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How can you live in Europe longer than normal visa restrictions allow?
While I’m writing this in May, we’re entering the best time of year in Europe. Summer is beautiful, the outdoor cafes are bustling, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
As you may already know, Americans (and many other nationalities) don’t need a visa to visit most of Europe. In fact, you only need a preapproved visa if your country is on this list.
The catch? You can only stay for 90 days in any six month period.
What if you want to spend more than 90 days in Europe? Maybe you want to learn a language, have a deeper experience living in a European capital, or spend more time with new European friends.
It turns out that despite the 90-day restriction there are a few ways to stay much longer. I've spent nearly two continuous years in Europe now, mainly in Budapest, and I hope to stay longer.
Let me explain how you might be able to do the same.
My Stay in Europe: It Started When I Quit My Job
My story goes something like this: in July 2011 I quit my job and started traveling around the world. First to Central and South America, then Europe, and eventually South East Asia.
It didn’t take me long to discover that I could work online and continue to fund my travel addiction. While I still love to travel, over time I found myself staying longer and longer in each place I visited. When I ultimately settled on Europe as a base of operations (for both business and personal reasons) I needed to figure out how to stay past the Schengen restrictions. Unfortunately I had absolutely no idea how to go about it.
It turned out to be much easier than I expected, and I’d like to share how I've managed to stay in Europe for the last two years. It all started with a language-focused residency permit in Hungary. I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, I should point out that this narrative focuses on me – an American – living abroad. But what I learned can apply to citizens of many other countries too.
How the Schengen Zone in Europe Works
Let's get right down to business. The first question most people ask is ‘how do I get a visa for travel to Europe?’
First of all, if your home country isn’t on this country list, then you don’t need a visa. Countries that don’t need a visa include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Instead of a visa, you just get a stamp in your passport on arrival. This stamp gives you three months’ access to what's called the ‘Schengen Zone', which includes most of the EU, and a few non-EU countries.
The Schengen Zone is a large block of territory that looks like this:
If you want to stay more than three months in the Schengen Zone you'll need a ‘residency permit', which must be formally applied for.
There are a few technical details to understand about Schengen:
- As the map above illustrates, there are some important country exceptions, notably the UK and Ireland. States that are set to join but are not officially part of Schengen include Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus (these are orange on the map above).
- You can stay in the Schengen Zone for up to 90 days in any 180 day period. That means you can go in and out of the area over a period of 6 months, as long as the total time inside does not exceed 90 days. (Alternatively, you can just stay in the Schengen Area for 90 consecutive days, then leave.) This also means that you could spend a total of 6 months in the Schengen Zone each year as long as you spaced it out properly.
- You don’t need to show your passport inside the Schengen zone – there are no border checks between places like Spain and France, for example, which is convenient but a bummer for those who like to collect passport stamps.
- Leaving the Schengen zone can be as simple as hopping on a bus or train to Croatia from Hungary (which is five to ten hours away, depending how you travel). You get a stamp on the way out. When you come back in you get another stamp. While this may sound suspiciously like a ‘visa run’, there's legally no such thing in Europe. You add up your total time in the Schengen Zone, and when it hits 90 days in six months you’re done.
Can you get in trouble for violating Schengen rules? Yes, absolutely.
If you’re thinking about violating the rules, such as by overstaying your Schengen visa, a quick search for “Schengen penalty” will bring up stories of travelers who were deported and/or fined heavily for doing so. It's best to whenever possible play by the rules. I for one am not eager to get a large ‘DEPORTED' stamp anywhere in my passport.
So in sum: you can visit Europe for up to three months without doing any additional paperwork. If you want to stay longer, you’ll need to look at residency permits.
How I Stayed in Hungary for 12 Months with a Language-Related Residency Permit
Residency permits are a simple concept. The only issue is finding the right one to apply for. There are a few options:
- Student Visas
- Type D Temporary Residence Permits
- Investment/Business Visas
- Some very specific case visas, like work holiday or artist visas.
How I Stayed in Hungary for 12 Months with a Language-Related Residency Permit
If you are involved in something like a semester-exchange program or a full-time language-learning course you probably have the option of obtaining a student visa in the country of study. Most likely you’ll have to enroll and pay for the course before you apply for the visa, and you probably have to do this before you leave home. It’s also likely the organisation running the course or exchange can help you set this up.
The only problem with this option is the visa usually only lasts as long as the course and it may have other requirements like minimum course hours per week. This may be the case if you’re in an official university program, but obviously does not work for a lot of us who are either more self-directed or outside of the university system. Language courses like this can also cost a lot of money.
Enter the Type D “Other” Visa for Longer Stays in Europe
The primary permit for our purposes is a Type D “Other” visa, which is available in most countries in Europe that I’ve looked at.
Type D visas are for anything that doesn’t fit into the other buckets above. They’re for people who are going to be living for a year or two in a country but not working or studying there. They seem to be designed for people on sabbatical, retirees, writers/artists, or anyone else who doesn’t fit into the above categories.
Some example reasons for Type D Visas include:
- Taking a language course (either part time or on your own, as opposed to an official course as mentioned above).
- Looking for business partners and opportunities.
- Exploring your roots. If you have Hungarian ancestry, for example, it’s fairly easy to qualify for this in Hungary.
With a Type D visa, obtaining a residency permit is not that hard, but it's not a cakewalk either.
The Catch with Type D Visas: Minimum Savings and Other Requirements
There is a major catch to the Type D visa: you have to prove that you have enough money to survive while you’re in the country.
