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Yankees need apply: what happens when you overstay your visa in Europe/Schengen

Updated on February 22, 2011

Returned to the USA

I did it. I decided to quit my job and sell my house in Baltimore to travel to Europe for an indefinite amount of time to discover my true self (as one does, when they find themselves developing unhealthy obsessions with movies such as, Love Actually ).

In preparation, of course, I did some research. So, how long was I actually allowed to stay in the EU without, say, getting married? Do a Google search and anyone can easily find out, three months. Yes, a tourist visa for a U.S. citizen traveling to Europe is three months (the same travel visa we grant them). This is called a "tourist visa," and is automatically granted upon entry at immigration, with only your passport. So naturally, after receiving this information (as any overly optimistic and romantically inclined individual seeking a great escape may think), I wondered "But is it really just three months?" Yes. Yes, it is. And I have the deportation papers to prove it.

Have you met the Schengen area? If not, allow me to introduce you. The Schengen area is a group of (I believe) 25 countries who share visa travel requirements. If you are an American traveling to any country of the Schengen area (which includes the majority of the EU) you are allowed to be in that area for 3 months (straight, or, 3 months of any 6 month period). It doesn't matter how many countries you travel to within the Schengen area, they are all considered the same under the tourist visa. In order to be allowed re-entry into any country in this area, you must have remained outside of the Schengen area for at least 3 months (If you have already used up your three month limit). (Schengen Area countries)

So that information can be found anywhere online, but what you will also find online, is personal accounts telling you different. Some people say they have traveled in and out of the area with no problems, that no one ever stopped them or anyone they knew. Some people post that you only have to leave and get your passport stamped in Turkey and then you can come back. Some people say they never stop Americans.

I was traveling to Madrid. With so many people posting personal accounts of being in Spain, traveling in and out, never having a problem, staying there for over a year, I thought, "Eh, it'll be fine!" As long I wasn't trying to work illegally, and minding my own tapas and cañas consuming self, I wouldn't have a problem.

So I went to Madrid. I rented an apartment and I enrolled in a part-time CELTA class to become certified to teach English.

And it was amazing. Spending the summer in Madrid, learning the city, the language, falling in love. But as I was busy becoming more and more cultured, I was also becoming more and more illegal. I had American friends there who had spent way more than 3 months in Madrid, and traveled back home to the States and then back to Madrid, time and time again, "No problem!" they told me, "They don't really care about the Americans, they assume they're here to vacation and spend money!" Just what I wanted to hear...

6 months after arriving in Madrid, I booked my ticket to come back home. I was planning on staying in Baltimore for 2 months, and had a return ticket back to Madrid. I knew I would be entering the country illegally, after spending 6 months in Spain (instead of 3) and only remaining outside of the Schengen area for 2 months. I still thought, "It'll probably be fine."

Here I am, in line at immigration in Barajas Airport, trying to size up some of the immigration officers. Which one looks the nicest? That's the line I'll get in.


So I was detained. I was provided a lawyer, and I was interviewed. I was held in airport jail for 24 hours, all of my belongings locked up. I was escorted onto the next returning flight to D.C. that following morning by two very kind police officers, who told me I could return, in 9 months.

Only 9 months, I was lucky! They could have banned me for much longer, for years!

Yes, it was very stupid of me to overstay a tourist visa that I knew was illegal. Should I have followed the laws of the Schengen area? Yes, absolutely. But the reason for writing this article is for those of you trying to find out where the truth in all the conflicting information online is. It doesn't matter how "strict" you hear one country is over another. The truth is, they are enforcing this law everywhere. Will you still get away with it? Yes. I am sure. Sometimes. (When I called the US Embassy from airport jail, they told me that Spain had only started detaining Americans in the past two months).

So how can you legally stay in the Schengen area for longer than a tourist visa? Get a different visa! Work visas can be very difficult to get, you usually need to get a company to sponsor you. It's possible, but difficult. Easiest way is to enroll full time in a language school. The school will help you apply for your study visa, they know what to do since they do it all the time. Yes, you have to spend the money, full time classes are expensive, but you'll get an amazing (and legal) experience of a lifetime!


