The thought of traveling in Europe fills my head with such dreamy images – colorful towns with cobbled streets, ageless cities in the backdrop of the Alps, the smell of fresh breads at local patisseries, people-watching at charming little cafes – that it often masks the pain of applying for a Schengen visa.
Unlike tourist visas for the US and Canada, Schengen visas for Indians tend to be issued for a much shorter duration. Given my frequent trips to Europe, I’ve scored 8 Schengen visas so far, and only twice have I managed a 1-year multiple entry visa; the other visas have lasted the exact duration of my travels. But I haven’t let that stop me from exploring this unique part of the world!
8 successful applications later, I know the Schengen Visa application process for Indians like the back of my hand. Take my tips and tricks, and make your Europe travel dreams come true:
The basics: What’s a Schengen visa and which countries in Europe does it cover
The Schengen Agreement is a treaty signed by several European countries to allow free movement across their borders. As travellers, that means a single Schengen Visa gives us access to most of Europe, without having to apply for individual visas. Armed with my Schengen visa, I’ve never had to think twice about taking a train on a whim from France to Netherlands to Austria.
The Schengen visa allows entry into 26 countries in Europe, including Scandinavia, Iceland and most of the Balkan countries. Even though Croatia and Romania are not part of the Schengen zone, Indian passport holders get visa on arrival in both with a valid Schengen visa.
Which Schengen country’s embassy should you apply to
Where you file your Schengen visa application depends on your travel plans within Europe. Here’s the order of consideration:
- Apply for your Schengen visa at the embassy of the country you plan to spend the maximum number of days in.
- If you’re going to spend equal number of days in some countries, apply at the embassy of the country you plan to land in.
If your plans are open and flexible, it’s a good idea to go with the latter and let your accommodation bookings reflect that. Once your score your Schengen visa, you can enter from and travel freely in any part of the Schengen zone.
Get an appointment with VFS (or BLS for Spain)
Once you’ve figured out which country’s embassy you’ll be applying to, find its corresponding VFS website (for instance, VFS Germany, VFS France, VFS Netherlands) and book an appointment at your nearest centre. There was a time in India when applying for a Schengen visa meant queuing at the embassy all night long, but VFS Global (the official visa application and processing service) has made the whole process much more efficient.
I’ve applied for most of my Schengen visas at the German consulate, so I always book an appointment with VFS Germany; you need to register as a new user, go to ‘Schedule Appointment’, and find a date and time that suits you. Remember that you either need to apply at the VFS Centre that’s closest to the address on your passport, or show address proof of your residence in another part of the country. In my case, my passport address is of Dehradun, so I am required to apply at VFS Germany in Delhi.
[Update: Applications for a Schengen visa from Spain are now processed by BLS, not VFS. The process is pretty much the same; see details here]
The Schengen visa form and checklist for a short-term tourist visit
Fill the Schengen visa form online (here for VFS Germany), save it to see any errors pop up in red, then hit print and save the form as a PDF. When you print it, make sure the barcodes on the last page are clearly visible.
Look for the short-term tourist visa checklist on the relevant VFS website, and start gathering your documents. The checklist is similar for most Schengen countries, and includes your bank statements, income tax returns, travel insurance, and confirmed flight and accommodation bookings.
Flight and accommodation bookings
This is the tricky part; in order to make a successful Schengen visa application, you need show confirmed flight and accommodation bookings for your entire duration of travel. Even though it’s a bit of a risk, I usually book my actual flights before I apply for the visa; the safer option is to make a fully refundable booking on your credit card, and cancel and rebook a cheaper flight once you receive your visa.
For accommodations, I’ve been using booking.com to book hotels that can be cancelled till much later without a fee. However, lately I’ve heard that some non-European embassies have stopped accepting booking.com for visa applications. One (tedious) way around this is to contact hotels/B&Bs directly for a reservation and stall the payment till after you receive your visa.
How to make a strong Schengen visa application as a freelancer
As a self-employed freelancer/blogger, I can neither produce a no-objection letter from my employer nor salary slips. In order to make a stronger case, I do the following:
- Write a cover letter addressed to the visa officer, clearly explaining my work as a travel blogger, outlining some of the countries I’ve travelled to in the past (the US, UK, Australia and Canada carry good weight), and my intentions of visiting Europe.
- Attach copies of my past Schengen visas and valid US/UK/Canada visas.
- Attach my visiting card to establish credibility.
- Include an invitation letter from any tourism board or company I intend to collaborate with.
The idea is to show that you don’t intend to stay in Europe longer than your planned travel dates.
Schengen visa fee and what to expect at the VFS appointment
The visa fee includes both the embassy see and the VFS fee; at VFS Germany, this comes to almost INR 6,000 – and is similar for other Schengen countries. When I last visited VFS Germany in Mumbai in January 2017, I was able to pay by card, but also told that most VFS counters only accept cash or demand draft.
You are allowed to enter VFS only 15 minutes before your appointment time, and it’s a good idea to do that because you still have to get a queue number inside. A VFS official will check your documents, and if it’s your first visa application, your fingerprints will be taken. The application processing time varies based on the embassy you’re applying to; I’ve been lucky enough to receive my passport back within 2-3 days from VFS Germany even though the official processing time is 15 days.
You can choose to collect your passport at VFS with the receipt and a copy of your ID, or to have it sent it by courier to your address. I prefer the former just to minimize the possibility of it getting lost in transit.
Come with me virtually to Bavaria
I’m excited to share that this time around, I managed to score a one-year Schengen visa and plan to do a big trip to the Balkans this summer. But this week, I’m hopping over to Bavaria, invited by Lufthansa to experience their first A350 flight to India from Munich on 11th February! I hear this plane comes with bigger screens, more leg room, 12 mood lightings… and is 50% more energy efficient than other planes in the same category. Before I board that flight, I’ve decided to spend a few days out in the Bavarian Alps, in search of a dreamy winter wonderland.
Bonus: Win a trip to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350!
Contest Alert: Lufthansa is giving away 2 return flight tickets from Delhi to Munich to celebrate the launch of their new A350 plane. Unleash your creativity, photograph the number 350 and complete the sentence “This 350 is special because…” to enter the contest. The contest ends Feb 28th, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here. Good luck!
Applying for a US Visa? See my tips.
Need a Canada Visa? See my tips.
Traveling to Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Cambodia? Get an e-visa.
Feature image by mendhak; creative commons.