Living Abroad in Nicaragua
Immigation and Visas in Nicaragua
2006 © Randall Wood and Joshua Berman, from Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua, 1st ed. Used by permission of the author(s) and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved. For more info please visit Moon's website, Moon.com, and GotoNicaragua.com, a site created by Wood and Berman for fellow Nicaphiles to come together, plan their trips, and ask questions.
The easiest way to begin is to simply enter Nicaragua on a plain vanilla tourist visa (you get a 90-day tourist visa upon entering Nicaragua unless you are from one of a few restricted countries) and deal with getting a longer-stay visa once you’re in the country. In the meantime, if you’re still making up your mind about permanency, you can renew your tourist visa and get another three months to think about it by leaving and re-entering the country at any official border crossing. One-month extensions are also available (but by no means certain) by applying at the Office of Immigration (La Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería) in Managua, paying a fee, and possibly having to provide documentation.
All requests for resident visas must also be made at the Office of Immigration (tel. 244-0741, open Mon.–Fri. 8:30 a.m.–noon and 2–4:30 p.m.), located in a barn-like structure with a bright red roof on the east side of Managua (taxi drivers use it as a point of reference, but it’s also described as being across the street from “Catastro,” the land registry building, or INETER, the Institute of Geographical Studies).
On your way into the building for the first time, make friends with the street vendors outside. You’ll be eating many lunches at their little shops before it’s all through, but your persistence and good-natured obstinancy will eventually win the day and earn you the paperwork you require to make Nicaragua your home. It’s not that the civil servants who comprise Immigration want to prevent you from staying in Nicaragua, it’s that they have been programmed to use their leverage to extract as much money from you as they can, and they do this from within a government bureaucracy that is inefficient and whose legislation is being actively scrutinized and revised.
Types of Residency
There are two main types of residency visas; when obtained, they grant you officialdom in the form of your very own cédula (residency card): the permanent residence visa (residente permanente) and the investor’s residence visa (residente inversionista). They are nearly identical, with the exception of one additional requirement for investors, and both require a number of authorized and translated documents. In essence, to become a resident you have to prove you do not pose a significant health risk, that you won’t become an economic burden on the state, and that you are not a criminal. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The logistics of proving these things turn out to be a little intricate, but by no means is being granted residency in Nicaragua so burdensome that few ever succeed. You will need to invest lots of time and effort, but you will eventually get through the system. One expat reports that having a reputable Nicaraguan business partner greatly streamlines your way through the system.
Permanent Residence Visa
This is the most common cédula for which foreigners apply; it permits you to remain in Nicaragua for extended periods of time and requires fewer bureaucratic burdens than the investor visa. Officially, once you have met all the bureaucratic requirements listed below and your application has been successfully accepted, you can expect to receive the documents within two weeks. In practice, it often takes longer than that. Some (but not all) expatriates are forced to apply initially for a one-year residency permit unless they are married to Nicaraguans. After three consecutive renewals of the residency they will grant you a permanent residency card. This is not always true, however—some expats have gotten permanent residency cards on their first try. This is one of the many areas of Nicaraguan law that is undergoing change even as this book goes to press.
Of all the documents you must provide, your birth certificate, criminal record, marriage license, and health certificate must also be authenticated and translated. There are two ways to do this and no clear consensus as to which is more straightforward. The government of Nicaragua specifically requests that you have your documents notarized and translated before moving to Nicaragua via the Nicaraguan consulate nearest you (the nearer, the better, as there is a very real chance you will have to appear in person at some point during the process). The second way is to have your paperwork notarized and translated at the your nation’s embassy in Nicaragua. The U.S. Embassy offers this service for its citizens (US$30 for the first document and US$20 for every additional document) but claims it will not notarize a police report. The third, riskiest option is to submit your paperwork without the necessary notary seals and see if the documents are accepted; as this process depends so much on the person with whom you deal at Immigration, it just might work—but you didn’t hear it from us.
Following is a complete list and description of all necessary documentation:
Request for Permanent Resident Form: You can purchase this at the Office of Immigration for C$3.
