Jumping right into this topic.
As an American, I am allowed to stay in Holland - and the entire Schengen Area - for three months with just a passport. I know three months isn't enough time for me to figure out if I can make my desire to live in Amsterdam a reality, so I'm applying for a long-stay Schengen Visa, valid for about eight months. Because I'm flying into Paris, I need to apply to the French Consulate - France is my "port of entry" into the Schengen area. This visa won't allow me to (legally) work or declare residency anywhere, but it will serve one very important purpose - I won't get deported for staying in Europe for more than three months if someone asks to see my passport.
Since right now my plan is to stay in Europe from 21 April - 22 December 2008 (at the very least), I need to cover myself. If someone stops me on a street in Amsterdam come October, I need to be able to show that I was granted permission to travel within the Schengen area and that I'm just another tourist.
It's not exactly a fun process to get this visa, which shouldn't come as a surprise. First, I need to get a police report that says I have no criminal record (if you do, I don't know what that means, but I assume it makes things more difficult). To obtain that report, I have to go to the police station in the county where I reside (which is currently Los Angeles). The police just need to see a valid ID that indicates I live in the county that they serve, then they look me up and print out some kind of official letter stating I'm not a criminal. However, as of this morning, I did not have any ID that shows I live in California - my drivers license is from New York (pay attention, Americans, this is important for you to know). So that meant that this morning I had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and exchange my New York ID for a California ID. It took about two hours, cost $26, and they required me to provide a thumb print, pass a 36-question written test, take a vision test, and tell them how much I weigh. California is strange.
Now that I have an ID that clearly indicates I live in Los Angeles County, my next stop is the Records & Identification Division of the Los Angeles County Police Department for the police clearance ($15). After that is accomplished, I just need to gather every single piece of documentation imaginable (birth certificate, social security card, etc.) and take all of that to the French Consulate in Los Angeles this upcoming Tuesday, 4 March. Here is an important thing to keep in mind if you don't live in a major US city - there are exactly ten French Consulates in the entire United States. There are just five Dutch Consulates. It is possible to do everything by mail, but be aware that will take much longer than doing it all in person.
What exactly do you need to prove to get a long-stay visa? The most important thing is finances. Somehow you need to convince your Port-of-Entry country that you are not going to seek any paid employment or government services, and that you have enough money to support yourself for the duration of your stay. You also need to have already purchased your flight tickets that clearly indicate your return date to the US (yes, before they grant you a visa, you need to spend the money on the plane tickets). You need to have health insurance that is valid in your port-of-entry country and be able to prove you have a place to stay when you arrive. You will also have to write a letter stating why you want the visa and promising not to seek employment AND if you've done any traveling in the past three years, you need to be able to list that (just go by the stamps in your passport).
Health insurance is easy - there are a million places to buy "Travelers Insurance," and it's not terribly expensive. France requires coverage of up to 37,000 Euros, and Specialty Risk is just one place that offers very comprehensive policies at about $30 a month for European travel (not that I'm surprised, but rates double if you wanted to be covered in the US). As far as a place to stay - I'm lucky that I still have very close friends in Paris that will host me and submit the information I need... and it's a lot of information. They need to write a letter stating they will host me, provide a copy of their lease and proof of income, and explain their relationship to me. If you know people that might help you out like this but don't have a real, legit, legal lease/housing contact - it won't work.
My flight tickets have been purchased, so that's done. Now the only issue is money and my letter - which will be almost entirely honest. I will say that I plan to travel through Europe for 8 months to visit friends, be a tourist, and check out graduate schools. I'm going to leave out the part where I hope to stay in Europe and live in Amsterdam. Because who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind, right? As far as finances go, I can show my recent paystubs and prove that I'll have enough savings before I go.
It does seem a little weird to be doing all of this through France when the idea is to live in Amsterdam. If I was flying into Amsterdam, I would have to apply for the same type of visa, but to the Dutch consulate. Even though it's hard for me to believe, the Dutch immigration laws are even more strict and rigid than they are in France in a lot of ways, and I would rather avoid Holland even knowing that I exist until I figure out a legal way to live there. I also don't have any friends in Amsterdam that I would feel comfortable asking to vouch for me the way my friends in Paris will. The couple in Paris that is helping me out have been my friends for several years, and know and trust me.
I hope this isn't too confusing. I know that not everyone who is looking for advice on this type of thing will find all the details I provided helpful, but my point in explaining it is to point out that there are a lot of ways of staying in Europe, even if it doesn't seem obvious right away. An Australian friend of mine who moved to Berlin over a year ago recently told me a couple things I never heard before (if Amsterdam doesn't work out, I think I really will try Berlin). These are her words, which I edited down a bit just to get to the end of this post already:
In Germany, there are multiple visa options.... A) the Freelance visa. This is the magic ticket for most Americans/Australians/etc. in Germany. It's name might not be obvious... on all official websites etc. in Germany, this looks like a visa for people who want to set up a business, but in fact you can get it for any freelance work. B) the Student visa. Magically, in Germany, student visas aren't just for people enrolled in degree courses. You can also get a student visa for up to two years to study German. You need proof of enrolment at a language school (but you don't need to enrol more than say 3 months to get a two year visa).
This long-stay visa is something I've done before, and this time around I actually got guidance from an immigration lawyer. If I run into any trouble along the way, I'll be sure to write about it. I have received so much assistance from friends (and strangers!) over the years when it comes to this type of stuff, and I hope that I can help others learn through my experiences. Plus, keeping a blog is a great way to procrastinate when I really should be gathering my paperwork, updating my resume, and finding my plane tickets.
And thanks to all of the folks who have gotten in touch with me lately to offer encouragement or advice. It's always great to hear from anyone who is reading!