the accord's rules. But here are two other worries you can add to your list.

The first is the validity of your passport. If you're going to a Schengen country, the State Department says, your passport must be valid for "at least three months beyond your intended date of departure."

Here's what can happen if your passport is noncompliant: "If your passport does not meet the Schengen requirements, you may be refused boarding by the airline at your point of origin or while transferring planes," said Alyssa Zalenski, press officer in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. "You could also be denied entry when you arrive in the Schengen area.

"For this reason, we recommend that your passport have at least six months' validity remaining whenever you travel abroad."

(The issue of passport expiration and international travel is something I've mentioned in previous columns [www.latimes.com/passportvalidity]. Schengen countries are not the only places where having less than six months left on your passport can be a problem. Check your destination country's rules by searching for them at www.travel.state.gov.)

The second worry is if you're staying longer than 90 days. Unless your boss is exceptionally generous, that won't be an issue. But business people and students who may be studying abroad for a semester or two may need a national visa.

So attention, moms and dads, because you're the ones who worry about this stuff: If you were a freewheeling European backpacker in the '70s and '80s, things have changed.

"It's great not to have to go through immigration every time you cross a border in 2015," said Stan McGahey, a professor of international tourism at St. Leo University in Florida who was one of the aforementioned backpackers.

"But if you want to stay longer than 90 days, then the good old [days] were much better.... Since I was a rolling doughnut most of the time, I didn't worry about any 90-day limit or whatever it was at the time in each country I visited."

If your child is staying more than 90 days, he or she probably will need a visa from the country where the alleged studying is taking place. (I say "alleged" because, yes, I did the study abroad thing and most of what I learned wasn't in the classroom.)

You can search for country-specific information and be directed to visa information at the State Department's site at www.lat.ms/1IltMnM.

I also found plenty of useful information at the website of the National Assn. of Foreign Student Advisors (www.nafsa.org), especially this page, http://www.lat.ms/1boHGdX, which concerns U.S. students studying in Schengen countries.

If you're going to Europe, the welcome mat is out.

Just make sure you've complied with the rules so it's not yanked out from under you.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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