Schengen Area Countries: Borderless travel in Europe Explained

Everything you need to know about the EU and the Schengen Area, Europe’s passport-free and borderless travel Zone + full list of Schengen area countries.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
Schengen road sign Luxembourg
Schengen road sign Luxembourg

Whether planning a trip to Europe or exploring the possibility of obtaining a second passport through descent to a European country, you’ve likely heard about the Schengen Area.

But what is the Schengen area, and how does it relate to Europe and the EU? 

Understanding the difference between these two entities and how they operate together can be confusing, especially for tourists outside Europe. 

In this guide, we will go over some commonly asked questions about travelling in these areas, explain the difference between the EU and the Schengen area, provide a list of Schengen area countries and the EU, and offer other helpful information for travellers.

What is the Schengen Area?

Imagine a place where travelling to other countries is as easy as travelling to other cities within your own country. No tedious passport checks or border checks when crossing into another country.

Welcome to the Schengen Zone or Schengen Area, an enormous border-free zone within Europe where nearly thirty countries (mainly from the EU) have come together to create the largest borderless area in the world that allows people to travel freely from country to country without passport controls and border checks.

History and Purpose of the Schengen and Area

city of Schengen in Luxembourg

In 1985, representatives of five European countries gathered in the quaint village of Schengen, Luxembourg, to sign the groundbreaking Schengen Agreement.

The original intent of the agreement was to gradually eliminate the borders between their countries and establish a unified visa policy among member countries. Removing passport controls at internal borders, allowed the unrestricted movement of people across shared borders and promoted the idea of a unified Europe.

The five founding countries of the Schengen area were France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Over time, more and more countries have signed and implemented the agreement. Today, these countries are collectively sometimes referred to as “Schengen countries.” 

Why is it called the Schengen Agreement or Schengen area?

The Schengen area and agreement were named after the small town of Schengen in Luxembourg, where the agreement was first signed in 1985.

Countries in the Schengen area.

Schengen Countries Map of the 27 EU and Non EU countries in the Schengen area. Plus which EU countries are not part of the Schengen zone

The Schengen Area countries consist of 27 European countries that have all signed the Schengen Agreement. 

These countries are sometimes referred to as “Schengen countries” or “Schengen states.” 

Although all the countries that have signed the agreement are European countries, not all EU countries are part of the Schengen Area, and not all Schengen countries are members of the EU.

There are also 4 Microstates that are not part of the Schengen area or the EU but still have open borders or semi-open borders with other Schengen area countries.

Here is a breakdown of the 23 EU countries and 4 non-EU countries that make up the Schengen area. Plus, the 4 microstates that are not part of the Schengen area but have an open-door policy with other Schengen member countries.

Table of Schengen area countries

Schengen area Non-Schengen area
EU countries non-EU countries EU countries
  1. Austria,
  2. Belgium
  3. Croatia
  4. Czechia
  5. Denmark
  6. Estonia
  7. Finland
  8. France
  9. Germany,
  10. Greece
  11. Hungary
  12. Italy
  13. Latvia
  14. Lithuania
  15. Luxembourg
  16. Malta
  17. Netherlands
  18. Poland
  19. Portugal
  20. Slovakia
  21. Slovenia
  22. Spain
  23. Sweden
 24. Iceland
 25. Liechtenstein
 26. Norway
 27. Switzerland
 1) Bulgaria
 2) Cyprus
 3) Ireland
4)Romania

23 EU Countries are also Schengen area countries

There are a total of 27 EU countries, four of which are not part of the Schengen zone. Ireland has opted out, but Cyrpurs, Bulgaria and Romania have applied to become Schengen area countries. 

  • Ireland and Cyprus are currently not in the Schengen zone.
  • Bulgaria and Romania should be a part of the Schengen by the end of 2023. 

There are 4 Non-EU countries that are also Schengen area countries

These four countries are not part of the EU but are Schengen area countries. Together they are part of the (EFTA) European Free Trade Association.

EFTA’s main goal is to promote free trade and economic cooperation among its member states and with other countries outside the EU. These countries share several benefits in terms of their participation in the Schengen Agreement, including passport-free travel for EU and Schengen country citizens. 

  1. Iceland
  2. Norway
  3. Liechtenstein
  4. Switzerland.

*Note: Although citizens of Schengen countries can travel to the above four countries without passport and border controls, Non Schengen citizens can only travel to Liechtenstein and Switzerland from other Schengen countries without going through a border check.

Iceland and Norway are both Islands, and all Schengen citizens are required to show their valid passports when flying into these countries. 

