The Schengen 90180-day rule puzzle explained

As many British nationals know, the rules for staying visa-free in Spain changed radically in January this year. Since the British are no longer EU citizens and, as a result, are classed as third-party nationals, the Schengen 90/180-day rule applies when they visit Spain. However, the regulations are not easy to understand so we’ve put together some FAQs to help make sense of the puzzle. 

What is Schengen?

Schengen is the name given to the group of EEA countries including Spain that allows border-free travel within it. Almost all EU countries form part of Schengen except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are currently in the process of joining the Schengen Area and the EEA states of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are also members. 

Citizens who are EU nationals can travel within the area visa-free and with no restrictions on the amount of time they spend in each country. Non-EEA nationals can travel to Schengen without a visa, but they cannot stay for longer than 90 days in 180. 

Read our Schengen Visa FAQs. 

What is the Schengen 90/180 rule?

Under the terms of Schengen, non-EEA nationals cannot spend more than a total of 90 days within a total period of 180 days without a visa. Furthermore, once you’ve used up your quota of 90 days, you cannot return to Schengen until 90 more days have passed.

For example, if you enter Spain on January 1st and spend 90 days in the country until June 30th, you cannot return to Spain until at least the end of September. 

What does it affect?

The Schengen 90/180-day rule applies to anyone who is not an EEA citizen. As of January 1st 2021, this includes British nationals. 

Why does it affect British nationals now?

Before the UK left the EU, British nationals could visit other EU countries as much as they pleased and stay for as long as they liked. However, once the UK officially left the EU on December 31st 2020, British nationals became third-party nationals in Spain and the entire Schengen Area. This means they have to comply with the same requirements as North Americans, Australians, and Japanese. 

Find out about other short-term visa options in Spain. 

How do I count my 90 days?

The clock starts ticking the moment you first enter Schengen independently of the country. So, if you fly to the Costa del Sol, the 90 days start as soon as you arrive at Malaga Airport, but if you travel by car from the UK, the countdown begins as soon as you enter Schengen even if it’s France. 

Use this handy calendar to calculate your 90 days.

Do I have to stay for 90 consecutive days?

No, you are free to use your 90/180-day limit anyway you wish. For example, you could arrive in Spain on January 1st and stay for 90 days in a row (until March 31st). Or you could take several short breaks in Spain between January 1st and June 29th (180 days), spending a different amount of time on each. 

What happens when I’ve used up my 90 days?

You must leave Spain (or anywhere in Schengen) immediately because there are stiff penalties for out-staying the 90-day limit. Once you leave, you cannot return to Spain (or Schengen) without a visa until a further 90 days have gone by. For example, if you have spent 90 days in total in Spain and leave on June 29th, you cannot go back without a visa until at least September 28th. 

How will the Spanish authorities know how long I’ve been in Spain?

Your passport is stamped on entry and exit and a computer program keeps track of how long you spend in Spain each time. 

Can I undertake paid work or study while I’m in Spain?

If you enter Spain under the 90/180-day rule, you cannot carry out any paid employment or studies. If you wish to do either of these, you must apply for the appropriate visa before you arrive. 

What is I want to stay for longer in Spain?

If you wish to be in Spain for longer than 90 days every 180, you must apply for a visa before you enter the country. There’s a variety of visa options for both short and long-term stays. Read about long-term Spanish visas.

Can I apply for a visa to stay longer once I’m in Spain?

No, if you’re a third-party national and want to stay in Spain for more than 90 days, you must apply for the correct visa before you enter the country. 

Does the Schengen 90/180-day rule affect property ownership?

No, nothing has changed for British nationals as regards property purchase and ownership in Spain. You can still buy and own property with the same rights and obligations as Spaniards. 

Read our free guide to buying property in Spain

How can I find out more?

The professional team at Costaluz Lawyers includes visa and immigration experts who will be only too pleased to share their knowledge on the best visa options for you. Get in touch for a free consultation and to find out how they can help you.

Maria Luisa Castro

Director and Founder
María founded CostaLuz Lawyers in 2006 and is the Firm’s Director. María is registered Lawyer number 2745 of the Cadiz Bar Association and is licensed to practice in all areas of law throughout Spain. Working closely with her team, María has developed the firm into one of the most highly regarded and trusted Spanish Law Firms acting for English-speaking clients with legal problems in Spain. We’re here to help. Contact us today for a free no-obligation consultation.

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