To obtain a one year temporary residency visa in Bolivia is a lengthy process fraught with incompetency, frustration, corruption and pointless bureaucracy. The following is a rather long-winded account of my experience.
NB: To be fair, it’s MUCH easier and cheaper to get residency here than pretty much any western country.
Update: The residency process and requirements changed in November 2014. The good news is that gringos can now apply for a 2 or 3 year visa instead of going through the whole process every year. If you are here because you are trying to do your own visa, see my visa requirements blog post. I will write an updated post on the new process when I finalise my next residency visa.
30th May 2014 – Beginning of the residency process.
I’d heard that the temporary residency process is rather lengthy and difficult to do within the short 30 day time frame of my Objeto Determinado (special purpose) visa which I had already acquired in Australia. With this in mind, I immediately enlisted my girlfriend’s help to gather as much information about the processes as possible, despite feeling the ill effects of altitude sickness. The Bolivian Migraciones (Immigration) website gives good useful advice, but you have to obtain certificates from various other government departments who are not quite as organised. They have no usable information online, and if you call them they just say the application is personal and you must visit their office in person. Most of the offices we visited were helpful and friendly enough. But the FELCC (police) were an exception. They were rude and reluctant to answer our questions, they refused to give us any photocopies and they gave us conflicting and outright incorrect information. I later found out they make things as difficult as possible to encourage foreigners to hire lawyers who pay them bribes.
After visiting several offices around La Paz I figured out how to best approach my residency application. One must first apply for a background check from the FELCN (anti narcotics police), then apply for a background check through INTERPOL, then apply for a Registro Domicilario (house registration) and background check from FELCC. In the meantime one should get a HIV test/medical check-up and prepare documents that prove financial solvency and/or a work contract approved by the Ministry of Labour. If you are extremely well organised it’s just possible to do all this within the 30 day time frame given.
We arrived to the FELCN office just as it was getting dark and they were about to close up. A friendly policeman explained that I only need to provide a copy of my passport and a Memorial (a cover letter) written by a lawyer. He said that his friend is a lawyer with an office across the road and could do it on the spot. The lawyer was not in his office but he agreed on the phone to do it for 100BS and could be there in 10 minutes. This is double the normal fee ($14 instead of $7) so it was pretty obvious the narcotics cops were taking a cut. I agreed anyway to the inflated price and we waited for the lawyer. His ETA of 10 minutes turned into over 30, as it tends to do in South America. Finally a young man wearing a suit came running down the street and opened up the lawyer’s office. The cops complained that they wanted to go home but the lawyer reassured them it would only take a minute. There was a slight problem however, his computer wouldn’t start. He desperately turned the thing on and off but it just wouldn’t boot up. Sometime later his boss and his assistant arrived in a taxi to check on the young fellas progress. The three lawyers, all suited up, were sitting around a broken computer bickering with each other for missing out on a $14 sale. I decided to look elsewhere.
1st June – The lawyer and the typewriter.
We set out on Monday morning to La Paz’s lawyer’s district, Calle Yanacucho, (which has literally 100’s of options choose from) and followed the first guy who offered us his services. The lawyer had a dwarf like stature, slicked back hair, a moustache and an old suit that was so many sizes too big that he just looked comical. His office was very old-fashioned, featuring the kind of decor one would expect to find in a museum. On the middle of his desk was a fully functional type writer. Before we could say anything, he coyly explained that he owned a computer but it was being serviced so he was using the typewriter in the meantime. We didn’t believe him. I quite liked the guy for his quirkiness and would have used him again, except that we found a few glaring errors in his Memorial so decided against it.
5th June – INTERPOL
I picked up my narcotics background check and went to the INTERPOL office on the other side of town to apply for the next police background check. Upon arrival the officer informed me that it was too late to submit paperwork and I should come back tomorrow. Funnily enough, there was a sign next to him advising that I still had half an hour which I politely pointed out. He sighed and starting looking through my papers. After a few minutes he found a spelling mistake in my cover letter. I pointed out that Spanish is not my first language and that the meaning is still clear, but he wouldn’t have a bar of it. The mistake was unacceptable and I would have to fix it and return tomorrow. It was pretty obvious that he just didn’t want to do any more work that afternoon.
8th June – Getting in touch with an immigration lawyer
I took up a recommendation from a previous flatmate in La Paz and got in contact with his friend, Elving, who is an immigration lawyer. I wanted some advice on demonstrating economic solvency and the Registro Domicilario (home registration). We met in Alexanders Café where he gave some great advice and offered to help write the necessary remaining paperwork for a reasonable fee. All in all, I came out of that meeting happy, despite the fact that I’m almost certain he was drunk at 11:30am on a Sunday.
16th June – FELCC
My next step was the FELCC police background check. There has been a big push in Bolivia to cut the amount of red tape for these sorts of procedures. A few years ago the government proudly announced through their state-run newspaper that police a background check can be completed in as little as 5 minutes. While this might technically be true, what they neglect to mention is that there is a queue of people over two hours long and stretching halfway down the block.
