Getting Started: Visas

(For Americans)

Visas might be the second most important item to have before you head off on your travels. As Americans, it’s easy to take this for granted. For visiting most countries, Americans benefit from ‘a-stamp-at-the-border-is-your-visa’ system. This means it’s easy to be ignorant of the visa application for certain countries, and it’s easy to overstay the visa once you have it.

Visas will usually have one of two types of timeframes. Day limit or month limit. The most common is day-limit. For instance, the Schengen Zone visa is 90-day, not 3 month. Keep this in mind while you make your plans.

In most cases, overstaying a visa won’t get you immediately kicked out. There are no roaming packs of people checking visas anywhere. (There might actually be in certain countries, but maybe save those countries for when the government changes?) That being said, overstaying a visa can have pretty intense consequences, depending on the length of the over-stay, and the country of departure. 

(If you’re going to get caught at all, it’ll be at Passport Control when leaving the country.)

You’ll probably find that the minimum penalty is missing your flight. Unless you know you’re going to be pulled aside into a private interview, and plan for that by arriving at the airport six hours early.

The interview is usually what happens, if not always what happens, when you overstay your visa. A deep discussion into why you are overstaying your visa. Were you planning to overstay your visa, were you working in the country, are you bringing anything out of the country you shouldn’t be? The main rule to remember is STAY CALM. And if you’ve only overstayed a day or two, then you’re usually let off with a warning. The longer it’s been, the steeper the punishment, usually into the area of deportation and exile. 

Basically, try not to overstay a visa if you can avoid it. Of course, once you’re actually in a country, you can probably stay as long as you live as long as you don’t break any laws or mention the fact you’re staying on an expired visa. Still, try not to overstay.

[INFORMATION: I feel the need to add this part because there will be someone who reads this and says ‘Yeah, whatever, I’m probably going to overstay my visa anyway.’ And I feel the need to prevent that person from ruining their life. If you are planning on overstaying your European visa, the classic thing to do is leave from a southern country. Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain. But don’t leave on the bus. I’ve heard the Passport Control officers for buses tend to be more detail-oriented. That being said, the southern countries tend to have a laxer view of things like immigration, security, and deadlines.]

The main visa I’ll be discussing is the Schengen Zone visa, because this book is centered on Americans traveling to Europe. For North Africa and SEA (South East Asia) I’ll still give a brief overview.

Schengen Zone

If you’re an American going to Europe then you’re most likely traveling on a multiple-entry (meaning you can enter and exit the Schengen Zone limitless times) tourist visa in the Schengen Zone. (If you don’t know what kind of visa you have, or are getting one at the airport, it’s the tourist visa.) This means you get 90 days within every 180-day period to see most of Europe. The countries include:

• Austria

• Belgium

• Czech Republic

• Denmark

• Estonia

• Finland

• France

• Germany

• Greece

• Hungary

• Iceland

• Italy

• Latvia

• Liechtenstein

• Lithuania

• Luxembourg

• Malta

• Netherlands

• Norway

• Poland

• Portugal

• Slovakia

• Slovenia

• Spain

• Sweden

• Switzerland

Some of these countries, you might have noticed, are not part of the EU, but are part of the Schengen Zone, like Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein. 

Conversely, the UK is [still] part of the EU, but not a part of the Schengen Zone.

Additionally, although these countries don’t have traditionally ‘open’ borders, they still abide by the 90-day limit of the Schengen zone:

• Monaco

• San Marino

• Vatican City

Along with those three city-states, there are also the European-controlled Islands that are still within the 90-day Schengen limit.

• Azores Islands

• Madeira Islands

• Canary Islands

What does the Schengen zone mean, and how does it work?

Simply put, it’s a zone of 26 countries, which have open borders with each other. When you enter any of the countries listed above as an American, your passport will be stamped, and the 90-day ticker will start to count. 

[IMPORTANT: Just to revisit this: It is a 90-day limit. Not a 3-month limit. Oftentimes, while abroad, I’ll meet people who think they have 3 months, which isn’t true. So someone who enters on May 10th doesn’t have until August 10th. They would have until August 8th. Make sure to do the math before you go.]

You might hear phrase ‘you have 90 days in every 180 days’ in regard to the Schengen Zone visa. This is usually worded in a fairly ambiguous way. if you don’t know what it means, here is my attempt at explaining it: If you enter May 10th, you can stay 90 days in the next 180 days, which would be November 6th. So, if you were to leave for 60 days on May 20th to explore Turkey and you came back July 19th, you would still have

Although this is world fairly ambiguously by even the most governmental of sources, this is what it should mean: If you enter May 10th, you can stay for any 90 days until November 6th. And on May 11th (if you spend the whole day in the Schengen Zone) you will have 80 days left on that 90 day visa, until November 6th. Once November 6th comes around, then the 180-day window starts shifting, day by day. have you stayed in the Schengen Zone for more than 90 days between May 11th and November 7th? May 12th and November 8th? So on and so forth. The easiest way to travel around this is spend 90 days in the Schengen Zone, and 90 days out, resetting it fully.

