Some Thoughts About Visas and Victories

So my grand plan to move triumphantly back to Colombia and have a life here as a strong, independent woman (or at least a woman who really likes coffee and arepas) hinged upon one very important detail: getting a visa. As those of us hailing from the Great White Devil know all too well, working under an illegal visa is generally frowned upon by governments, and can lead to scary consequences like alarmingly large fines or even deportation. These are not consequences I want to face at any point in my life, and certainly not now, when everything else is proceeding according to plan. So then. A visa was required.

But how, one might ask, does a brunette gringa with a serious addiction to maracuyá ice cream go about obtaining a visa? They’re not exactly handing them out like candy these days, although it’s certainly easier to get one here than somewhere like my dearly beloved homeland. Of course, I had one last year through WorldTeach, but it expired in December, and I couldn’t renew it because I wasn’t going to be doing the same kind of work, or working with the same organization. So renewing was out.

This left me with three options, which are the three basic options facing any foreigner who wants to be able to work for an extended period of time in Colombia:

1. Stay on a 90-day tourist visa, renew it once at the immigration office for a maximum stay of 180 consecutive days, and then leave the country for 72 hours and come back in on another (non-renewable) 90-day visa. Wash, rinse, repeat every 90 days until the Colombian government catches up with you and asks you to cease and desist. This is a perfectly acceptable choice for people who don’t intend to be here longer than 6 months or so, or people who are only looking to pick up part-time, under-the-table work like private classes or manning the desk at a hostel or something. I am neither of those people, and this was going to add totally unnecessary amounts of stress to my life, so this wasn’t ever anything except an absolutely last resort.

2. Find work with a company willing to sponsor a work visa. This is what the vast majority of people end up doing, and it works fine if you find a good, dependable organization that actually keeps its visa-sponsoring promises (which is more difficult than it sounds). If you come here with a school or organization, you already have this set up; otherwise, if you manage to find an institute or other business that’s willing to commit to sponsoring you, great. The company I’m teaching with actually did let me know that they could sponsor a work visa for me if I needed it, which was good to have as a fallback plan. However, from my personal point of view there are a few issues with this option. The first is that, once you have a visa with a company, you are tied to that company. As far as the Colombian government is concerned, you are only allowed to work in Colombia if you are working with that company. The minute your job status changes (and it will, for most of us expendable, commitment-phobic foreigners), that visa is no longer valid. Of course, lots of people ignore this, and I know people that are here on work visas from places where they no longer work, and they probably won’t get caught, and it’ll be fine, but you know, it’s still not what you’re supposed to do. I’ve never been a massive stickler for rules, but when it comes to things like international work status requirements, I like to stay on the right side of things.

The other issue with this kind of visa is a logistical one. For some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, you can’t actually get this visa issued in Colombia, which means you have to go to the consulate in a neighboring country: Panama, Ecuador, or Venezuela, which is where most people go. This is a pretty significant hassle and you lose at least a whole weekend, if not longer, going back and forth to the border and waiting in a bunch of lines. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the entire world — I certainly wouldn’t cry about going back to Ecuador for a few days — but I preferred to get the whole thing taken care of without having to leave Bogotá.

3. Which brings us to option #3: apply for an independent worker visa. I will readily admit that I am not smart enough to have thought of this by myself — I borrowed the idea from the fabulous Zoë over at La Blogotana, who, in addition to having a great name for her blog, wrote an invaluable series of posts last summer about this very process. She (and several other people I know) applied for this visa as independent English teachers, which seems to have worked for most of them. However, I decided to apply for it as an independent journalist, since that’s what I’m planning to do this year, more so than teaching. From everything I’ve heard, it’s much easier to apply for this kind of visa when you can show past experience and, even better, a degree, since Colombians are all about appearances and seeming official. Well, lucky me, with my college degree in journalism and published clips, I thought I had a pretty decent shot at it. Which is to say, kids, unless you have a journalism degree, don’t try this at home.

It’s not the easiest or most fun process in the world, but dealing with government offices rarely is. To make a labyrinthine story somewhat short, getting an independent worker visa requires three steps:

