A lesson in leaving Colombia with a minor

Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia
It’s not quite Central America, but a new experience nonetheless. Desierto de Tatacoa, Colombia

Leaving Colombia and getting an exit stamp in the passport of a Colombian minor isn’t a straightforward process. Colombia has very stringent laws in place for travelling children, and rightly so to keep them safe from kidnapping or trafficking.

We  understand that our situation is a little more complex than some others as when a child leaves the country with only one parent, there are a lot more forms and processes to follow. Given that D’s mum doesn’t live in Colombia, matters are further complicated as we can’t get her to sign the Migracion Colombia permission form in the presence of a notary when we plan to travel.

With our sights set on taking D on international holidays, Edwin organised with D’s mum to get an escritura publica signed at the notary office when she was last in Colombia. The escritura publica is essentially a legal document that says that D can leave the country with Edwin for tourism purposes until he turns 18. Since it’s within D’s mum’s rights to annul this document and retract her permission at any time, we knew we had to get a copy from the notary’s office within 30 days of our departure date, which we duly did.

Rules, regulations and laws are prone to changing frequently, so rather than rely on our understanding of the requirements, Edwin went to the Migracion Colombia office in Calle 100 and spoke with a childen’s lawyer, showing her the documents we have. She said that all the documents were in order and that we would have no problems leaving the country with D. Edwin asked again if there was anything else we needed, and she said no, the escritura publica and his birth certificate were sufficient.

But it wasn’t.

After checking into our Christmas Day flight to El Salvador and lunching at Crepes and Waffles, we approached the immigration booth to get stamped out of Colombia, handing over passports, boarding passes, the escritura publica and D’s birth certificate. We knew something was up when the officer moved away to an office with our documents, and we started to get a sinking feeling.

When he came back he said we were missing a section validating the escritura publica and led us out of the quarantine area to the Migracion Colombia office beside the check in section of the terminal, handing over our documents to another officer.

We weren’t the only ones there in that office, and it appeared that all the cases were regarding children.

The officer explained that what we were missing was a nota de vigencia, a seal from the notary’s office saying that there was no amendment or annulment on record for the escritura publica. She showed us a copy of another traveller’s documents to explain what that was. What we had was a photocopy of the document from the notary’s records, and a notary’s authentication of that document. But no nota de vigencia.

The sinking feeling deepened into dread.

Edwin explained to the officer that he had gone to Migracion Colombia in Calle 100 just 10 days prior and was told his documents were in order by a Migracion Colombia official. Still there was nothing we could do, and the only thing the officer could do was include his claim in the report on the incident and encourage him to make a formal complaint at the office he had visited regarding the incorrect advice received.

So we were denied departure to Colombia because when we’d gotten the copy of the escritura publica, the notary hadn’t added the seal. Or maybe we were supposed to ask for a nota de vigencia instead, I’m still not clear.

With heavy hearts we left the office, spoke to the airline regarding our tickets and luggage and when we found out that the plane had to leave before we could get our bags, we took a taxi home to think about our options.

Before returning to the airport and after being able to process what had happened, we had devised a plan B. Given that it was Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get a nota de vigencia from the notary in Santa Marta until at least Tuesday, which would reduce the days we had to travel, and it would cost an extra US$150 per person with the difference in fare and the ticket penalty. We had our bags packed already so we decided to do a roadtrip instead, taking advantage of our time off to visit the South of Colombia which none of us had visited before.

The reality hit poor D – who was very excited about our trip and getting on an international flight – when we went back to the airport to collect our bags and he was glum until we got to our first stop at Desierto de Tatacoa the next afternoon.

I would hate for this to happen to you and ruin your holiday or travel plans, so here are my tips for reducing immigration heartache in Colombia with Colombian minors, which we will certainly be following  next time.

