Monday, February 10, 2014

Getting our Visas and Cedulas

One of the most difficult things that needs to be done if you plan to settle in Ecuador is getting a resident Visa. There are several types of Visas that can be applied for: pensioners, professional and investment are the three main choices. We both have pensioners Visas which require documenting an $800 a month minimum income FOR LIFE and $100 per dependent. (Note, we did not go the dependent route since if something happened to the person holding the Visa, the dependent would have to start the whole process over again.)

You can visit for up to 90 days on your US passport and once here you can apply for an extension. Most people do that and apply for their Visa while in Ecuador. More recently people are getting their Visas while still in the US and then just have to get it registered in Ecuador. This is the route we took even though it is more costly.

Why? Two reasons. One - we wanted to know we had everything we needed while we were in the US. What was needed? Original certified copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses (and for me subsequent divorces/death certificates to show my name change trail), income statement from Social Security and criminal background check. Some items had limits on how old they could be (from issue date). Some had to be notarized, most had to have an apostille done by the Secretary of State where they originated.

All the above is more easily secured while in the US. Getting this done while out of the country is MUCH more costly than while in the US and also requires a family member or friend's assistance. Once this is all completed, all documents must be translated into Spanish and then the translated document must be apostilled.

Confused yet? Well, you hit on our number two reason. Removal of stress from the process. I could have done all of the initial, up to the translation step. I could had IF we hadn't already planned to be on our two month motorcycle trip in Sept-Oct 2013. There was no way I could be sending, receiving and handling all the paperwork during that time.

So what to do? We opted to pay more for a turn-key service and hired Maite Duran of Gringo Visas to do it all. We obtained all the original documents, made copies of our passports, got passport photos and sent it all (plus the paperwork required by Gringo Visas ) to the Connecticut office. This was in early August. We gave it no more thought until we got an email from Maite that our Visa stamps were ready to pick up in the Atlanta Ecuadorian Consulate. Stress GONE!

In mid-November we planned a visit to family in Atlanta and made a visit to the consulate where $700 (for Visa fees to the government) and two hours presented us with the necessary stamps in our passports.

Could it have been done for less cost? Absolutely, especially if 1) I had only been married once, 2) we had gotten all the notarizations/apostilles ourselves or 3) one of us had been fluent in Spanish (a huge plus if you are getting your Visas in Ecuador. But the removal of stress from the process was critical to me personally. The move itself is stress enough. And after sitting in the Immigration Office in Cuenca and listening to folks with no Spanish trying to get through the process - well, we made the right choice for us.

So, we arrived in Ecuador with our newly stamped passports, presented ourselves to Immigration at the airport and our arrival was recorded. For the next two years we are allowed no more than 90 days out of country starting on December 12th each year - our arrival date. This shouldn't be an issue, we hope not since there are NO exceptions, not even for medical emergencies or family deaths.

Once in the country, the next step was to get our resident Visas registered with Ecuador. This can only be done IN country. We went to the Cuenca office of Gringo Visas and met our local contact, Carlos, an amazing young man who is one step away from being a lawyer (and that should happen this year) who is also bi-lingual. He prepared all the paperwork we needed for the next steps, accompanied us to get things notarized and advised us what to do and where to go.

We had been told to arrive at the Immigration Office early on December 26th (the date on our paperwork), get a number and wait our turn. We chatted with others from the US and compared notes while we waited. After arriving before 8:00, we got inside at 8:30 and the process actually started at 9:00 when the times were announced for each person. Our time was 10:30 but we ended up getting called about 9:45. The lady spoke decent English although her accent was strong. She took our paperwork and we were told to sit back down. About 10:15 our name was called again. There was a problem.

Fortunately it was a small problem. When one form was filled out at Gringo Visas, two letters were transposed in our email addresses. No changes are allowed on the forms so I was given a blank and redid them by hand. Well, in one section the print was VERY small, so small I had to get our my little magnifying card to read what was there. Needless to say, I had copied it wrong. Another copy of the form was needed. But since I had already been given my one re-do copy, we had to go next door and get our own copy of the form made.

That done, we then had to get another folder since EACH set of paperwork needed it own manilla folder. Preferably one with the paper clamp in the middle. Oh yeah, the little copy/office shop next door sold them. I think by this point we had spent another fifty cents? LOL!

