The time I almost became an illegal immigrant

All in all, I think getting a visa in Chile is pretty easy (even when your company almost screws it up). Yes, there are seemingly interminable lines and there’s even more waiting around for approval once you’ve submitted the million papers they ask for, but it’s not hard. The requirements for Chilean visas aren’t particularly strict, and if you meet them, eventually you will be given a stamp in your passport proving you’re legal. Every time I want to scream about bureaucracy, I try to remember that eventually we will go through the much worse US visa process and save my requests for sympathy for that future hell-on-earth.

Visa for Burma (Myanmar)

Not mine, obviously, but Chilean visas are similar colors. Source: Chris Guillebeau

Once you’ve had your visa for the requisite amount of time – depends on the visa, in my case my job change drew things out a bit – you are automatically eligible for permanent residency. Joy! Get this and say goodbye to visa applications and lines at Extranjería. Like a real live Chilean, your only headache will be renewing your ID card every five years.

You can apply for permanent residency starting 90 days before your visa is due to expire, but I of course waited until a month and a half before the deadline to get the ball rolling. This is, under normal circumstances, a more than sufficient amount of time since once you submit your paperwork you’re legal to stay in Chile even if your visa has expired. A month and a half to collect some papers and write a letter about why I love Chile (yes, really)? That’s plenty.

Famous last words. Having briefly entertained the idea of saving money and standing in all the lines necessary to obtain said papers myself, only to be reminded why that’s a dumb idea, I once again called on Jacqueline of Mis Tramites to do my dirty work. All I’d have to do would be take some photos, write that silly letter, and mail it all off.

Queue outside the Bank for Open House

Source: RachelH_

Of course it didn’t work out quite like that. One of the documents you need is a record of all your international travel during the past year. There’s a residency requirement to be eligible for permanent residency, and the certificado de viajes shows that you’ve met it, which I had.

Except that for some reason, Policía Internacional had me down as leaving Chile on April 17, 2010, and never coming back. This was impossible, clearly, seeing as it was now June, and I was quite decidedly sitting at my desk in Santiago when Jacqueline called to tell me the news and also as I had photographic evidence of having attended a wedding outside Santiago – but still in Chile! – on that very day.

LAN plane

And so began a nightmare of a bureaucratic tangle. The agent Jacqueline had spoken to at Policía Internacional was reassuring at first and told me she’d look for the tourist card (those little slips of paper you fill out when entering or exiting Chile) to see if it matched my certificado de viajes. Only the card had gone missing. April 17 was less than two months after the earthquake, and everything having to do with the airport was a bit of a mess. While very nice, my agent friend was too low on the totem pole to offer any further help.

Then Policía Internacional told me to call LAN, the airline on which I’d supposedly left Chile, and ask for the passenger list for the flight to prove I wasn’t on it. LAN obviously told me they wouldn’t give out a passenger list without a court order since that would be a huge violation of privacy. I was stuck between a government agency and a major corporation, neither of which seemed interested in helping me.

I reached out to an expat group asking if anyone could help in any way and was given the contact information of someone high up in Policía Internacional. My prayers had been answered! And thankfully, they eventually were, but first there were ignored phone calls, talk of having to do a full audit of the situation which would take months in order to clear my record and finally, on the last day I had to submit my documents before becoming an illegal alien, issuance of a temporary certificado de viajes with a note explaining that the April 17 trip was an error.

Burocracia [may 29]

Source: JavierPsilocybin

How had this happened? Well it turns out that the information on those tourist cards is entered into a computer by hand. Someone made a typo. And suddenly I’m on a plane to Los Angeles despite my feet being firmly on the ground in Chile. They did eventually find the card and confirm that it had all been a big mistake.

In the end, all’s well that end’s well, but there were moments that I really worried about how to fix things. I was traveling to California the day after my visa expired, and I had visions of being arrested at the airport and being asked how I’d illegally sneaked back into the country after my non-existent April departure. These were only slightly more stressful than my fear of starting back at square one with a brand new visa if I couldn’t prove that I’d met the residency requirement.