  1. If possible, check your documentation ahead of your flight with your port of departure. Next time we will be going to El Dorado Airport in Bogota to check our documents as they are the people that see these cases every day.
  2. Carry a copy, or even better multiple copies, of the child’s birth certificate. This is because the officers need to know who the parents are. We overheard another case in the airport where a 15 and 17 year old were travelling with both their parents and they didn’t have their birth certificates to prove that the two adults were their birth parents. The officers were prepared to accept scanned copies saved in an email, but the family didn’t have that either.
  3. If you are visiting multiple countries, take a copy of documentation to travel with the child for each country as Migracion Colombia keep the copies of your permission form (the per-trip authorisation by both parents – the Migracion Colombia website should have a template for download) or your escritura publica. I think they also keep the copy of the birth certificate.
  4. Make sure if you have an escritura publica authorising the child’s travel with a particular parent, that you get a nota de vigencia from the notary as well.
  5. As I’m not sure of the process if you are travelling with non-Colombian minors, you should check with Migracion Colombia what they need.

If you have any other tips or have a Colombian immigration experience to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

Getting a partner visa in Colombia

When I got my one year live, work, study visa for Colombia in early February, it was definitely a woohoo moment.

I had been worried about getting it because the reality is that I just want to be with mi novio. Another 6 month separation was not high on the list of tortures I’d be willing to face.

Since I did a fair bit of research, asking couples we know who have been through the process and blog reading into getting a partner visa to stay in Colombia, I want help others out with understanding the process, especially since there are likely to be some changes now the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (MRE) is responsible for visas and not the now-defunct DAS.

What do I need?

A list of the requirements, the process and fees for the Conjugal or Companion to a Colombian National visas can be found on this page of the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores website. Note that although there is an  option to change the language of the page to English (in the top right corner) the Spanish information is much more comprehensive and detailed.

I had read that there is a requirement to demonstrate that we had been together for 2 years (which we can’t show) however you will note that there is no mention of this on the MRE website which was given to us by a government official at the visa office in Bogotá as the ten commandments of partner visas.

Note that there are two points under Requisitos Especiales which are basically asking for the same document, the escritura publica or marriage certificate.

How do I get the escritura publica?

Perhaps the trickiest document to arrange (aside from any documentation you are submitting to enable you to work in a regulated profession in Colombia) is the escritura publica from the Notary declaring our defacto relationship. I think the pursuit of this document brings you to the ‘living together for 2 years’ request.

In Santa Marta there are three notaries. Notaria 1 said I needed to have a Colombian entry stamp in my passport at least 2 years ago, which I don’t have. Notaria 3 said I needed to have a non-interrupted stay of at least 2 years without leaving the country, which I definitely don’t have. Notaria 2 said yes, she could help us and had processed escritura publicas for other Colombian/foreigner couples.

We were slightly concerned by the differing information from the notary offices, however given that the most helpful and approachable woman at Notaria 2 had helped other couples before led us to take the chance on paying the COP$160,000 fee in order to get the essential document.

All we needed to provide (in addition to the fee) were copies of my passport bio page and the stamp from my latest entry  to Colombia, in my case this was just 16 days before applying for the escritura publica, along with notarised (witnessed) copies of your Colombian partner’s cedula (national ID card) and birth certificate.

During this process and in talks with la suegra, I came to learn that in order for a defacto relationship to be recognised legally (and enable access to another’s medical insurance or pension), a Colombian couple needs to live together for 2 years and have family or friends act as referees and sign a document declaring this at the Notaria. I think this is where the ‘living together for 2 years’ idea comes in, even though as foreigners the maximum stay on a tourist visa is 180 days in a calendar year, something I tried to ask politely and without any seed of frustration to Notaria 3.

Getting the escritura publica takes 2-3 business days (or 5 if the Notary’s photocopier isn’t working) and be prepared to go back the day after you lodge the application to sign the documents that will be fed up the signature hierarchy.

The forms

There are two official forms you need to fill in. They are both quite straight-forward and can be downloaded from the MRE website. However, you do need to stick a photo on Form DP-FO-67 BEFORE you go in for your appointment at the visa office. Thankfully there was a gluestick at the reception for this very purpose when I had my appointment. You wouldn’t want your application being rejected for failing to stick your photo to the form (could that possibly be the smallest infringement?).

Do the copies need to be witnessed?

This is something important that isn’t actually detailed on the MRE website, however I found this handy helper on the Government of Colombia website  which tells you whether you need the original, a photocopy or an authenticated copy of each document.

