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Reader question: How seriously does France enforce the 90-day rule?

Non-EU visitors to France - which since Brexit includes Brits - are restricted to stays of less than 90 days in every 180, unless they have a visa. But just how seriously does France enforce this rule?

Reader question: How seriously does France enforce the 90-day rule?
Photo by Martin BUREAU / AFP

Question: I’ve read a lot about how the 90-day rule works for Brits since Brexit, but just how seriously does France enforce these rules? Is it worth taking the risk if you’re only a couple of days over?

The 90-day rule states that visitors who are not citizens of an EU country can only spend 90 days out of every 180 within the EU or Schengen zone. If they want to spend longer than that, they will need a visa.

Some non-EU citizens need a visa for a visit of any length, but Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians and New-Zealanders all benefit from the 90 days of visa-free travel.

Find a full explanation on how the rules work  HERE.

The 90-day rule is an EU rule, with sanctions including fines, passport stamps and deportation for people who overstay their 90-day limit.

However, enforcement of the rule is left to each individual country, and there is some variation between countries on the sanctions they impose and how strict enforcement is.

READ ALSO Your questions answered on the 90-day rule

Here’s a look at the situation in France:

Refused entry

The latest data available via Eurostat shows that, in 2022, some 19,290 people were refused entry at a Schengen zone border due to having over-stayed their 90-day limit on a previous trip.

Just 170 of these were at the French border – Poland and Hungary between them accounted for the vast majority of refused entries. This refers to all non-EU nationalities. 

Fined or warned

However, this data refers to people who had already over-stayed and then tried to re-enter the EU/Schengen zone.

The more common scenario in France is that over-stays are spotted when people leave the country – passports are stamped on entry and exit and people who have been in the country for more than 90 days are often spotted by border guards as they leave.

Depending on the length of the over-stay, they can be fined, have their passports stamped as an over-stayer, or given a warning not to re-enter the country for at least the next 90 days. 

The Local has received numerous reports of people – mostly Britons – who were warned as they left the country that they were at or over their 90-day limit. 

We have also received information that some UK nationals were wrongly fined or warned because their passports had been stamped in error.

It seems likely that people who were warned took this seriously – the Eurostat data shows that only 195 British citizens were refused entry into European countries in 2022 because of the 90-day rule. Of these, just five were refused at the French border.

Eurostat does not have data on people fined or warned as they left the EU/Schengen zone. 

Changing attitudes

Pre-Brexit, France had earned itself a reputation for not being particularly strict on over-stayers, provided the over-stay wasn’t for very long and the person hadn’t been either working or claiming benefits while in France.

However, there have been numerous reports of border guards being more attentive to 90-day overstays since Brexit.

This can probably be accounted for by two things; volume of travel and type of visit.

Around 12million British visitors come to France each year, vastly out-numbering other non-EU visitors such as Americans, Canadians or Australians. Until Brexit, Britons were EU citizens so were not limited to 90 days, but now tighter enforcement procedures are in place for visitors from the UK.

The other difference is the type of visit. Typically people who are travelling a long way such as Americans or Australians pay fewer visits to France, but for a longer period. Therefore, an American tourist who had been doing a tour of Europe might end up over-staying their 90 days by a couple of days, but would then be leaving the country and would be unlikely to return that year (or ever) so French authorities saw it as less of a problem.

Brits, on the other hand, are more likely to do multiple short trips to France each year – and this is especially true for second-home owners who may pay several visits to their French property each year. 

For them overstaying is a more serious matter, since they will likely want to return to France. While outright re-entry bans of more than 90 days are rare – especially for people who have not been working illegally – having an overstay stamp in your passport is likely to cause delays and extra questions next time you want to cross a border. 

New technology 

One thing to be aware of is the EU’s new EES system, which introduces passport scans at the border for non-EU visitors and will automatically flag up overstayers.

While border guards will still have discretion over any penalties imposed, the new system will make it much easier to spot anyone over their 90-day limit.

The implementation of EES has been delayed several times but is currently scheduled for 2024, likely in the autumn or winter. 

READ ALSO What you need to know about the EU’s new EES and ETIAS systems

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Mythbuster: Can you really ‘cheat’ the Schengen 90-day rule?

It's human nature to look for a loophole, shortcut or workaround to the rules, but most of the advertised 'dodges' to the EU's 90-day rule are nothing of the sort.

Mythbuster: Can you really 'cheat' the Schengen 90-day rule?

If you’re the citizen of a non-EU country and you want to spend long periods in the EU/Schengen zone, you will need a visa.

But citizens of certain countries – including the US, Canada, Australia and the UK – benefit from the ’90-day rule’, which allows you to travel visa free within the Schengen zone for 90 days out of every 180.

Anyone wanting to spend longer than this will need a visa or residency card.

READ ALSO: How does the EU’s 90-day rule work?

So a simple enough rule, and for most travellers 90 days out of every 180 is perfectly adequate for holidays, family visits etc.

However some groups – especially second-home owners – might want to spend longer than this.

For Brits, entering the world of the 90-day rule is a recent development, since before Brexit Brits were EU citizens and therefore benefited from EU freedom of movement.

The harsh reality of the post-Brexit world has prompted a steady stream of articles in UK media (examples pictured below) promising ’90-day loopholes’ or ‘how to beat the 90-day rule’ (scroll to the end of this article for what the below ‘loopholes’ really entail).

But do these so-called loopholes really exist?

