Here’s a free piece of advice: if you ever plan to spend more than ninety days in the Schengen Area of continental Europe, make sure your visa situation is squared away.
I didn’t do this so learn by my example…if you haven’t already. If you’re an expat reading these words in the Netherlands, you’re probably there on a student visa or you’ve been sponsored by an employer or your significant other. But let’s say you’re like me. You’ve foolishly traveled to Europe on a visitor’s visa, you plan to stay over 90 days and you’re altogether oblivious when it comes to The Rules. If you fall into this unfortunate predicament, well, keep reading.
On an afternoon in early April, just a few weeks ago, my girlfriend “M” and I flew from Dublin to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. We had spent a fantastic week touring the Emerald Isle, encountering eccentric locals and locales alike. An ominous feeling drifted from my gut up my spine and into my brain the moment we landed in the Netherlands. M and I had been pulled aside by a customs official before leaving. “There could be a problem with your visitor’s visa,” he told us cooly. “But don’t worry about it. When you get back, call the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. They’ll probably grant you an extension. No problem.”
LESSON # 1: When a Dutch official says “no problem” before sending you on your way, there’s a good chance you’re in for trouble somewhere down the line.
M and I got off the plane, joining the herd of travellers in the queues at the customs check point beneath Schiphol’s international terminal. My heart was racing as we approached an officer with bored eyes. After a quick glance, he handed my passport over to a tiny, balding man behind him. An evil grin snapped across his face like a rubber band. “Come with me,” he said. “There is an issue.”
He led us out of the queue and back into a large, subterranean hallway. On one side: a long window lined with the life-sized silhouettes of travelers; a piece by a Dutch artist no doubt eager to convey a sense of freedom and frivolity that our immediate surroundings definitely lacked. On the other: a stone-gray counter that separated us from a large office filled with a dozen security guards.The tiny man handed my passport to a young guy wearing “Buddy Holly glasses.”
And so began one of the worst three hour stretches of my entire life. “Buddy Holly” told us to wait and disappeared into the depths of the office. All we could do was stand around and wait. And wait. And wait. The hallway’s few seats were filled with a fretful family from India. Two of their young children buzzed around like Transformers in mid-battle, screaming at the top of their lungs. Their joyful yelps and shadow-boxing made it impossible to get a handle on what was happening. I was trapped in a nightmare that every expat or immigrant dreads: detainment.
I felt nauseous. M was starring at her shoes and trying to fight back tears. I felt like throwing-up but one of the kids in the hall beat me to it. He had become so wound-up while imitating Optimus Prime that he suddenly puked on the floor.
One of the guards came out with a glass of water and some paper towels. A short while later, the family was allowed through customs. Over the course of an hour, we watched various people, predominantly of Middle Eastern descent, endure short periods of detainment and questions, no doubt due to their countries of origin. M and I took a seat and waited. And waited. And waited.
Eventually, Buddy Holly emerged and explained the problem. I had overstayed my visa..or, to be more specific, I was about to do so. As of 2005, a citizen of the United States can only spend 90 days in a 180 day period in the Schengen Area. By setting foot in Schiphol, I had officially reached day 90 and, unless he could acquire an exception from an official at the IND, I wouldn’t be allowed into the Netherlands.
The policies pertaining to a visitor’s visa is clear but I was operating under the incredibly foolish assumption that I wouldn’t get caught and that the Dutch government was lax when it came to these things. M, who moved to the Netherlands after completing college in the United States, has been a permanent resident since 2001. Prior to her decision to apply for residency, she came and went from the country as often as she pleased. Since then, and likely in response to increased security measures in recent years, regulations and polices have changed. That said, I wasn’t relying entirely on her decade-old experiences or what I had been told by the customs’ official prior to our departure. During my time in the Netherlands over the winter, I spoke with several expats that have managed to skirt the rules over the years. Many no doubt had luck on their side. Others came and went via train or car. Would I have run into these problems if M and I had visited London instead and returned via the Channel Tunnel?