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    • profile image

      Matt 2 years ago

      Hello Jennifer,

      I know it's been a while but I wonder if you can still share some infos. Where exactly did you get positive confirmation that enrolling in a full time language course could grant you a schengen study visa? What EU country are you talking about?


    • profile image

      v zuani 3 years ago

      One big mistake this lady did before leaving Spain was not to get informed about the penalties that she could pay after trying to leave Spain in the Spanish immigration Website, she did not do her home work properly. Now there is a law that she could find through a local Spanish lawyer, many knows that in Spain, well here it is:

      If you stay up to three years you could get easily a permanent residentship and then leave and visit the USA or any coubtry outside the EU without any penalties lol, that was a very stupid move she did, just plain crazy, she basically surrended her self to the authorities by leavibg tge coubtry, OMG is posted big time all over the internet what could happen if you stay that long and not to leave on time! Spain is the only country who allows anyone to obtain permanent residentship after three years of staying in Europe, not Germany not the UK but Spain. If you were not working and not wanted to get married this was the only way you could stay, been told by a local lawyer at the Ayuntamiento in a city that I was living at in Andalucia, of course this priviledge is not posted as a normal thing or standar because imagine how many people will stay in Spain killing time and getting this residentship? Too bad she did not know about this immigration law. Now a lot of you knows about it.

    • profile image

      Amanda D. 3 years ago

      Hi! Im currently living in Mallorca and was planning on being here 6 months. I am a US citizen and I'm curious about when I leave could there be a problem? I have no plans of coming back into the country within the next year so I'm not worried about a re-entry. I'm only concerned about leaving the country. Also, I have a 28hr lay over in Zurich in which I planned to see the city. Will I be denied entry into the city? Could this be a problem for me? Any thoughts are welcome. Thanks!!!

    • profile image 4 years ago

      We are looking at doing the area for 100 days and leaving from Greece or Spain going to Morocco? We will have a trip back to the USA in the middle. First entry will be June 25th and exit Oct 30th. But a trip to USA Aug 12-Sept 8 do you think they will catch my 10 days over?

    • Mavi Malavolta profile image

      Mavi Malavolta 4 years ago from San Jose, California

      that s why this world is crazy and we live worse than our gran grandparents, Europeans colonised the USA and there should be free travel between eachother (Australia and Canada as well!). Civilised countries my ass.

    • jennifer_brooke profile image

      jennifer_brooke 6 years ago

      He looked through my passport, I'm assuming because there were a lot of stamps he started looking at the dates in Europe - they never scanned it at Immigration Control though - He asked me the last time I had been in Spain, and I told him, and then he asked if I had a Residence Card in Spain - after telling him that I didn't, that's when I was brought into the offices.

    • profile image

      Boom 6 years ago

      So, are you suggesting that you got busted by the computer (in other words, did they scan your passport?) or did they look through your stamps to calculate your overstay?...

      What exactly happened when you showed your passport to the officer?...

    • jennifer_brooke profile image

      jennifer_brooke 7 years ago

      Hi Lauren! I was detained when trying to enter Madrid - technically, I wasn't deported, because I wasn't allowed into the country at the passport check. When I was leaving Madrid a few months before, my passport was checked, but no one said anything about me overstaying the visa at that point.

    • profile image

      Lauren 7 years ago

      Were you detained as you were leaving Madrid, or when you tried to return?

    • leigia67 profile image

      leigia67 7 years ago

      great article and undoubtedly an important warning!

    • jennifer_brooke profile image

      jennifer_brooke 7 years ago

      Thanks! I'll post some Madrid pictures in some less-jail related articles to come! Beautiful city :)

    • gr82bme profile image

      gr82bme 7 years ago from USA

      Wow, fantastic!I read till the end. I wish you had added some photos