As you plan for your next trip to Europe, visas may not be the first thing on your mind. However, it is critically important to arrange your European visa ahead of time, to ensure that your trip can go off without a hitch.
Depending on where you’re from, you may be exempt from needing a visa to travel to Europe, but for most travelers, a Schengen visa will be more than sufficient for a backpacking trip.
Although visas for Europe can be tricky to understand at first, by the end of this guide, you will know exactly what you need to do to apply for one.
Related: (opens in new tab)
- Amazing Non-Schengen Countries to Visit
- Backpacking Europe Routes: 4 Epic Itineraries
- How Much Does it Cost to Backpack Europe?
Disclaimer: The following information reflects Europe Backpacker’s understanding of the Schengen visa rules. While this article has been extensively researched and is updated regularly to ensure the information is as current as it can be, we cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions.
European Visa Guide for Travelers
Who Needs a Visa To Enter Europe?
In a nutshell, mutual agreements between countries in Europe (and the EU) determine whether or not you need a visa to travel within Europe. As a rule of thumb, most non-EU citizens will require a Schengen visa, but nationals from around 60 countries are exempt. Whether or not you need a visa to enter Europe depends on your country of origin (or which country’s passport you are using to travel.)
You can see a full list here, but many countries in Asia, North America, and South America are exempt from the Schengen visa and can travel through the Schengen bloc visa-free. This includes the U.S., Canada, the UK, Japan, and Australia, among other places.
On the other hand, you may need an airport transit visa to change airplanes within Europe, even if you aren’t leaving the airport. This will depend on your nationality. It’s always a good idea to check the specific requirements for your country of origin.
What Is a Schengen Visa?
The Schengen visa is a ‘short-stay’ visa, which allows the holder to travel within the Schengen Area and other participating countries for a period of 90 days. A big perk of the Schengen area is that you do not have to go through border control procedures between member countries. This means that Schengen nationals can work and live in other member-states, and visitors like you are allowed free movement within your visa’s time frame. Of course, make sure you always have your passport with you – especially when traveling by air, as agents will likely still ask for identification.
The Schengen Area comprises 26 countries in Europe: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Note that while most of these countries are also members of the European Union, a few aren’t, namely Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Relatedly, a few EU member-states are not part of the Schengen border-free area, including, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus, and Ireland. Travel procedures may differ slightly in these countries.
Which Countries Use the Schengen Visa?
The Schengen visa gives you unlimited access to travel within member states of the Schengen Area, as well as several other places. There are several countries that are not part of the Schengen Area but still allow you to travel to them if you have a valid Schengen visa. These include Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey.
The territories of Andorra, Monaco, and Vatican City are technically not part of Schengen but are considered ‘de facto’ members because they do not impose border controls. Interestingly, outside of Europe, a valid Schengen visa also allows you to travel to Colombia, Sao Tome and Principe, Antigua, and Mexico.
Note that requirements vary widely from country to country, so be sure to check the specifics prior to traveling.
Which European Countries Don’t Use the Schengen Visa?
While most countries in Europe use the Schengen visa, there are a few exceptions. Ireland, Moldova, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom do not use the Schengen visa. If you’re visiting these countries, make sure to check what you need to do to get a visa, as it varies depending on the country.
It is important to remember that the United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union, and travel rules have changed. Be sure to pay special attention to the entry requirements if you’re planning to travel to the UK.
How To Apply for a Schengen Visa
If you are traveling from a country that requires a visa and your primary reason for visiting is tourism (such as a backpacking trip), you will apply for the tourism Schengen visa. Note that there are separate visas for visiting family or friends, business, culture and sport, and studying – if one of these categories better fits your situation, make sure you apply for that type of visa.
You should always apply for a Schengen visa directly from an embassy, consulate, or its designated representative in your country. They may utilize a contractor service to process applications, but the information should be clear and available on their website. Official embassy websites can be found on the European Union’s website here, which is a great place to start the process.
To start your application, there are a few rules of thumb depending on your situation:
- If you are visiting one country, apply for the visa there.
- If you are visiting more than two countries, apply for the visa wherever you will be spending the most time.
- If you will be spending an equal amount of time in each country you visit, apply for the visa wherever you first enter the Schengen area.
The earliest that you can apply for a visa is 6 months ahead of your trip, and the latest is 15 days. Due to different processing times, it’s recommended that you apply at least 3 weeks before you start your journey to ensure you get the visa in time, but earlier is always better!
You will also have to book an appointment for an interview. How and where the appointment is booked varies depending on the country. Some countries require that you make the appointment in-person and then attend in-person as well, while some allow you to make appointments online or over the phone.
