Bolivian immigration, the quest for a residency visa

Don’t get me wrong, all countries have bureaucracy.

As someone who has had to get visas for citizens of ‘developing’ countries to visit the UK, I certainly wouldn’t want to go through the same process in the UK…and although everyone we have had to deal with in Bolivian immigration, INTERPOL and the local police has been unfailingly polite and helpful (something else you wouldn’t guarantee in the UK), the process of securing a residency visa in Bolivia has started to take its toll.

So, for the unwary first timer, here’s an A-Z of navigating your way through the immigration process.

First, get one of these…

One month Bolivian visa, Sucre Bolivia

One month Bolivian visa, Sucre Bolivia

This is a Visa de Objeto Determinado, or Specific Purpose visa. You’ll need one of these before entering the country, without one you can’t apply for a residency visa. To get the Visa de Objeto Determinado go to your local Bolivian Embassy and present a few documents: passport, birth certificate, bank statements, testimonial from your employer, yellow fever certificate, proof of payment ($85), etc.

Once in your passport the Visa de Objeto Determinado gives you 30 days to complete your residency application in Bolivia. Ah, the naivety. 30 days Plenty of time, you may think. Think again.

Once arrived the best advice is head to INTERPOL and get them to start their background check on you. This, the nice but unsmiling man in INTERPOL will tell you, will take up to two weeks.

16 days, and 14 fingerprints later (no, I’m not from Norfolk, they take three sets of prints from your thumbs – perhaps most crimes are committed with your thumbs?) you should receive one of these…definitive proof that you don’t belong to an international criminal syndicate.

Interpol certificate, Sucre, Bolivia

Interpol certificate, Sucre, Bolivia

During INTERPOL’s lengthy investigations into your links with the ZETA cartel, you shouldn’t assume you have time for a rest. Maybe some light sightseeing and a spot of lunch but, once you’ve paid the bill, you need to get back out there and find a Notario and a lawyer, both of whom will provide you with bits of paper (50 Bolivianos per page).

The Notario will confirm you are solvent and able to support yourself financially, in our case by asking how much money you have but not actually demanding proof of this. 20 minutes later you’ll have one of these…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

The lawyer seems to earn their 50 Bs by confirming you are in fact alive, you’re in the place you say you’re in and intend to be there for a year. Faster than you can say, “Why does this cost 50 Bolivianos?”, you’ll have this piece of paper…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Since INTERPOL are still trying to match your fingerprints to several unsolved international crimes, you may as well visit the doctor for your compulsory medical check-up. This has three purposes: to prove your general health is good (although health tourism to Bolivia is limited); to show you don’t have TB; and (much more ethically dubious) to reveal your HIV status to the Bolivian authorities.

Normally, a medical check-up involves actual medical tests. However, since the entire Bolivian medical community is locked in an endless dispute with the government, the doctor signed off our medical certificates without the inconvenience of doing any tests. Stating in a world-weary tone that, “The system is idiotic.” I hear you, I hear you.

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Finally, with proof that you’re medically competent to remain, that you’re solvent, aren’t an international drug cartel, and that you exist, you return proudly to the immigration office in the ridiculous belief that your trials are almost over.

Only one more piece of paper immigration will tell you. Go to the local police and they will register where you are living and give you a certificate to that effect.

With a spring in your step you approach the FELCC police station. Calmly try to ignore the cages just inside the compound full ‘suspects’, and the endless arrival of police vehicles disgorging their cargo of ragged looking suspects. Approach the correct widow to ask for the piece of paper immigration have told you to get.

The nice woman inside the window will then burst your bubble with the news that immigration don’t know what they’re talking about. She’ll politely tell you that the rules have changed, and instead of one simple process, you are now required to have an additional half dozen documents before the police will allow you to stay.

First you’ll need this…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Which will need to be signed by a Bolivian neighbour stating that you are living where you claim to be living, and by a lawyer (another 50 Bolivianos). Both of these people will have to give you photocopies of their ID cards.

Then you will need this…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

And this…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Not, of course, forgetting these…

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

Bolivian immigration documents, Sucre, Bolivia

I don’t even know what these are, but they seemed important at the time.

The bad news is, you can only fill these in once you have the legal contract showing you are renting the property you say you are renting. You’ll also need colour photocopies of your passport and you landlord’s ID card. Not to mention proof that your landlord has paid tax and their utility bills.

With only 8 days of your allotted 30 left, this may seem quite a mountain to climb, especially as Friday 25 May is Independence Day and a public holiday. Make that 7 days.

An important footnote to all of this, please, please, please remember to photocopy everything in triplicate, and double check which photocopies need to be in colour. The consequences of not doing so will be severe.

A cynic, and this process could turn you into one, might claim that the many photocopy shops of Sucre may in fact be giving backhanders to the immigration folks. They’ve taken more money off me that the lawyer and that has to be unique in any country.

With luck, in a few days all of this will seem like a bad dream. All the forms will be filled, signed and stamped, and you will be the proud owner of a residency visa.

