In a normal year, more than 16m people worldwide apply for a Schengen visa to travel to Europe. But for what is supposed to be a globally standardised immigration system, the way that the countries of the Schengen Area accept, process and issue Schengen visas differs significantly – even between consulate-generals of the same Schengen country within the same host nation.
To help you through the Schengen visa application process we’ve compiled answers to 18 of the biggest questions people typically have about applying for a Schengen visa.
Let’s get started.
What is the Schengen Area?
The Schengen Area is a group of 26 European countries that have created a common external border for travel. If the Schengen Area considers you a visa national, you’ll need to apply for a Schengen visa to visit any of these 26 countries. However, once you have your Schengen visa, you’ll be able to visit any of the Schengen countries without having to apply for another Schengen visa (subject to any restrictions printed on your visa vignette).
The Schengen Area includes most of the European Union (EU) – except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania – plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. While not part of the Schengen Area, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City have also opened their borders to Schengen visa holders.
So if you apply for a Schengen visa for France, you’ll be able to enter France and then travel on to Monaco, Italy, Switzerland or even Iceland without needing to apply for another visa.
What is a Schengen visa?
A Schengen visa is a visa issued by a Schengen Member State that permits the holder to enter the Schengen Area and circulate freely within the bloc, subject to any restrictions printed on the visa vignette.
A Schengen visa is valid for a maximum stay in the Schengen Area of up to 90 days within any rolling 180-day period. So while you might be issued with a Schengen visa valid for two years, you’ll be limited to stay in the Schengen Area for that maximum 90 days within any rolling 180-day period.
Schengen visas are issued for the purpose of your travel, and the requirements and supporting documents do differ between each type of Schengen visa. Common types of Schengen visa include:
- Tourist: used for leisure travel as a tourist where you’re typically staying in a hotel or other commercial accommodation
- Private Visit: similar to a Tourist visa, but the main difference is you’re staying with friends or family
- Business: used for travel for business purposes, such as business meetings, attending events, giving presentations, etc. but doesn’t include actually working
There are other types of Schengen visa that cover short-term study, attending or participating in cultural or sporting events and for medical treatment.
Is a Schengen visa a multi-entry visa?
Many Schengen visas are issued as multi-entry visas that allow you to enter, leave and re-enter the bloc as many times as you wish, subject to the maximum stay conditions and any other restrictions.
If you’re a first time traveller, or for one of a number of other reasons, you may only be issued with a single entry or double entry Schengen visa.
With a single entry visa you’ll only be able to enter the Schengen Area once, even if you don’t use the full duration of the visa. So if you plan to travel to France, Italy and the UK and are issued with a single entry Schengen visa, you’ll need to make sure the UK is either first or last on your itinerary as once you’ve entered the Schengen Area you’ll need to visit both France and Italy before you leave it.
Double entry Schengen visas allow you to enter, leave and re-enter the Schengen Area, but after you leave for the second time you won’t be able to re-enter.
Are there any restrictions on Schengen visas?
All Schengen visas have the 90 days in any rolling 180-day period limitation of stay, and may have limitations on the number of entries you have, but you may be issued with a Schengen visa with additional restrictions.
Limited Territorial Visas are sometimes issued, where you can enter the Schengen Area but aren’t permitted to visit certain countries. You may even be restricted to visit just the country that issued you with your Schengen visa. You’ll see these restrictions endorsed on your Schengen visa.
Do I need a Schengen visa?
You need a Schengen visa if you’re considered a ‘visa national’ by the Schengen Area or if you’re travelling to the Schengen Area for a travel purpose that requires a Schengen visa.
Holders of passports from countries like China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey are visa nationals and need to apply for a Schengen visa in advance of travel to the bloc, while holders of passports from countries like Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and the USA are not visa nationals and don’t need to apply for a Schengen visa for most travel purposes.
The European Commission (EC) hosts a full list of visa nationals that require a Schengen visa for short-stay visits to the bloc.
Do I need a Schengen visa if I intend to stay in the Schengen Area for more than 90 days?
Schengen visas are only valid for a maximum of 90 days within any rolling 180-day period covering certain purposes of travel. If you intend to stay in the Schengen Area longer than 90 days – or if you plan to undertake activities such as work, long-term study or investment activities – you’ll need to apply for a National visa from the country where you’ll live.
An important difference between Schengen visas and National visas is that even non-visa nationals need to apply for a National visa – also known as a D visa – if they wish to live in the Schengen Area.
So if you’re a British national and want to retire to Spain, you’ll need to apply for a specific type of National D visa for this purpose, the Non-lucrative Residence visa.
