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.
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?”
(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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.