One of the often convenient things about Chile is that if you know the right person, no doesn’t necessarily mean no, and anything’s possible. However the flip side is that sometimes the institutional response is less than stellar. Considering how hard it was to fix this even with a high-ranking official on my side, I cannot imagine what I would have done if I hadn’t had that connection.

Let’s hope this one can be chalked up to the earthquake and that some other innocent little expat isn’t out there tonight trying to figure out a similar situation. And let’s all remember to always start government paperwork as early as possible – you never know what might go wrong!

33 Responses to “The time I almost became an illegal immigrant”

  1. At least you didn’t have to get married to get the visa. :)

    Yeah, It’s pretty easy to get residency here in Chile.

    • Emily says:

      Haha, very true. I wonder what your guest poster would have had to say about my experience considering how difficult he apparently finds just the normal visa process.

  2. Deidre says:

    Gah – as someone who is going through all this right now I am nearly crying on your behalf. How annoying. So pleased it all worked out in the end.

  3. Kyle says:

    UUUUUUUGH. I remember you going through all that. What a freaking mess. It’s amazing that Chilespouses was able to save the day, even though that still took some persistence on your part.

  4. Vincent says:

    Your lucky it was not the other way round. A Chilean could expect to be picked up at dawn, her face rammed into her front pavement/lawn and perp walked in nothing more than panties to the nearest federal pen while this was sorted out.

    • Emily says:

      I managed to get everything sorted out before my visa expired, so thankfully your scenario wouldn’t have happened regardless of my location or nationality.

      • Vincent says:

        I had in mind a South of the Border person in the good ol’ US of A. Not a position I would wish on anyone.

        • Emily says:

          Yes, that was clear. I know a bunch of illegal immigrants in the US from Mexico and Central America, and luckily none of them has had that kind of violent experience. But again, I was never illegal, so you can’t really compare the two situations.

  5. Tasso says:

    Hey Emily,

    I am very glad you managed to sort this mess out.

    On the photo you published it seems to me that el 2. apellido is translated as Middle name which is quite confusing, especially for those who don’t speak Spanish or don’t understand the Hispanic naming customs. How to deal with this? Say, if your name is Emily Smith and your mother is Jane Jones, do you call yourself Emily Smith Jones when filling in forms like the one above?

    • Emily says:

      I know, I’ve always noticed that and wondered how on earth they can have such a basic mistake on an official document that thousands of tourists fill out every year. I don’t write that my name is Emily Smith Jones because it isn’t – my mother’s last name may be Jones, but no legal document of mine includes her last name. I write Emily MiddleName as my “nombres,” Smith as my “1er apellido” and leave the middle line blank. So far hasn’t been a problem.

  6. Jaime says:

    beaurocracy in chile sucks for everyone! whether chilean or not. sometimes i wonder if people working in public services ever have to do tramites(?) they seem to try to mess up with everyone in purpose… anyways, you should do a blog post with that “why I love chile” letter. Like what do you even write on it?

    • Emily says:

      Well technically you’re supposed to explain why you want to live in Chile permanently, so I said that my husband is Chilean, I own a home here, I have a job here, and those were the real reasons. But many people had told me that it’s not a bad idea to throw in some stuff about how nice Chile is, and what a beautiful country it is, and how acostumbrada you are to living here, so I added a couple paragraphs of “I love Chile” based on that.

      • Jaime says:

        Loll! you must know we’re very patriotic.. so those lines must look pretty awesome on immigration eyes xD at least they dont make u take a test on chilean history like the US do xD! and i can not help but wonder if it is this easy for a peruvian or bolivian:/! probably not(? have a fun time as chilean xD we do rock after all xD!

  7. Man, headaches like these make me glad I never did pursue living abroad for the long term (though there are plenty of times when i regret that decision, too!).

  8. Annje says:

    Just sent my application in… I hope it is complete and all the hoops are jumped through. But I think I’ll have to renew my driver’s license about 5 times in the interim–since it expires with my temporary visa and the permanent one, well, apparently takes some time…

    I tried to contact mistramites (twice) and they never got back to me… which isn’t a complaint for you, just a curious way to run a business 😉

    • Emily says:

      I hope you get everything approved quickly! I think it really depends what the backlog is like when you apply – mine came in about 4 months, which I didn’t think was too bad.