Despite the claims in the headlines, there are really only three options for non-EU citizens wanting to spend time in the EU – limit their stays to 90 days in every 180 (which still adds up to six months over the course of a year); get a short-stay visitor visa (if the country offers them like France does); or move to an EU country full-time and become a resident.

READ ALSO Your questions answered about the EU’s 90-day rule

All of the advertised tricks, dodges and loopholes are really just variations on these three options.

Limit stays to 90 days

Advantages – the big advantage of this method is no paperwork. You can travel visa free and there is no requirement to register with authorities in the country you are visiting (although second home owners will of course have to pay property taxes and other local taxes in the area where their property is located).

In this scenario you retain residency in your home country and are simply a visitor in the EU – a status identical to that of a tourist.

Disadvantages – the time limit is too short for many people and there is also the problem that stays are limited to 90 days in every 180. Although over the course of a year this adds up to six months, you cannot take your six months all in one go – so for example spending the winter in Spain and the summer in the UK is no longer possible. Likewise travelling to your French holiday home for four months over the summer is no longer an option.

It’s up to you to keep track of your 90 days, which you can use as either one long trip or multiple short trips. The 90-day limit is calculated on a rolling calendar and keeping track of the days and making sure you have not exceeded your limit can be stressful.

As a visitor, you have no rights to enter the country if the borders close (as, for example, happened during the pandemic).

READ ALSO How to calculate your 90-day limit

Short-stay visa – if country offers them

If you want to remain a resident in your home country but don’t want to be constrained by the 90-day rule, you might be able to get a short-stay visitor visa if they are an option. Visas are issued on a national level, there is no such thing as an EU-wide visa, so you will need to apply for a visa in the country where you want to stay.

Different EU countries have different visas, but most (including France although not Italy) offer a short-stay visitor visa (usually six months) that gives you the status of a visitor, but allows you to stay for longer than 90 days.

Advantages – no more counting the days, for the period when your visa is valid you can stay for as long as you like in the country of your choice. By maintaining your residency in your home country, you don’t have to register with authorities in the EU country and won’t be liable for residency-based taxes.

Disadvantages – visa paperwork can be complicated and the process is time-consuming and sometimes expensive (most countries require an in-person visit to the consulate as part of the process). You also need to plan in advance as visas take several weeks or months to be issued.

A visitor visa usually requires proof of financial means, so this is not available to people on very low incomes.

You are still classed as a visitor, so have no rights to enter the country if the borders close (as, for example, happened during the pandemic).

If you are spending a significant amount of time each year out of your home country, this might also affect your tax status, depending on the rules of your home country around ‘tax residency’ (which is not the same as residency for immigration purposes).

Move to an EU country

If you were accustomed to splitting your time roughly equally between your second home and your home country, you might want to consider becoming a resident in the EU.

Advantages – as a resident, you are no longer constrained by the 90-day rule in the country in which you live. The rule does, however, apply to other EU countries. So if for example you are a Brit resident in France, there are no limits on the amount of time you can spend in France. However the 90-day rule does still apply for trips to Italy, Spain, Germany and all other EU/Schengen zone countries. In practice, border checks while travelling within the Schengen zone are pretty light touch, but technically the rule still applies.

You can of course pay unlimited visits to your home country, provided you maintain your citizenship.

Disadvantages – moving countries involves a lot of paperwork. The process varies slightly depending on the country and your personal situation but in general you will first need to get a visa (which must be applied for from your home country, before you move) and then on arrival will usually need to undergo extra admin to validate the visa and register with local authorities. You might also be required to undergo a medical examination and take classes in the national language.

Depending on the type of visa you apply for, you may also need to provide proof of financial means, which disadvantages people on low incomes.

You will also need to register for healthcare under the system of the country you live in, and may be required to either pay taxes or at least complete an annual tax declaration in the country you live in.

Admin is not a one-off event either, most countries require you to regularly renew your visa or residency card. Being officially resident abroad will likely also affect your tax status and access to healthcare in your home country, while your pension entitlements may also be affected.

Can’t we just ignore the 90-day rule?

As a responsible publication, The Local obviously doesn’t advise breaking any laws, but aside from the moral issue, the practicalities of the 90-day rule make it a difficult one to get around.

If you’re not working or claiming benefits most EU countries are unlikely to even notice that you have over-stayed, and the prospect of police knocking on your door is pretty remote.

However, the problem arises when you need to travel, as border guards will likely spot that you arrived in the EU more than 90 days previously and have no visa. Penalties for over-stayers include fines, deportation and ‘over-stay’ stamps in your passport that will make future travel more difficult.

Planned changes to EU border controls (due to come into effect in 2024) will tighten up these checks.

So in short you could over-stay your 90-days but only if you were prepared to never leave the Schengen zone. And if you’re now living here full time there will come a day when you need to access healthcare or other social benefits and that will be difficult if you do not have an official status as a resident.

All EU countries have undocumented migrants living in them, often working illegally on a cash-in-hand basis, but their existence is precarious, they are ripe for exploitation and often live in poverty. We wouldn’t recommend it. 

PS: Those ‘loopholes’ promised in the articles above? The couple in the Telegraph got a visa and moved to France full time, where they are now residents. They told the paper: “The visa process took 9 to 10 months – we had thought it might take three. Yet we think our new life is wonderful and more than worth all the effort.”

The travel influencer mentioned in The Sun simply limits her stays in the Schengen zone to 90 days out of the every 180, but instead of returning to the UK for the rest of the time, she goes to Bulgaria (which is not part of the Schengen zone).

Truly, there are no loopholes . . .