At your appointment, you will need to bring two copies of your completed Schengen visa form; your passport; two passport photos; and other items like proof of travel insurance (we recommend SafetyWing), round-trip flight reservation, and accommodation. The visa form is streamlined for all Schengen member-states.
Biometric data (fingerprints) will also be collected, and a photo is taken of you for their system. This data is kept for five years, so if you apply for a second visa in that time frame, you won’t have to give your fingerprints again.
Travel Documents Required for Non-EU Citizens
At a minimum, you will need your passport to travel to Europe. Per EU regulations, it must be valid for at least three months after you leave and must have been issued within the past 10 years. Again, many countries also ask for other documentation in order to grant your visa, which can include proof of lodging, proof of return ticket, or an invitation letter if you are visiting Europe for a particular reason.
You may also be asked to provide proof of travel insurance and proof of health insurance too. While the application form is streamlined, individual countries can request different supplementary documents. Make sure to check the requirements for the country you’re visiting ahead of this step. It’s never a bad idea to supply more information than is strictly asked for if you have it!
How Much Does a Schengen Visa Cost?
A Schengen visa costs €80. This is a flat administrative fee set by the Schengen member countries and does not vary. Once your application is approved, you will receive a sticker to place in your passport. The sticker has your photo, as well as validity dates, the countries you can enter, and a unique visa number.
If you are able to enter the whole Schengen area, it will just say “Schengen States” or “Etats Schengen.” If you are restricted to certain countries, the respective country codes will be listed. This will be a 1 or 2 letter acronym: e.g. Portugal is P, Netherlands is NL.
Remember to apply for your visa only through the embassy or consulate in your country. If they use a contractor or similar service to process applications, they’ll point you in the right direction. Scams are uncommon but do exist. You should be easily able to avoid them if you only communicate with the correct embassy or consulate directly.
Read more: Scams in Europe.
It has been announced that in 2023, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) will be launched. Any traveller who is visiting the EU or Schengen Area visa-free will need to complete an online form that comes with a €7 ($7USD) admin fee per person. This includes travellers from the US, UK, Japan, Singapore and others.
Entry Requirements for Non-EU Citizens
In addition to the travel documents mentioned above, you may be asked to provide means of subsistence. This is proof of income or proof of your ability to sustain yourself financially during your trip.
Authorities may ask you for bank statements or similar to ensure that you can support your activities while in the Schengen area. The amount varies depending on where you are visiting but is often around €50 per day plus the cost of a hotel room. Countries with a higher cost of living will require proof of more funds.
Schengen Visa FAQs
- Do I need a visa to travel to Europe? Whether or not you need a visa depends on where you come from and what countries you’re visiting. Most non-EU citizens will need a visa to visit Europe. Nationals of countries on the exempt list do not need a visa to enter.
- What is a Schengen visa? The Schengen visa is a ‘short-stay’ visa, which allows you to travel within the Schengen Area and other participating countries for a period of 90 days.
- Do UK citizens need a visa for Europe? No, the UK is on the list of visa-exempt countries.
- Do American citizens need a visa for Europe? No, the US is on the list of visa-exempt countries.
- What are common reasons Schengen visa applications get declined? Most declined applications are declined due to an error on the application or suspicion of false data provided (e.g. fake passport.) If you made a mistake on your application, you can appeal the decision with the correct data. Your application may also be declined if you do not satisfy the application criteria, such as proof of means of subsistence.
- Are you required to submit biometric data for a Schengen visa? Yes. In addition to other identification documents, biometric data (fingerprints) will be recorded at your application appointment.
- How long in advance can I apply for a Schengen visa? You can apply up to six months in advance of your trip.
- How much does a Schengen visa cost? There is a flat administrative fee of €80.
When you plan your trip to Europe, don’t forget to check if you need a visa. If you are not an EU citizen, there is a good chance that you will need a European visa, unless you are from a visa-exempt country. Most non-EU citizens will be best served by a Schengen visa. This visa includes the 26 Schengen bloc countries as well as several other places in Europe and offers you free movement between them for 90 days.
It’s not as hard to secure a Schengen visa as you might think – simply follow these steps:
- Check if you need a visa
- If you do, contact the consulate or embassy nearest to you for the country you are seeking to get a visa for and make an appointment
- Fill out the application form correctly prior to your appointment, and print out two copies. Bring the form, your passport, passport photos, and any required supplementary information (proof of lodging, etc.) with you
- When you receive your visa, stick it in your passport
- Enjoy your trip!
What has your experience been like getting a Schengen visa? Any tips we missed? Let us know in the comments!