Before going to France and moving on-board Oxalis Borealis, I had read everything that I could find on the Schengen area and the 90-day visitor limit for non-European passport holders. There is a lot of information (and opinions!) on the web, but despite my efforts it was impossible to obtain precise material specifically for sailors. My goal was to understand the exact rules so I could respect the 90 days limit before crossing the Atlantic after the hurricane season, which is not easy to do if you pick up your boat in France in the Summer. In fact, I write this blog from Canada as our catamaran is patiently waiting in the Canaries… not that I am upset to visit family and friends, but we would have overstayed our 90 day limit if we did not undertake this two weeks visit home before our Atlantic crossing.
So, I do not pretend to provide official information, especially as information, even when it comes from officials, does vary, but here is a comprehensive summary of what we have learned:
Value Added Taxes (VAT)
First off, let’s state clearly that the Schengen visa rules apply to people, not to the boat. But if as a non-resident of the EU you keep your boat in Europe for more than 18 months, even if it is registered in a foreign country (Canada in our case…), you will end up owing value added taxes on the boat. The beauty of this rule, for non-EU residents who want to cruise around Europe for a long time, is that you can reset the 18 months clock by visiting a non-EU port. We met people in Morocco who had just crossed the Gibraltar Straight for this very reason. The territory of reference is the European Union, not the Schengen zone. Keep your marina receipts!
EU residents do have to pay VAT on boats kept in Europe… So, here is where it gets interesting: If as a non-EU passport holder, you exceed your 90 days visitor’s visa, are you a fiscal resident? Or is it 180 days? As much as everything I have seen and heard in the last few months of sailing in Europe convinces me that most officials would not push the rules to the limit, the possibility does exist, and I would certainly not take this risk.
The 90-day limit…
In a nutshell: you can stay in the Schengen zone on a visitor’s visa up to a maximum of 90 days within the last 180 days. There is no way to reset this clock. Get a spreadsheet going and count your days. In more details:
- The stamp in your passport constitutes the entry date of said “visitor’s visa”. Even if as a passport holder of most countries you do not need to obtain a fancy visa in advance, it is still called a “visa” once you are admitted.
- The days that you are stamped in and out do count in the total.
- ALL days in between count… Even if you are at sea. For example, we sailed from the Azores to France in the Spring to gain offshore experience on a friend’s boat. We were in the Azores for less than 24 hours. We had to visit customs, immigration and the port captain before leaving. But they refused to stamp us out because we were going to France. So, although we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for 11 days, we were technically in the Schengen zone all of this time. When we picked up our catamaran in July, we were already handicapped with all these days in the Schengen zone as they were within the last 180 days…
- Stamps are the only proof that you did not overstay your 90 days. Rumour has it that they check more closely up North and are more relaxed about it the more you move South, but there are exceptions: They checked each and every page of our passport at a port in the Algarve, and also when we arrived in the Canaries. But more on this later.
Get your passport stamps!
It’s the only real proof you have. I have a story here… when we were in Cádiz, going towards Morocco, we wanted our passport stamped out of the Schengen zone. The person at the marina assured us that we did not need any exit stamp, that we just had to fill the form and that the appropriate authorities would have everything they need with the form. We are in their country, the person at the marina sees people like us everyday, so we did not doubt the information. We should have as this is still haunting us months later: We are missing an exit stamp in our passport and had to resort to long explanations with more careful officials. Fortunately, we have entry stamps in Morocco, so it’s hard for officials to insist that we were still in the Schengen zone.
Where can I go to extend the European sailing season past 90 days?
It’s relatively simple:
- The UK, although it will be out of the way as most of us are typically aiming for the Med and/or the Canaries
- Gibraltar. Officials are not present at the marinas. You can either go to the Spanish border and get stamped in and out or ask for an official (stamped) copy of the form that the marina is submitting to the authorities to keep as proof you were out of the Schengen zone.
- Morocco. Officials are waiting at ports of entry and you will get stamped in and out (you have to leave your drone with them…)
- Tunisia, if you can convince your insurance company (they refused it for us)
- Croatia, but you have to remember that it can be quite far as the wind in the Med normally blows too much, or not enough, or in the wrong direction. So for us it was too far, but we would have gone if we had left earlier in the season.
- Albania (few infrastructures and lots of bureaucracy at this point)
- Turkey (a popular destination but also denied by our insurance)
Obviously, other countries that could be part of the solution but represent a clear security risk have to be excluded. It’s a moving target as it varies from one month to the other, but insurance companies tend to be very clear about them.
Any day that you spend in these countries can be excluded from the 90 days total, as well as days at sea before or after depending on your passport’s stamps.