Something to keep in mind is length of time left on your visa. If it’s only a week or two and you don’t have a flight out, chances are you won’t be let into the Schengen Zone.

If you’re planning a trip for fewer than 90 days, you have very little to worry about. You don’t need a visa attached to your passport, or any other/extra paperwork. The stamp you receive at the border is your visa.

If you’re staying longer than 90 days, you’ll need a different visa than the tourist visa. The visa you would need, whether it be a residency visa, student visa, or work visa, is only valid for that country, not all of the Schengen Zone (unless you have a residency permit. My understanding is, a residency permit is good for all of the EU, despite where you received it.), and you’ll need a reason why you need one. They can be found on their respective countries government websites. Usually, you’ll either need to be sponsored (for work), wealthy (for residency), property-owning (for residency), married to an EU citizen (for residency) or currently enrolled in a University and in possession of enough money to last you the academic year (student). 


As already mentioned, this book is primarily geared for Americans traveling to mainland Europe, however, I will try and offer some advice for other countries.

UK and Ireland

In the United Kingdom, and in Ireland, the stamp on your passport will also be your visa. 

The UK tourist visa will last 6 months. On their government website it’s listed as 6 months, not 180 days. Either way, it’s best to keep it under 180 days out of every year. 

[INFORMATION: On the UK website, they list the price of their tourist visa as £95. I have never paid the £95, or know anyone who has. This is either outdated information, or there is no fee for Americans.]

The Ireland (not North Ireland, which is part of the UK) tourist visa is good for 90 days (the Irish website lists 90 days) out of every 180, which is the same as the Schengen Zone, although it doesn’t share the same time counter. So you can use Ireland or the UK to reset your Schengen Zone visa, and vice versa.

[INFORMATION: As per the American State Gov. website, an increasing amount of Americans are denied entry into Ireland when they can’t or won’t show their available funds. No warning like this exists for the UK, or other European countries. This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re in-and-out, but if you are planning on a longer stay then you should try to have your paperwork ready about where you’re going to stay, your available funds, and even your plane ticket out of the country, so you can to show them to Passport Control.]

Be warned! Out of all the countries we’ve been to, and flown to and from, we have not encountered a more hostile (or maybe thorough?) Passport Control than in the UK. We were there for a housesit, and although we explained we aren’t being paid, it raised some red flags. (Didn’t help that we didn’t know the address of where we were going. We hadn’t asked because we were planning to meet near their house as a first introduction.) So if you do find yourself in the UK for a housesit, or a Workaway, or just to visit, be very clear about your intentions, and if you can, lie about how much money you have. Our Passport Control Officer asked us how much money we had a few different ways through the course of his questioning. It’s not that I encourage you to lie, but if you do end up at the border after a long night of traveling, and you do have a hotel waiting on you, sometimes you just need to get through.

North Africa

I have these countries broadly grouped, as do most people, but it’s a misnomer. I believe most Americans can only visit Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. You need a special visa (and sometimes, even then, it’s very difficult) to visit Algeria, Libya, and Western Sahara [Morocco]. 

Of the countries you can enter in North Africa, the visas there will work in a similar way to the visas in Europe, as in, your passport will be stamped on arrival to one of those countries, and that stamp will act as a visa. For Morocco it’s 90 days, Tunisia is 90 days, and Egypt is 30 [easily renewable] days. For Egypt, all you have to do is step out of the country, get your passport stamped stating you left, turn around, [pay the visa fee] and go back in.

The difference between North Africa and Europe is the North African visas all have a small fee attached to them, in the range of $25. I will talk more about local currency and American currency later, but the visa window of most North African airports is a great place to spend your American dollars. Not only is it sometimes cheaper in dollars, but there is less haggling.

South East Asia

Although many people also group these countries together, there is no overarching ‘South East Asia’ visa. You’ll have to get separate visas for all of the countries. This is where some research comes in. Some visas can be obtained upon arrival, some have to be acquired before leaving your home country, and some need to be physically attached to your passport. 

The closest to South East Asia I have ever been is China, and that required a visa well in advance. (Specifically, it needed to be attached to my passport, and I needed to pay someone to go to the Chinese consulate in Houston and deliver the passport to them, and pick it up, as you can’t send your passport to the consulate by mail.)

Most of the visas offered in South East Asia can be renewed easily (leaving and going back in 24 hours later), which is why you hear about people doing a large South East Asia loop, and going back to where they started. 

South America

Unfortunately, there’s isn’t an overarching visa for South America either. Like South East Asia, some of these have to be gotten ahead of time, and some when you arrive.

Holiday Visas

Later, when I make the post about creating an income abroad, I will post the section on Holiday Visas, or Working Visas.

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