The Czech Republic is now part of Europe's border-free zone, but the new arrangement could spell trouble for non-EU citizens
Since then, there have been no regular passport checks on the shared borders with Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.
Since March 30th, 2008 passport checks for flights between the Czech Republic and other Schengen-zone countries have also been discontinued. They will remain in place, however, for travelers flying into and out of the Czech Republic from non-Schengen states.
If you're from a non-Schengen country and are planning a trip to the Czech Republic you should know about the changes, how they affect your stay in the rest of the Schengen area, and how they might affect an application for a long-term Czech visa.
For expats from non-Schengen countries who are already in the Czech Republic, it's even more important that you understand the impact of these changes.
Schengen is a small town in Luxembourg where France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed a 1985 agreement to abolish border controls and coordinate police work.
Since then, 31 countries have agreed to some part of the Schengen regulations, 24 of which have fully implemented the 1990 Schengen Convention.
Despite doing away with border controls, the Schengen Convention does not dissolve a country's domestic immigration laws and some countries may carry out random passport checks, especially in border areas. Germany and Austria, for example, have both done this recently.
There are also provisions that allow countries to temporarily re-establish border checks if the country in question believes the movement of people poses some security issue.
Germany, for example, reintroduced border controls during the 2006 World Cup, so be aware of this possibility when traveling to a Schengen state hosting a major sporting or political event.
Regarding policing, members of the Schengen area are obliged to share information with each other. This means that the travel details of any visitor to the Schengen area is shared with relevant organizations in other Schengen countries.
PLANNING A VISIT
Since December 21st, 2007, the rules for visiting the Czech Republic have changed for people from some countries.
Citizens from non-Schengen countries that don't have bilateral visa agreements with the Czech Republic can only visit the Schengen area (including the Czech Republic) for a total of 90 days in a 180-day period.
This means that if you visit the Czech Republic for 30 days, you can spend only a further 60 days in any and all other countries in the Schengen area.
You should note that at the moment, visits to Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Republic of Ireland, Romania, Switzerland and the United Kingdom do not count toward your stay in the Schengen zone. Switzerland, however, is scheduled to join in November 2008.
If your home country had a bilateral visa arrangement with the Czech Republic prior to December 21st then you enjoy a little more leniency because the Schengen arrangement does not terminate these arrangements.
But it does mean that your stay in the rest of the Schengen area is limited to 90 days in a 180-day period and any time in the Czech Republic counts toward this time.
After this time, however, you can still come to the Czech Republic for 90 days, though you won't be allowed to enter the rest of the Schengen area.
For example, if you come to the Czech Republic for two months, then leave to visit other Schengen states, you can spend one month in the Schengen area. You can then return to the Czech Republic for an additional 90 days, but not to any other Schengen country.
At the time of writing, the countries with valid bilateral arrangements are: Andorra, Argentina, Brunei, Hong Kong, Chile, Croatia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Costa Rica, Macao, Malaysia, Monaco, El Salvador, San Marino, Uruguay, Vatican, and Venezuela.
If you're already in the Czech Republic, the situation is a little more complicated.
If your country does not have a bilateral agreement with the Czech Republic, your stay here is counted from the date you arrived, but your stay in the Schengen area starts from December 21st, 2007.
So if you arrived on December 1st, 2007, you would have had to have left the Czech Republic by March 1st, 2008 and the rest of the Schengen area by March 21st, 2008, and cannot return to the area, including the Czech Republic, until June 21st, 2008.
If you are from one of the countries that have this arrangement, you should also leave after 90 days, but you can return for another 90 days. But your stay in the Schengen area is still limited to a maximum of 90 days during the period from December 21st, 2007 to June 21st, 2008.
If you're from a non-Schengen country and plan to work or study in the Czech Republic, Schengen membership means you now need a long-term Category D visa (dlouhodobé vízum typu D).
You must apply for this visa at a Czech embassy or consulate outside the Czech Republic.
Prior to Schengen membership, the most common place for expats to apply for visas was the Czech consulate in Dresden, Germany. Then, when an expat returned to the Czech Republic, their stay here officially began with the new date stamped in their passport at the Czech-German border crossing.
Now, because of the Schengen Agreement, passports aren't stamped at the Czech-German border and the time an individual spends in the Czech Republic affects the length of time they're allowed to spend in other Schengen states.
Because visa applications often take longer than 90 days to process, the Czech Interior Ministry has granted a grace period to any non-Schengen national has applied for a long-term Category D visa in the three months beginning December 31st, 2007.
Long-term visa applicants who fall into this category, who stay in the Czech Republic longer than their 90-day tourist visas allow will, if stopped by the police, be given an "exit order" rather than be expelled from the country.
An "exit order" allows the applicant to remain in the Czech Republic for up to 60 further days, until their long-term visa application is processed.
This grace period, which is only valid in the Czech Republic and not in other Schengen countries, ends on June 30th, 2008.
If you are not already in the Czech Republic and plan to work or study here, it's advisable to apply in your home country or in a non-Schengen country near the Czech Republic.
For people who want to stay in the Czech Republic but have less than 90 days left on their tourist visas, my advice is to apply. This will mean spending some time outside the Czech Republic and outside the Schengen zone to collect the visa, but the law allows no other possibilities.
TRAVELLING IN THE SCHENGEN AREA
Long-Term Residents & Permanent Residents
If you have a long-term residency permit (Povolení k dlouhobobému pobytu) or a permanent residence card (Povolení k trvalému pobytu), you enjoy slightly more freedom in the Schengen area.
Long-term or permanent residents of the Czech Republic are permitted to stay in other Schengen countries for up to 90 days, but all the usual travel conditions -- having a passport, health insurance and sufficient funds for the stay -- still apply.
Even someone with permanent residency in the Czech Republic must travel with their passport or national identity card. The residency card is not currently recognized as a travel document.
As stated above, member states maintain their own immigration laws. Therefore, even a Czech resident must carry his or her passport when they're outside the Czech Republic.
Holders of a Category D Visa
Unlike a long-term or permanent residency permit, holders of a Category D visa are not permitted to travel from the Czech Republic to other Schengen-zone countries.
Holders of a Category D visa are only permitted up to five days in the Schengen zone, transiting to the Czech Republic at the beginning of their stay.
Holders of a Category C+D visa, meanwhile, can only travel in the Schengen area during the first three months that their visa is valid.
In effect, there are two types of movement across Schengen borders -- free movement for citizens of EU and Schengen states, and restricted movement for everyone else.
So although the control posts have been removed and the guards sent home, non-EU citizens must still respect the borders between Schengen countries.
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