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Schengen & Visas While Sailing the Mediterranean

How long can we actually stay in the Med and where do we go if we need to reset our time while sailing? In this blog I’ll share what we are learning about visas and what this means to planning our first season cruising in the Med.

In the beginning when we first started learning about Schengen countries and the 90-day visa rule my head exploded. In actuality it’s all pretty simple so hopefully this is a short blog. But the issue isn’t really just about the visa. It’s about how much time you can spend in the Med as a US citizen, how much time the boat can spend in the Med under temporary importation (without incurring VAT), and where you go to buy yourself more time based on your sailing season and objectives. Spoiler alert, our solution involves my husband using his French citizenship and entering as a national and me getting a long-stay visa as his married spouse, but more on that later.


First the basics. The Schengen zone is a list of countries in Europe that allow travel within the zone for a period of up to 90 days in any 180 day period of time. It follows the basic EU structure to travel freely within Western Europe. Then, if you visit a non-Schengen zone, it stops the clock towards that 90 day quota and restarts when you come back in...within that 180 day period.


Where it gets tricky is in France during commissioning. There, you take time to commission the boat before you cast off and all that all counts towards that 180 day quota. So say, you enter in and spend four weeks getting the boat ready, then leave and go back home and pack up for a month or whatever, enter back into France a month later you have 28 days, within a 60 day period already. You go straight there, watch your boat get finished for a month or whatever, that just ate into your season...you get the point. The days only count when you are checked in or checked out of countries so technically the time you spend sailing doesn’t count.


When it comes to the boat, if you purchase a boat in Europe you need to register for Temporary Importation, which basically gives the boat 18 months before it has to leave. Think of it like a time-based duty free pass for the boat. The crazy thing is, say the 18 months are up and you leave, say you sail it to Turkey from Greece. It’s immediately reset and you can stay another 18 months again starting the next day. That part is a bit bizarre to me but who’s complaining?


Okay, so where do people go in the Med if they are getting close to their time being up or are waiting out a season, like a cold season or buying time before heading to the Canaries for the ARC, which is in the Schengen zone by the way so all the ARC prep, that all counts.


People rave about Montenegro, which sits between Bosnia Herzegovina and Albania in Eastern Europe, and right next to the sliver of beach the Croatians have along the coast. Croatia got up early and spread out it’s towel along the Eastern part of the Adriatic and operates currently as a non-Schengen zone but as of this past September the European Commission gave its approval and the timeframe looks like 2020 when it joins the border free Schengen zone. So all the cruisers are super bummed because a lot of people went here after Greece. In a pinch people also go the Gibraltar which is a tiny UK territory off of Spain that almost kisses Morocco. UK isn’t part of the zone either. The issue is that it’s a nice stopover but the area itself is like 2.6 square miles so it might start to feel a bit like Alcatraz after a while if you have time to kill.


If you need to stay over for a winter this is a whole other story - which includes a spirited discussion about how to get heat into the boat. Turkey is a good option, skirting the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. A couple things I’ve heard in addition to how beautiful it is. Much like Greece, there’s a lot of fraud, and, what was once really affordable, many of the marina’s have jacked up prices to insane levels. And, it’s still not warm weather in the winter, mid-50’ highs in December and January which in my book is cold...on a boat. Not Minnesota cold, but certainly too cold for some which makes the decision easy to store the boat and head home for the holidays if the ARC isn’t in your plans for that year.


If your plan does include the ARC, things get interesting because the adventure could entail spending a few weeks preparing for it in the Canary Islands which all counts as Schengen time. This is where Gibraltar gets helpful and also maybe a bit crowded.

There are options for staying longer in Europe, but you have to apply through individual countries. The best of all the options is getting a long-stay visa in France. It’s the best in my opinion because the process, while a month long, is much shorter than say Sweden which is up to 8 months. A long stay visa allows you to stay for up to 12 months and is considered a residence permit because you are technically applying for residency in that country. WARNING: if you are buying your boat in France as a US citizen and intend to leave the Med with the boat, the nature of this visa means you are establishing residency. As we understand it, this technically means you aren’t eligible for a Temporary Importation Agreement on the boat and instead need to pay VAT taxes on the boat in addition to whatever taxes you paid through your boat broker in the US so not a good option for us either.


In our situation, my husband is a dual citizen but a US resident so he can visit the EU as long as he wants. However after exactly six months, his visit turns into residency which we don’t want for the aforementioned reason. As his spouse, I can apply for a long-stay visa as his wife which is an accelerated application process and it falls into a different process than applying for a residency permit. So as long as we don’t stay six months, this option works for us...fingers crossed...I’ll let you know how that goes later.


Okay, so what did I learn through all this, keep track of your time and prioritize what you want to do in the Med that first season. I started out thinking we would la-de-da our way around the Med to Greece then figure it out later but my husband has a bug up his butt to do the ARC the first season...so, ya, there’s that. On a map, I mean the Med is puny, but when you start mapping it all out you have to get from La Rochelle, across the Bay of Biscay, head down the amazing coastline of Portugal, through the Gibraltar Strait, eat Tapas in Spain and party in Ibiza, hit the French Riviera and moor next to the big boys in Monaco and act like you’ve been there, then see the beaches in Sardinia, eat pizza in Sicily and then...are we there yet...get to Greece and spend my requisite three months taking selfies on ruins. Ya, time flies. Even if you power it out and go straight to Crete from La Rochelle, there’s barely time to enjoy it before worrying about the trek back to the Canaries for a crossing.


So I’m not optimistic about doing the ARC the first season, in my mind, we will store the boat for the winter, enjoy a little more Turkey or Greece the second and then make our way west again over the course of two seasons. I think what I learned is we get to be on this epic adventure and time will take on a whole new meaning as we slow down. Yes, there will be visa constraints and logistical windows but there’s no way to predict what will be in store for us and I absolutely can not wait!


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