Visas for Australians in Europe: How the Schengen and bilateral agreements allow travellers to stay longer

For years now, Australians visiting Europe have been hamstrung by the rules of the Schengen Agreement. Under this agreement, Australian passport holders are permitted to remain and travel freely through the Schengen Area for up to 90 days in any 180-day period.

The Schengen Area, which covers most of Continental Europe, from Portugal in the west to Poland and the Baltic States in the east and including the Nordic countries, was set up to facilitate the movements of goods and traffic between the signatories. For travellers, it allows easy passage from one country to the next without the need to pass through border controls.

While this works well for most Aussie travellers, it's been a thorn in the side of those planning to stay longer than 90 days. One way around it is to leave the Schengen Area once your 90 days are up and spend the next 90 days in a European country outside the Schengen Area. The UK, Ireland and Croatia are popular choices – but there's another way.

In the 1950s Australia signed bilateral visa waiver agreements with a number of European countries. At various times the list has included Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Some of those countries have since rescinded those agreements, and the agreement with France came later, but for the most part those agreements still exist, and still apply despite the restrictions that apply to Aussie travellers under the Schengen Agreement.

In essence, those visa waiver agreements allow Australian passport holders to stay in these countries without having any impact on the 90 days granted them under the Schengen Agreement. The usual period granted under the visa waiver agreements is 90 days.

Used judiciously, those visa waiver agreements give Australian passport holders the right to travel around Europe for a virtually unlimited period.

Of course, this article should not be interpreted as actual legal advice on visas. Visa and other entry and exit conditions are complex and can change at short notice, so you should always check with the embassy or consulate of the country you're visiting to get the latest advice".

This is what the German Embassy in Canberra has to say on the issue:

"There is a visa waiver agreement between Germany and Australia which allows Australians to spend up to three months in Germany, without reference to time spent in other Schengen area countries … the agreement is a special agreement between Germany and Australia and is designed for Australians travelling through the Schengen states, who want to stay another 90 days in Germany."

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And this from the Norwegian Embassy in Canberra:

"Please be advised that there is currently a separate bilateral agreement between Norway and Australia allowing stays for up to 90 days visa free in Norway in addition to any days spent in a non-Nordic Schengen country. As a consequence, Australian citizens will not be refused entry to Norway due to time spent in, for example, Spain."

While these visa waiver agreements expand the boundaries for any Aussies planning a long-term stay in Europe, using them to your advantage is not straightforward.

You need to document your travels fully. Say you spend 90 days travelling around the Schengen Area and then drive across the border from Italy into Austria. Under the visa waiver agreement between Australia and Austria you are entitled to stay for up to 90 days in Austria. However, since there is no border control between Italy and Austria there is no documentation in your passport to prove that you "left" the Schengen Area and "entered" Austria under the visa waiver agreement. It might subsequently appear to an immigration official that you have outstayed the 90-day limit under which you are entitled to remain in the Schengen Area. If you are deemed to be in breach and can't prove otherwise, that's a serious offence, with possible sanctions including a fine, deportation, a notice stamped into your passport and an entry ban. You need to validate your movements, and one way to do this is to keep all hotel and restaurant receipts and any airline, train and bus tickets.

The actual period you are entitled to remain in a country under the visa waiver agreements varies. In most cases it's 90 days but there are exceptions. For example in Belgium, it's 60 days.

The Nordic countries regard themselves as a single bloc for the purposes of the visa waiver agreement. According to the Danish Embassy in Canberra, "Australian citizens are allowed to stay in Denmark visa-free for up to 90 days in any 180-day period regardless of stays in other Schengen countries. Please note that days spent in another Nordic country does count towards the 90 days maximum."

Advice from the Norwegian Embassy confirms this: "If spending 90 days in Norway, you must exit Norway and spend at least 90 days in a non-Nordic country before you are allowed to re-enter Norway."

Some other countries are less specific about the time you must remain outside before being allowed to re-enter under a visa waiver agreement.

This is the advice from the Consular Affairs and Visa Policy Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands: "In order to return to the Netherlands after a stay of 90 days, you need to leave the Schengen area for a minimal period first (for example, by travelling to the UK or any other country outside the Schengen area)."

"Minimal period" is vague, but it could mean that after a stay of just a few days outside Holland you would be permitted to return for another 90 days.

France is a tricky case. The bilateral visa waiver agreement between France and Australia allows Australian passport holders to remain in France for three months in any six-month period. This agreement was only signed after the Schengen Area came into existence, and it makes reference to that agreement.

Under a proposal from Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs to the French Ambassador in Australia dated 1998 and subsequently ratified by the government of the French Republic, "When (Citizens of Australia) enter the European territory of the Republic of France after having stayed in the territory of one or several states party to the Convention on the Application of the Schengen Agreement, dated 19 June 1990, the three-month period shall take effect from the date of crossing the external frontier delimiting the area of free movement constituted by those states."

It would appear therefore that if you enter another Schengen Area country other than France and stay for 30 days, you would be permitted to remain in France for only for the remaining 60 days of your allowance under the Schengen Agreement. However, if you were to enter France from the UK, for example, and before entering any other Schengen Area country, you could stay for up to three months under the visa waiver agreement without having any time subtracted from the 90 days allowed under the Schengen Agreement.

Confused?

The visa waiver agreements differ in significant areas. If you plan to make use of these agreements you need to be crystal clear that you're not breaking any rules. As far as most immigration officials within the Schengen Area are concerned, the right of Australia passport holders to travel freely are governed by the 90 days allowed under the Schengen Agreement. If you've stayed longer under a bilateral visa waiver agreement, you might need to prove its existence. When you have your itinerary worked out, write to the relevant embassies in Canberra and as concisely as possible spell out your plans for how long you plan to remain in their country as well as elsewhere within the Schengen Area and carry a hard copy of their response with you – you're probably going to need it.

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Europe

See also: Eight things you need to know before visiting Europe

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