If you’re planning your first backpacking trip through Europe, there’s no doubt that you have a ton a questions. I mean, it’s all brand new. It’s okay to be a little confused by the whole process. I know I sure was. I had never traveled solo outside the U.S. (besides visiting friends in Mexico) before my first backpacking trip to Europe in 2012. I didn’t know what to expect, as I imagine you don’t either. One the many things you may start to wonder about is the entry process into all the different countries you plan on traveling to while abroad. How exactly does it work? What happens when you arrive? And more importantly, you’re probably wondering, ” Do you need a visa to backpack Europe?”
Do you need a visa to backpack Europe?
It’s pretty much a given that you will absolutely need a U.S. passport to travel around Europe, but what about a visa? Well, that depends on which European countries you plan on traveling to. Luckily, it’s pretty unlikely that you will need one, since most first time travelers to Europe tend to stick to the more popular European countries (located in the Schengen Zone), which don’t require U.S. citizens to have a visa. However, there are some countries in Europe that do require you to have a visa.
First, it’s important to understand what the Schengen Zone is.
What is the Schengen Zone?
The Schengen Zone is an an area in Europe consisting of 26 European countries. In 1995, there was an agreement made (called the Schengen Borders Agreement), which allows people to travel freely between the Schengen Zone, much like people in the U.S. can travel freely between different states. It makes traveling to other European countries a lot more convenient. You only go through customs the first time you arrive into a country that is part of the Schengen Zone. After that, you’re able to travel around freely, without having to go through customs, until you arrive into a country that is not part of the Schengen Zone. While it does save a lot of time and hassle, there is a slight downside to it. All those European passport stamps you planned on accumulating during your travels… yep, you guessed it – not going to happen. I was actually really disappointed on my first backpacking trip to Europe when I finally realized I wasn’t getting stamped every time I entered a new country!
History lesson: Schengen is a small town in Luxembourg, and is located on the border near Germany and France. The Schengen Agreement was originally signed near the town, hence the name.
Which countries are part of the Schengen Zone?
- Czech Republic
- Slovak Republic
Which European countries are not part of the Schengen Zone?
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
- the United Kingdom
Do I need a visa to enter the Schengen Zone as a U.S. Citizen?
No, you don’t! As long as you’re a U.S. citizen with a valid U.S. tourist passport (blue passport), and you plan on traveling for tourism or business related reasons, you are allowed to stay in the Schengen Zone for up to three months.
So I could travel around France for 3 months, and then Italy for 3 more months?
No. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You are allowed to travel around all of the countries located in the Schengen Zone for a total of 3 months. After 3 months, you gotta get out! (That doesn’t necessarily mean out of Europe. It just means out of the Schengen Zone.)
Do I need a visa to visit countries that are not part of the Schengen Zone?
For some countries located outside of the Schengen Zone, you will need to get a visa in order to enter them. For others you won’t need to.
Do I need a visa to visit the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)?
(Buckingham Palace – London, England)
No, you don’t! As a U.S. citizen, you are allowed to visit the U.K. for up to 6 months without a visa. Just show up with your U.S. passport, and you’re good to go!
Do I need a visa to visit Ireland?
(Cliffs of Moher – Ireland)
No, you don’t need a visit to visit Ireland! You’re allowed to stay visa-free for up to 3 months for tourism and business related travel.
Do I need a visa to visit Turkey?
(Hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey)
Yes, you do. As a U.S. citizen you can easily purchase a Turkish e-Visa online. It’s valid for up to 90 days within a 180 day period and costs only $20. You can have your hostel print it out for you before you leave for Turkey. (Travel Story: I left my printed out visa in my backpack, which I happened to have checked for my flight, so I didn’t have access to it when I first landed in Turkey. I didn’t want to pay for it again, so I showed the customs official the PDF of the visa on my phone, and luckily enough it worked. They let me through! I wouldn’t risk it though. Bring the paper copy just in case.) You can also get a visa at a Turkish Embassy or Consulate, but they will be a bit more expensive. You used to be able to buy a visa upon arrival in Turkey for $30. However, they are phasing that out this year (2014), so I would be safe and get one online before arriving in the country.
Do I need a visa to visit Croatia?
(Spent 8 days sailing the coast of Croatia – Dubrovnik, Croatia)
Nope! As a U.S. citizen traveling to Croatia for tourism or business, you are allowed to stay in Croatia for up to 90 days within a 180 day period. Just bring your passport!
Do I need a visa to visit Russia?
(Moscow, Russia – with hostel friends)
Yes. Applying for a Russian visa can be a bit overwhelming, if you’ve never applied for a visa before. Once you understand everything you need to submit, it’s not so bad. If you’d like to avoid getting a Russian visa, but would still like to visit Russia, there is a way around it. Russia allows visitors who are on an international cruise to visit several different Russian ports for up to 3 days (72 hours), without having a visa. Of course there are some rules associated with it, such as, you’re only allowed ashore if you are with an organized tour. For that reason, if you want to do sightseeing on your own, you will need to get a visa. However, if you don’t want to be bothered with the hassle and expense of getting a Russian visa, but would still like to see St. Petersburg, this is a great idea. Personally, I wanted to also visit Moscow, so I did go through with getting a Russian visa. After I got past the initial confusion of figuring out which documents I needed in order to apply for the visa, it turned out to not be quite as difficult as I thought.
Still not sure if you need a visa to visit a specific European country?
If I haven’t covered a specific European country you plan on visiting, you can find all the info you need here.
- Make sure your passport is valid for at least 3 months beyond your planned date of departure when visiting countries located in the Schengen Zone.
- For countries located outside the Schengen Zone, click here to find out how long your passport needs to be valid for.
- Make sure there are enough blank pages left in your passport – usually at least 1 or 2 blank pages are required.
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