¡Bienvenidos a Colombia! (Welcome to Colombia!)

By: Maureen Johnson*

As many BOILA clients know, I recently moved to Colombia, South America, in order to study Spanish. As an immigration attorney in the U.S., I have a great deal of experience with the U.S. immigration system. Moving abroad has given me the opportunity to gain insight into another country’s immigration processes and procedures, further convincing me of just how complicated and inefficient the U.S. can be when it comes to welcoming foreign residents. This piece aims to compare and contrast the process of visiting the U.S. versus that of visiting Colombia.

As a citizen of the U.S., I did not need to obtain a visa before travelling to Colombia. Visa requirements for U.S. citizens vary greatly from country to country, but as of this writing, U.S. citizens can travel to approximately 166 countries in the world without first obtaining a visa. In the case of Colombia, simply by presenting a U.S. passport upon entry at the airport, an American visitor is issued a tourist “visa,” and generally is automatically given 60-90 days to stay in the country. The only question asked was what my occupation was in the United States. The immigration official then stated, “Bienveniedos” (welcome) and stamped my passport, allowing me to remain in Colombia for 90 days. Aside from a customs form reporting the contents of my suitcase and declaring that I was not carrying more than $10,000 in cash, no other information or paperwork was requested.

This process is signficantly different from that required for most individuals who wish to enter the U.S. as tourists. Foreign nationals from only 37 countries in the world can enter the U.S. without first obtaining a visa. For the 37 countries whose citizens are allowed to enter the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), travelers are required to first obtain travel authorization through an online verification system, which requires persons to provide biographic information as well as answer a number of eligibility-related questions. There is a $14 processing fee and not every application is approved automatically. If a foreign national is denied entry under the VWP or is from one of the many countries that does not participate in the VWP, the process of obtaining a tourist visa (known as a B-1 or B-2 visa) can be very long and difficult, and in some cases, impossible.

To enter the U.S. on a visitor visa, most foreign nationals must submit a detailed application and attend an interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their country of residence. The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to many months. Applicants must prove their intent to return to their country (through proof of property ownership, employment, or significant family ties), and establish that they have sufficient income to support themselves while they visit the U.S. For some people, especially those with insufficient income or without employment, it is extremely difficult to obtain a visitor visa. For a person (such as myself) who is not married and does not own any property, it can be very difficult to obtain a visa to visit the U.S. In Fiscal Year 2012 alone, over two million nonimmigrant visas were denied by the U.S. government (Source: U.S. Department of State preliminary statistics for FY 2012).

After I entered Colombia as a tourist, I began the process of looking for a school to enroll in Spanish classes. After I decided which university I wanted to attend, the process of obtaining a student visa was extremely simple and easy. I enrolled in courses at the university and paid my registration fees, and the school provided me with a letter of acceptance and confirmation of enrollment. The visa application itself was two pages long and required me to only provide biographical information as well as information regarding the university I would be attending. The only documents required were (1) the application; (2) the registration and acceptance letter; (3) a statement declaring responsibility (including cost) for my studies and stay in Colombia and promising to leave the country once my studies are completed; (4) a copy of my passport; (5) passport photographs; and (6) a bank statement. The documentation was presented on my behalf to the Ministy of Immigration in Bogotá and upon review of the application, a visa was immediately approved.

While applying for a F-1 student visa to attend school in the U.S. requires foreign nationals to provide similar documentation to that which I had to provide, the process to obtain a student visa in the U.S. is much more rigorous. Upon acceptance and registration at a school or university, a foreign national must first submit the documentation to the American embassy or consulate in his or her country of origin, then await a visa interview. In contrast to the immediate approval of my student visa upon presentation of the necessary documents, it can take anywhere from one to ten weeks for a F-1 applicant to receive a decision as to whether his or her student visa is approved.

Despite the ease of its immigration procedures, Colombian law requires each national and every foreigner staying on a visa longer than three months to obtain a cedula (national identification or residency card), which they are required to have on their person at all times. In my case, after the visa was approved, I went to the Medellin office of Migración Colombia (Colombia Migration) to apply for my cedula de extranjera (cedula for foreigners). Although some additional documentation (including proof of blood type) was required, the process was relatively simple. No appointment was needed, I waited only about 30 minutes, and so long as I am a student, I can remain living in Colombia.

The difference in sheer number of individuals seeking to enter the United States makes a direct comparison with the process in Colombia somewhat difficult. Nevertheless, having worked with the U.S. immigration system for the last 6 years, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how simple and straightforward the process was for me to legalize my status in Colombia. The few immigration officials with whom I have interacted have been both pleasant and welcoming, and I look forward to learning and sharing more about my experiences over the coming months.

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*Of Counsel

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