What is a Schengen Visa then?
A Schengen visa is a visa issued under the terms of the Schengen treaty.
Schengen is a small town in Luxembourg, close to the borders with France and Germany. A number of EU countries signed a treaty there to end border checks for individuals travelling within the countries that are parties to the treaty.
Since then, other EU countries and two non-EU countries have joined the treaty and the membership currently comprises Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Norway and Iceland. The Nordic countries of the EU shared a common travel area with non EU members Norway and Iceland and they joined as a bloc with effect from the 25th of March 2001. The UK and the Republic of Ireland share a common travel area with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man which are also non-members of the EU and currently, there is no prospect that any of this group of countries will join the Schengen treaty.
The withdrawal of border controls meant that the treaty members felt that they had to have a single visa regime. It would hardly make sense to eliminate controls and yet say to citizens of other countries, you may enter one country but you may then not cross the border into another because they want you to have a visa even though the border is completely open.
Hence, the Schengen visa was born.
Part of the Schengen treaty covers co-operation between the police in the treaty nations and also a computer system whereby your passport is checked against a database of offenders wanted in the Schengen zone when you enter the zone. The UK has recently signed up for these provisions but not for the removal of border controls.
What types of Schengen Visa Exist?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Schengen Visa of general interest. Business Visas and Tourist Visas.
Both types can last for a maximum six months and, in that six months period, they will allow a maximum of ninety days to be spent in the Schengen Zone. You will not normally be issued with multiple Schengen Visas with one six month period so, if multiple visits are required then a multiple entry visa will be necessary.
The paperwork the I have seen for these visas allows multiple entries to be requested and granted on business and tourist visas but I have never seen a tourist visa with unlimited entries allowed. I have seen besiness visas with this permission granted.
A business visa allows entry to the Schengen Zone for business visits but not for work. Of course, there are grey areas here. For example, suppose that a Czech computer programmer got a business visa valid for ninety days within a six months period. He could do a four months contract in Belgium on his business visa, returning home each weekend, without breaking the duration. It would be hard for the iummigration officials to know that he was working and not doing business. Indeed, suppose that the contract allowed him to work just under half of the time at home then, as long as he could get a business visa renewed on a regular basis, there is no real reason why he couldn't work indefinitely on contract within the Schengen Zone. (It does happen!)
Of course, a business visa requires an invitation from a recognised business in the host country.
Borders Controls Within the Schengen Zone
In theory, there are now no longer any border controls between countries in the Schengen Zone. To a large extent, this is true. If you fly from, say Franfurt to Brussels, nobody looks at your passport at either end of the flight. If you drive up the coastal highway linking France and Belgium, you will see that this newly built road does not even have a parking place for the police to set up border checks! In the rest of the area, the old customs and immigration buildings stand unlit and locked up.
There are sometimes checks on or near to the borders though. The French are very sensitive to the fact that many drugs are freely sold in Holland. Try this experiment: buy an old VW minibus, paint flowers on the sides and grow your hair. Now drive south from Belgium into France. It is quite likely that you will be stopped by customs officials. Perhaps they will pick you up a few minutes drive into France rather than at the border. I see this quite often when I drive in that area.
Border checks can be put in place for other reasons too. Belgium recently had an amnesty on illegal immigrants and they experienced a sudden surge in numbers of people trying to enter the coutry in order to claim that they had been living there illegally for the last six years. As a result, for the period of the amnesty, they instigated border controls.
These actions are of questionable legality but they do happen. The French would, and do, argue that they do not have border controls. They just have drug checks on hippies driving around in the north of their country.
Although a tourist visa may be granted for up to three months and with more than one entry, it is more normal for them to be for a few weeks and for a single entry. After all, few people go on holiday for three months or commute from home to their holiday location.
Obtaining a tourist visa requires an invitation. This can come from a travel company or from an individual living in the host country. If it is from an individual then, the individual must be a citizen of a country in the EU or EEA. The procedure varies a little from coutry to country but, if you read my description of how to do this for Germany you will have a good idea of how the procedure works.
Why won't the UK, Ireland etc CTA countries join the Schengen Zone?
There is no prospect that this will ever happen. To read why this is so, click here.