I made an ignorant American mistake. I assumed that with my U.S. passport, I could travel all throughout Europe visa-free, hassle-free, for as long as I wanted. It was the last part where I was oh so very wrong.
Exactly two weeks before our departure to Berlin, Chris discovered that Americans can only travel throughout the Schengen Area (26 European countries with a common visa policy) visa-free for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. Once the 90 days are up, they would need to exit the Schengen Area (to let’s say the UK, or even Africa) and wait at least another 90 days before re-entering the Schengen Area again. Some countries are more lax than others when it comes to checking the dates on the passport, but violating the law at an international border that can lead to fines, an illegal immigrant stamp, and up to a 5-year ban are punishments we’d prefer to avoid.
We planned to travel throughout Europe for 6+ months and we definitely planned on spending more than just 90 days in the Schengen Area. Had we naively gone to Berlin according to plan without a visa, we would have been screwed. (Well, we’d end up skipping Spain and Portugal and spending 3 months in eastern Europe.) But after researching late into the night we read of several work arounds.
We could apply for a long term visa, which would allow us to stay and travel throughout the Schengen Area until that visa expired. Three feasible long term visas we read about were:
1. Freelancer visa in Germany
2. Student visa in Spain
3. Long stay visitor visa (3+ months) in France
Because #1 required proof of residency, fluency in German, and a business plan, we checked out option 2. #2 required applicants to be a full-time student at a university, which meant we’d have to apply to a school, get accepted, and pay tuition. #3 was our easiest option–all we had to do was prove we wouldn’t be a burden (wandering transients) to the French government. I lay out the details of acquiring a French long stay visitor visa below.
First, we made an appointment at the San Francisco Consulate, only a 20-minute walk from our apartment. When I checked on Sunday night for appointments, there were exactly 2 slots available left on Tuesday (January 26). Our flight was Sunday, February 7. This meant they’d only have 8.5 working days to process our visas. The website recommended at least a 1-month time frame. Gulp.
Then we spent hours on Monday gathering all the documents needed:
1. Application and passport photo
2. Copy of passport
3. Letter of employment (or unemployment for me–I simply stated I was taking a sabbatical year)
4. Notorized letter promising not to engage in any employment in France (Locals already have a hard enough time finding jobs. France doesn’t want foreigners competing with locals in their job market.)
5. Proof of income to show you can support yourself during your entire stay in France (This may be the hardest part for most people. If it costs at least $1.5k/mo. to live in France, do the math. We asked for a 6-month visa, so we figured we’d need at least $9,000 each in our bank accounts. You can definitely include your investment accounts, 401k, and HSA/FSA accounts!)
6. Proof of medical insurance (France doesn’t want to have to cover your ass if you’re in an accident. You better make sure you have something from World Nomads or any other comparable international insurance.)
7. Proof of accommodation (Most people I know have at least one friend in France. Chris has a friend in France, and my cousin’s husband’s mother lives in France. We used her address, telephone number, and email address.)
8. E-ticket to destination
9. Fee of $108, payable by credit card
On Tuesday morning we nervously waited at the consulate, wondering if they would simply refuse our application because it was too last minute. We totally lucked out with an incredibly nice, helpful woman. She made a face when she checked the calendar after we told her we were leaving on February 7, but she cheerfully told us she’d make it happen for us. Although the consulate claims they do not offer expedite services, the woman said she’d put a rush on it for us. “If you don’t hear from us by next Thursday, email us,” she said with a smile.
We were incredibly relieved, but we knew there was still one more hurdle: approval! After all, if there were somehow any kinks with our applications, we could still be denied.
Exactly 1 week after our appointments, I received an email from the French consulate stating that our visas were ready! Had I not been inside a store when I read that email, I would’ve jumped up and down and squealed like a child. Chris picked up our visas first thing the next day on Wednesday morning, and that very Sunday we headed out to Germany.
From what I’ve read online, it seems as if it normally takes about a week for visas to be processed and approved. Another friend coincidentally applied for the same visa we did around the same time, and she confirmed it took the consulate about a week for her visa. Although it worked out for us, I do NOT recommend applying for the visa less than 10 days before departure. Save yourself the stress and do it a month in advance. Maybe it was due to the low season. We didn’t know. But what we did know was that we now possessed the golden ticket to spending 6+ months in Europe!!!