**4 Microstates: Defacto members of the Schengen area

In addition to the 27 full member countries of the Schengen Area, there are four small countries called microstates that are not part of the EU or the Schengen Area.

However, these tiny nations have established unique arrangements or relationships with the Schengen Area members and have become de facto members of the Schengen Area. They operate as if they were Schengen Area members without being full formal members.

Monaco

Monaco is a small sovereign city-state ruled by Albert II, Prince of Monaco, who is the son of the American actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco.

This microstate is located on the French Riviera along the Mediterranean Sea and shares a border with France. Monaco has an open border with France, and tourists can typically enter Monaco from France without passport checks.

San Marino

San Marino is a mountainous microstate surrounded by north-central Italy.

Although not a formal EU member, it has an agreement with the EU and Schengen area members and has an open-door policy for tourists and Citizens.

Vatican City

The Vatican city is the smallest country in the world and the administration center of the Roman Catholic church. The only people allowed to live in the Vatican City are the Pope, the celery, and the Swiss Guards who defend the Vatican City.

Like the other microstates, Vatican City is not a member of the EU or the Schengen area but has special agreements with them, and tourists can visit Vatican City via Italy without border controls or passport checks. 

Andorra:

Andorra is a small country nestled between France and Spain. Although Andorra is not a member of the European Union or the Schengen area, it has a special agreement with both France and Spain that allows for open borders and tourists usually do not have to go through border checks when entering or leaving Andora via France or Spain.

Table listing all countries in the Schengen Area 

  Country In the Schengen Not Part of the Schengen Area
EU COUNTRIES
1 Austria Bulgaria (end of 2023)
2 Belgium Cyprus
3 Croatia Ireland
4 Czech Republic Romania (end of 2023)
5 Denmark  
6 Estonia  
7 Finland  
8 France  
9 Germany  
10 Greece  
11 Hungary  
12 Italy  
13 Latvia  
14 Lithuania  
15 Luxembourg  
16 Malta  
17 Netherlands  
18 Poland  
19 Portugal  
20 Slovakia  
21 Slovenia  
22 Spain  
23 Sweden  
EFTA COUNTRIES
24 Iceland  
25 Liechtenstein  
26 Norway  
27 Switzerland  
MICROSTATES
(Small countries that are not members
of the Schengen area but still have open borders)
36 Monaco  
37 San Marino  
38 Vatican City

Benefits and how the Schengen area works

Schengen, EU and other European countries relationship to one another

Two key benefits of the Schengen Area for tourists and its residents are passport-free travel and Borderless travel.

These two concepts are closely related and are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly different implications. 

What is passport-free travel?

Passport-free travel is a concept that refers to the ability of people to move freely to another country within a region as if they are travelling within a single country without the need to show their passport or passport checks when crossing internal borders to other participating countries, which is a huge time saver. 

What is Borderless Travel?

border Belgium and Netherlands

Borderless travel takes passport-free travel a step further. Borderless travel refers to the absence of physical borders, checkpoints, or any formalities that would slow down the movement of people between two or more countries. 

You still need a valid passport when you first enter one of the 27 Schengen countries

While Passport-free travel allows people to cross borders without passport checks, borderless travel refers to the fact that there are no visible barriers or restrictions when crossing borders.

Although you do not need a passport to travel to other Schengen countries once you are in the Schengen zone, you still need to show a valid passport when you first enter the area through any of the 27 member countries.  

For example, Whether you’re a citizen of a Schengen area country or not, if you are entering one of the 27 Schengen area countries from a non-area Schengen country, such as the US, UK, or Canada, you will absolutely need to show your passport and go through border control at your first port of entry.

Once your passport is stamped and you go through your first Schengen area country border control, you can travel to any of the other Schengen area countries without ever having to show your passport again. 

How long can you stay in a Schengen country?

If you are a citizen of a Schengen country, you can stay in any other Schengen area country indefinitely.

If you are not a citizen but are a legal resident, you can stay as long as your residency permit is valid. 

**The following only applies to tourists from non-Schengen countries. 

Once inside the border of the Schengen area, tourists can travel freely to any other Schengen country for up to 90 days within a 180-day period. 

For longer stays, you’ll have to apply for special visas. For instance, to stay for a period of up to 12 months in France, you have to apply for a long-stay visa. Once you have this visa, or its equivalent from another Schengen country, you can travel anywhere in the EU freely without overstaying your visit. These visas are usually renewable annually. 

Don’t overstay past 90 days:

The clock starts ticking when you enter your first Schengen country.

