The visa bureaucracy : not that bad

A major item on our to-do lists has been the application of a one-year visa for volunteer work. Yesterday, we went to the migration office bracing for the impact of endless queues, grumpy bureaucrats and Kafkaesque referrals from one desk to another. It was not that bad, and at points even fun and pleasant.

The application process

Cris has spent a lot of time (and I a little bit too) checking the website of the ministry for migration, communicating with embassies and the Costa Rican consul for Sweden. There was a glitch that turned out to be an opportunity. Costa Rica has no embassy in Sweden, so we could not apply there for a visa. Cris is Spanish and I am Dutch, so we thought that we could apply in Spain and Holland respectively. However since we live in Sweden and needed to provide some Swedish documents, they would not be able to process them. This meant that we had to enter Costa Rica on a tourist visa and then apply for a one-year visa.

Although it would be handy to have the visa when entering the country the timing of the application process has a stressful inconvenience: on the one hand are the documents that one has to provide not supposed to be too old, on the other hand should the visa be used within 60 days of receiving it, and smack in the middle there is no guarantee about the duration of the process. Careful timing is of the essence and in hindsight, I am happy that we didn’t have to do this.

If one applies in Costa Rica, the time validity criterion still applies to the documents, but one can await the outcome while in Costa Rica. And while one waits, one can show that one has applied and that will be enough for the authorities. Cris read on the internet that the migration office has a backlog and that it may take more than a year before you get the result … so if that is indeed or still the case the mere act of applying grants you the stay.

If you ask me, all this is not too bad for a bureaucratic procedure. Of course documents can not be too old, because after they are issued, things may change. Your criminal record may be clean when you get the extract and then you can rob a bank without the migration office finding out about it. For the same reason one should be using a visa within a certain time. And, indeed an embassy can not guarantee a maximum processing time – it all depends on the level of demand and limited resources. Finally, I definitely find it reasonable that if you apply while in the country you can stay during processing.

Please note, this is just what we found out for our case. Do check the website of your own country’s Costa Rican embassy and the migration directorate’s website at to find out how it works for you and which documents you need to bring.


From websites and emails with the Costa Rican consul in Sweden, it appeared that we needed, a police record extract, a birth certificate, a proof of economic means (a statement from the bank saying how much money you have), and a letter from a Costa Rican company or organization stating that we are going to do volunteer work and some more details about that. All those documents had to comply to certain criteria. They can not be too old (how old depends on the document) and they have to be signed and stamped by the issuing party.

Stamps and signatures

Signed and stamped! For someone living in Sweden, the country which in my opinion has invented self-service, or otherwise has brought it to the world’s cutting edge of perfection withe elaborate use of the internet, it sounds ridiculous. First of all, paper? Why can it not just be a pdf that one uploads, or some on-line form. Signed and stamped? Can it not be digitally stamped? The answer is, I guess, yes within the digital bubble that is Sweden, but for those countries in the world that are not in that very same bubble, it means very little, whether they have their own digital bubble or not. Papers with signatures and stamps convey some authority and an aura of realness and officialness.

Fortunately, the Swedish authorities and our Bank were fully aware of the presence of the rest of the world, so we could get all documents on paper, signed and stamped.


Apostilles are a kind of seal provided by authorities in the country where a document is issued that says ‘this is indeed an official document’. It’s the paper-and-stuff version of connected digital country bubbles. In fact, there is an international treaty behind apostilles. You can look it up on the internet. Again, I find it reasonable that if you apply for the hospitality of a country, they require that your own government testifies that you are not applying with a bunch of fake documents.

Spanish translations

Finally, all these documents have to be in Spanish or translated by an official translator. Quite reasonable too. Spanish is the official and primary language of Costa Rica and perhaps the third biggest language after English and Chinese. It turned out that we could get a Spanish version of our Swedish police records (because there was nothing to report, otherwise it would have been different) off the shelve and the same for my Dutch birth certificate. The rest had to be translated. Okay, let’s get that done.

It does add up to quite some work

Summarizing, the Costa Rican government wants to know that we have a good reason to ask for a one-year stay, that we can afford it and that we are law-abiding citizens. Then they want to be able to read the documents, and have some insurance that they are not fake. As I have been arguing , those demands are not too bad.

I can only whine about how it all adds up to quite some work: applying for the documents, get them signed and stamped, apostilled and then translated. Timing is of the essence, stress has been building up and we were close to not getting it done in time. The last documents arrived only ten days before departure and we were crossing our fingers that the postal services would not mess the whole thing up during the busy Christmas holidays.

When we arrived in Costa Rica we headed for the migration office.

People processor

The migration office turned out to be a super-well oiled people-processor which by my guess has maybe one to two thousand people passing through per day. Typically, the first queue is the one for the office that will tell you exactly what paper work you need to have, and in which order to go from one building or queue to the next. Toilets are available and meticulously cleaned, there is a restaurant on the premises, the pavement between the buildings has colored lines showing where to go to the illiterate and profiled tracks for the blind. Each building has a person at the door checking that you are at the right place and that you had gone through the first queue.

Limited waiting

Yes, we had to do some queuing, two and a half hours to be precise, in five queues. That included a one-hour wait in the wrong queue. The lady was truly sorry, apologized and checked if the right queue was not too long – in which case she would get us preferential access to the right desk. It may still sound like a lot of work perhaps, but we were ready for a full-day experience and perhaps even overnight camping and instead the whole exercise was done in three hours.

Chair-dance queuing

To top it all off there was a guard making sure that queuing went fair and swift. Our last two queues were in a room with three sets of chairs, each with it’s own color: green, yellow and orange. To move further, you will get up and move to the next chair. If you sit on the last chair of a row, you proceed to chair in front of you and then move side-ways in the other direction. This way the queue of people snakes their way along the rows of chairs. It’s quite fun, far less tiresome, and you can do some paperwork on your lap if you need to.

Friendly officials

Ticos (as the Costa Ricans are also called) are very friendly and helpful people and this also was the case for all the officials that we encountered, including the guards. There were many officials standing around, ready for any questions and answering with a smile. The ones behind the desks were equally friendly and the last one even cheerful. When Cris apologized for her fumbling with the papers, he told her that nobody was in a hurry and to take it easy. He took our papers with a smile, stamped them, which is an impressive affair, signed some, and put a second stamp on others. He took out an enormous hole puncher and finally bound everything together in a folder. Done!

So, no Kafka-esque surprises?

Well yes. Only at the migration office did we learn that we had to provide two photos, fill out a form and provide a letter that motivates why we were applying for a visa and why we didn’t do so before entering the country. Fortunately, Cris had made sure that we brought some spare photos. One never knows how they come in handy, and indeed. The forms were filled out and the letters written while we were queuing on the yellow chairs. Bring pens and paper.

Then I had one puzzle left: there was a building for visa and a building for ‘special services’. We had to go to the latter not the first. Since we entered the country on a tourist visa and wanted to apply for a volunteer-work visa, that means a change of visa. That apparently falls under special services. I started wondering though, who, if anyone, would go to the building for visa? After all, to get to that building one would first have to get inside the country, and that could only be with a visa, so you would have to go to special services.

5 thoughts on “The visa bureaucracy : not that bad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.