The Schengen Area or: How We Were Stopped at the Border and Denied Entry

The Schengen Area or: How We Were Stopped at the Border and Denied Entry

We were supposed to be in Trieste, Italy right now and heading to Bologna on Saturday. Instead we are sitting in Pula, Croatia planning the rest of our Croatia trip a couple weeks earlier than we had planned. Why? Because while we checked the visa requirements for the countries we visited in South America prior to travel we didn’t even bother when planning the European leg of our trip. To borrow part of a line from Bill Murray’s character in Stripes, “It’s like going into Wisconsin.” Except that it isn’t.

In 1995 eight European countries implemented a passport free travel zone known as the Schengen Area named after the act of the same name that all member nations signed. It removed border control between member nations meaning that if you entered one you had access to all. There are now 26 nations in the Schengen Area and while the area has grown the visa limits have not. The standard tourist visa is still 90 days of travel in a 180 day period.

There was a time when those limits didn’t really matter if you were carrying a US passport. Entrance and exit stamps weren’t really scrutinized and getting in wasn’t really a problem. If you went a few weeks or even a few months over no one would probably notice and even if they did they weren’t very likely to care.

Image of Rovinj
There are worse things in this world than being told you have to go back to Croatia.

That has changed over the last several years. Some of the member nations are more strict than others with the Netherlands and Germany being known for being sticklers and the southern European countries like Italy and Greece not so much. Let the stereotyping begin.

We had an encounter with this in 2009 when we were returning home from Italy. We flew from Venice to Amsterdam and then back to the United States. Our discussion with the Dutch passport control officers went something like this:

“Where’s your entrance stamp?”

“We didn’t get one.”

“What do you mean you didn’t get one?”

“They didn’t give us one. They looked at our passports and waved us through.”

“Where did you fly into?”

“Rome.”

(Under his breath) “&#%!@?! Italians.” (To Us) “Next time, make sure they stamp your passport.”

Since then pressure has been put on the more lax countries to tighten up their security. A quick perusal of the internet message boards yesterday showed, albeit unscientifically, that more and more people with US passports were getting in trouble for visa violations.

So, how did we get into this little mess? To be straight we were in this mess before we even left for the trip back in January because it never even occurred to me to double check the visa rules for travel in Europe. It’s Europe. More specifically, it is because we went to Croatia.

Croatia is a member of the European Union. I knew that. Croatia is not part of the Eurozone and has its own currency. I knew that, too. Croatia is not currently a member of the Schengen Area. I did not know that until our train from Budapest to Zagreb stopped at the border between Hungary and Croatia for passport control. The Hungarian officer gave our passports a very thorough going over, flipping through Julie’s multiple times. We received more attention than anyone else on our train car but he eventually stamped us out and Croatia stamped us in.

Image of Refusal of Entry notice.
Me with my Refusal of Entry notice.

We probably should have known that something was amiss at this point but really didn’t pay it any mind. What we later learned was that if he had felt like pressing the issue and filling out all of the paper work he could have pulled us both off the train and fined us each €500 because we had stayed in the Schengen Area for almost 120 days. I’m guessing he figured it wasn’t worth the trouble and we were on our way out the door. He had to have known, the exit stamp is right next to the entrance stamp in my passport.

That brings us up to Tuesday. We should have noticed the slight bit of foreshadowing when the bus driver tried to toss a kid off the bus after he lost his ticket before we even left the station in Pula. That situation was eventually resolved but we both looked at each other like, “Wow, that would suck.” To get to Trieste, Italy by land from Croatia you have to pass through Slovenia which is also a member of the Schengen Area.

When we arrived at the border the Croatian officer came on to check papers of everyone leaving. He took our passports and the passports of the others who needed stamping. After several minutes a Slovenian border guard came onto the bus with just our passports in her hand and asked us to step off the bus. We grabbed our backpacks and stepped off to have our little chat. I wasn’t nervous or apprehensive because I was still completely oblivious to the fact that we were doing anything even remotely wrong.

“Do you have a work visa or a student visa?”

“Uh, no,” I said in a tone that in my mind implied, “Why the hell would I have a work or student visa?”

“So, you have no other visas?”

“No.”

“You can’t enter. You’ve been here too long. You arrived in Spain in May.”

Me, still not realizing that we had done anything wrong, “Yeah…I thought we had six months.”

“No, 90 days.”

“Really?”

“Yes, 90 days in 180 days.”

“Huh, so, what do we do now?”

I can’t tell if she was more annoyed at the fact we were trying to get in, our total ignorance of the visa rules or the fact that I was having zero reaction to any of this. The second she said we couldn’t come in my brain was already moving on to what we had to do next. Improvise, adapt, overcome, and all that. There’s nothing to argue about at that point. We fucked up and the only thing to do is move on. Of course I don’t think the chuckling out loud at my own stupidity helped anything. I apparently was the only one who found the situation even slightly amusing.

She didn’t answer my question and disappeared inside the offices next to the road. We were later greeted by another Slovenian border guard named Vladimir who was rather pleasant and explained everything to us. “Officially you are being denied entry because you are over your limit of 90 days of travel in 180 days. We have some paperwork that has to be filled out and you’ll have to sign. The bus will come back through here on its way from Trieste and take you back to Pula.”