  • Going to the DIAN office at 7:30 in the goddamn morning on a Saturday because that’s the only time you’ll actually be able to see a representative, still being the 232nd person in line despite getting there before the office even opens at 8, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a huge freezing room for 4 hours while freaking out that you’ve somehow missed your turn as the one mean guy in all of Colombia reminds all of you at least every five minutes that if you miss your turn it’s too bad, finally getting to actually speak to someone around 11:30 and explaining to him that you want to work as a freelance journalist, waiting for him to pick some mysterious code that identifies this activity and then finally taking your shiny new RUT form that qualifies you to exist as a commercial entity in Colombia and getting out of there as fast as humanly possible. Eating an enormous brunch-type meal is highly recommended after this step.
  • Going to the Cámara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) office to register yourself as an independent business, forgetting one crucial document that you need, having to go back the next day because of course there isn’t time to go home and come back with it before the office closes, submitting the application, waiting four days for the certificate to arrive, going back a third time to pick it up, only tolerating this whole process because the incredibly pregnant young woman working at the CC desk is possible the sweetest and most helpful person in the entire city of Bogotá. Eating arepas from the cart on the corner outside the office is highly recommended during each journey.
  • Two weeks after starting this whole shenanigan, taking all of these forms plus a massive pile of other documents (including, but not limited to, copies of three different pages of your passport, official visa request form filled out, formal letter stating why you’re applying for this visa, resumé, copy of diploma, letter of recommendation from a potential employer [optional but helpful], copies of published clips, recent bank statement and several unflattering photos) to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriories office near Calle 100, getting a number, sitting and trying to read a book but failing because you keep checking the screen every ten seconds to see if they’ve called your number yet because they seem to call them in an order similar to the bombing pattern in Gravity’s Rainbow, finally getting your number called after a surprisingly short wait of less than an hour, thanking all the higher powers that you got assigned to a youngish guy (this is why you showered and brushed your hair this morning!), explaining to the very nice youngish guy why you want this visa, making sure to include the phrase “I just love Colombia” as many times as reasonably possible, handing over all of your documents, getting sent back to the waiting room while he reviews them, trying not to gnaw off the two existing fingernails you have left, getting called back in less than 20 minutes, watching with ferocious glee as the guy controlling your destiny prints off a new, shiny visa that qualifies you to work as an independent journalist until February 2014 and attaches it to your passport, and trying not to hug the dude or do an obvious victory dance until exiting the doors. Going to the awesome vegetarian restaurant around the corner and eating a giant lunch is the only way to celebrate this resounding victory.

So there you have it. One month and a lot of smiling at government employees later, I am legally allowed to be here working until one year from now. I can’t imagine going through this process without speaking at least a competent level of Spanish — it certainly makes explaining your case significantly easier. Plus, sometimes people find accents endearing. Whatever the magic key was (maybe it was the lucky underwear? Who knows?), the point is that it worked. I can finally take a deep breath, relax, and start doing all those things I’d been putting off until I was legal.

Now I just have to go get my Colombian ID card…

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19 thoughts on “Some Thoughts About Visas and Victories

  1. Pingback: Getting a partner visa in Colombia | a little cameo

  2. ‘Tis the visa season. Your post came up in my feed as I was pondering over my draft visa post for a partner visa (which is now completed and uploaded with a link to your post).

    Did we have the same visa guy….booth number 5?

    And isn’t the cedula office in Bogota crazy? I decided to wait til I got back to Santa Marta where it’s way less crowded to lodge the paperwork. I’ve also set my expectations really, really high and hope to get my cedula after this visa expires.

    • It sure seems to be that time of year! I had the dude in booth #1, but maybe they rotate? Nice guy, glasses, studied abroad in England.

      I’ve actually been putting off going to the cedula office because it’s so intimidating/stressful, but I only have 2 weeks before they slap me with a bunch of fines, so I can’t really avoid it for any longer. Thanks for linking to my post! It’s interesting to see how these different kinds of processes work — and how impossible it would be for most of us if we didn’t have other people to help us out 🙂

      Good luck getting your cedula! I was here for all of 2012 and never got mine, so anything within a year and you’ll still be doing better than me!

  3. Congratulations! I am tied to a school here, which works for now. My temporary ID card expires in July. They keep pushing off the date for my permanent one. Good luck with the ID. I didn’t find the process as bad as everyone told me it would be. The office I went to is down Calle 100 in the Platinum building. Open 8-4.

    • Thanks! I’ve just been avoiding the process because I have to get a blood test, and I enjoy few things less than being stabbed unnecessarily with needles. Compared to that, the DAS office doesn’t seem so bad…

  4. Pingback: Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy | a year without peanut butter

  5. Nice blog! I’ve really enjoyed having a read through some of your posts. This one is massively useful as I’m currently trying to sort out my visa situation. Thanks!

  6. Muchas gracias for this info! Super usefully. I’m currently in the process too. I’m assuming that the visa you were granted in the end was “Para ejercicio de oficios o actividades de carácter independiente” (what a long way to say freelance!). Cheers!

  7. Thanks to Zoe, I got my independent visa, only problem now is that I have to renew my visa soon and I don’t think immigration is accepting this idependent teacher visa any longer. Any one have any word on renewing this type of visa…is it possible?

    • I haven’t heard anything like that, but I also haven’t really been paying too much attention to the visa process (although I had to go switch mine to a work visa last week…. real employment is hard). I’d suggest asking around and see if you can find anyone who has successfully renewed an independent teacher visa — otherwise, make sure you go in with a backup plan so you don’t have to pay that $50 “consideration” fee twice! Good luck!

    • I went with all my paperwork to the ministry last week to apply for the independent visa to teach English classes and be a spanish-english-spanish translator/interpreter. I was denied the visa. I was told that I had all the proper paperwork. They said that they are “not giving out that visa at this time.” The Ministry official did not explain why or when they will be giving out that visa again. Buena suerte!

  8. has anyone had to renew their independent visa yet? rumor has it that immigration is no longer giving out the independent teacher visa…but does that mean we can’t renew the one we have obtained?

  9. Hi! I came across your blog trying to figure out how to get an independent work visa to teach English in Bogota (is it even possible?) and had a question. Do you just show up at the office and get all the necessary paperwork there, or do it before hand?

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