How much are we talking about? Probably on the order of about €1,200 to €2,000 per month, so if you’re planning to stay for a year you’ll need €15,600 – €24,000 in your bank account.
Plus, you must show proof of housing in the form of a signed lease. Because of this requirement, this visa option is only a good one for people who are really committed to staying for a while. That said, you can always break a lease later if it comes to that.
As another caveat, some countries, like Spain and Portugal, require you to apply for the permit from your home country. That’s not ideal if you are already in Europe. This isn’t always the case, and isn’t the case in Hungary, but it pays to plan ahead.
If you don’t qualify for the Type D visa due to the savings criteria, don’t fret, you can still look into the student visa option.
For those who do, here are some additional details about what applying looks like.
A Basic Step-by-Step Template for Applying for a Type D Visa in Europe
Step 1: Pick a Country and Check Out Their Visa Requirements
First of all, find out the specifics of the country you’re staying in (or the country you plan to visit).
It’s best to find the website of the country’s immigration authority. If you can’t (yet) read the local language, use Google Translate or contact the local consulate in your home country to check out the visa application requirements.
When you start searching for ‘residency permit in [country name]’ you’ll probably find plenty of expat companies offering services and information. Sometimes these can be extremely helpful so it may be worth giving one a call to learn more.
Step 2: Complete the Relevant Paperwork
Make friends, hire a local, or hire an expat company to put all the visa paperwork together for you.
The nice part about working with a local or someone who has done this before is they will tell you what you need to do and where/when you need to show up. That said, you can also do the entire process yourself but it can be difficult unless you can read and speak the local language. This may be another reason to apply from your home country.
Step 3: Assemble the Supporting Documents You Require
The documents you’ll need in your application depend on the country where you’re applying for a visa. The following are based on my experience in Hungary:
- A letter of intent, explaining why you want to apply for a permit. Generally this is a) exploring roots (any relatives or connections to the country); b) a language course (that's what I did); or c) exploring business opportunities.
- Bank account statements showing you have enough money to live for the time period you want to stay in the country.
- A copy of your apartment lease. This can be the hardest part. You need to actually prove you have the intent to stay in the country in the form of a signed rental lease. The longer the better. Some people I know have been granted two year residency permits with a two year lease.
- A copy of the Title Deed for your apartment. This can be a bit of a pain, but there is often a requirement to prove the person on the lease actually owns the apartment. The owner can probably get this for you.
- A local insurance certificate. For Hungary, this meant extremely cheap insurance from a common provider like Generali that covered sending my remains home if the worst happened.
- A scan of your current Passport.
- Some passport photos. Check the requirements with your destination country’s consulate. The required dimensions for passport photos can differ from one country to the next.
- Copies of any other application documents.
In other countries, you’ll need a background check. Some countries such as Portugal require Americans to produce a Criminal Record Certificate issued by the FBI. This can be requested in Portugal but is probably much faster in the US.
Step 4: Visit the Immigration Office
Once you have all the required documents, visit the immigration office with a local friend or representative from an expat company. Call ahead first to see if you need to make an appointment. Take a book, this will take a while! Of course, also take all the documents you assembled with you.
Step 5: Deliver Any Documents You Forgot
Up to four weeks later the immigration office will send you a letter about X document you forgot to include in your application. This letter will be ‘deliver in person' only so if you aren't at your address it goes to the local post office and you have to show an ID to get it. In other words, you can't skip town, or if you do you have to come back to take care of this.
You submit X document by emailing it to your expat agency or mailing it yourself.
Step 6: Resume waiting
In the meantime, you’ll likely be asked to repeat steps 4 and 5 once or twice.
Step 7: Celebrate!
Once your application has been accepted a date will be set for you to personally go into the immigration office to get your residency card. Sometimes if you are lucky they will mail it to you.
The Costs Involved in Applying for a Type D Residency Permit
An expat company can cost as much as €500 to help you submit an application, so hiring a local or making friends is significantly cheaper. Doing it yourself depends on if you’re doing it from your home country or abroad, how much of the local language you know, and how much your time is worth.
Other costs to consider include:
- Insurance (required) at around €100 for a year. This only covers sending your remains home if something happens.
- A Title Deed to apartment can cost €15 or so.
- The application fee – around €30, though this varies by country.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Residency Permit?
In my experience, it takes two to three months.
Make sure you start the application as long as possible before your Schengen stamp expires (minimum 30 days, preferably 60). It's best to get started right when you arrive.
It’s useful to understand the underlying political disposition in the country where you’re applying. For example, in an ex-Soviet-bloc country, cutting through the bureaucracy is about who you know. In Spain they will probably put things off until tomorrow.
Are There Any Downsides to the Process?
If you have the time and energy, the only downside might be a small investment in the application process. But to be clear, it isn’t necessarily for the faint-hearted either. The main pain points here being:
- It can take a while to complete.
- You need to show minimum savings amounts.
- The process isn’t the cheapest thing ever, although probably cheaper than an official language course.
- You need to be committed to want to stay in Europe. 90 days is plenty of time if you just want to bounce around.
- You have to reapply every year.
Overall, not that bad, but expect it to take some time to complete.
The End Result: Living in Europe for One Year (or more)
Spending a year or two in Europe makes for a much deeper experience, both for language learning and for forming a lasting connection to a culture.
The nice part about having an official residency visa in Europe is that it gives you an all-access pass to the Schengen zone, which means you can also visit the rest of the continent while you’re there.
While I wish it was easier for Americans (and others) to get a visa to live in Europe, it’s relatively straightforward to complete the steps above. So whether you apply for a student visa or a residency permit, don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet and stay awhile!