Paperwork done again, we were asked to sit - again. Another hour or so and we heard our names, got up and received our now registered and officially stamped passports! We were then told we would need copies of all three pages for the next step, getting paperwork into the system for our Cedulas (like a national ID card used for EVERYTHING here). We walked out the door, turned left and went up the steps to the copy/office shop and got copies made. (We have since learned that the next step can often be done the same day if you arrive early enough AND everything goes well. Since we were there during the holidays, they were on limited staff and we were told to come back on January 2nd.)

January second arrives and since we were told we could come in anytime, we arrived around 10:30. We showed the guard our paperwork and told him, "Cedula, por favor." He gave us a number and pointed to the opposite side of the room from where we had sat a week earlier. The chairs were full so we stood until we could get a seat. Around noon they were still on number five and we were number fourteen so we did what others were doing, walked down the street to get lunch.

As we walked back we passed the gentleman who was number eleven so we knew we were still okay. We grabbed our seats and waited, and waited, and waited. In the morning we heard rumors they were having trouble with the cashier (each person pays $4 for this step). Several times we saw a supervisor come out to the lobby computer, attach a keyboard, type something and then leave. At 3:30 we were two numbers away from being called - and the supervisor came out and announced that the main system in Quito had crashed. We were all told to come back the next day.

We didn't since we had an appointment with our landlord. Plus, I was concerned that the computer might have problems again. So we waited until the following Tuesday. This time we arrived earlier, before the office opened. We got our number, stood until we could sit, listened to all the rumblings around us and learned that sure enough, the computer had crashed a second time. But this time everything was with us, we were ushered into the office, paperwork entered into the computer, paid our $4 and on our way with another piece of paper by 11:00.

Were we done? Of course not! This paper had to be notarized before it could be presented at the Registro Civil office where we would get our Cedula. Once again, Carlos accompanied us to the appropriate notary spot (different from the first one and MUCH busier but still costing around $5). We spent most of the morning waiting and were extremely thankful for a good translator.

Now were we ready to go to the Registro Civil office? Of course not, it was too late in the day and we wouldn't make it through the lines. So we arranged to meet Carlos there the following week, bringing all our paperwork once again.

When we arrived at the designated time, we didn't see Carlos so we got in line. When he arrived he pulled us out of the line since it wasn't the one we needed. He took us inside, got our paperwork and original passports and waited his turn. Our job was to sit and wait patiently. In an hour or so he made it to the desk, presented our paperwork...and waited. He came to collect a few dollars from us, presented the receipt to the desk...and we waited.

Soon he was back with a number ticket...for Stu. It appeared my paperwork had a glitch. When they scanned the originals at the Immigration office, my factura (invoice/receipt) had stuck to my original form and was scanned that way. Carlos had the original paperwork and felt it shouldn't have been a problem. While Stu waited for his number to be called, Carlos used my phone to call the Ministry office. After a couple of minutes of earnest conversation, he returned and told me it should be fixed by the time Stu got done with getting his Cedula.

Stu's number was called and he went into the cubicle, answered a couple of questions, got fingerprinted, took out his earring and got his photo taken. Done, all he had to do was sit until his name was called. That took about thirty minutes and he was done, the proud recipient of his official Cedula ID card.

Now we waited...and waited...and waited. While we felt the official was stalling to punish Carlos for going over his head, eventually he called him back to the desk. It was all good and soon I was sitting in a cubicle trying to answer questions and calling on Carlos to translate. Another thirty minutes and I was the proud recipient of my own official Cedula ID card - mine showing I was over 65 and entitled to the same benefits as full Ecuadorian citizens over that age: reduced bus pass cost, 50% off airline tickets originating in Ecuador, go to the head of bank lines, take the short line for Immigration at the airport and get up to $150 a month reimbursed from taxes spent/IVA of 12% on most purchases.

The first tip I would pass along - if you don't speak fluent Spanish, hire a translator/facilitator to assist you at the offices. Well worth the money.

The second tip - come prepared to wait, bring a book or a tablet/e-reader. Third tip - arrive early no matter what anyone tells you, even the staff at the office. For immigration, 7:30 and for your Cedula, 8:30 works.

And final tip - be pleasant no matter how frustrated you are. The staff has to deal with hundreds of people a week, paperwork from all countries and in all state of preparation, with people that don't speak the local language and they can get frustrated themselves. Smile, thank them for helping you, compliment their English or anything else you'd like. Just BE POSITIVE!

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