Question: My daughter and her friends are studying in Florence, Italy, through a study-abroad program. In meetings before they left, nothing was said about the Schengen visa, but those in charge encouraged all the students to stay after their semester was over to travel around Europe. My daughter and others bought Eurail passes and have flights home which are well beyond the 90-day limit for the Schengen visa. We knew nothing about the 90-day stay until the last meeting before the students were about to leave. Can you shed any light on this or give us suggestions about what the students should do now? Are some countries stricter than others?
Answer: Any traveler, not just students, who is spending longer than three months in certain parts of Europe must understand the rules concerning the Schengen visa.
The 26 countries that are party to the Schengen Agreement make it easy for U.S. passport holders to visit without having to apply for a visa for each country.
The countries are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
In these countries, in any 180-day period, holders of U.S. passports are allowed to stay 90 days.
Unless this is the world's shortest semester, DeCourdes' daughter may need to take additional steps.
Here's a starting place: Italy has a slick "Do you need a visa" process through its embassy website that takes you through four steps to determine whether you need a visa.
You select your nationality, select your country of residence, choose whether you're staying longer than 90 days and then select the reason for your visit.
I entered information for a student and it came up yes, meaning a visa is needed.
"If you want to do continuous study in a country that is under the Schengen Agreement for more than 90 days within any 180-day period, then I advise that you first speak to the study abroad office at your originating university in the U.S., if you don't have a travel agent who can help you," Danette Jacob, a travel specialist with Travel Leaders in La Crosse, Wis., a travel agency network, said in a email.
"More than likely the student enrolled in a study-abroad program through their home university [or secondary school]. These programs maintain contacts with the host school, and they already have procedures in place to help the student extend their visas for study purposes.
"They will know exactly whom to contact to help facilitate this for you, or they will be able to tell you where to go or who to contact in the host country."
Patt Potter with Travel Leaders in Blaine, Minn., suggests contacting the U.S. Embassy to find out whom to contact at the nearest U.S. consulate, which can direct you to the host country's branch of government that deals with visas.
"It is important to stress that they do not overstay their visa validity without extending the dates," Potter said in an email.
DeCourdes asks whether some countries are stricter than others. Right now, the climate is such that adhering to the rules is a must, and any study-abroad program that didn't discuss visas is putting its students in jeopardy.
"Immigration is such a hot topic," said Hans Benson, a lawyer with Fragomen Worldwide, who helps the company's employees get visas for work abroad. Because there is so much discussion about illegal immigration in Europe, following the letter of the law is imperative, not just advisable.
For instance, Benson just handled an issue for a traveler who was returning to a Schengen country after spending time away. Remember, you can spend 90 days within a 180-day period. Then you have to leave, but you can come back and the clock on the "you don't need a visa" starts again.
But the client slipped up and returned on Day 179. "They made her stay the night in the airport," he said, before she was admitted to the country.
If you're having a hard time keeping track, check out a Schengen calculator (www.lat.ms/calculator) that can help you keep track of your travels.
If you do run into problems, do not expect help from the U.S. Embassy. "We find their hands are tied," Benson said. Someone in visa difficulty is "in no man's land and it's hard for them [the U.S. Embassy] to assist."
And if you don't have enough to worry about, you should also think about your passport. What? Yes, your passport should be valid at least six months from your date of return, the State Department notes. Many countries require three months, but increasingly six months is the norm, and if you have less than a year left on your passport, you may as well go ahead and get a new one.
Travel to countries around the world has become easier, but entrance requirements are increasingly complex. To read more about visa requirements in the country you're visiting, go to the country-specific pages at the U.S. State Department's website (www.travel.state.gov).