Can anyone provide details of what it takes to stay in the Schengen Zone beyond the 90 day limit? Is there an option of staying as a tourist or only with student or work visa?
Sally, The 90-day limit IS for tourists, so there won't be an option to "stay as a tourist". If you're registered at a school in a particular country, they should be able to help with a student Visa. AFAIK, there is NO extended stay Visa that covers all of the Schengen area. You'd have to contact the Embassy of the country where you want to stay, and deal with them. Depending on which country you choose, this could be a difficult and complicated procedure, requiring months to arrange. I've spoken with people who dealt with Italy for their extended stay, and it was VERY complicated. They had to produce not only financial records to prove they could support themselves, but also their marriage license and other documents. I've heard that the process is easier in France. Good luck!
Many countries allow extended stays for "tourist reasons" with a visa. But keep in mind that a visa will only be good for the country that issues it. So if you want to stay 120 days in France and spend up to 90 days in other Schengen countries, then you'll need a French visa. But if you want to spend 180 days in various Schengen countries, none more than 90 days, you are unlikely to get a visa from anywhere. I doubt any country will issue a visa to you for a stay less than 90 days. So if you will be staying in one country more than 90 days, check with that country's embassy or consulate for details on how to get a visa. No one here is qualified to give you that advice.
You can apply for a "visiteur" (tourist) visa for stays from 91 days - 1 year (and it can be renewed) for France. Other countries also have options for getting an official visa/residence permit. As was pointed out, you need to have a main country that you are intending to visit/reside in. Check out the Consulate/Embassy websites for the country from which you are intending to apply for the visa to see what their requirements are.
It's not the complicated nightmare everybody makes it out to be. Three years ago I knew I was going to have a lot of time on my hands and for a variety of reasons, Asia and South America were going to be out of the picture. That left Europe and Africa. Europe was going to get the brunt of it. Maybe because they were central, maybe because I'm fluent in both languages, but I sent for packages for both France and Spain. The Spanish stuff arrived first (but the French package was almost identical) so I did it the day after it arrived. Filling in the forms, making copies of some stuff, writing a note, and stopping by the bank to have things notarized on the way to the post office took about an hour (including the driving). I was traveling (one more reason a second passport is handy) when the visa came back, but it was probably less than two weeks. I didn't stay the whole time (lots of ins and outs amounting to about eight or nine months in). Entry and exit was more often through France or Germany rather than through Spain. Once you're inside the Schengen fence, you're free to move around at will. I doubt that I wound up spending more than a couple months in Spain. As long as you're not a bum or trying to do something sneaky, it's just a few simple hoops through which you have to jump.
Tourist and student visas are pretty easy. A work visa, however, raises a bunch of red flags. European countries are very protective of local workers. The current economic slump makes it an even bigger deal. The best way to be declined for either a tourist or student visa is to mention a desire to work.
We just spent a year RVing all around Europe & Turkey. I don't know how long you want to stay in Europe, but it's easy enough to move in and out of the Schengen Zone for 3-month periods. Ireland, the UK, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia & Herzogivina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia (until this July), Serbia, Turkey, and Cypress are all great non-Schengen possibilities. Happy travels!