LESSON # 2: This one is obvious. If you’re going to spend more than three months in continental Europe and you’re an American, don’t rely on the advice of friend or family and don’t trust travel websites. Call a local consulate before you get on a plane and get the facts from someone who knows the rules inside and out.
Most Americans planning to spend more than three months in Europe are students studying at local universities or workers employed at local companies. My own situation was more complicated. I came to the Netherlands to spend time with M and work on a research project that would fill the final credits I needed for a second degree from Portland State University back in the United States. I had looked into getting a VAR/WUO entrepreneur’s permit, which would have allegedly enabled me to stay longer and receive pay for a series of freelance articles I wrote for an Amsterdam-based magazine, but I was thwarted by a dense series of forms in Dutch and some less than helpful officials. My original plan was to stay four months and return to the states on May 4th.
I can hear you thinking, “God, what an idiot.” You’re right. I am an idiot. My confidence and obliviousness had directly led to me making one of the biggest mistakes of my entire life.
Being detained like this is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy or even Charlie Sheen. Like Tom Petty once sang, “the waiting is the hardest part.” Time slows to a crawl while you’re trapped in a situation like this. You can’t focus on a book or a magazine. All you can do is stare into space, worry like mad and slowly come to terms with the fact that awful things are about to happen. Those plans to get together with friends on Queens Day? Forget about ‘em. One minute you’re talking with your girlfriend about whether or not to get Thai takeout or cook at home tonight, the next you’re wondering if you’ll be spending the next few days in a filthy holding cell somewhere cold, terrible and filled with wannabe terrorists who would love nothing more than to spend a few hours alone with a scrawny American.
Near the three hour mark, Buddy Holly casually returned from his dinner break and updated us on the situation. He had contacted an official at the IND who told him no exception could be made. That line I had been fed by the official prior to our departure? “He was mistaken,” Buddy told us. He gave me the number of the American Embassy.
I spoke with an agent who glumly told me that his hands were tied. “We actually hold little sway in situations like these,” he said. “We’re in a foreign country and we have to obey their rules.” He wished me luck before hanging up….and presumably going back to his game of Mine Sweeper.
LESSON # 3: See above. If you find yourself in violation of visa regulations in the Netherlands, you can call your nation’s embassy but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to help you out.
It was now past 7 PM on a Tuesday night. Neither M or I possessed an extensive knowledge of Dutch customs regulations or any loopholes that might work in my favor. Despair was setting in and Buddy apathetically told me that I’d be deported back to the United States in the morning. “I have a plane ticket for May I could use,” I told him, wanting to be helpful. “No, we will pay for you to leave,” he said with a sneer. “You’ll get your passport back in the morning.”
I took this opportunity to point out the fact that I was in the Netherlands on day 90. It was 4.5 hours to midnight. According to the rules, couldn’t I at least be allowed to enter the country long enough to fetch my belongings from my apartment?
LESSON # 4: Don’t get persnickety with customs officials or point out minute flaws in their regulations. Doing so will earn you another 30 minutes of detainment in a bleak hallway.
After a lengthy departure, Buddy handed over a stack of forms, which I refused to sign, if only to exert the one option I had been granted by him and his colleagues. I would be allowed to enter the international terminal, where I would be required to stay the night. I was told to show up at 8 AM at Gate G 25 and await further instructions. M and I headed upstairs to Sbarro’s to get a slice of pizza. She had to be at work in 11 hours. We hugged, cried and parted ways. I’ll never forget the mournful look she gave me as she rode the elevator downstairs to fetch a train back home.
With nothing better to do, I went in search of wifi. I obliviously wandered through an open entry in a security gate and quickly discovered that I could have easily walked right out of the airport. I suddenly felt like Tom Hanks’ character in The Terminal. I could have headed outside, caught a cab and have been back in my apartment in 45 minutes. That said, had I done so, I would have been considered an illegal alien, putting myself at risk to be placed on a “You’re Never, Ever Going to be Allowed Back Into the Netherlands Again” list.
