Key:Blue area are countries within Schengen and Orange Areas are “to be added” countries. Grey Countries are not part of this treaty.  (Map from Wikipedia)

This map would have been useful to me before I started traveling. Whoops. When I took a leave of absence, I flew to Finland, then Holland, then to Africa, then to Madrid, then to France before settling down to Iceland.

When I had planned my Iceland Divemaster program, I checked the Icelandic immigration website and found that I could stay in the country on Tourist Visa for 90 days. This worked for me because I was paying for the Divemaster program and I was not working. I didn’t need any special visa. Once I got to Iceland I met a lot of tourists. One couple in particular told me of their one year sabbatical and how it was hard to get around the Schengen area. Huh? That’s when I felt a deep lump forming in my belly.  I went home and googled “Schengen.” Oh to my stupid American surprise that I found this map.

The basic rule for Schengen and Americans is that you can visit any of the blue marked countries (on the map) and stay for a total of 90 days every year. This is not consecutive. It means for the year, once you step foot on a Blue country your days are numbered. It doesn’t matter if you leave for a week or go somewhere else. You have 90 days for that year. If you leave for over 365 days, the clock resets.

So technically, my visit during Christmas to Belgium and Finland also counted. OH MY GOD. I didn’t want to leave in the middle of my divemaster program, so I made the decision to over stay my visa by about 2 months.

When I got to the immigration line to Iceland, they didn’t like my stamps. “When did you come into the Schengen area?” “Uhh…” “So you have overstayed your visa. Please wait here.” The police arrived and took me to a small room off to the side. I was asked if I knew the rules.  Here’s where honesty pays off.

I told the officer. I researched Iceland and came for a 3 month divemaster program. At the time of my trip planning I did not know about the Schengen area and thought Iceland was not part of the EU. I planned my Iceland trip, and then decided to come to the EU earlier to visit friends. Once I got to Iceland, and half way through my program I realized my error. I know the rules now.  He understood and told me that there are penalties and fines for overstaying visas. I said, I understood and apologized. He left for a short while and came back and said “Don’t come back for 6 months” and gave me an exit stamp.

I really lucked out. I have read other people’s experiences about this. You can get fined or even banned. A co-worker’s sister got a 4 year ban for overstaying her Australian visa.

I have started to research how to get back into Europe without waiting for 6 months, seems like you need to apply to France or a specific country. From there, the country will want bank statements to make sure you aren’t a risk for becoming an illegal worker or stay in the country.