We signed off on our forms and got our passports back with our exit and entry stamps crossed out. That really is the kicker. Someone on the Slovenia side stamped us in. It wasn’t until a second person went over it that they realized we were out of compliance. So close. I feel bad for the person who stamped it as we probably got them in a spot of trouble.

Image of passport stamp
And this is what an invalidated entrance stamp looks like. Not sure what the “F” means but it is the first one I’ve received since double flunking fourth year Spanish and Calculus my senior year of high school.

We had to wait at the border for almost two hours for the next bus to come through heading back to Pula. I used that time to search for visa options on my phone as well as contact info for the Italian consulates in Croatia. I started looking for possible places to stay that night and contacted our host in Trieste to let him know he wouldn’t need to pick us up at the bus station. When we got back to Pula I called the Italian embassy in Zagreb and had an enlightening chat with a man in their visa department. The only visas that could have helped us had to have been applied for while we were still in the United States. We were out of luck. I booked a last minute apartment and then we went out for beer, pizza, and beer.

Don’t take my humor the wrong way, I am deeply disappointed. Even after all of our travels this year Italy is still our favorite country. We were really looking forward to returning and getting to spend a few days with our friends who will be vacationing there. Trieste and Sicily have been on our list since our last trip. We wanted to go to Bologna again before Mario Batali opens his food theme park there next year. We were going to spend a week in Naples and eat pizza until we were sick of it and then probably eat some more. We had a free place to stay in Crete with a hoot of a host.

But none of that matters now because we have to wait 90 days to re-enter and by that time we will be somewhere in Southeast Asia. We were going to come back to Croatia after our first two weeks in Italy and work our way south before going back to Naples and Sicily. Instead we are going to take our time heading down the Croatian coast and will probably spend a couple of weeks in Montenegro.

Lessons learned? Next time, apply for an extended visa before leaving the US. Barring that, skip Slovenia and take the ferry straight to Italy and hope they aren’t scrutinizing passports that day.

25 Responses to The Schengen Area or: How We Were Stopped at the Border and Denied Entry

  1. Thankfully you have a good humor about you, or else this could have been really bad. I might have freaked a lot more than you. Croatia sure is beautiful. My best sailboat picture came from there.

  2. I love that you asked for a next step to help remedy the situation and the officer just walked away. I wish my job allowed for that every day.

  3. Who was your could have been host in Crete? Funny, as Tyburski and I were hosted there by Chatard alum and archeologist Tom Brogan, who must be pretty close in age to Joe.

    • Our friend Jay’s cousin. Archaeologist in Crete, eh? Living the dream. Beats the hell out of doing environmental review surveys for state government.

  4. Re “We signed off on our forms and got our passports back with our exit and entry stamps crossed out. That really is the kicker. Someone on the Slovenia side stamped us in. It wasn’t until a second person went over it that they realized we were out of compliance. ”

    No, not really. This is the way to show that you were denied entry to Schengen and to make sure that it will be reflected in your passport. Works exactly the same way in the UK for example – the entry stamp gets crossed.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/1973May9-Passportstamp-Refusal-to-enter-UK.jpg

    • I see your point, but that was the case in this instance whether by design or by accident. The first Slovenian guard in the booth went through and stamped all of the passports with the entrance stamp. It was his supervisor who noticed the problem afterwards. But if everyone gets stamped regardless, then maybe that’s just their SOP. Immigration by assembly line.

  5. What are you complaining at?

    You KNOW what the entry rules are and try to get away with it as your passports may not be stamped.

    Please tell me what the US authorities would do to a European citizen who overstayed their time limit in the US? Probably arrested and sent home on the next flight out.

      • i have been refused entry to netherlands on 06/06/2016 for forgeting the show documents as am from tanzania…but they told me that my visa still valid so i can go back with all documents needed before my visa get expired…..but am little bit doubting about it…. anyone know about it to explain to me better?

  6. Hi guys, you both sounded really chilled about the refused entry stamp. I just want to know what happened afterwards? did it affect your next schengen visa application?

    • We were told that we weren’t allowed in for six months, but after that time it would be okay. Unfortunately, we have not been back to Europe yet. I would expect everything to be fine.

  7. hi mark how are you i had the same stamp but from bulgaria but with letter E under the stamp because i didnt have medical insurance no one told me that i am banned for a period any help?

  8. Just a short note:

    They did not really stamp you in. The official guide book (Schengen border codex) stimulates that entry denials shall be marked as seen in your passport. So first stamp it and then cross it out. A lot of countries do it like this btw.

  9. Is there anyone who got denied entry then enter again with the same visa ?

    I misunderstood the 90/180 days rules, I mistakenly thought the clock will reset as long as re-enter ;( … since I hold five years multiple schengen visa, I was told I still can enter again with same visa after out of 90 days… I’m just a little worried the denied entry stamp on the passport will affect my next trip to Schengen or will be challenged by border authorities ? Or just go through as usual?

    Thanks!

    • I didn’t need a visa since I’m from the US, but the same 90/180 day rule applies. They said I could return after I had been out for 90 days, but I haven’t been back to try.

      You should be fine. The guard may ask you about it, but if your visa is in order, they’ll let you in.

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We're Mark & Julie

We quit our jobs at the end of 2013 to backpack around the world. We're sharing our stories, travel advice and hopefully some inspiration. Read more...

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