What are visa application centres?
Most Schengen countries use visa application centres to accept visa applications. Visa application centres are operations run by commercial partners who accept your visa application, check it for accuracy and completeness, enrol your biometric data (where needed) and pass on your passport and files to the diplomatic mission for a visa decision.
It’s very common for Schengen visa applications to be made through a visa application centre, but less so for long-stay National visas, which may still be made directly at the consulate-general. However, the visa application centre may still be responsible for booking you an appointment at the consulate-general to submit a long-stay National visa application, so you may still have some interactions.
Can I apply for a Schengen visa directly at the consulate-general?
You have the right to do this, however in practice it’s usually much easier to just use a visa application centre.
The consulate-general will typically restrict the number of direct appointments to a very low number – perhaps just 5 per day – so the chances of you getting an appointment there are very slim.
At which Schengen country’s consulate-general should I make my Schengen visa application?
You can’t just apply at any Schengen country’s consulate-general for your Schengen visa, there are rules you need to follow to make sure you apply at the correct one.
In general, the following rules apply:
- If you’re travelling to just one Schengen State, you apply for your Schengen visa from that State (e.g. if you’re travelling only to Germany, you apply for a German Schengen visa)
- If you’re travelling to more than one Schengen State, you apply for your Schengen visa from the State where you’ll spend the longest amount of time (e.g. if you’re planning to spend 3 days in Germany and 5 days in Sweden, you apply for a Swedish Schengen visa)
- If you’re travelling to more than one Schengen State and you’re staying an equal duration in each, you apply at the Schengen State that’s your first port of entry into the Schengen Area (e.g. if you’re planning to spend 3 days in Austria and 3 days in Switzerland, you’ll apply for a Schengen visa from the country you enter first)
If you’re travelling to a country that isn’t part of the Schengen Area but that has opened its borders to Schengen visa holders, you’ll need to do a bit more research.
For example, if you’re travelling to Andorra, you can only reach this landlocked country via either France or Spain. So whichever Schengen State you enter to reach Andorra is the country where you’ll apply for your Schengen visa.
Similarly for San Marino and Vatican City, you’ll apply for a Schengen visa from Italy before entering these countries.
And to enter Monaco, you’ll need a French Schengen visa.
You should also be aware that not all Schengen States accept Schengen visa applications in every country of the world. Many Schengen States are ‘represented’ by other Schengen States in countries where they don’t process visa applications. For example, it’s very common to see Iceland represented by Denmark in many countries, which means if you want to apply for an Icelandic Schengen visa you’ll need to make your application at your local Danish visa application centre or consulate-general. Similarly, Austria is represented by Germany in many countries.
It can get a little more complicated if your trip to the Schengen Area is for multiple travel purposes, such as travelling to Poland on business for 3 days and then flying on to Greece for a week on holiday. When considering which Schengen consulate-general you should submit your Schengen visa application, most Schengen States will look at your primary purpose of travel and insist you apply at that country’s diplomatic mission. So in the above example, your primary reason for travelling to the Schengen Area is for business in Poland; you’re just tagging on a week’s holiday in Greece. So you should apply for a business Schengen visa from Poland.
In this situation, it can be useful to get professional advice or check directly with the relevant consulate-generals as the rule isn’t consistently applied everywhere.
When should I apply for a Schengen visa?
A good rule of thumb is to apply for a Schengen visa 3-4 weeks before you depart, unless you’re from a consultation country, where you should apply for your Schengen visa 5-6 weeks before you intend to depart. Schengen missions have a target of making a visa decision within 15 calendar days of receipt, and it makes sense to give a few extra days for the logistics of getting your passport back to you.
If you’re a passport holder from a ‘consultation country’ it may take up to 30 days for your Schengen visa to be processed, so budget more time if this applies to you.
However, there’s also a little known ‘upper limit’ on how early you can apply: you can’t make a Schengen visa application more than 90 days from your intended date of departure.
You may see some wording that states you can’t apply any longer than ‘3 months’ before your intended date of departure, but regardless of the detail, the fact remains you’ll need to submit your application within that timeframe and no earlier.
So plan on booking an appointment to submit your Schengen visa application around 3-4 weeks before you depart – or 5-6 weeks if you’re from a consultation country – to give you enough time to get your passport back for travel.
Where should I apply for a Schengen visa?
You may have options as to which visa application centre you submit your Schengen visa application at but you won’t be able to just submit it anywhere.
Schengen countries operate different jurisdictions for making visa decisions, and you need to apply at the visa application centre or Schengen mission that has jurisdiction over where you reside.