      And strange/shame about Mis Tramites. Jacqueline has been so quick to respond to me every time, which is why I’ve kept recommending her.

  9. Gonzalo Avaria says:

    Nice that everything turn out OK. I am amazed about the fact that there is someone digitizing those papers by hand… there must be another way(we are a developing country, isn’t it?). Maybe you could introduce the Chilean term for that “high ranking” person in the PDI, “Pituto”. There’s even a song about that “Por un pituto” of the “Sexual Democracia”(a kinda 80’s group).

    Just one comment about the picture, sometimes it’s not good to put that much information on the web. I don’t know if the picture is from someone you know, but it may be good to blank that number (just in case, you never know who’s watching).


    • Emily says:

      I know, I was amazed at the digitizing process as well. Really, there’s no way to scan them in and convert the handwriting in the image to text?

      Thanks for watching out for web safety re: the picture. I found it on Flickr marked as ok to use with attribution, so I used it since apparently that person was already fine with having that info online. I agree with you – I would never put that kind of personal info on the internet, which is why I didn’t use photos of my own visas or carnet!

  10. Eeek that would have aged me 10 years! And I will be here to hold your hand during that future hell-on-earth you and R will be going through…

    • Emily says:

      Oh yeah, I’m not looking forward to that one. I used to think it was going to be relatively quick and easy with consular filing, but they just changed it so people abroad (except for a few countries) file in the US as well – whyyyyyy?

  11. Oneika says:

    Gah! How I hate the paperwork inferno! Luckily the process for my UK visa hasnt been too strenous, but if there s one thing I hate about being an expat, it s the paperwork. Cant imagine what it ll be like when (if?) me and my boyfriend get married… ugh.

    • Emily says:

      I never had a visa related to being married since it would have actually set me back in terms of when I could have gotten permanent residency. Hopefully if/when the time comes for you guys, you’ll already have your paperwork done and won’t have to refile just because of marriage.

  12. Andrea says:

    Oh no – what a mess!! Thank GOODNESS they found that card…I have dealt with the bureaucracy of obtaining visas and eventually citizenship in Australia and all the paperwork – it is so not fun. We’ll probably be going through the same process for John to get a green card in the US at some point and I’m so not looking forward to that!

    • Emily says:

      Ugh, we can commiserate over the eventual US visa process. For as much of a hassle as this was, I know it was a freak mistake, and the process is usually pretty easy, whereas in the US massive headache and hassle is the norm.

  13. Abby says:

    UGH. I will be starting this process in a couple of weeks. Not looking forward at all!

    • Emily says:

      Good luck! Luckily I think your odds of this same thing happening are slim, but no matter what there will be plenty of waiting involved.

  14. Before I got my US citizenship, I had to apply for a visa to enter Chile, go through interview and all that sort of formality. At the border coming in from Argentina, I was grilled while everyone else with Western passport went through effortlessly. This was almost 4 years ago.

    After becoming a US citizen, I decided to visit Chile again because the first time was never enough – it’s a beautiful country, after all – but surprise, I had to line up this time for the ‘entrance fee’, the amount of which I was told was equal to the money Chileans pay to apply for US visas.

    Times and rules and governments have really changed. It’s like tit for tat. But anyway, I’ll have at least for the life of my passport the chance to visit Chile again without paying $140 again.

    • Emily says:

      I am SO grateful for my UK passport. I rarely need to apply for a visa or pay a fee, and I realize that makes me one of the lucky few.

  15. John says:

    I was curious about the comment that permanent residency is “automatic”. My temporary visa expired after a year on September 3, 2011. I had sent my application for a permanent visa in on August 1, but so far have not received anything back (today is October 9). We called this week and they said I should receive a “being processed” letter by the end of the month.

    What IS the difference in the processing of a permanent visa. I guess my assumption has always been that getting the temporary visa should be the difficult part, and that most checking would be done then. But are there additional things they check while processing the permanent visa that could cause problems or slow down the process?

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