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E.U.'s expanding borderless zone spells trouble for U.S. expats

As nine Eastern and Central European countries join Schengen today, they are under pressure to toughen long-abused visa policies.

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Seven years ago, Robert Hanawalt ditched a sales career in Washington to move to Prague, where he quickly realized that he could live indefinitely without official paperwork.

He taught English illegally for four years on 90-day tourist visas. The trick? Quick trips over the border, which reset the clock with a fresh passport stamp.

"I did that," Mr. Hanawalt says. "But after the first few times I thought, 'Why even bother? Nobody is checking these things.' "

But as nine countries, including the Czech Republic, join the European Union's borderless Schengen zone Friday, Brussels is now ordering member states to get tough on visa policy.

That could spell trouble for an unlikely class of illegal immigrants: American expats. Attracted by English teaching jobs, the low cost of living, and societies just waking up to the possibilities of Western tourism, thousands are estimated to be living and working illegally in central and eastern Europe.

Prague quickly became an expatriate magnet. Today, 5,000 Americans are registered with the US Embassy here, though there's no official tally of the total number of Americans living in the Czech Republic. Local media estimate it to be nearly 20,000.

Brussels is taking aim at such visa riders. Now, Americans and Canadians can initially travel visa-free to Schengen countries for up to 90 days. But if at the end of that time they want to stay, they must go somewhere outside the zone – Ukraine or Montenegro, for example – to apply for a long-term visa.

Many expats are wondering what to do now, having set down roots here.


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