Ask the Expat Q&A
Immigrating to South America
How Easy Is It?
By Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
South America has gained international notoriety in the past as an easy place to find exile for fugitives from justice and anyone else eager to leave their home country and past behind. But the reality of legally moving to and living in South America is quite different today. Unlike countries in Central America and the Caribbean, most South American countries do not actively lure foreign residents with attractive tax breaks and easy immigration laws. But there are still several legal ways for foreign citizens to obtain permanent residency in South America, although it is no longer as easy at is has been in the past.
For expatriates, the main difference between South American countries is not immigration laws, which are similar, but the varying cost of living and the local culture. Each South American country has a unique culture and way of life that sets it apart from its neighbors. Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile have a strong European cultural influence due to many immigrants from Europe, whereas in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, the culture of the native people is dominant in many regions. Brazil, on the other hand, is a fascinating conglomerate of European and African cultural influences. Some countries such as Ecuador and Uruguay are known to be great destinations for expatriates, largely due to their low cost-of-living and easy regulations for investing and buying property. But there is more to immigrating to South America than finding the cheapest destination. Cultural considerations are equally important, since you will be dealing with the local people, way of life, and culture every day.
In general, foreign visitors to South America are allowed to stay from three to six months per year. If you want to stay longer you need to apply for a visa either as a student, employee, retiree, or investor. With the exception of a residency visa obtained through a relative who is a citizen of that country, all other residency visas--such as retirement and investment visas--are temporary and need to be renewed regularly. Having a temporary residency visa does not mean that you are entitled to work. To be able to work you need either a work visa (dependent on a job offer) or permanent residency. The most common way for foreigners to establish residency in South America is buying property or establishing a business. Such an investment entitles you to a temporary residency visa, which needs to be renewed every one or two years.
Permanent residency status is usually only granted if someone is married to a citizen of that country or after someone has legally resided there for a number of years with a temporary residency visa. If you have legally worked in South America for a number of years or have had temporary residency as a retiree or investor, you are usually eligible to apply for permanent residency. Once you obtain permanent residency status in a country you will eventually be able to apply for citizenship, although the waiting period for citizenship varies from country to country. Regardless of the type of visa you have, if you overstay the period of time you are legally granted, expect to pay a fine if you are caught.
Visa fees vary from country to country, and sometimes additional fees are required. For example, Argentina charges US$100 for the residency visa application, and an additional US$200 immigration fee to applicants for residency visas. Consulates may also charge an additional fee if you need to sign a work contract at the consulate and have your signature notarized. In some cases you may also have to appear at the consulate in person, either for an interview or finger printing.
Most South American countries are fairly bureaucratic, and it is best to follow all instructions carefully and allow plenty of time for your visa application to be processed. When I went to register at the Federal Police in Brazil to get my temporary I.D. card they sent me to the Ministry of External Affairs because there was a minor error on the student visa document I received from the Brazilian consulate in the U.S. It took a lot of running around to get it all straightened out, even though the mistake was not mine.
Private Income and Retiree Visas
People with retirement or independent income (such as a trust) can obtain a temporary residency visa, usually valid for one or two years. For example, Brazil requires US$ 2,000 of guaranteed income, but Argentina only requires about US$ 850 (or 2,500 pesos), Ecuador about US$ 800, and Venezuela US$ 1,200 per month. The amount for each additional family member varies from country to country.
Before applying for a work visa you need a job offer or employment contract signed by your prospective employer. If you visit a South American country and are offered a job, you may not be able to apply for a work permit and change your status while you are in the country. You may be required to go home first and apply for a work visa at the respective consulate in your country. Work visas usually require a number of notarized documents from your home country, and it is probably easier to return home, obtain the required documents, and apply at a consulate. A work visa is usually contingent upon a signed work contracts between you and your prospective employer. If you change jobs, you need to start over with the visa application process. Work permits are usually issued for a period of one to three years and can be renewed.
Visas are also available for foreigners, who intend to study at a high school or university. Students need to prove that they have been accepted at a local school or university and that they have sufficient financial means to support themselves. In general students are not allowed to work while they attend school. Student visas are usually granted for one year, but can be extended.
Most South American countries allow foreigners to buy property, but this does not automatically qualify you for a residency visa. In some countries, owning property qualifies you for a residency visa, whereas in other countries you actually have to make a business investment to qualify. In order to get a temporary residency visa as an investor, you need to go through a lengthy application process, and you will probably need a lawyer to help you. Most South American countries are stable democracies that abide by the rule of law. Unless you buy a piece of rain forest claimed by a native tribe, your investment should be secure. Each country has its own requirements for investments that qualify you to apply for a residency permit. Argentina requires a business investment of 100,000 pesos (about US$ 34,000). Ecuador issues an investor visa, if you invest at least US$ 25,000 locally. What makes Ecuador attractive is the fact that the U.S. dollar is the country’s legal currency. This eliminates exchange rate fluctuations, which, in these times of a weak dollar, can be a significant advantage. Brazil’s currency, the real, for example, has gained strength over the past four years, while the dollar has weakened. In 2004 the exchange rate was 3 reals for every US dollar, whereas today in 2008 it is 1.6 reals for every US dollar--a significant drop in purchasing power for many foreigners.
If you like a particular South American country but do not have the financial means or legal status for a residency visa, you could still legally stay there as a tourist between three and six months every year. In Brazil, for example, you are entitled to stay as a tourist for 180 days out of any given 365 day period (not calendar year). So if you stay from July through December (about 180 days or six month) you are not allowed to stay into the new calendar year.
Here are some of the most common documents you may need to apply for any type of residency visa:
- A passport that is valid for at least one year from the planned day of entry
- Birth certificate (usually a notarized copy)
- Marriage certificate, if applicable (usually a notarized copy)
- A clean police record from your country of residency
- A notarized medical certificate to show that you are free of contagious diseases (Chile also requires an HIV test)
Here are some of the things you need to do soon after your arrival:
- Register with the local police (and possibly have fingerprints taken)
- Get a local I.D. card
- Get a social security card for tax purposes and banking
To offer an idea of the size of U.S. expatriate communities in South America, I have collected data from the U.S. State Department Background Notes:
- Argentina: 20,000
- Bolivia: 13,000
- Brazil: 60,000
- Chile: 12,000
- Colombia: 30,000
- Ecuador: 20,000
- Paraguay: 3,000
- Peru: 16,000
- Uruguay: 3,500
- Venezuela: 23,000
For links to South American embassies in the U.S. and other countries, visit our South America pages in the Living Abroad by Country section.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research, and work.