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BREXIT: Can Spain legally offer more than 90 days to Britons?

Does Spain have to abide by the Schengen Area’s 90-day rule for third countries or can a deal be struck between Spanish and UK authorities which extends the current time limit?

BREXIT: Can Spain legally offer more than 90 days to Britons?
Could the visa waiver for Britons in Spain be changed from 90 to 180 days? (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Since the start of 2021, Britons who are not in possession of a residency document from Spain or another EU/Schengen country can only stay 90 days in any 180-day period within the Schengen Area, including in Spain.

This end to freedom of movement for non-resident Britons is a big concern for those who before Brexit could spend extended periods in their favourite spots in Spain and Europe. 

Hundreds of thousands of UK nationals enjoyed up to six months a year in Spain (sometimes all in one go) in properties they owned or rented out, but now they must plan their time carefully to not fall foul of the law.

READ MORE: How Brits can properly plan their 90 out of 180 days in Spain and Schengen Area

It’s also a worry for authorities in Spanish towns such as Benidorm that cater for these long-term British visitors, as they play a vital role in many local economies, and since Brexit and the pandemic UK visitor numbers have dwindled. 

In fact, Valencian authorities have been actively calling for UK nationals to not have their time on Spain’s Costa Blanca limited or determined by the Schengen rules that now apply to them.

Valencian regional president Ximo Puig has said he wants “Brexit to be as Brexit-less as possible” and has asked Spain’s Tourism Minister to “facilitate the visa situation” and “correct the restrictions” Brits now face.

READ MORE: Valencia region pushes to give Brits more than 90 days in Spain

But can this actually happen? Can Spain or a region of Spain reach a deal with UK authorities which allows Britons to spend up to six months in Spain in one go or in a year? 

Can Spain be a member of the Schengen Area but have its own bilateral agreements with third countries?

First, some background

Spain joined the EU in 1986 and the Schengen Area in 1992. The UK joined the European Communities (precursor to the EU) in 1973 and never formed part of the Schengen Zone.

Before joining the free movement scheme, Spain signed a number of bilateral agreements with third countries in the 1960s or earlier.

According to the official journal of the European Union, this allows countries that had these deals in place before joining Schengen to “extend beyond three months an alien’s stay in its territory in exceptional circumstances or in accordance with a bilateral agreement concluded before the entry into force of this Convention”.

Before joining Schengen, Spain had bilateral agreements with most Latin American nations, Canada, the US, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand among others, but not the United Kingdom.

Prior to Schengen membership, Spain did not waive the visa for any of these non-EU countries for a period longer than three months. 

Ninety days was the limit of pretty much all bilateral agreements between European nations and third countries, with the exception of those with diplomatic passports in some cases. 

So to recap, Spain didn’t have a bilateral agreement with the UK prior to joining Schengen and if it had it wouldn’t necessarily mean Brits could easily extend their stay in Spain past 90 days. 

Is it possible for Brits in Spain to get an extension past 90 days?

There is no evidence that Spain currently gives preferential treatment to the 19 non-EU countries which it did sign bilateral agreements with before joining Schengen.

Third country nationals who don’t currently need a Schengen visa to enter Spain – including Britons – are pretty much the same across all Schengen countries. 

In essence, Spain is sticking to the framework of free movement and a common visa policy between the Schengen members, not playing by its own rules.

Is an extension of the 90-day rule possible? Yes, it ‘s called a prórroga deestancia de corta duración sin visado (extension of short-stay without visa).

But Spanish law states the same as EU law – it has to be due to “exceptional circumstances”, and no mention is made of pre-existing bilateral agreements.

Exceptional circumstances include situations involving humanitarian causes, gender violence, human trafficking and other grave matters.

It’s notoriously difficult to have this extension approved and the applicant has to show proof of financial means and health care as well as offer guarantees they will leave Spain, among other documentation, in order for a short extension to be allowed.

UK nationals don’t require a visa to visit Spain post-Brexit but have to abide by the 90-day rule. Photo: JAIME REINA/AFP

Could the visa waiver for Britons in Spain be changed from 90 to 180 days?

The UK currently offers Spanish nationals six months of continuous visa-free travel in the United Kingdom, so for many non-resident Britons a reciprocal deal with Spain would be ideal, even if it applied to just Spain and not the whole Schengen Area. 

British authorities offer the same to other EU/EEA and Swiss nationals post-Brexit, but for UK nationals the 90 out of 180 days rule applies, even if it does add up to six months within a year.

The EU is currently preparing to launch its ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) system at the end of 2022. 

This doesn’t change the 90-day rule but it does mean citizens of visa-free countries including the UK will have to apply for authorisation every three years at a cost of €7.

According to the European Commission, ETIAS is “affordable, simple and fast”, it “will cross-check data provided by visa-exempt travellers” and offer clear rules for refusals. The introduction of the new Entry and Exit System (EES) will also see passports scanned and leave less room for error.


As the EU is currently overhauling and modernising its system, this may offer Spain and the United Kingdom the opportunity to reach a special entry and exit agreement which could be incorporated into this more advanced EU system due to come into force late next year. 

But the legality of Spain signing its own deal with the UK whilst forming part of the EU and Schengen Zone remains a grey area as there’s no recent precedent to this.

On the one hand the EC states that “Member States may make specific arrangements in bilateral agreements. General exceptions provided for by national law and bilateral agreements shall be notified to the Commission”.

But on the other hand, “common measures on the crossing of internal borders by persons and border control at external borders should reflect the Schengen acquis incorporated in the Union framework”.

All things considered, rather than a readiness on behalf of Spanish and British authorities to strike a deal on extended and flexible entry and exit conditions, it seems more likely that the EU’s stance will be the deciding factor. 

Everything from the fallout of Brexit on Spain’s tourism industry, to the UK’s treatment of EU migrants and visitors could play a part in Brussels’s willingness to bend. 

Member comments

  1. Covid, having masked some of the Brexit fallout regarding the 180 – 90 day rule will, it seems affect a lot of local Spanish businesses. Having spoke to a few restaurant owners and a manager of a golf course all in the Estepona area reported they will have to substantially scale back “normal” plans due to the lack of Brits coming out for the whole of the winter and spending their money in all the local economies. I was in the Estepona area for 5 weeks in September/October and it did see seem many local workers were spooked by a severe lack of regular and normally expected booking not happening due to Brits not arriving for the winter. Indeed, after talking to property owners like myself I was shocked to hear how many would be selling there homes and buying in areas like northern Cypress where such restrictions do not apply. It would be a shame to see this happen as businesses that have built up over the years are liable to close. If somehow the ruling could be changed to 180- 360 it would probably save the day. We will have to wait and see.


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Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?