When you leave the Schengen area, customs will look to make sure you haven’t overstayed in the area past 90 days. If you did stay past the allowed 90 days, there may be consequences, including fines, deportation, and future travel restrictions such as being banned from entering the Schengen area for years. 

For example: If you wanted to visit the following France, Spain and Italy, and entered the Schengen area via Italy on May 1, you would have to leave the Schengen area by the 90th day, July 29. The 180-day rolling clock keeps ticking no matter how many Schengen countries you visit and does not reset when you visit other Schengen countries.

If you wanted to return to the Schengen area after staying for 90 days, you would have to wait 180 days, which would be January 25 of the following year. 

  • May 1st to July 29th = 90 days
  • January 25 of the following year would be the soonest you could return to a Schengen country. 

Schengen visa requirements:

Schengen visa issued in France

The Schengen area countries have one single collective visa policy. 

Obviously, you don’t need a visa to travel within the Schengen zone if you are a resident of a country that is part of the area. However, you may need a Schengen visa if you are not a resident or citizen of a Schengen country. 

Whether or not you need a tourist visa to enter the Schengen zone depends on whether or not citizens of the country you are from are visa-exempt to enter the Schengen area. 

Visa-exempt countries:

Tourists from visa-exempt countries do not need a visa to enter the Schengen area and can stay anywhere in the Schengen area for up to 90 days within a 180-day period without a visa.

There are roughly 70 countries whose citizens are exempt from applying for a schengen visa. 

Once you enter the Schengen zone, your passport is stamped once, and you won’t have to go through any other passport checks when travelling to other Schengen countries.

For example, citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Australia are from visa-exempt countries. They can travel to any of the 27 European member countries of the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days without applying for or obtaining a Schengen visa for short-term tourism or business trips.

Non-visa-exempt countries:

Tourists from countries that are not visa-exempt must apply for a Schengen visa.

You can apply for a Schengen visa at the consulate or embassy of the country you intend to visit first. Once you have the visa, you can stay in the zone for up to 90 days within a 180-day period.

For example, If you plan on visiting France, Bulgaria, and Poland, in that order, you should apply for a Schengen visa at the French consulate because that is the first country you are visiting. Once you are in the Schengen area, you can visit any other Schengen country using that same visa for up to 90 days within a 180-day period.

Here are some countries whose citizens must apply for a Schengen visa.

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Russia
  4. Turkey
  5. Ukraine
  6. Nigeria
  7. Philippines
  8. Pakistan
  9. Egypt
  10. Indonesia

For a full list of exempt and non-exempt countries, click here.

Helpful Tips for navigating the Schengen Area without a passport

Navigating the Schengen Area without a passport requires careful planning and preparation. Here are some tips to ensure a smooth and hassle-free experience:

You must have a valid passport when you first enter the Schengen area:

To enter the Schengen area, your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond the date you intend to leave the area. So, if you want to visit the Schengen area from May 1 to June 1, your passport must be valid for three months, from June 1 to September.

Carry a valid ID:

While you don’t need a passport once you are in the Schengen zone, you should always carry a valid form of identification, such as a driver’s license or national identity card. If you have neither, you should carry your passport to prove your identity.

Carrying identification with you will help in certain situations where you may be asked to prove your identity, such as when checking into hotels or renting a car. There may also be occasional random checks at certain borders where you’ll need to show some identification and travel documents when required. 

Stay updated on entry requirements, and bring your passport just in case.

Entry requirements can change. Each country has the authority to implement its own specific entry requirements and measures, especially during times of political, security, or health concerns.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Schengen Area implemented travel restrictions and entry bans for non-essential travel from certain countries with high COVID-19 infection rates.

Some Schengen countries require travellers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter. Some countries require travellers to quarantine upon arrival.

So although you may not need to show a passport at border crossings, it’s best to carry one just in case.

What’s the difference between the Schengen area and the EU?

MAP OF EU: Cyprus is part of EU

To non-Europeans, the concept of the EU and the Schengen can be confusing.

Remember that not all Schengen countries are part of the EU, and not all EU countries are part of the Schengen area. 

What is the European Union (EU):

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union between 27 European countries with its own parliament, political structures – and government which collectively work towards common goals and decisions. 

The European Union (EU) establishes rules and regulations which allow people to live, work, and study in other European Union countries without the usual restrictions, visa requirements and barriers between different countries.

On the other hand, the Schengen Agreement complements this free movement by removing border controls, which facilitates travel between participating countries without the need for passport and border checks between countries.

Summing up the Schengen area

If you’re passionate about discovering new places and experiencing different cultures seamlessly without the hassle of lengthy border and passport checks, the Schengen area is a fantastic

Happy travels!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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