Illegal Immigrants and Perpetual Tourists in Nicaragua

Last week, I went to Granada to visit friends. Not only were there throngs of tourists, but there appeared to be many new foreigners moving to the Granada area. Fancy hotels and condos sprung up in Granada, practically overnight. New restaurants and bakeries cater to the tastes of foreigners. Relaxing spas and swimming pools bathe and soothe foreign bones and tired muscles.

I wondered how many of the new foreigners moving to Nicaragua were pursuing legal residency in Nicaragua and/or their reasons for not choosing the legal path to residency. Ron and I lived in Nicaragua two years before applying for residency. We got tired of crossing into Costa Rica every 90 days to renew our visas. For us, the process was a bureaucratic nightmare, mainly from the U.S. side; however, for many the process to legal residency is almost impossible.


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We’re Official!

Our residency cards

After a year of frustration, gathering documents, and bureaucratic nightmares in the USA, we are finally legal residents of Nicaragua. We went to the Office of Immigration in Managua on Monday and picked up our cedulas.

Actually, the process was easier in Nicaragua, than in the USA. Once we submitted all of the paperwork, it was only a matter of waiting, waiting, and more waiting. We paid 5,900 codobas each for our cedulas at one window, had our pictures taken in another small cubicle, and they delivered our cedulas to another window.

Our cedulas are good for five years. By the time we are ready to renew, they will probably change the rules again. Was it worth the hassles? For us, yes because we own property in Nicaragua. It gives us a little more security and just makes the process of living in Nicaragua a little easier. We are no longer perpetual tourists. ūüôā

We’re Almost There!

                   The Office of Immigration in Managua

After living in Nicaragua for a year, our friend Bill would often say, “You’re almost there.”¬† “Where?” we would ask. “Wherever you want to be,” he would respond. Since beginning our quest for residency in Nicaragua, Bill’s zen like comment is ringing true. We’re almost there. Residency in Nicaragua is almost complete.

We went to Managua today to visit the Immigration Office. Everything was stamped and approved for our pensionado visas. It was only a matter of waiting for them to issue our cedulas. (Nicaraguan IDs)  We were warned that immigration would probably follow procedures and issue us receipts for our cedulas, instead of the real IDs. What that means is that we would have to return in 3-8 weeks to pick up our cedulas.

However, there was always a chance that we would be issued our cedulas. Nicaragua is in a constant state of flux..rules change daily. Without expectations, we waited in a long, hot line to talk with the immigration officer. He issued us the receipts and told us to come back in July for our cedulas. There was no point in arguing; we knew to expect a long wait and several trips to Managua.

                       Our little paper receipts for our residency.

These little slips of paper with the red stamps are important. Now that we have the receipts, time stops. We no longer have to cross borders every ninety days, and we can open a bank account in Nicaragua. I’m sure there are other advantages to having the receipt, but for us, the biggest advantage is that we are now legal residents of Nicaragua. It simplifies life in Nicaragua when we have official residency and all those little stamps. Nicaraguans love stamps!

I’m on my way to the states for two weeks. The next time I fly out of Nicaragua, I’ll have my cedula and things will change again. First, I won’t be hassled about not having a round trip ticket back to the states. In January, I flew on a round trip ticket from Managua to Miami. At the ticket counter on my return flight, they weren’t going to let me board the plane because I didn’t have a ticket back to the states. No matter how much I tried to explain to them that this was the second leg of my ticket and I lived in Nicaragua…they kept asking to see my Nicaraguan residency card. I pulled out the stacks of documents I had and explained that the reason I came to the states in the first place was to gather all the documents for Nicaraguan residency. That seemed to help and I was released after a chain of phone calls and allowed to board the plane.

When I have my cedula, I’ll have to pay $10 to leave Nicaragua, but I won’t be charged $10 to enter Nicaragua. My border crossing days are over. I am relieved, excited, and proud that we have been persistent and tackled the bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork and golden stamps. Life is good, retirement is better, residency in Nicaragua is priceless.

