What is the Schengen Zone? Lonely Planet's guide to Europe's borders

Countries that entered into the 1985 Schengen Agreement (named for the town in Luxembourg where it was signed) abolished internal borders, keeping only one external border. This bid to simplify movement between participating countries has ironically caused confusion for many travellers.

What is the Schengen area?

The Schengen area is not the same as the European Union; some EU countries are not in the Schengen region (Ireland, United Kingdom, Romania and Bulgaria), and some Schengen countries are not in the EU (here’s looking at Norway, Iceland and Switzerland). To make things messier, some countries that aren’t part of the club still play the game; Liechtenstein for instance isn’t yet a Schengen member but has dispensed with border checks.

The upshot of all this math-o-mapping is that the Schengen area currently entails Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia and Slovakia.

Do you need a passport?

EU citizens travelling to Schengen countries need to show a passport or identity card when leaving the EU’s external borders. Non-EU citizens only need to get stamped once upon entry into the region, and can then travel passport-free throughout other Schengen countries. But listen up regardless of where you are from; although you can enter some countries without your passport, you may be legally required to carry it while you’re there. Don’t overthink this - just pack your passport.

Do you need a visa?

Whether or not you need a visa is a little more complicated. EU citizens are free to move around the Schengen area without a visa.  For citizens of the rest of the world, whether you need a visa depends on where you’re from. Nationals of 39 countries (including Americans, Australians, Canadians, Croatians, Kiwis and Japanese) don’t need a visa to stay in the region for a maximum period of 90 days. Others will need to apply in advance for a short stay €60 Schengen visa. In both situations, the traveller is officially entitled to be in the region for 90 days over a period of 180 days.

In practice, having a three-month visa for a period of six months means that you can detour out of the region and back in without your Schengen time ticking away while you’re not there. But it also means you can’t simply pop out and in again indefinitely to start your time running again from zero. You can only apply for a Schengen visa every six months, meaning three months after your previous one has expired. Visas exceeding the 90-day short stay Schengen visa are issued subject to national legislation and procedures.

To find out whether you need a visa or not, approach the embassy or consulate for the country where you plan to spend the most time. If you plan to divide your time evenly between different countries in the Schengen area, apply to the one you plan to enter first. Allow a minimum of a couple of weeks to arrange your visa; depending on where you are applying additional documentation may be required, as may be your fingerprints!

What happens if you overstay your Schengen visa?

What will happen if you drift from travelling into overstaying depends on where you get caught (when is just a matter of time). Consequences have ranged from nothing, through to hefty fines and deportation. You also risk a nasty stamp in your passport that might as well have been planted there by your own lipsticked lips, as you kiss the Schengen region goodbye for good.