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How to Immigrate to South America

How Easy Is It?

By Volker Poelzl

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil is one of the easier countries in South America for immigration.

South America, a continent of boundless beauty and diverse cultures, has long been shrouded in intrigue as a destination for those seeking refuge from the past. However, the modern reality of moving to and thriving in South America paints a different, more welcoming picture. While it's true that this region doesn't shower you with the same tax incentives and immigration leniency as some of its neighbors, the possibilities for securing permanent residency here are still very much within reach. So, let's delve into the exciting avenues that lead to a vibrant life in South America, where opportunity awaits those with determination and a sense of adventure.

General Considerations

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, mainly 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 deal with the local people, way of life, and culture daily.

Foreign visitors to South America are generally allowed to stay from three to six months per year. If you want to stay longer, you must apply for a visa as a student, employee, retiree, or investor. Except for 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 must be renewed regularly. A temporary residency visa does not mean 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 by 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 several years with a temporary residency visa. Suppose you have legally worked in South America for many years or have had temporary residency as a retiree or investor. In that case, you are usually eligible to apply for permanent residency. Once you obtain permanent residency status in a country, you can eventually apply for citizenship. However, the waiting period for citizenship varies from country to country. Regardless of the type of visa you have, if you overstay the 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. Consulates may also charge an additional fee if you need to sign a work contract at the consulate and have your signature notarized. Sometimes, you may also have to appear at the consulate for an interview or fingerprinting.

Most South American countries are relatively 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 much running around to get it all straightened out, even though the mistake was not mine.

Private Income and Retiree Visas by Country

The income requirements for immigrating to South American countries can vary significantly from one nation to another. Keep in mind that immigration policies are subject to change, so it's crucial to check with the specific country's embassy or consulate for the most up-to-date information. Here's a general overview of some South American countries and their income requirements for various types of visas or residency permits:

  1. Argentina has various visa categories, and the financial requirements vary depending on the type of visa. For retirement visas, you may need to demonstrate a stable monthly income, which could range from around $1,000 to $2,000 USD.

  2. Chile offers a Retirement or Income Visa, which requires applicants to prove a monthly income source, such as a pension or rental income. The minimum income requirement is generally around $1,500 to $2,000 USD per month.

  3. Uruguay offers the "Rentista" visa for those with a steady source of income, which can be a pension, investments, or rental income. The income requirement is around $1,500 to $2,000 USD per month.

  4. Colombia offers various types of visas, including a retirement visa. The income requirement for the retirement visa can vary but is often around $700 to $1,000 USD per month.

  5. Ecuador offers a retirement visa known as the Pensioner Visa. The income requirement is typically around $800 to $1,000 USD per month, depending on the current minimum wage.

  6. Peru offers a Temporary Resident Visa. The income requirement varies but is generally around $1,000 to $1,500 USD per month, depending on the type of visa.

  7. Brazil has a variety of visas, including a retirement visa. The income requirement can vary but is typically around $2,000 to $2,500 USD per month.

  8. Paraguay's income requirements are relatively low, with some retirement visas requiring a monthly income of just $500 to $1,000 USD.

  9. Bolivia offers a retirement visa with income requirements ranging from $850 to $1,700 USD per month, depending on the type of visa.

Please note that these figures are approximate and can change over time. Additionally, some countries may have other requirements, such as proof of health insurance or investments in the country. It's essential to verify the specific requirements and procedures for the country you are interested in and consult with their respective consulates or embassies for the most accurate and up-to-date information

Work Visas

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 receive a job offer, you may be unable to apply for a work permit and change your status there. 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 several notarized documents from your home country, and it is easier to return home, obtain the necessary documents, and apply at a consulate. A work visa is usually contingent upon a signed contract 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 one to three years and can be renewed.

Student Visas

Visas are also available for foreigners who intend to study at a high school or university. Students must prove they have been accepted at a local school or university and 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.

Investor Visas

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. In contrast, you must make a business investment in others to qualify. To get a temporary residency visa as an investor, you must 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 rainforest claimed by a native tribe, your investment should be secure. Each country has investment requirements that qualify you to apply for a residency permit.

For eample, Argentina offers an Investor Visa for those who wish to invest in the country. The minimum investment amount typically ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 USD or more, depending on the type and location of the investment. Ecuador has an Investor Visa program that requires a minimum investment in a productive project or investment in a financial institution. The minimum investment amount typically ranges from $25,000 to $30,000 USD or more. What makes Ecuador attractive is the fact that the U.S. dollar is the country’s legal currency. This eliminates exchange rate fluctuations, a significant advantage when the dollar is weaker with average volatility over time. Both countries offer Entrepreneurial Visas if you wish to start a new business.

Alternative Long-Term Options

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 remain as a tourist for 180 days out of any given 365-day period (not a calendar year). So, if you stay from July through December (about 180 days or six months), you cannot remain for the new calendar year.

Additional Information

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

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.

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