I later went to a plaza in the centre expecting to meet Elving. I called to see where he was only to find out he was in Santa Cruz, a 16 hour bus ride away. He told me he’d be back in La Paz in two days.
18th June – Elvings gone AWOL
After not being able to arrange a meeting with Elving for several days I decided to try to do the FELCC Registro Domicilario myself. The policeman there ignored me for several minutes before finally agreed to review my documents. He told me I hadn’t included a receipt of a payment for 15BS ($2). I politely pointed out to the officer that when I first spoke to the FELCC two weeks ago nobody said anything about payment. He marched over to the list of requirements on the wall (which was different to what they originally showed me) pointed at them and yelled “Aqui lo dice. No puedes leer?”. It says it right here, can’t you read?? No point arguing, it was all there in writing.
I couldn’t just pay on the spot because payments to Bolivian government institutions must go through a bank called Banco Union. Government offices don’t accept cash, at least not officially anyway. While inconvenient, it is an important anti-corruption measure.
The man at the FELCC told me that the total time to process my residency registration was 10-15 days. Because I had less than 15 days on my current visa, I thought I would have to find a quicker way.
20th June – A new lawyer and a “loophole”
I had given up on Elving by this stage, so decided to try another lawyer. Jorge specialises in foreigners migrating to Bolivia and was helping two Indian migrant chefs through their health check when I met him.
Jorge met me downtown within an hour of my phone call and explained to me that he has contacts at the FELCC and could exploit a “loophole” to get the Registro Domicilario certificate finalised today. At $70, it was a pretty expensive loophole but at the time it seemed my only option. We had to wait a few hours for his contact at the FELCC to start her shift so we killed some time having lunch while taking about immigration issues.
Sure enough, when we got to the FELCC Jorge and his 500Bs were able to get me the certificate within 15 minutes. Upon reviewing the certificate I noticed my country was written as Austrica. No hay problema Jorge told me and he went in to fix up the mistake.
26th June – Submitting the visa
I arranged to meet my girlfriend’s brother in the morning to get him to sign my last piece of documentation, a letter indicating I was working voluntarily at his company.
The man at Migraciones informed me that because the brother’s name was not written above his signature, it was not legally binding so he would not accept it. I pointed out that he had included his official stamp, but to no avail. He then told me I should also get a Certificado de Trabajo (a work certificate) even though it was not an official requirement. He also said he didn’t like the language used in one of the letters because it didn’t sound “official enough”. Jorge had warned me that the folk at Migraciones prefer to accept applications through lawyers because they offer bribes. They therefore make it as difficult as possible for Gringos trying to do it on their own.
27th June – Submitting the visa, take 2
I came back with the requested documentation and waited anxiously for the Migraciones officer to revise my documents. He pushed my Registro Domicilario certificate against the glass and pointed out where Austrica had been changed to Australia. He told me that any corrections to certificates must have a correvale (a correction validation) to prove it was done by an official. I would have to get this done at the FELCC office several blocks uphill.
No big deal. Expect that on the way to their office disaster struck. My missus put a 500ml sealed plastic bag full of water in my backpack without telling me and went off to have lunch with her parents. Plastic bags are a fairly common way to get a quick fix of water or juice on the streets. They cost about 0.07c and you bite the corner off and drink from the hole. As one might expect, they are also very fragile and it burst in my bag.
I was very confused to see water gushing out of my backpack so jumped out of my bus to see what was happening. All the documents I had collected over the last month had become wet. Even my passport was wet. Not good. I went to the nearby Plaza Murillo to assess the damage. Fortunately the documents that copped it the worst were only photocopies. I spread all my certificates, paperwork, backpack and my passport out across the steps of the plaza to dry them out. The whole plaza was staring at this weird gringo with paper spread out everywhere. Luckily the La Paz sun is pretty strong so it only took 30 minutes or so to dry them.
The certificates were legible but clearly water damaged. I had serious doubts that Migraciones would accept them because they had been so finicky about everything else. When I finally got my Correvale from the FELCC, the lady was clearly unimpressed about my wet certificate. It was too late to return to Migraciones that day so I would have to try again next week.
Migraciones informed me that if you don’t submit your residency application on time you only have to pay a fine of $3 per day that it is late, where as I had thought you needed to buy a whole new Objeto Determinado visa for $100+. Of course Jorje didn’t tell me that, otherwise I wouldn’t have paid 500bs for his services. Sneaky bugger.
30th June – Third time lucky
This was my third time lining up at Migraciones to submit my residency application. I explained apologetically what happened with the wet documents and luckily the officer found it funny. Finally, my application had been accepted. I went to Banco Union to pay for my application including the fine for the late submission and was told to come back in 2 weeks time for the final verdict.
14th July – Collecting the visa
I was relieved to return to Migraciones and discover my visa had been granted and I was now a temporary resident. You then have to apply for a Carnet de Indentidad (ID card) which was fairly straight forward. Bolivians pay $2 for theirs while foreigners pay $70. I couldn’t help but suspect the government might be price gauging a bit.