Dancing the ‘Schengen Shuffle’ is a new challenge for British sailors in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in Europe. Mike Morgan looks at how to keep sailing beyond 90 days
Spending more than three months sailing in the Mediterranean, as a UK citizen, and remaining within the confines of the EU visa rules can be challenging. With the addition of Croatia to the Schengen area in January this year (2023), now all EU countries are included except for Ireland. Schengen is an agreement between EU countries that allows their citizens unlimited visa-free travel across all member states.
Since Brexit, however, the rules have changed for UK citizens on how much time we can spend in the EU. Put simply, the Brexit agreement allows a visa-free stay for a period of no longer than 90 days in any 180 days. This is a rolling 180 days, so you just can’t stay for 6 months in the summer.
This is especially challenging for those of us who own boats or property in EU countries. Ironically when the UK Government negotiated the terms of Brexit, they allowed EU citizens to have visa-free travel in the UK for 180 days.
It now means that in the 27 EU countries with coastlines on the Med you are hugely restricted on where and how long you can stay if, like me, you want to cruise for six months or more. It is possible, but you need to plan carefully. This article covers the person, and not the boat, which has its own set of conditions to stay in the EU, mostly around VAT implications.
Know the rules
So, what can you do? Firstly, you must follow the rules or you risk severe penalties, or at worst, deportation. Therefore, it is important you keep a record of how long you have stayed. This includes short breaks and any holiday you take when not sailing.
Every visit counts towards your 90-day entitlement and with some ports now operating the electronic border control that reads your biometric passport for entry and exit, the member states know how long you have stayed and more importantly, how long you have left. The EES system, which is a fully automated EU biometric entry and exit system which will require a one-off ETIAS visa payment lasting 3 years, has now been delayed until 2024.
Until the planned automated EES is fully introduced, you still need stamps in your passport to prove when you entered and left the Schengen Zone.
There are many online calculators you can use (https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/visa-calculator/) to check how many days you have left before you start planning your trip. You can use these tools to also put in forward dates to make sure you are not in a future breach of your allowance. The example below shows how you can use the tool to calculate the date of your ‘last day of stay’ assuming your boat is in the EU – this is the day on which you would have to leave the Schengen area if you remained there continuously from your entry date, rather than the date you plan to leave on.
You could check in and out with each EU country you visit by going through immigration and customs at a port of entry. However, if like me, you spend most of your time at anchor and not sailing, the days you save will not be worth the hassle or expense as you hop from EU country to EU country. Even if you don’t formally need to check out going from one Schengen country to the next, you will sometimes be required to check in again. For example, you must check into Greece which will levy a cruising tax and issue you with a transit log as part of the entry formalities. Noon Site (https://www.noonsite.com/) is a useful way to check the requirements for each EU country.
Once you’ve calculated your time allowance and the last date you’re allowed to stay, you’ll need to work out where you can go when your days run out. This needs to be a non-EU country. Always leave at least a week’s margin for unforeseeable delays. Make sure you are a reasonable distance from one of these countries at the end of your EU stay. You don’t want to end up with a five-day passage if you can help it.
Where to go
So where can you go? There is, of course, North Africa, which has more than 2,600 miles of coastline. Unfortunately, many countries on this coastline have civil unrest which restricts you to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. The eastern end of the Mediterranean coast is generally a no-go area and restricted by most insurance policies.
For this article, I am going to look at your options on the northern coast of the Mediterranean. The countries you can go to are Montenegro, Albania, Turkey and the TRNC which is the Turkish territory of Cyprus. Interestingly there is some confusion about the Greek sector of Cyprus. The EU still has not officially recognised the annexation of Northern Cyprus by Turkey, and arguably the whole of island is still a Greek territory, which is part of Schengen.
Montenegro is a small country that has a limited coast along the Adriatic but has an inland fjord which is stunningly beautiful and is very yacht-friendly, offering many marinas. Montenegro allows visa-free stays for 90 days in 180. Furthermore, it offers a temporary residence permit for the duration of your marina contract should you decide to winter your boat there, allowing you stay beyond the initial 90 days.
Complexities in Cyprus
Turkey is by far the most desirable of these options as a cruising destination in its own right, with a large coastline and many fantastic cruising areas. They run a similar visa-free stay as the EU, which allows a UK citizen 90 days in a rolling 180 after you have checked in.
Albania, south of Montenegro, is far less developed than its northern neighbour but offers a warm reception to sailors and again, you are permitted 90 days of visa-free stays in any 180.
TRNC, the northern territory of Cyprus which is controlled by Turkey, is more complicated. There is a deep mistrust between the two territories and when you arrive in TRNC you will be issued with a 30-day visa, which you will need to extend if you are going to stay there longer, though this is easily done. The maximum time you can stay, you guessed it, is 90 days in any 180. Also, if you are coming from Turkey, weirdly you need to check out of Turkey first and then check in to TRNC on arrival, which is good because you can add your TRNC days to your Turkey allowance.
Wherever you decide to sail to, when you do travel out of a Schengen area it is vital you check out formally or the powers that be will consider the clock to be still running.
It is worth noting that all of these countries, whilst currently outside the EU, do aspire to join. Of the most progressed is Montenegro, which plans to join the community in 2025 but, with the recent election of a very pro EU president, this could be sooner.
It is also worth noting that healthcare outside the EU differs dramatically with Turkey being good while reports are that provision in Montenegro is poor.
You want to ensure you have good-quality travel/health insurance before visiting.
Get more time
For those of you with healthy bank balances, several EU countries are now offering Golden Visas which allow you to stay in that country if you invest, typically in real estate. Most carry a minimum period of stay and do not always include visa-free travel to other EU countries. This is more suited to property owners or sailors who are committed to one particular country.
So, a period of 180 days or more of legal cruising in the Mediterranean is still possible with careful planning by using your 90 days EU visa-free travel or whatever allowance you have left, and then sailing to a non-EU country for a further 90 days.
Of course, you can mix and match, so a cruise from Greece to Croatia could include stops in Albania and Montenegro, and every day spent out of Schengen gives you another day to spend there later in your trip.
This is an ever-moving feast, and changes to both EU and UK laws, and customs systems, are as inevitable as death and taxes. There is talk in some EU countries of extending the period of stay. France is now offering long-stay visas and Spain’s (now-former) Secretary of State for the Ministry of Tourism and Industry, Fernando Valdés Verelst, said he wanted to scrap the rule that limits the time British tourists can stay in Spain. Fingers crossed…
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