Crossing Borders

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I’m tired of being a perpetual tourist! Without residency, we must renew our visas every 90 days, which means crisscrossing imaginary lines, waiting patiently in long lines (only to have people shove in front of us because they bribed an official), and providing a fake round trip airline ticket to prove that we will not stay in Costa Rica forever. We have no intentions of staying in Costa Rica forever. First, it is expensive! Prices for everything are comparable to the states. Second, in my humble opinion, the Ticos are so accustomed to rude tourists, that they return the rudeness in triplicate.

Our days of crossing borders are almost over. At least I think so. But, one never knows in Nicaragua. The rules change daily. The Immigration official visited our house last Monday to check our documents for residency. Until our residency is approved, we cross borders and zigzag across imaginary lines, where passports are stamped, bribes are received, and AK 47s are prevalent.

We’ve crossed many borders in our travels. They are all the same in my eyes…dirty places filled with annoying beggars with a screw you attitude and victim mentality. Any type of help requires a hefty fee. I was accosted by teenagers shoving the immigration form in my face as soon as we entered the arena, like a scene out of the “Hunger Games.” When I politely declined, (because the forms are free at the custom window), I was called “pinche” (cheap), which if you know me, I consider a great insult!

Clenching my passport tightly, we prepared for the next onslaught at the Nicaraguan custom window. I smiled politely, filled out my form, and as I slipped it through the plexiglass slot, I felt someone tugging at my sleeve. “Dame moonie,” an old woman¬† demanded. (Give me money) I tried to ignore her, but she persisted in tugging at my sleeve. When I turned around and gave her the finger wag for “NO”, she indignantly stomped away.

I detest the begging mentality! Bluffing and smirking have become forms of pressure exerted by beggars at every border, bus stop, and crossroad throughout the world. I swear they take classes in begging techniques, trying to outdo one another. Women approach benevolent looking people by exploiting the looks of innocent children under the age of five, toothless old men with tattered clothes hobble around on one wooden crutch, and insolent teenagers offer to guide fearful looking tourists through the maze of border crossings.

We avoided eye contact, pretended we didn’t understand Spanish, and walked rapidly through the maze of beggars, officials with AK 47s, and travel weary tourists to the Costa Rican border. The heat of the day engulfed us. We were drenched in sweat. I wondered how the hoards of backpackers lugging surf boards and 50 lb packs survived the long walk to the Costa Rican border. I wondered what that horrible stuff was they were spraying on the trucks as they passed through a large truck wash contraption. I was nauseated from the fumes of the spray.¬† How do older tourists ( like us), lug large suitcases almost a quarter of a mile to the border? My flip-flop blew out and I got a cramp in my toe that caused excruciating pain. I was dehydrated. I’d make a fine beggar at this point in my border crossing experience!

We were stopped several times at passport checks and offered same day entrance and exit stamps for a sum of $25. We graciously declined because we like going to Liberia, CR for an evening of air-conditioned luxury. We knew, after countless border crossings, that the rule is 72 hours before returning to Nicaragua. We also knew, after countless border crossings, that rules are made to be broken for a price.

At the Costa Rica custom’s office, we waited impatiently in another long line. I knew from previous experience that the custom officials in Costa Rica may ask to see a round-trip ticket either back to Nicaragua or back to the country of origin. Since most tourists don’t carry their return tickets with them, it’s another way for custom officials to collect money, since they don’t charge an entrance or exit fee in Costa Rica. The guy in front of us didn’t have a return ticket, so he had to go outside and buy a fake TICA bus ticket for $25 that he probably could never use.

I was prepared with my fake airline ticket. I just copied and pasted an old airline reservation into a Word document, changed the dates, and printed the reservation form. The custom’s agent asked to see our return ticket. I proudly handed her our fake ticket, our passports were stamped and we were on our merry way to Liberia, home of our favorite restaurant, a McDonald’s mocha frappe, and air-conditioned luxury.