Passport Photos and Passport: You must provide two passport photos taken straight ahead (that is, not a three-quarters-view head shot or profile) and with a white background, available at any number of photo and office shops throughout the country; as a foreign resident, it’s a good idea to have a stock of passport photos in your possession anyway, as much official business seems to require them (Nicaraguans typically even attach a photo to their résumé when applying for a job, particularly when the job requires applicants have a “good presentation”). You must also provide photocopies of every page of your passport with the exception of pages that have never been stamped at all. Photocopy the cover as well. Always carry your passport to any official meeting or inquiry.
Proof of Income/Funds: The idea is to prove you are able to sustain yourself economically without becoming a burden on the government of Nicaragua. Officially you are required to provide a formal letter written on company letterhead of the Nicaraguan company or corporation with whom you are employed, and that company must be registered in the Nicaraguan government’s Registro Mercantíl (business registry). In practice, would-be foreign residents wind up proving they can sustain themselves in Nicaragua by revealing information about their checking and savings accounts as well as sources of income from retirement pension plans, 401(k) plans, or IRAs. To do so, make sure to have not just recent statements but three to four statements for each account (proving you didn’t just shovel the funds into that account that month) in both original and photocopy. You’ll show them the original and provide them the photocopy for their records (if you don’t provide a photocopy they’ll take your original). In the odd case that it really is a Nicaraguan company that is providing your source of funds, provide a notarized copy of its legal registration in the Registro Mercantíl.
Proof of Dependency on Other Person (if applicable): If your primary funding source is another person, which is to say someone else declares you as a dependent, or your primary source of income is alimony payments, you must provide the above (savings statements, proof of funds) for that person as well as a letter signed, translated, and notarized by a Nicaraguan notary stating your dependency and the economic agreement that binds you to that person (e.g., alimony).
Certified Criminal Record from Your Country of Origin: You request this from your local police department. If you’ve moved around a lot, you need a record from every country in which you’ve resided for the past five years (if you’ve just traveled to a country but not resided there it doesn’t count). You request that letter from your police department, then present it to the Nicaraguan consulate so the staff can authenticate it. They return it to you with a stamp indicating they recognize the letter as a valid document, not a forgery. The embassy may require you have the document translated. If so, there will likely be an official translator in house to do the work for you, for which you can expect to be charged.
Birth Certificate: This means your original birth certificate with a raised seal, as well as a photocopy for their records. Again, if you don’t provide the photocopy they will keep your original. If you have children, provide a birth certificate for each of them as well as their corresponding photocopies. These birth certificates must be authenticated by the Nicaraguan consulate in your home country and translated if the consulate requests it.
Marriage License: If you are married to a non-Nicaraguan citizen you need only present your marriage license to the Nicaraguan consulate in your home country to be authenticated (and translated if requested). If you are married to a Nicaraguan you must provide the Nicaraguan marriage license and a copy of that person’s cédula. Paradoxically, being married to a Nicaraguan requires more paperwork but encourages Immigration to look upon your case more favorably, as there is less perceived risk that you are going to disappear with bills unpaid and more certainty that you will be a productive member of Nicaraguan society. Emphasizing that point regularly throughout the process will smooth your way.
Certificate of Good Health: You need a letter from a native country doctor declaring you in good health and free from communicable diseases. The Nicaraguan government isn’t too concerned with whether you have arthritis or a bad back; it is looking for AIDS, venereal disease, typhoid, tuberculosis, and such. Have your doctor mention these things specifically in the letter so there is no doubt whatsoever about the state of your physical health. This letter must be delivered to the Nicaraguan consulate nearest you to be authenticated, and translated, if necessary.
Carta de Baja: Obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, also called the cancillería ), this is sort of a note of approval and essentially involves the cancillería checking to make sure you are not a persona non grata on any official government lists. The cancillería will request proof of your having paid the necessary deposit before they provide you the carta de baja (see the next item).
