Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament

How to get a Schengen Tourist Visa

Thinking of making a trip to Europe? If you are on a green card, H1B, H4, or any other kind of non-citizen visa, you need to apply for a Schengen visa first. It can seem like a daunting process, but if you follow the rules and your documents are in order, there is nothing to worry about.

Right now there are 26 countries that fall in the Schengen zone. These include tourist favorites like the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and several eastern European countries.

You must show your hotel reservations for the entire duration of your trip when you apply

For every country, the requirements are pretty much the same. But there are slight variations in the documents required, depending on each country’s consulate. Apply to the consulate where you are either entering first, or staying for the longest amount of time. The country where you will be staying the longest has greater weight than your port of entry. For example, if you enter Europe through London, but will spend most of your trip in France, then apply to the French consulate. If you are visiting two or three different countries for an equal length of time, then apply to the country where you will first enter. Once your Schengen visa is approved, it is valid throughout the Schengen zone for three months. That means you can change your destination from France to Italy, or extend your stay to visit a couple extra countries, if you want.

Get your documents in order

The Schengen visa is all about your documents. If there’s anything amiss with your paperwork, you have little chance of getting approved.

Apart from your passport, you need a passport photo that meets the requirements of the consulate where you are applying. Generally speaking, the requirements are pretty strict. The photo must be recent, not more than six months old. You must bear a clear resemblance to the photo. Changes in hairstyle, grooming, etc., will make things difficult for you. Protip: don’t smile, look serious and straight ahead.

Another very important set of documents is your travel itinerary. You must show your hotel reservations for the entire duration of your trip. If you are staying with family/friends, then a letter of invitation from them must be provided.

Health insurance is necessary, covering at least 30,000 euros, hospital care, and emergency treatment. Insubuy meets all the requirements, and is quite affordable – about $15 for 10 days of coverage.

You must prove that your visit is for tourist purposes

Above all, the authorities want to know that you will return to your own country. To this end, you must prove that your visit is for tourist purposes. You must also provide bank statements of the past three months, and proof that you are employed in your country of origin. A letter from your employer will suffice, or an employment contract. If you are unemployed, then you must prove that you are currently studying, that your children attend school in your country of origin, or that you have a home to return to (immovable property in your country of origin).

Finally, make sure your green card is up-to-date for your return journey. If your permanent residence has been approved, but you don’t have a physical green card yet, then you can get an I-551 stamp, which is used in lieu of a green card. Given the huge backlog in green card processing, you might be in a position where you don’t yet have a physical green card, and are unsure if you can travel outside of the U.S. International travel with an I-551 stamp is perfectly acceptable. You might come across airport personnel who are not familiar with the stamp, however customs officers will know that it is legitimate.

Book an appointment

Schengen visa processing has been outsourced to VFS Global by almost every country. (Interestingly, VFS Global is an Indian firm, headquartered in Mumbai.) No matter what passport you hold, or which country you are applying from, you need to go through their website to schedule an appointment. It’s not easy to get an appointment – there are limited slots, and not every city has a center. In the Bay Area, your only option is San Francisco. The earliest you can book an appointment is three months before your trip. The trick here is to book a future appointment way ahead of your trip, but during that three-month window. For example, let’s say you are planning a trip to Europe in December. Try to book an appointment immediately for November or October. Now you have you plenty of time to get your paperwork right.

The summer months see a huge inflow of tourists to Europe

In the summer months, Europe has a huge inflow of tourists, and it will not be easy to get an appointment a month or two in advance. In some cases, you may have to check the website daily, or even hourly, to see if a slot has opened up. It’s better to plan about six months in advance, and book a future appointment as described in the paragraph above.

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