March 7, 2008

In an ideal world, Schengen Area rules wouldn't be open to interpretation

Several days ago, I had one of those experiences that just about any expat could relate to - you prepare your documents, make your appointment, triple-check everything - and then get confronted with "Oh no, that's not how it works." It's funny how very real, important issues like visas and immigration are ultimately the decision of a single person. If that border guard or that police officer or that consulate official decides they don't want to grant a visa... that's bad news for the expat/tourist/traveler/whatever. Even as I type this, tons of stories friends have told me are springing to mind - and now I have one to add to the pile.

Since this blog exists to track my expatriate progress, I feel obliged to write about it, especially because I would like to think that someone else might learn from my mistakes. So even though this story only proves that I don't know everything and I kind of hate that, I will explain what happened when I got turned down by the French consulate for a long-stay visa (see the previous post for the whole story as well).

All of my paperwork was perfectly in order and I made it to the French consulate in LA on time. The man I dealt with there... I'll call him FC. I had already filled out a Schengen Visa application form and bought in three copies, but FC told me I needed to fill out a long-stay visa application (note: these forms are 99% identical - the only difference was that everything was in French on the forms he gave me, and I had printed my copy from the French consulate website). I explained my situation to FC, told him about my friends in Paris and showed all types of proof that I could stay with them. FC told me "you don't need this visa at all, you can just use your passport."

Well, I replied, I am traveling for 8 months, and my US passport only allows me to stay in the Schengen area for 90 days...

No, no, he replies. You have 90 days in each country, and you can, for example, go to France for say, 10 days and then take a week off and go to Spain... when you return to France you will still have 80 days left. Stay in France for 20 more days, and go to Italy for 10 days. When you get back to Paris you will still have 60 days left. And every six months, this renews, so as long as you don't spend more than 90 days in France in a 6-month period, you can just keep doing this forever (that's me paraphrasing his words).

Sounds great, but it's just not true. In the most polite way possible, and without accusing him of being wrong, I said "it was my understanding that Americans get 90 days in the entire Schengen area, and I was advised to get a visa if I wanted to stay for 8 months." He tried to talk me out of it. It was the most surreal experience, to have the "administration" talk me out of following the rules, while I tried insist that I really only had 90 days to stay in the entire Schengen area with my US passport. If I leave the Schengen area and come back, I think I can do that once in a 6-month period. The law is set up so that I can't just keep flying to Turkey every three months. So in the end, my visa was denied - because FC said it just didn't apply to my situation. He still encouraged me to go to France, travel as I want, and just use my passport.

I was flabbergasted. I got in touch with an immigration lawyer in the states, and she backed up everything I know to be true, and confirmed that what FC told me is wrong. Could I fight it? Maybe. Do I want to? No. First of all, getting turned down for this visa cost me $175 USD, which still aggravates me. Secondly... France isn't even where I want to live. I know that schengen visa/long stay tourist visa would have come in handy and backed me up during my time in Amsterdam, but my passport already has a French visa, and a French titre de sejour from 2005-2007, and if I stuck another one in there and then eventually tried to permanently relocate to Amsterdam, things could get confusing.

So that's that for France. I emailed the lawyer and put forth this situation. "Let's say I arrive in Europe on 21 April and stay anywhere in the Schengen area until 20 July (three months). On that date, I'll fly to Belgrade or Sarajevo or somewhere that is not an Schengen/EU country and will stamp my passport. I'll stay in that area until say, 28 July (which I wanted to do anyway to research the documentary). Then when I arrive back in Schengen-Area-Europe, I'll have another three months. So I'll have to go back to the US on 28 November." The lawyer told me my plan was perfectly safe. I'm also pretty sure that I will find something else out there that contradicts this advice, and yes, that is frustrating.

I'm obviously not thrilled with the way the situation turned out, but that's mostly because my ego was a little bruised, since I had been confident that this would work. But honestly, the more I think about it, the less worried I am. More and more I think that my best way into Amsterdam, and into a real life in Europe, is either school or work - simple as that. My Binger Filmlab application went out a few days ago, and I am really pleased with how it came together. Even if I don't get accepted, the application process gave me a good kick in the ass - I spent many nights staying up until 2 or 3am after a long day at work, writing and re-writing my documentary treatment, researching everything I could about my topic, writing my essays, and updating my resume and website. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to wire money from an American bank account to a Dutch bank (for the application fee). In addition to Binger, there are two Masters Programs at the University of Amsterdam that really, really appeal to me, so I'm going to go ahead and apply once I decide which one suits me better. And there is the possibility of a job at the editorial company in Portland/Amsterdam - I have a meeting on Friday morning to talk about that very topic.

I feel very fortunate to have such great friends all over the world that are rooting me on. The other day, I wrote an email to some of my friends that live in Paris and Amsterdam, telling them what had happened with the French consulate. I received some really sweet replies and more offers of help, suggestions on how to do things differently, or just to say "don't worry, you'll figure something out, you always do, and we can't wait to see you in April." Well, I don't always have everything figured out, but as long as I learn something important from the experience, it's worth it.

But I'm still really annoyed about that $175.


technicolorsarah said...

I hope your new plan works out!

As an American with a future-husband in The Netherlands, I've spent the last 2 years traveling back & forth a lot. I've always heard that, as a visitor, you can only be there for 3 months out of every 6. So, you CAN be there for a total of 6 months in a year, but they can't be all in a row. I hope that's not true for your sake!

Anonymous said...

Although I am Dutch and never had to deal with the visa rules that apply to my country (or Europe for that matter) I'm sure that things will work out fine. Amsterdam is such an international city, with so many foreigners working, studying and living here, that I'm confident you'll make it work. I mean, it's not North Korea ;)

So keep up the good work, I'm excited to see that you're so excited about our little country. Spring is approaching fast, some trees are blossoming already and in three weeks the cute little street terraces are allowed to set up on the pavement, so you will receive a warm welcome when you arrive in Amsterdam. Best of luck with the last legs of your stay in the US! Jolien

Another American Expat said...

Jolien - you hit on the exact reason why Amsterdam is so appealing to me when you said "Amsterdam is such an international city, with so many foreigners working, studying and living here," and your description of Spring put a smile on my face.

Thanks for the encouragement!


Another American Expat said...

Hey technicolorsarah, thanks for the advice. I'll try and get some kind of concrete answer one of these days, and hopefully not deported in the meantime!