Instead, I hung out at Starbucks, called my family back in the states to explain the situation. A friend of mine, a British expat living in Ohio, offered as much advice as he could over G-Chat, based on his own experiences in dealing with customs officials in the states and during his years in Australia.
On my way back through the security, a frantic guard ran up to me. “WHAT ARE DOING,” he yelled in Dutch. I handed over my forms and it quickly dawned on him that his colleagues had majorly screwed-up by leaving the door open for anyone to come and go. He chatted with a colleague, they laughed and he gave me advice on which of the airport’s hotels to stay in for the night.
If only the officials downstairs had shared his casualness.
I paid 75 Euro to spend a sleepless night in Yotel, a micro-hotel next to the terminal’s food court. At 7, I rolled out of bed, took a quick shower and rushed down to the gate where….
….no one could tell me where to go or what to do. Two American clerks were busily hustling the final passengers on board a flight bound for Newark. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I’m going to be deported to….NEW JERSEY?!!!”
Then I noticed a young woman pacing nervously beside an unmarked, gray door. Beside the door there was a small black button with a piece of torn, crumpled paper hanging above it. “PUSH BUTTON FOR IMMIGRATION ISSUES,” it told me. I hit the button as the woman took a seat and wiped tears off her face with a sleeve. She was on the verge of a full-blown panic-attack.
I never caught her name but she was being deported back to her hometown in Russia for making the same mistake as me. “I have to get to gate in 45 minute…I have ticket. They have my passport,’ she told me in broken English. “I need get on plane.” She had come to the Netherlands to spend time with her significant other, a Russian college student. We waited another fifteen minutes, her foot tapping nervously. I broke out the forms I had been given and called a number on them. I told an official, somewhere downstairs, that we were waiting for someone to help us.
Out from the door emerged a man who reminded me of Colonel Quaritch in Avatar. He had the same military haircut and “take no prisoners, no mercy!” expression locked on his face, which may as well have been cut from a block of concrete. With quick precession, he helped out the Russian gal and sent her on her way. After thanking me for making that phone call, she rushed off to catch her flight.
Then “the colonel” turned to me. “Ok, I looked into your situation,” he told me. “You’re being deported back to Dublin.”
LESSON # 5: Never, ever allow yourself to be deported from the Netherlands if you can help it. If you find yourself in a similar situation, offer to buy your own plane ticket out of the country or use an existing one. Doing so will result in you being officially “denied entry,” much more preferable to deportment. This is helpful if you intend to return sometime in, say, the next decade. Getting booted will not do you any favors when/if you head back to the Netherlands.
This bit of advice was given to me by my British pal and I’m forever grateful. First I was being deported to the US, now the Dutch government wanted to boot me back to Ireland. “I do have a ticket I can use,” I told the colonel. His mood immediately brightened. “Is this true,” he asked. “Then we will not have to deport you then.”
I moved fast, rushing down to a US Airways desk where some calls were made. A clerk named Mathilda took me under her wing. I paid a fee to reschedule the flight and she jumped through the hoops of getting my passport back. In 30 minutes, I went from being treated like a persona non-grata to a naive, harmless American who had made a simple mistake. I took a seat and watched as plains-clothed guards made their way in and out of the gray door.
LESSON # 6: I don’t think I’m giving away any Dutch state secrets when I say that Schiphol Airport has cops dressed as civilians roaming about. That buff dude dressed in an Adidas track suit? The one sipping a cup of coffee outside McDonalds? He’s probably a cop. The airport’s undercover policewomen do a better job of concealing their identities. They carry shopping bags or rolling suitcases. It’s almost impossible to differentiate between them and an administrator in the Netherlands for a conference.
“You’re not the first person to make this mistake,” the colonel told me. “And you won’t be the last. Be sure to give your girlfriend a call before you leave to tell her you are OK.”
He shook my hand before heading back through the gray door. The last thing he told me:
“In 83 days, after you reach day 180, you can come back to Holland. No problem.”
Where have I heard that one before?