Or perhaps the rules will have changed by then…

37 thoughts on “Bolivian immigration, the quest for a residency visa

  1. I just completed by 2nd residency visa in february – the medical has to be done in ‘INSO’ (occupational health) – it’s in the ‘TORAX’ hospital complex in Miraflores (assume you are in la paz?) – all taxi drivers know how to get there. you need to arrive around 0630 in the morning for the ‘pre-queue’ – then at 0730 they open the doors and you queue for your number. They will take a urine sample, blood sample (try and get the female nurse, the male nurse has no idea how to take bloods), x-ray, dentist check, weight, height, blood pressure and physical exam + questionnaire. Then they will give you a piece of paper with your date and name + a number. You need to return to INSO 3 days later to collect your medical certificate.

    • Sounds like things haven’t gotten any more straightforward, but (I think) we’re talking about Sucre not La Paz. I always understood that the authorities in Sucre were more pleasant, and more helpful, than in La Paz. I have nothing to measure this by, but despite the grinding bureaucracy we managed to get our certificates before the 30 day limit. Definitely don’t remember having to get a dentist check…when did teeth get so dangerous?

  2. I have no intention of moving to Bolivia, but still greatly enjoyed listening to the process. Thanks for detailing it so clearly and entertainingly. Makes getting my Irish wife’s green card seem like cake. (Which it definitely was not)

  3. Your Bolivian “lawyer” in his letter to Head of Immigration described you as “solterA” which in Spanish means… maiden;) It should be solterO which means “single” for unmarried men;)

    But since you got your one year residency permit it means they don’t read anything, including your application’s covert letter;)

    • You need to provide passport details, details of parents and give 2 sets of finger prints. We’d been told we needed to show birth certificates, but they never asked for them. Mainly they take your details and fingerprints to check against their global database. It takes around 2 weeks.

      A word of warning, the rules change every year and they may need different documentation from when we went through the process. It is unlikely that your local Bolivian Embassy will know what documents you need.

      Good luck.

  4. guess what? now, before you can get the INTERPOL thing, you’ll need some “Certificado de Narcóticos”, and, at least in La Paz, you will have to go to the end of the world to get it (oh! and they only attend from 9 to 2:00pm), and you forgot saying that, in the FELCC, they will get you like 50 Bs. extra for the “Taxi”.

    Welcome to Bolivia, we hope that you feel like a criminal and enjoy our bureaucracy

  5. really useful blog, especially photos of bits of paper…. thanks for brightening up my web search! If only someone would write exactly the same type of thing for the process of gaining Bolivian citizenship through marriage (-: Planning to move to La Paz in Dec/Jan with my Bolivian husband (I’m British-Irish) and newborn daughter.

  6. What is the total cost of preparing all of these documents? And how long does it take to do them? Do you have to do them all in La Paz?

    • Hi. The overall cost is hard to calculate. The official cost is around US$200, but on top of all this are lawyer fees, photocopying, etc. which probably double the cost. We had the help of a friend living in Sucre who did a lot of the footwork that lawyers normally do, which saved us quite a lot of money.

      You can get residency in all the major towns in Bolivia, but Sucre is considered the most straightforward as they are more used to foreigners and it is quite small. La Paz is considered much more difficult. It took us just over a month to complete the process, and we worked on it almost every day of that month.

      • Thank you…..your reply was very useful! Do you know anything about Tarija? Would it be more like Sucre, or La Paz as far as document difficulties?

        • Hi. I visited Tarija and thought it was a lovely place. Unfortunately, I don’t know how easy it is for immigration, although probably more like Sucre as it is a fairly small town. We stayed at a B&B in Tarija run by two New Zealanders who I think offer assistance with immigration. I don’t know how much they charge, but it might be worth contacting them? They have just opened a new hotel and this is the web address: http://www.altiplanohotel.com/

  7. “The Notario will confirm you are solvent and able to support yourself financially, in this case by asking how much money you have but not actually demanding proof of this.”

    How much money do you have to have to pass the requirement?

    Thanks!

    • There doesn’t appear to be an absolute figure. Bolivia is a cheap county to live in and I suppose a good bench mark would be to prove you have an income of between $500 – $1000 per month. We had to provide bank statements for three months which showed our income prior to arriving in Bolivia. Alternative, a bank statement of savings would probably be enough. The Bolivian Embassy in your country should be able to help clarify this though.

      • Thanks!

        I love this article and your additional because you are both very specific about the requirements and steps, but also very funny and entertaining.

        I am in Bolivia now and I guess I will have to go through something similar, because I would really love to make this cute country my base for exploring South America.

        • Thanks Andreas, hope the process goes smoothly for you. It’s worth the effort, Bolivia’s a great country to live in, such variety from the Amazon to the Altiplano. I didn’t mention the part about how they managed to lose my passport for a week as well…
          Best, Paul

  8. Fantastic start to your blog! Great to get your news. Hope the future is less complicated. Love J and J x

  9. Love this – and you should try international adoption.. Our kids have 3 different birth certificates, for example and that’s about 5 % of the essential paperwork !

    • I think we win a small street urchin if we complete within 30 days; apparently no one has ever won which might account for the number of street children. Not to fear though, through working with Inti we’ll be helping Sucre’s street kids.

  10. “Xian chi ku, hou chi tian” as the Chinese say, “first eat the bitter and then taste the sweet”. Let’s hope so…

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