Practically speaking this means two things: firstly, you can only apply for a Schengen visa in a country where you are a resident; and secondly, you can only apply at a visa application centre or Schengen mission that has jurisdiction over your place of residency within that country.
For example, if you’re an Indian national living in Birmingham on a UK Skilled Worker visa and you want to travel to Italy on holiday, you’ll need to submit your Italian Schengen tourist visa application at the Italy visa application centre in London, as this visa application centre and the Italian consulate-general in London have jurisdiction over processing your application.
However, a similar Indian national resident in Glasgow will need to apply at the Italy visa application centre in Edinburgh, as this visa application centre and the Italian consulate-general in Edinburgh have jurisdiction of processing applications of residents in Scotland.
You should be aware that each Schengen mission has its own jurisdictions, so just because Italy operates two consular jurisdictions in the UK (i.e. England and Wales; and Scotland and Northern Ireland), it doesn’t mean that Spain is the same (in fact, the Spanish consulate-general in Edinburgh has jurisdiction over Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of northern England down to Cumbria, Tyne & Wear and the Tees Valley.) Your Schengen visa application will be rejected if you submit it at a visa application centre or consulate-general that doesn’t have jurisdiction over your place of residence.
Do I need to book my flights before I apply for a Schengen visa?
In most circumstances, yes, you’ll need to provide proof of travel to and from the Schengen Area as part of your Schengen visa application. You may be exempt from providing this if you’re the spouse or civil partner of an EU national, but Schengen consulate-generals are requesting this now regardless of your relationship status.
Most people visit the Schengen Area by aeroplane, however if you’re travelling by train (such as using the Eurostar from London), coach or boat you can provide booking confirmations for these modes of transport too.
An important point to note is that you must show in your travel bookings that you will leave the Schengen Area. In the simplest cases, you’ll fly from your home country to the Schengen Area and then back home again. However, if you have a multi-country itinerary, such as flying from Turkey to Portugal and then on to Brazil, you’ll need to show your flight ticket to enter Portugal, and then your onward ticket to Brazil.
It is possible to enter the Schengen Area by private car, where you won’t have ‘proof of travel’ as such, but you will need to prove you own the vehicle.
When booking travel, make sure the lead Schengen visa applicant is always named as the lead traveller on each booking, as sometimes not all travellers are named individually. This makes it clearer for the consulate-general to see that the travel booking you’re presenting relates to the Schengen visa application they’re assessing.
For example, an Irish passport holder travelling with their Filipino spouse to Greece should book all travel using the Filipino traveller as the lead traveller so that their name is always displayed on booking confirmations.
If you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ll be issued a Schengen visa or not, it’s advisable to book refundable flights or other travel tickets just in case the worst happens and your Schengen visa application is rejected.
What do I need to do about accommodation?
As with flights or other modes of travel to the Schengen Area, you’ll also need to show proof of accommodation covering the entire duration of your intended stay in the Schengen Area as part of your Schengen visa application.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of accommodation:
- Commercial properties: this includes hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, Airbnb bookings, campsites and other properties that are run as businesses
- Private homes: this includes staying with friends or family in a private household
Proving your accommodation for commercial properties is much easier than for private homes as all you need is a booking confirmation from the property confirming your stay. And again, it makes sense to use the lead Schengen visa applicant to book this accommodation as not all members of your travel party may be named on the confirmation.
Staying with friends or family in their private home is great to save on expensive hotels, but it’s a lot more hassle to organise as your friend or family member needs to apply for permission from their local town hall first to house you before you can apply for your Schengen visa.
Your friend or family member must show proof of their accommodation – such as a property deed if they own the property or a rental agreement if they rent – as well as proof of their identity and immigration status. Only residents are permitted to invite others to stay at their private homes, so if your friend or family member is also in the Schengen Area on a Schengen visa, they can’t apply to accommodate you during your stay.
Once this request to accommodate you has been approved, your friend or family member will be issued with a formal document that they must send you, and you must include it in your Schengen visa application. You must submit the original document – print outs of scanned documents aren’t acceptable.
As a final word on accommodation, you must show accommodation that covers the entirety of your stay in the Schengen Area. So if you plan to stay seven days in Spain, your accommodation must show you have somewhere to stay for each of those seven days. And if you’re travelling from one Schengen country to another, you must show proof of accommodation in each country you’ll stay.
Do I need travel insurance?
Absolutely, you’ll need travel insurance to apply for your Schengen visa. In fact, many Schengen visa applications are rejected solely because of inadequate travel insurance – it really is an incredibly important document.
