For those of you in the U.S. that require a Schengen visa to travel to Europe, it can be a long, hard, and frustrating process. Fortunately however, there are a few hacks that you can use to get one relatively easily and quickly.
Before you go further, this post is intended for those that have had at least one Schengen visa previously.
Hack #1: Use Atlas
Seriously...I recommend it not only because this is the Atlas blog but it will save you some real amounts of time and stress. Just scan your passport, enter your travel details and let Atlas do the work for you. The more times use it, the better it becomes since all your information is saved and reused.
Hack #2: Apply a Schengen Visa for Germany
Here's the trick most people miss. Germany is one of the few select Schengen countries that lets you mail-in applications if you've been to the Schengen-area in the last 5 years. This can save you a day's worth of trouble. It's even more helpful when you don't live in a city with German consulate and have to travel to one to attend the visa interview.
Even if your destination in Europe is not Germany, I still recommend going this route because it's so much easier getting everything done without going for a visa interview.
That said, mailing in your visa application doesn't come without its own troubles. In addition to all the paperwork, you need to get your application notarized - Germany wants to know that its really you thats applying. If you haven't done this before, its a painful and expensive exercise - find a notary near you, go to one, wait in line, pay them $40-$50 and get a stamp. If you live near a FedEx or a UPS store, you can save yourself a lot of time here since most of them have a public notary but make sure to check before. Or you can use Atlas to talk to one over video and get your application notarized instantly.
Hack #3: Apply at a smaller Schengen country if your trip is imminent
While Hack #2 is convenient, it still takes around 2 weeks to get your passport back. For the last-minute travelers, this can be too late. In such situations, I recommend applying for a Schengen visa at a smaller country. My preference is Luxembourg - you simply have to email them with your dates and they usually will make a concerted effort to get your passport back in time. Of course, you have to remember to tweak your 'draft' itineraries to show majority of your trip in that country - but thats okay. Once you get your Schengen visa, you are free to travel to any of the Schengen countries.
Hack #4: Avoid VFS
I say this is a hack because you can save a lot of time and money by not dealing with VFS. They are known for their terrible customer experience - often charging exorbitantly on top of the visa fees (such as charging $35 for SMS updates), not having enough appointment slots, and delaying sending your applications thru to the embassies for processing.
It's pretty easy to avoid them - just pick from countries they don't support like Germany, Spain, or Italy.
It's actually easier to work with the embassy staff directly than with VFS customer support.
Hack #5: Apply for a work visa if you can
If your employer has an office in the Schengen area, apply for a work visa. It's the same as the tourist visa but it can significantly increase your odds of getting a 1-year Schengen visa. All you have to do is have 'needs to travel occasionally for business-related meetings...'
in your invitation letter. It is little bit more work than applying for a travel visa but its worth it if you can get a longer-term Schengen visa.
You can learn more about the Schengen visa process & requirements here.