Expect the unexpected! In Liberia, our favorite hotel was full, our favorite restaurant closed about a month ago, and McDonald’s stopped selling mocha frappes. We ended up paying $70 for a hotel with a pool and air-conditioning. It was a disappointing trip. My only purchase was a new pair of flip-flops at a huge dollar store because all prices were comparable to the states, maybe even a little more expensive. A bottle of Herbal Essence shampoo cost $6. I used the bar of hand soap in the hotel to wash my hair. I felt like Ayala, of the “Clan of the Cave Bears.”

The reason that you are not seeing a slideshow of the border crossing is because I was afraid to take pictures. Once in the Tokyo International Airport, I whipped out my camera while standing in the custom’s line and was reprimanded by a Japanese police officer. I can’t imagine what would have happened at the Nica/CR border. I suspect they wouldn’t be as polite. Not wanting to end up in prison or have my camera confiscated, I only took pictures of the bus ride back from Liberia.

At the 6 KM marker, long lines of trucks were parked and waiting to cross the border. Truck drivers were napping in hammocks strung under their trucks, barbecuing, and peeing along the side of the road. I heard that they wait days to cross the border with their trucks. Don’t they run out of gas? We passed many air-conditioned trucks that needed to keep their produce cool. How do they stand it? It must have been over 100 degrees in the shade. They wait days?

Finally, an hour and a half later, we reached the border and did everything again, only in reverse order. I hope our days are numbered for the border crossing. I’m getting too old for this! But, then again, you never know..rules change daily…people continue to cross imaginary lines…bribes are received…and beggars accost benevolent looking tourists standing in long, tiring lines. It’s what makes the world go round..and round…and round. Sometimes, I think many of our problems could be avoided if we lived in a borderless world! Don’t you agree?

Part Three: One Step Closer

The Nicaraguan Consulate in Miami

If you research the location of the Nicaraguan Consulate office in Miami, you get three addresses and dozens of phone numbers. None of the phone numbers work, so it’s a crap shoot as to which address will lead you to the office. Tomas, the owner of the Miami Guest House, graciously offered to drive us to the Nicaraguan Consulate. The first address was non-existent, the second address led us to an empty room. Fortunately, we hit the jackpot with the third address. Located in a section of Miami called Little Havana, a string of waving Nicaraguan flags welcomed us to the pink and blue Consular’s office.

We felt as if we were back in Nicaragua. Long lines of people, a waiting room full of crying babies, a couple of people grilling chicken outside the office doors, posters of Granada and Ometepe Island, and one overworked receptionist greeted us. “Proximo,” the receptionist repeated. (Next) After a half-hour wait, we presented our papers and were told to take them next door to copy the packet. We returned to another long line and a half-hour later we submitted our packets, paid $50 in cash only, and were told to return between 1 and 3 pm to pick up our packet.

Starving, we searched the streets of Little Havana, hoping to find a good Cuban restaurant. Tomas told us that the area was called Little Havana, but we wouldn’t find any Cubans in Little Havana. Apparently they all lived in another neighborhood. He was right. We ended up in a funky Chinese restaurant where the menu was in Spanish and Chop Suey came with a tortilla, rice and red beans.

Wandering the streets on two hours of sleep, with bellies full of Spanish Chop Suey, we decided to return to the Nicaraguan Consulate and wait for the authentication of our documents. Two hours later, the receptionist wagged her finger for us to come to her desk. “They should be finished with your papers,” she said. “Let me see if I can find them.” She must have felt sorry for us because I’m sure we looked frazzled and stressed.

The authentication stamp

Our packet of documents was authenticated. We both looked at each other in amazement. “This was too easy”, we said simultaneously. I suspect that all we had to do was to take our original documents next door to have them notarized, certified, and then copied. Florida does understand Latin logic! After three long, frustrating months our documents are authenticated and we can return to Nicaragua for the next step in getting our pensionado visas.