There are a few things you need to know about Schengen-compliant travel insurance as they tend to catch people out quite frequently:
- The lead Schengen visa applicant must be named on the policy; however, it’s best if all travellers are named on the policy
- The travel insurance must cover the entire duration of your stay in the Schengen Area
- The policy must provide a minimum of EUR 30,000 for medical expenses and repatriation
- The policy must be valid in the Schengen State(s) you intend to visit
- You must provide the certificate of insurance as proof of insurance with your visa application
The EUR 30,000 medical coverage is actually quite low compared to the standard coverage in most travel insurance policies – in the UK, travel insurance policies typically provide a minimum of GBP 1m medical coverage – however the bit you really need to pay attention to is the “repatriation” coverage, as for some reason travel insurance policies tend to omit this important wording. Even though they’re slightly more expensive, it can therefore be preferable to purchase a travel insurance policy specifically designed for travel to the Schengen Area, as you’ll then guarantee it has the required wording and coverage in the policy documents.
Strictly speaking, spouses and civil partners of EU nationals don’t need to provide travel insurance with their Schengen visa application, however many Schengen consulate-generals still insist you submit it. And as you’ll need travel insurance anyway, it makes sense to be prepared in advance.
What validity do I need on my passport?
Passport validity is an extremely important check you need to do well in advance of travel to the Schengen Area. Just because your passport is in date doesn’t necessarily mean you can travel to the Schengen Area, so it’s important to check.
For a Schengen visa application, your passport must :
- Have a minimum of three months validity from the time you leave the Schengen Area
- Not be defaced, damaged or worn
- Have a minimum of two entirely blank visa pages
- Have been issued less than 10 years ago
So if you intend to leave the Schengen Area on 1 January, your passport must be valid until at least 1 April of the same year to give you that three months validity after leaving the Schengen Area.
While passports do get damaged through use, your passport mustn’t be so damaged that it becomes difficult to read the biographical details page or looks like it has been tampered with.
Older passports – with laminated biographical details pages – can cause problems if the lamination is peeling away, as that’s potential evidence of tampering.
You’ll also have a problem if any pages are missing or defaced.
Your passport will need two completely blank visa pages. It’s best if these pages are facing each other – some Schengen consulate-general actually may require this – and by ‘blank’ that means no stamps, writing or other markings on them at all.
Finally, your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, even if it meets the above three requirements. Sometimes you’ll get a passport that’s issued for slightly longer than 10 years and sometimes governments may extend a passport’s validity instead of issuing a new document, but to meet the Schengen visa passport requirements your passport still needs to be less than 10 years old.
So make sure you check your passport well in advance of travel, as if it doesn’t meet all four requirements above you’ll need to apply for a new one before applying for your Schengen visa.
Do I need to enrol my biometric data to apply for a Schengen visa?
If you’re over the age of six when you apply for your Schengen visa, yes you do. Since 2014, all Schengen visa applicants over this age have been required to enrol their biometric data when submitting a Schengen visa application.
The collection of your biometric data is one of the primary roles of the visa application centre, and the centre will forward your data to the consulate-general along with your passport and supporting documents.
What biometric data you provide and in which format does differ by your age and the Schengen State involved. Visa applicants over 12 years old need to enrol 10 fingerprints and a facial image (either a live capture photograph taken at the visa application centre or the scan of a passport photograph), while for children aged 6-12 they just need to provide the facial image – no fingerprints. Many Schengen States also capture an image of the biographical details page of your passport, and some may also ask you for a digital signature (but only if you’re older than 12).
Do I need to re-enrol my biometric data every time I apply for a Schengen visa?
According to the Schengen Visa Code, Schengen States can re-use biometric data collected from visa applicants for up to 59 months before a new set of biometric data is needed. However, if you change your passport during this time, you’ll need to re-enrol your biometric data using your new passport.
Unfortunately in practice many Schengen States will request you to re-enrol your biometric data each time you make a Schengen visa application. It’s frustrating, but consulate-generals have the power to set their own rules.
Where can I get help preparing my Schengen visa application?
You can use an immigration consultant to fully prepare your Schengen visa application to make sure it’s 100% correct. Immigration consultants will:
- Ensure you’re applying for the correct type of visa
- Ensure you’re applying at the correct Schengen State and visa application centre
- Provide you with a comprehensive list of all supporting documents you need to provide, and what they need to contain
- Thoroughly check your supporting documents to ensure they’re fully compliant
- Book an appointment for you at your chosen visa application centre or consulate-general
- Handle any queries received from the consulate-general or visa application centre
- Help you understand your options if the worst happens and for some reason your Schengen visa application is rejected
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