AS Australians head for Europe in their droves this northern hemisphere summer, they'll find travel between countries a lot easier because of recent changes to the visa system.
By the same token, they may well encounter unexpected problems if they don't read the fine print of the new rules.
What has happened is that nine more countries have become signatories to what is known as the Schengen Convention.
The convention is an agreement among countries that are members of the European Union to scrap Customs posts and passport checks on their common borders.
The new Schengen countries are from eastern Europe: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia.
They join Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Spain.
In the past, many of these eastern European countries required Australians to obtain a "paper visa" in advance if they wanted to visit.
What the change means for holders of Australian passports is that now, as they enter one of these countries, their passport is stamped with a Schengen visa that enables them to travel freely through all the countries without further checks.
The trap for longer-term visitors, however, is that the visa is valid for only 90 days in any six-month period.
But wait, there's a downside
Simon Derbyshire, director of Visalink Systems, a company that specialises in obtaining visas on behalf of clients, explains: "Although the changes seem to make things easier, as more Schengen countries are added to the list, it can actually restrict Australian travellers a bit.
"For example, in the past, if you were going to stay in Estonia for some time, then travel through Europe, you would obtain your visa from the Estonian authorities, stay there for however long, then go to the Schengen area for a 90-day stay.
"Now Estonia has been added, your stay in the total area is 90 days or less. And the important thing is that the 90 days are within any six-month period, so once your 90 days are up, you cannot renew it or extend it."
So, you couldn't just hop back to London and come back into Europe again for another 90 days? "I'm not saying that can't happen," Derbyshire says, "but that's what the regulations say shouldn't happen."
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says Australians who are likely to exceed the cumulative 90-day limit, or who are visiting the Schengen area for other than tourist or business purposes, should contact the high commission, embassy or consulate of the country or countries concerned to obtain an appropriate visa.
DFAT also points out that the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Switzerland are not part of the Schengen area, and their representatives should also be consulted for visa information.
Plan way ahead for visas
Only the country you plan to visit can provide up-to-date information about its specific visa requirements, and you should make inquiries well in advance of travel.
This is particularly important if you are travelling to several countries on one trip, because visa applications can only be handled one at a time: you send off your application, together with your passport, to one embassy, wait until it's returned, then make an application to the next, and so on.
Recently, when I did a trip along the Silk Road, this process took three months to complete.
Companies like Visalink do not issue visas, but rather facilitate the process, mainly for corporate clients and Government bodies, or travel agents. They also work with airlines and cruise companies.
For an individual, the standard fee is $59 plus GST for a straightforward case, on top of any charges levied by the issuing consulate or embassy.
Paperwork issues for online trip bookers
An emerging problem arises from travellers booking flights themselves over the internet, and therefore being unaware of visa requirements.
Then, when they're checking in at the airport, they discover the airline won't carry them because their paperwork isn't in order.
"That can obviously be a pretty big problem for the traveller, yet it happens quite frequently; it's a pretty common occurrence," Mr Derbyshire says.
Travellers should also be aware that many countries that do issue permissions to enter on arrival, require passports to be valid for at least six months, or you may be turned back.
And Britain frequently won't let people in if they are entering the UK on a holiday visa, but officials suspect they intend to work while there.
A dead giveaway is having a CV in your luggage, or being unable to demonstrate you have sufficient funds to cover the stay.
Article found in Daily Telegraph Travel and online
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