We fly back to Nicaragua tomorrow. I am so ready to return home. Like Paul Harvey used to say….” and that’s the rest of the story.”


Part Two: The Quest for the Golden Ticket

The Gold Seal

Monday morning…frantic.. tracking our UPS delivery like a deer hunter… breathing deeply….chewing fingernails ragged….trying to stay positive….exploring options in case the Golden Ticket is delayed…too much coffee…unbearable waiting…waiting….waiting….

After three months in pursuit of a state seal certifying the notary, our quest is over. Below are things NOT to do in search of a gold seal to legalize documents for abroad.

1. Do not copy and notarize your birth certificates. That is illegal in most states. Instead, request at least four certified long form birth certificates for each person.

2. Do not send more than one notarized document to the office of the state’s apostille and certification department. Remember, you only need one certification letter from the secretary of state. If you send them all of your notarized documents, they will be REJECTED. Instead, send one notarized document, preferably the doctor’s statement of good health because it is not a legal document like a police report, an income verification form, or a marriage license.

3. Do not assume that the notary knows the correct way to notarize a document that you will send to the state office of apostilles and certification department. The first doctor’s report we sent to the state department was rejected because the notary did not use the correct notary form required by the State Department of Florida. We spent $44 just in postage fees to overnight the document two times, once for the notarized copy, then again for the redo of the notary’s mistake. Fortunately, we could call the notary into the office because he had started his vacation and was flying to Oregon later in the day. If we would not have been able to find our original notary, we would have had to redo all the documents with a different notary because all the documents need to have the SAME notary.

4. Do not assume that when you pay $20 extra dollars for UPS Saturday delivery, that you will receive your package on Saturday. My mother lives in a gated community in Florida. The Saturday UPS delivery guy didn’t know the gate code, so he didn’t deliver the package on Saturday.

5. Do not forget to ask for the UPS delivery tracking number. We used a courier service that is only open on weekdays. They called us last Friday to tell us that our redo document was at the State Department and they requested a $20 fee for Saturday delivery. We never thought to ask for the tracking number. When it wasn’t delivered on Saturday, we could have saved ourselves much grief if we would have had the tracking number.

We are on our way to Miami early tomorrow morning to hand deliver the certified documents to the Nicaraguan Consulate of Miami. They will check our documents, check the certification from the Secretary of Florida, and authenticate our documents. Then, we can fly back to Nicaragua for the next step in the process.¬† I am hopeful that the most challenging part of the process for residency in Nicaragua is over. Surely the bureaucracy in Nicaragua won’t be as profoundly confusing as in the states. But, then again…you never know. Stay tuned for Part Three.

Part One: In Search of the Golden Ticket

 Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.
~ Willy Wonka

In the beginning

I’m beginning to feel like I’m in the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory…in search of the illusive golden ticket. In our case, we’re in search of the Secretary of State’s gold seal that certifies the notary. I returned to the states in November to start the process for our residency in Nicaragua. After many failed attempts, Ron and I returned to the states in January and started the process all over again in Florida, where they seem to understand Latin logic more than other states. Following is what I have learned throughout this horrific and frustrating experience:

1. Nicaragua is not a member of the Hague Convention. Therefore to legalize documents for Nicaragua, they go through a chain of authentication or certification process. Countries that are members of the Hague Convention receive apostilles for the documents instead of certifications.

2. It all starts with the notary! We collected our documents: long-form birth certificates, proof of income for a lifetime, health statements that say we are of good health and free from contagious diseases, marriage certificate, and police reports. These documents need to have embossed or raised stamps…Nicaragua loves stamps! Then, all documents are taken to a notary, copied, and stamped.

3. It is illegal to copy and notarize birth certificates in most states. So, get several copies of birth certificates to include in packets. Nicaragua wants four packets containing the notarized copies of documents. Believe me when I say, the gold seal will be out of reach if you copy and notarize the birth certificates. That is a BIG no,no!

