Details… Those of you who know me have likely heard me say this many times. I’m really more of a big picture type of person… and sometimes the little things slip by me unnoticed (you can ask my former bosses). So examining the details of those little stamps immigration officials put in your passport was never going to be high on my priority list. I was vaguely idea of the fact that one cannot just waltz into any country around the globe without first filling out the proper paperwork… and also the thought that even once you get in (if possible), the people in charge might not want you stay. Not paying taxes, using the social welfare systems, working under the table and destabilizing fragile nation states…. I get it. There’s a reason these systems are in place. I’m also aware that as an American citizen I have it pretty good… as we can get most places to visit fairly easily (which is ironic since most Americans don’t ever leave and because America is, apparently, a nightmare of bureaucracy and hassle to visit for everybody else). But again… details.
I’ve been to Europe before, and never had any hassles with the gentlemen in the booths… nothing but standing in line, a couple questions and the stamping of documents. Of course these were 1 to 3 week trips so no need to worry about any of that. When you’re going to stick around for a bit longer though… now you’re getting into to some grey area where you should be aware of the rules. Here’s what I found out… Spain (and most of continental Europe) are part of the Schengen Agreement. US citizens can visit Schengen Area countries on a free tourist visa for 90 days out of every 180 day period…. so I, theoretically, could visit all of the Schengen countries, but only for a period of 90 days, then I would have to leave the Schengen area for 90 days before returning again to any of the Schengen countries. My 90 day clock did not reset when I went from Spain into Portugal because they’re both Schengen countries… the only date that mattered was the date of my arrival into the Schengen area (which was when I landed in Ibiza… my time in London did not count as the UK is not part of the Schengen Agreement).
Why was I even worried about this… I’m sure you’re asking that very question right now? Well, once I got back to Santiago (the second time… after walking to the ocean and back) I had to figure out where to go next. I wanted to take sometime to recover (walking for 45 days is difficult after all), relax and reflect. What better place to do that than on a beach somewhere right? Cool, but after relaxing for a bit what then? A friend of mine was just arriving in Paris… Oktoberfest would be happening in Munich… the closing parties would be going off in Ibiza… my only real time constraint is my friend’s wedding in India… which is in late December (I know… what looming constraint right). What to do…? I was actually looking into flying to Crete for a bit (mostly because it was a very cheap flight from Santiago), when I noticed something on a website mentioning entry requirements for US citizens. After a quick glance I figured I should check out my status (fyi… Crete is officially part of Greece, which is in the Schengen area)… I found the Ibiza entry stamp in my passport had a date of May 19th. Okay, what’s the date today…? August 25th… as a former banker I’m no math whiz, but I was pretty sure those numbers meant that I had overstayed my tourist visa and was now an illegal alien (future resume line item?). Whoops… details. I read up about what to do on the intrawebz and found out that it was unlikely the immigration officials would notice (provided I was not exiting through Switzerland, Germany or the Netherlands) and if they did, if I had a ticket out of the Schengen area (given the rather minimum length of my overstay) the worst I’d get would be a stern wag of the finger… BUT, the official penalties involve fines and banishment from re-entry into the Schengen area for a period of up to five years (which would really suck). This information really dramatically narrowed down my choices for relaxing by the beach (with a cheap flight from Santiago mind you)… but I managed to come up with a plan and (for a host of reasons) bought a ticket leaving Santiago in three days to fly to Sharm El Sheikh airport in Egypt (making sure there were no connecting flights through Switzerland, Germany or the Netherlands).
As I approached the immigration booth in the Santiago airport I found I was a nervous… but I wasn’t dressed like a travel bum, and I had my story down (it took me much longer to make my PILGRIMAGE on the Camino de Santiago than I thought it was going to… emphasis on the word pilgrimage for those who didn’t pick that up). Of course, the guy who took my passport didn’t even bother looking at it as he was to busy chatting with the other guy in the booth… he used his peripheral vision to find a blank page and gave me an exit stamp… and just like that, I was no longer an illegal alien. Lesson learned… I’m going to pay attention to these particular details… especially as now I’ll be rolling through Africa, which may (or may not for all I know) have border guards that, for various reasons, pay a bit more attention than the Spanish.