Cash Deposit: The deposit is mandatory and provides the government of Nicaragua with the necessary funds to deport you if for any reason they find it necessary. The deposit is currently US$2,500 and covers the price of a first-class airline ticket to anywhere in the United States (nice to know that if you are deported you will fly home in style), but expect that fee to rise at the whim of any director of immigration. You pay the fee into the “Immigration Special Account” (Fondo Especial de Migración) at the Banco de la Producción—account number 10025611277779—and retain your receipt as proof of the deposit. You have no right to request this money be reimbursed unless you rescind your Nicaraguan residency, at which point you may ask for the money to be returned to you. It’s possible but not easy to do this. You will not receive any interest on the deposit.
Other Fees: You must pay several additional document-processing fees to a special office within Immigration called SERTRAMI (Servicio de Tramites de Inmigración). These include C$200 for the processing of your residence card (your cédula ) and a C$50 service fee. Try not to get upset about paying a service charge plus a fee for the processing of that service charge: “It’s how things work.” And wait, there’s one more fee, since the C$200 only covers the price of the card itself. A one-year (temporary) residency card involves a C$500 fee, payable at SERTRAMI. But most foreigners opt for the five-year residency card, which costs C$2,500.
Other Documents: At this point, things become less straightforward and more subject to the whims of the people with whom you are dealing at Inmigración. If you are a retiree living on a fixed income provided by your pension, you may or may not be required to provide your official INTURISMO Declaration. If you already operate a business in Nicaragua (which is unlikely if you are still living on a tourist visa), you are required to provide a copy of your Nicaraguan Commercial License, and if you are a student (which begs the question why you need permanent residency in Nicaragua), you will be required to provide proof of your registration with a university.
The investor’s visa bears the same requirements as above, and some others. The most onerous one is a certificate from the Ministry of Development, Industry, and Trade (MIFIC, Ministerio de Fomento Industria y Comercio) recognizing the business you intend to establish in Nicaragua. Business investments of less than US$30,000 are exempt from this requirement, but you will also likely be denied the investor’s visa and be encouraged to apply for a permanent residence visa instead. Very few foreigners take advantage of the investor’s visa, and you cannot consider the purchase of your home and or land in Nicaragua as an investment for the purposes of this visa: It is intended for industrial entrepreneurs and the like.
The Application Process
Believe it or not, there is truly a process with a beginning and an end to it; it’s what happens between those two fixed points that gets muddy. One reason things seem confusing is that many steps happen simultaneously, like your dealings with MIFIC and Immigration (if you are an investor), and others happen sequentially, like the airline ticket deposit, which must occur before the Ministry of Foreign Relations will grant you your carta de baja. The second reason the process is more nebulous than it ought to be is that different bureaucrats will require different things of you, or worse, give you different answers to your questions.
Once in Nicaragua, begin the process by going to the Immigration building and requesting a form for the appropriate resident visa. The form is important, but more important is the opportunity to ask questions of the person who gives it to you—and for a printed list of all the steps required (they have these, so make sure you get one!). Look it over and make sure the next steps are clear to you before leaving the building. At that point you can begin with the rest of the steps, like visiting the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, placing the deposit in the Banco de Producción, and requesting authentication/translation services from your embassy, if necessary. When you have gathered all the required documents, return to Immigration to have them processed. The earlier you get to the office, the better luck you will have (a good mantra for Nicaraguan bureaucracies in general). You may be sent back with additional requests for documents once or twice, but don’t be discouraged, just keep pushing forward!
Hiring a Lawyer
Looking at the mountains of paperwork that lies between you and official residency, it is tempting to retain the professional services of an attorney, and indeed, many Nicaraguan attorneys are willing to help you with your residency paperwork. This is a recommended avenue if your Spanish is not good enough to deal confidently with the sort of Spanish you find on official documentation.
However, if you’ve spent enough time in Nicaragua to feel comfortable with the language and speak Spanish well enough to represent yourself in person before immigration authorities, an attorney might be of limited use to you. Instead, consider taking along a Nicaraguan friend whenever you deal with Immigration. Again, the subtle message of your ability to fit into Nicaraguan society and the suggestion that you might “know people” will be helpful, but more importantly, the cultural interpretation your friend will provide during the process can be very beneficial. Should you decide to contract a Nicaraguan attorney you can expect to pay anywhere from US$250–500 (or more) for his or her services—your friend will probably only ask for dinner and a couple of Toñas.