There are two ways the Notaria authenticates copies, one being sighting the original card or document and signing a stamp to verify the copy. The other, which is for the letter your Colombian partner needs to write requesting that you be granted a visa, is where your Colombian partner needs to sign a declaration stamp and then put a fingerprint on the document certifying it’s trueness because it is an original and not a copy of something else.

Any notaria can authenticate documents.

What do you write in the letter?

Mi novio was at a bit of a loss as to what to write in the letter, so I suggested he include my full name, nationality and passport number in the content, along with a statement that we have a genuine relationship and I need to live in Colombia for us to have a future together. It doesn’t need to be a long letter, just the basics and a short statement about why your Colombian partner wants you to have the right to live in Colombia.

How much does it cost?

Budget approximately COP$550,000 or US$300 for the visa process and more if you need to travel to Bogotá to lodge your application.

  • Escritura publica: COP$160,000
  • Non-refundable visa appointment fee: COP$93,000 *not exact because it is based on currency conversions from US$50, called the estudio, or study fee
  • Visa fee: COP$250,000 *not exact because it is based on currency conversions from US$160
  • Witnessing: approx COP$20,000
  • Passport photos: approx COP$5000 – $10,000
  • Photocopying of documents: approx COP$5000

How does the appointment process work?

The only place you can apply for this visa is at the office in Bogotá. Check carefully the address and opening hours of the office on the MRE website. You cannot make an appointment time, you have to just show up.

Whilst we wanted to arrive early at 7:30am when the visa office opened to avoid long queues, we needed to get one more document witnessed and the closest notary to the visa office didn’t open until 8am. Instead we arrived at 8:30am and found fewer people waiting than when we’d stopped by the day before to double-check we had all the right information and forms.

When you arrive at the visa office you need to present your passport and get a turn number. You will then receive a receipt to pay the visa appointment fee (what they call the estudio fee) at the next Banco Sudameris booth. After making your payment you find a seat in the waiting room and wait for the electronic turn system to announce your turn.

When it’s your turn you make your way down the corridor to the desk number mentioned on the turn system. I’m sure I shouldn’t need to say it but a smile, buenos dias and handshake for the immigration official should be top of your greeting checklist.

I was asked when I first arrived in Colombia and what my profession is and we were asked how we met, how long we’d been together, what our plans were, were we planning to get married and other questions along these lines. I was honestly expecting a more hardcore interview where we were interrogated separately about our likes and brands of deodorant (even one viewing of Green Card is enough to leave a lasting impression) however it didn’t come to that. I guess our honest and friendly answers and the fact that mi novio had visited me in Australia to meet my family and friends, was enough to convince the official that we have a genuine relationship without having to have a public pash fest (not advised, by the way).

After our conversation the official sent us back out to the waiting room while he looked over our documents and application. About 20 minutes later, he called us back and said that I had been granted a one year visa to live, work (in a non-regulated field) and study in Colombia. We were elated! With this news, we had the option to pay the visa fee by card or cash. Paying by VISA card (they don´t accept MasterCard) is the instant option as paying in cash requires going back out the bank booth and the interviewing official can take a card payment on the spot.

I then got a shiny new visa stuck in my passport and mi novio was told that I am his responsibility while in Colombia. Thankfully he wasn’t scared about the can of worms that could possibly be! I also think he’s secretly quite pleased that his name now appears in my passport on my visa.

More information

  • According to the MRE website, you can be granted a visa of up to 3 years, which is at the discretion of the immigration official at your appointment.
  • There is no such thing as renewing this type of visa, you have to go through the process from the beginning again at the end of your visa.
  • The escritura publica confirming your defacto relationship can’t be older than three months, therefore when you need to apply for a new visa you need to get the escritura publica again from the Notaria.

Links

Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores: http://www.cancilleria.gov.co/servicios/colombia/visas/categorias_visa/temporal/conyuge_nacional_colombiano

Colombian Government Online: http://www.gobiernoenlinea.gov.co/web/guest/home/-/government-services/22468/maximized

A Year Without Peanut Butter blog on getting an Independent Worker Visa process: http://ayearwithoutpeanutbutter.com/2013/02/27/some-thoughts-about-visas-and-victories/