Highway to the Schengen Zone

| September 26, 2015

Not too long ago, I considered writing a random blog post about the Schengen Zone (also known as the Schengen Area). The original post was going to pose the question of whether or not it is still as exciting today, to cross borders and visit new countries within the Schengen Zone, as it was years ago when border crossings involved stopping, showing your passport, and getting a brand new stamp in it.

My reason for wanting to write a post about the Schengen Zone has changed drastically these days.

If you’re anything like me before I moved to Europe, then you have no idea what the Schengen Zone is. It is the region of Europe where 26 countries have agreed to allow free travel across their borders. In other words, as long as you are passing from one of the member countries into the next, you are not required to stop and show your passport. You might still be required to carry the passport on you, but you don’t have to show it just to cross a border. Typically, you are only required to produce it when entering from a country that does not belong to the Schengen Zone, or when arriving by air, sea, etc.

Funny enough, I was introduced to the Schengen Zone concept long before understanding it. In 1997, I traveled with two friends to the Basque region of Spain. We decided to visit France one day, basically just to go there and get a passport stamp, as young travelers like to do. Much to our surprise when the cab driver dropped us off at the French border, the guards in the booths had no passport stamps. One of the guards referred us to a customs office off to the side. The customs official did not have a stamp, either; he informed me that it was no longer necessary to use passports at the border, so they just didn’t keep any around.

Borders that once required red tape now can’t even find a passport stamp…

Dejected, we walked to a French bakery, ordered croissants, were given a lesson on how to properly pronounce croissant, repeated ourselves, were given angrier lessons, and then we walked out, croissant-less and passport stamp-less. Oh, France.

passport stamps

Still, I had no idea what the Schengen Zone was. That is, until we approached the border of Slovenia while driving from Croatia last year. We noticed that cars were actually stopping at the border crossing. Slovenia, a member of the Schengen Zone, was checking passports as you drove over the border from Croatia, which is not a member of the zone. Up until then, I hadn’t even considered that there were European countries whose borders were not open. My husband clarified.  He always knows things.

On the one hand, this was pretty exciting: we were going to get new stamps in our passports, from Slovenia, a truly-foreign-to-us country! There really was a difference stopping at the border, versus unceremoniously crossing with not so much as a glance at a welcome sign–much as you would drive across the PA-New Jersey border.

On the other hand, boy is the Schengen Zone convenient. We don’t have to sit in lines of cars at borders. We’re not sifting through purses for passports. We’re just cruising along, we notice a sign, our GPS says, “Welcome to [insert country here]!,” and we continue on our way. As a road tripping expat, my life has been immeasurably simplified by the Schengen Zone.

border control


But the Schengen Zone isn’t quite the Schengen Zone these days.

What’s happening right now at borders: Germany, who received 12,000 refugees in just the city of Munich last Saturday alone, estimates they will receive 800,000 requests for asylum this year. As a result, they have implemented temporary measures at normally-open borders, such as the border with Austria, in order to deal with the situation. Other countries throughout Europe have also been overwhelmed and are implementing measures to control the situation. Germany has halted train travel between several cities. In other words, Schengen Zone countries are imposing border control between one another because of the path refugees are taking to reach their desired destination.

If you are not an EU citizen, make sure to keep your passport on you while visiting Europe–particularly while crossing borders. Some hotels in Germany require a copy of your passport on file during your visit, even if you live in Germany. Sounds like common sense, but as an expat, I don’t typically walk around with my passport on me unless I’m specifically traveling to another country.  It’s not something I used to grab on my way to pick up milk. These days, however, my passport and my daughter’s are always in my purse.  Take a minute before your travels, to check train schedules between the cities you’re visiting.  Allow some extra time at train stations and border crossings.  It might all have passed by the time you travel–or not.  Stay informed and up-to-date on how the situation affects you.

More about Europe:

It is worth noting that not all countries of the EU take part in the Schengen Zone, not all European countries in the Schengen Zone are members of the EU, and not all of Europe shares the Euro currency.

As an example, let’s take a look at my most recent road trip here in Europe, #3genRT, which, fortunately for us, took place before the border situation. We looped from Germany – France – Switzerland – Austria – Czech Republic – Germany.

EU Membership: Germany, France, Austria, and the Czech Republic are members of the EU; Switzerland is not.

Schengen Zone participation: All 5 countries are within the Schengen Zone.

Currency: Germany, France, and Austria all use the Euro; Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc; the Czech Republic uses the Czech koruna.

Driving: When crossing into Austria, we were required to purchase a vignette, which is a sticker you place in your windshield to indicate that you have paid the toll to drive on Austria’s highways for the time period specified. However, that was on the honor system. You’re expected to purchase the sticker before driving the country’s highways; we weren’t stopped at the border at the time. In Switzerland, we had to pull over at the border and pay the border crossing guard for the vignette, which he slapped inside my windshield.  Still, there was no passport requirement.

I don’t know how the current situation would have affected our travels. If we were inconvenienced, it would likely just be a delay at the border.

I’ll leave you with a joke from my daughter’s knock-knock joke book.  I love this one.

Knock Knock

Who’s there?

German Border Patrol

German Border Patrol who?

VEE vill ask zee questions.



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Category: Austria, Europe, France, Germany, In Germany A Broad blog, Living in Germany, Travel

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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