You are allowed, anywhere in the Schengen zone, to be “in transit” as long as you stay within 10 kms of port, without being considered in the Schengen zone. These days in port therefore do not apply in your 90 days allowance if you were previously stamped out of the Schengen zone. The problem with this is that it is not applied with any level of consistency and you can’t assume that it will be granted to you. So you can hope… but not plan for it. Here is where I think it can be obtained with a relative level of confidence:
- In Ceuta, if you come from Gibraltar or Morocco. Ceuta is technically in the Schengen zone, even if some guides seem to indicate it isn’t. The distinction is that there are controls at the border, which there aren’t in between other Schengen countries. I can report that when you check in at the marina, you can fill the entry form, they will not stamp your passport, and you can consider yourself safely “in transit”.
- The Canaries. When we arrived in Arrecife, Lanzarote, the “Policia Nacional” gave us the choice to not be stamped in and stay within 10 kms of port, which would have given us additional days “outside of the zone” before having to check-in in Tenerife the week after. But we had already made a plan that included these days as we did not know better… and we wanted to visit the island (it’s beautiful), so we requested a stamp.
- I have heard through the grapevine of other places where you can get this “in transit” status without too much of a fight, but it is always at the discretion of the border agent.
In any case, always make sure that you transit through a non-Schengen territory before going to the Canaries (Morocco, Gibraltar) so that your 4-6 days at sea towards the Canaries are excluded from the total. Canaries, Madeira and the Azores ARE part of the Schengen zone.
Q flag or no Q flag?
As a non-EU boat, you should in theory display the yellow Q flag (historically: Quarantine) under the country’s courtesy flag until cleared in. In practice, you do not need to do it between Schengen countries. Nobody does. You should display the Q flag when you enter a non-Schengen country or re-enter the Schengen zone (Morocco, Gibraltar, Tunisia, Croatia, etc.) and I recommend displaying it in the Canaries as all boats entering need to go through formalities.
Always enter a new country through a port of entry?
When you come in and out of The Schengen zone, absolutely. For example, when we got to the Canaries, a lot of EU registered boats were going directly to anchorages. As a non-EU boat, we had to skip the nice anchorage and go directly to a port of entry… which thereafter gave us the choice in between a hard beat back into the dominant NE wind to the anchorages that we missed or skipping them and going more South and West. That is why we anchored in Papagayo (South of Lanzarote) instead of Playa Francesca (North)… we had to first clear in Arrecife. Just as a pointer, we did have the visit from the Gardia Civil every day except one at Papagayo, so it was a good idea to avoid the temptation of not following the rules.
On the other hand, we would have planned our trip differently if we had known about the lack of formality between Schengen countries. We planned to first hit a port of entry in both Spain and Portugal, but from what we have seen, it would have probably been acceptable to quietly anchor overnight before going to our first in-country marina. The guides that we consulted were describing formalities for non EU boats that went much beyond what we have encountered, but we always planned with the worst case in mind to avoid any issue.
- Be patient with officials! Set aside half a day for check-in and check-out and hope it’s going to be quicker… Sometimes it’s a long walk or a taxi ride away from the port, sometimes you have to explain in length who you are and what you are doing on a boat… And sometimes you just hit an official who is passionate about boats or about travelling and you spend 2 hours or more talking about it before they move their hands towards the stamp (it did happen to us, it was nice but we were very hungry and thirsty coming out of there… bring water and a snack just in case!).
- Keep all your marina and official receipts. Have a spreadsheet with a detailed count of your days in and out of Schengen. If you encounter a problem (like us… we trusted an official who told us we did not need a stamp out of Spain), you need to be able to prove all your whereabouts and hope for a nice official who will make things right.
- As you get closer to the African continent, you will feel more carefully observed, with military boats and airplanes that appear out of nowhere because of irregular migrations. You probably will never hear from them, but they clearly know who you are and where you are, and they come within visual distance to confirm. Having an AIS emitter helps their work and probably limits your (unwanted) interactions with them.
- In most places they will consider that as a mariner, you have a special status and that a level of flexibility must be granted if as a captain you decide that you overextend your stay because you had no appropriate weather window, etc. But there are no guarantees… Most official really want to help you, but not all.
- If you fly in or out while sailing in the Schengen zone, be sure that you are well within the 90-day rule. Officials in airports are not as informed about mariners’ exceptions and rights. They will in almost all cases look at your stamps and question anything that looks like an overstay to them.
- There are some countries that have agreements that predate the Schengen Agreement. These agreements are typically applied in addition to the Schengen rules. For example, as Canadians, we have an extra 90 days that in theory can be added to the Schengen days in France… But it will only be possible to claim it if you exit the Schengen area from France.
In conclusion, although you may hear of people sailing and overstaying their Schengen visa without any issue, I would strongly advise against trying. The chances of getting in trouble are real (they do check, sometimes very carefully, you just never know when). The rules can be complex and sometimes murky, which warrants for conservative management.
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