Months of planning, dozens of questions, and over a thousand dollars spent on a legal fees, FedEx shipping, and travel had led me to Carolina’s cubicle at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores in Bogotá.
She was the gatekeeper, randomly assigned to review my business visa application, and decide 1) if I qualified for the visa, and 2) if yes, the duration of its validity.
I watched her flip through my stack of documents, which Alan, my lawyer, assured me was the best application we could put together. The Cadillac of NE1 Business Visa applications, he said.
But would my humble bank balances, well below the $10,000 I so often heard quoted in reference to business visas, and my 6-month old LLC for an online business be enough?
Final Preparations in Medellin
My document collection efforts came to a head 24 hours earlier in Medellin.
It was Thursday, and I was already holding the original documentation I’d been waiting on from the United States for weeks:
- Signed, apostilled Florida Certificate of Status for my LLC.
- Signed, apostilled Company Declaration from the VP of my LLC, also located in Florida.
- Signed letter from my bank stating my average bank balances and monthly deposits for the last 3 months, plus a letter stating why they can’t notarize it.
The cost to ship those documents from Florida via FedEx International Priority was $93. My Dad dropped it off on a Saturday, and it arrived by 6:15 PM the following Tuesday.
Now I was just waiting on those documents to be translated into Spanish by an official Colombian translator. I used Inter-Col, a service recommended by Alan, and was assured they’d be ready within 24-48 hours. At $12 per page, it wasn’t cheap.
I wanted desperately to get to Bogotá Thursday evening so I could be at the Foreign Relations office bright and early Friday morning to get a good spot in the queue.
In the meantime, I paced anxiously around the apartment.
I’d been watching airfare rates the last few days, and despite some very cheap flights to Bogotá when you book ahead on VivaColombia, a discount airline, I’d waited too long.
I took a chance that the translations would be ready on time, and booked a one-way flight on Avianca for 9:45 PM. The cost was $95.
At 4:30 PM, I had a final conference call with Alan to confirm we had all the documentation, and go over any last questions. At 5 PM, as the call wrapped up, his assistant confirmed my translations were completed and ready.
I was too impatient to depend on a courier service. I dashed out of the apartment, the elevator not descending to the ground floor fast enough, and jumped into a taxi. The rush hour traffic was already clogging the roads.
I told the driver I needed to get those documents before the office closed at 6 PM, and to his credit, got us there safely in 40 minutes.
I paid $84 in cash for the translations, and jumped back in the same cab for the ride back to Ciudad del Rio. In terms of documentation, I’d passed my final hurdle, or so I hoped.
Travel To Bogotá
By the time I got back to my apartment, I had a half hour to pack my small carry-on bag, and have security call me a taxi to the airport in Rio Negro ($31). We flew up Las Palmas, the air turning cold as we rose 800 meters up from the valley floor.
I checked in at the VivaColombia desk, and was told due to weather delays in Bogotá, I could take an earlier flight at 8:30 PM. That meant I was due at the gate in five minutes.
As usual, there were no lines at security, so I breezed through to my gate, where I had a few minutes to spare. I realized I hadn’t eaten dinner. No matter, I was going to get to Bogotá an hour earlier, which meant getting to bed an hour earlier.
The only problem was I’d arranged for a taxi through La Pinta Hostel in Bogotá to pick me up at 10:30 PM. I accessed the airport WiFi to notify them of the change via email, and boarded the flight.
After a short delay on the tarmac, we took off on the 25-minute flight to Bogotá. It was over in the blink of an eye.
Like I expected, the driver picking me up didn’t get the update, and I had to wait around for an hour, eating pastries to pass the time.
On our drive to the hostel, we came across a traffic accident. There were a lot of police, and I purposefully didn’t look to my left to see it. My driver did, mentioning someone had died. If I believed in omens on the eve of my visa application, that wasn’t a good one.
I checked into the hostel, and was assigned the same bottom bunk I slept in while there two years earlier to apply for a new passport. The familiarity didn’t make it any easier to fall asleep. I drifted off around 1 AM.
Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores
My iPhone alarm went off around 5:45 AM, and I quietly crept out of the room to take a quick shower, before collecting my documents and asking the receptionist to call me a taxi.
Arriving at the office of Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores at 7 AM, thirty minutes before it was due to open, I was surprised to already see a line of 50+ people, most of whom appeared to be Colombian.