4. Once your documents are notarized, you will need to either get the County Clerk’s office to certify that the notary is a true and legal notary in that county, or in our case, just send documents to the Secretary of State to certify that the notary is a true and legal notary in the state. Depending on the state that you get your documents notarized, they may need a County Clerk’s seal and a Secretary of State seal. Since we are going through Florida, they only need the Secretary of State seal to certify a Florida notary.

5. This is probably the most important part. Remember it all starts with the notary. It doesn’t matter what state or states your documents are from. It is a chain of authentication, starting with the notary. You will only need ONE letter of certification from the Secretary of State certifying the notary. The individual documents do not need to be certified…only the notary needs to be certified. This was a BIG problem for us. No matter how we tried to explain to the State Department that we only needed ONE letter certifying the notary, they kept telling us, “No, we don’t do it that way.” So, here is a simple way to get your gold seal from the Secretary of State. ( Actually, I’m hoping it is a simple solution, because I won’t know until Monday if it worked.) Only send the State Department one document to be certified. Keep it simple and send the letter from the doctor, which is not a legal document. Have the letter copied and notarized, then send it off to the State Department asking them to certify the notary for that one document. Hopefully, we should receive a letter from the Secretary of State with the state seal certifying that the notary is a true and legal notary in the state of Florida. That is our golden ticket!

6. We chose to use a courier service to deliver our one document to the State Department of Florida. For us, it was cheaper than driving to Tallahassee to get the certification. But, most states have a walk-in service at the Department of Apostilles and Certifications. Our first attempt ended in failure because the notary didn’t use the right form on the document. So, today, we called the notary in from vacation ( he was on his way to Oregon for a week) and had him redo the notary form that was required by Florida.

7. Once we receive the GOLD SEAL from Florida, then we can take the completed packet to the Nicaraguan Consulate in Miami, FL. We’re flying to Miami next Tuesday. We found an inexpensive guest house on Flagler Street ( try to find an inexpensive place to stay in Miami! Whew!) near the Nicaraguan Consulate. We plan to hand-deliver our documents. The cost is $50 for same day authentication. The Nicaraguan Consulate only needs to see the GOLD SEAL from the Secretary of the State of Florida to authenticate our documents. Apparently, each of the six Nicaraguan consulates in the USA have copies of the gold seals in their states of jurisdiction. Florida goes through the Nicaraguan consulate in Miami. In November, I used a notary in Pennsylvania, thus if I would have obtained the illusive GOLD SEAL from the Secretary of State of Pennsylvania, I would have had to send my documents to the Nicaraguan Consulate in NY.

8. Make sure you have plenty of time for everything! First, all the original documents are dated. In our case, they were dated November 1st. That means, we have 6 months to get our authenticated documents from the USA to the immigration office in Nicaragua. Once the USA process is complete, then it will take 3-4 weeks for our Nicaraguan lawyer to have all the documents translated into Spanish, and 4 copies made of everything including all the pages of our passports and 6 photos each. Once all the packets are finally delivered to immigration, time stops. As long as our documents are delivered before the end of April (that’s when they expire), we are in good shape.

9. Be patient. Everyone will tell you something different. There is a way to work around the bureaucracy, but it requires patience, fortitude, and a lot of luck!¬† Remember, it starts with the notary. Choose a state where they understand Latin logic. Your documents do not need to be individually certified…only the notary needs to be certified. Make sure you have plenty of time because your documents expire in 6 months from the date they are issued. If you let your documents expire, you have to start ALL over again. It gets expensive traveling back and forth to the states, so be forewarned of all the problems you will encounter and have plenty of time for correcting mistakes, sending documents to the right place, and having them returned REJECTED, only to find another way to work around the problem.

10. Part two will start when we receive the GOLD SEAL from the State of Florida. Keep your fingers crossed for us…it’s been a long, stressful journey..but I’ve learned a lot about the process. I’m searching for the Golden Ticket and as Willy Wonka says, ” Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.”