The majority of European countries are located within what is known as the Schengen Area. Prior to the existence of the Schengen Area, Americans could travel around Europe and stay ninety days in each individual European country. However, now Americans on a tourist visa can only stay in the entire Schengen Area (most of Europe) for a total of 90 days within any consecutive 180 day period.
So if you spend 60 days in France, you can then only spend 30 more days total in other countries such as Germany or Belgium before being required to leave the Schengen Area. If you choose to spend 90 days straight in the Schengen Area, then you must leave the area for an entire 90 days before you can again return. If you first spend only 30 days straight in the Schengen Area, you can then come and go as you please as long as you don’t spend more than 60 days inside during the following 5 months (150 days). Remember its 90 days in any 180 day period. You don’t get another 90 days automatically every time that you enter.
The Schengen Area was created to unify Europe and get rid of border controls between countries. While there is no legal requirement that your passport will be checked while traveling between Schengen countries, there is also no guarantee that it won’t be checked. I have had my passport checked while taking a train from Germany to the Netherlands, a bus from Latvia to Estonia, and a ferry from Germany to Sweden. So if you plan on overstaying your visa, don’t think that you won’t be caught prior to trying to leave the Schengen Area.
Additionally, unlike in America, police in Europe can stop and ask you for your documents at any time, and are not afraid of being accused of racial profiling. If you are not white, there is a higher probability that you will be stopped. If all your documents are in order, and you have not broken the law, there is nothing to fear.
If you do “accidentally” overstay your 90 day visa, its recommend that you leave through a southern country where rules are often less strictly enforced. Spain and Hungary are two countries which are famous for being lax about cracking down on people who overstay. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland, not so much. I personally recommend never overstaying your 90 day visa, since the consequences can range from a warning/fine, to being banned from Europe and losing your tourist privileges. Unless you’re Jason Bourne, you only get one passport and its not worth the risk of being blacklisted.
Thus here are some legal options for Americans looking to stay longer than 90 days in Europe.
United Kingdom and Ireland
As shown on the European map above, neither Ireland nor the United Kingdom are located within the Schengen Area. These two islands have their own individually enforced borders. An American can stay 6 months straight in the UK and 90 days straight in Ireland. A person can spend time in Ireland or the UK if they are waiting for their Schengen visa to reset.
Bounce Around the Balkans
In addition to the UK and Ireland, there are many other non-Schengen countries in Europe where Americans can spend 90 days in any 180 day period. The countries of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania (Americans can stay a full year here), Kosovo, Bosnia, and Ukraine all have their own independent borders. As of now, so does Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, however they are currently working towards joining the Schengen zone.
I spent an entire summer traveling the Balkans. After spending nearly 90 days in Serbia, I headed south to Macedonia, and then back into the Schengen Area (Poland) before spending nearly 90 days in Ukraine.
The country Georgia also allows Americans to stay for an entire year at a time on a free tourist visa issued upon arrival.
Student or language visas are often the easiest visas to get. Depending on the country, some of these visas even allow you to legally work alongside studying. I personally studied in Germany tuition free, worked part-time, and even won an academic scholarship from the German government which paid my living costs. Upon completion of my degree, I was given an 18 months job searching visa, but could spend that time doing whatever I wanted. However, note that student visas often require you to show that you have the ability to support yourself. They also likely are dependent on you staying in good academic standing with whatever institution you are studying at.
Unlike most the other options on this list, getting a freelancer visa actually allows one to not only stay, but to also legally work and pay taxes in a country. The artist/freelancer visa for Germany is one of the easiest freelancer visas to get. Lesser known is the freelancer visa for the Czech Republic.
Three Year Russian Tourist Visa
While you might find it slightly surprising due to the historical relationship between the US and Russia, Americans can easily apply and receive a Russian tourist visa which is valid for three years. I have personally received one, and you can read about the process here.
Unlike for other European countries, Americans cannot just show up in Russia without a pre-authorized visa issued from a Russian embassy outside of Russia. However, after receiving a visa, you can come and go to Russia as you please for an entire three years. The only slight restriction is that you cannot stay in Russia more than six months at a time, without doing a quick one day border hop.
Another plus is that this three year visa is only for Americans, and just the need for a visa in general keeps out the hordes of British Stag parties which have laid ruin to many other Eastern European cities.
Old Bilateral Agreements with Poland and Hungary
Here is where it gets a little bit shady. Please use the following information at your own risk.
Basically, due to some past bilateral agreements with Poland and Hungary that existed prior the creation of the Schengen Area, United States citizens can stay indefinitely in Poland and Hungary. These agreements allow Americans to spend 90 days in either of these two individual countries, hop the border to another nation, and then come immediately back and stay another 90 days. I have met Americans who have lived for years in Poland doing this.
However, this does not give you the right to travel through other Schengen nations if you are in violation of the standard 90/180 day rule! If you stay more than 90 days in either Poland or Hungary, you will be in violation of Schengen law, and can be punished in other countries. Do not make the mistake of staying a year in Poland, and then try flying home to the USA via a layover in Munich. The Germans will see that you have overstayed your Schengen visa and may ban you from coming back.
If Poland is the country that you plan to stay more than 90 days in, then you will need to directly enter and leave Poland every 90 days through a non-Schengen nation. You should keep a log (receipt, passport stamp) proving that you have left Poland or Hungary and were in another country to show Polish or Hungarian officials upon request. Going to Ukraine by bus or to the UK by plane is normally how Americans living in Poland make their mandatory 90 day border hops. Americans in Hungary normally travel to Serbia for a day.
If you were to go to Germany or any other Schengen country, you could be stopped by local immigration authorities and deported due to having overstayed your time. Thus after spending 90 days in either Poland or Hungary, its not safe to directly travel outside either of these countries to any other Schengen nation without being at risk of deportation. So this loophole is only for extended stays specifically within these two nations, and your initial entry and departure from these nations (and thus the Schengen zone that they are a part of) should be from a non-Schengen nation. Each of your 90 day border hops in between your initial arrival and final departure should also be to non-Schengen nations.
There is always a chance that immigration authorities may still give you trouble and not know or uphold the old bilateral agreements. So unlike the other options on this list, I provide no guarantee for this one.