I took my place behind Reid, an American English Professor teaching at a Bogotá university. We immediately started chatting, and would continue to do so as the office opened, and we slowly made our way into the 3rd floor suite where visa applications are reviewed.
First, we had to pay the $50 application fee (cash only), at which point we were given a number in the queue. Despite arriving 30 minutes before the office opened, I was #43 in line.
It could’ve been worse, by 10 AM, an employee came out and told everyone above #70 to leave and go to lunch, because they would not be seen any sooner than that afternoon.
A sign on the wall indicated the space was a Wi-Fi zone, but for whatever reason, I was never able to establish a connection.
Luckily, the hours passed quickly talking to Reid. It also took awhile to decipher the queue board. It lists “turns” which correspond to the number you’re given, and “modulos” which refers to the number of the cubicle and interviewer you’re assigned to when your number appears.
At 10:50 AM, my number finally lit up in red next to modulo #7, and I had my first meeting with Carolina. I waited patiently as she perused my papers.
Her desk was sparse, aside from two full glasses of water, a computer, and a Canon DSLR with a security wire tethering it to the desk. The walls were white, there were no pictures hanging.
Ten minutes, and minimal conversation later, she said I could go back out to the waiting room, and wait for my number to be called again.
Fifteen minutes passed, and my number lit up again. I returned to the same cubicle, at which point Carolina took my photo using the DSLR. Apparently there was no need for the 3×4 cm visa photos with a white background I’d gone out of my way to obtain.
She proceeded to scan all of my documents, and then returned them to me. Feeling a little more comfortable at this point (as in why would she take my photo if I weren’t getting a visa), I proceeded with a small charm offensive, and made a little small talk.
By 11:30 AM, I was once again sitting in the waiting room, which was starting to empty out ahead of lunch. A few minutes later, I returned to cubicle #7 where Carolina printed out and pasted a brand new NE1 business visa in my passport, valid through December 31, 2014.
I had expected 6 months, and was very pleased to have received 16 instead!
Now, I just had to pay the newly increased visa fee of $370, in cash, to get my passport back. The only problem was I didn’t have it on me.
Outside the building, there was a Bancolombia ATM, but my debit card has never worked with that bank. Instead, I had to cross a busy intersection to withdraw the money from Davivienda.
Returning to the 3rd floor suite, I walked past security, and presented my receipt for the visa, along with a giant wad of pesos to the cashier. She signed off on it, and I was then able to walk back to Carolina’s cube one last time to pick up my passport and visa.
Clarification: Visa Validity vs. Time in the Country
Once I returned to the hostel, I got online and notified friends and family about my success. I also notified Alan, my lawyer, who congratulated me, but also asked that I call him to clarify something.
It was only after obtaining the visa that I learned something very important. Just because my new business visa is valid 16 months doesn’t mean I can spend all that time in the country. On the contrary, it’s set up to allow me a maximum of 6 months per calendar year, for the duration the visa is valid.
The NE1 visa can be valid up to three years, and it’s at the discretion of the interviewer to set that length of time. More time equals fewer potential renewals, but it doesn’t mean I can stay more than 6 months per calendar year.
But that’s OK, because this visa still accomplished my goal. It allows me to spend the remainder of 2013 in Colombia, and the first 6 months of 2014.
If at that point, I want to stay longer, I can cancel the business visa, and switch back to a tourist visa, though I’d have to leave the country and come back to do so.
This is a rough estimate of the costs throughout this process:
- $264 – Legalzoom cost to set up LLC (February 2013)
- $220 – Lawyer fees
- $5 – Florida Certificate of Status for my LLC
- $20 – Apostille fees in Florida
- $25 – Miscellaneous (photocopying, printing, new visa photos)
- $157 – FedEx fees to obtain documents within US, and send to Medellin
- $84 – Translation fees
- $138 – Flights to/from Bogota
- $93 – Airport taxis (two in Bogota, two in Medellin)
- $15 – Minimum one night stay at hostel
- $10 – Taxis to/from visa office
- $50 – NE1 business visa application fee
- $370 – NE 1 business visa fee
Grand Total = $1,871
The new NE1 visa fee that went into effect in the last month is the same whether you apply within Colombia or outside the country.
As you can tell, obtaining a business visa in Colombia is no longer a cheap affair.