The Bureaucracy of Living in Argentina: Is it Worth it?
Those who dream of moving to Argentina probably picture tango, asados, Malbec and the sweeping landscapes of the pampas or the Andes, and while all these are readily available for expats in Argentina, another aspect of living here is what can seem like a mad never-ending, world of ‘tramites’, or Argentine bureaucracy. Here’s a brief guide to help get you through it and back to your barbecue.
Probably your first brush with a tramite will be arranging a residency visa. This might be in the Argentine Embassy before you leave, or otherwise at your local Migraciones office after you arrive. There are 4 types of residency visas available to would-be expats – a student visa, a working visa, a pensioners visa or a steady income visa. The first two are more or less self-explanatory – you can get a residency visa if you have a place to study at an Argentine College or University or a job arranged with an Argentine company. The other two require you to demonstrate that you have a pension or steady income from abroad and won’t need to work in Argentina. A steady income can include rental income from property or income from a job, dividends or investments, so this is a reasonable possibility for many people. All these visas last a year, after which they must be renewed – cue the same process all over again. After having renewed them twice, you qualify for permanent residence, so at least you’ll only ever need to go through the process 3 times.
Your best bet is to go on a reconnaissance mission to ascertain exactly what documentation you will need. It is important to make sure that you speak to someone who is going to process the application, rather than the person at the door or reception whose priority may well be getting through the queue and back to their yerba mate. Always be polite and friendly, introduce yourself so they remember you the next time, and ensure that you get their name so that you can call and ask for clarification from the same person if you need to. Make notes of what they said immediately afterwards, along with their name and the date, so that you can remind them what they said in case they later change their mind. You’ll probably get to know them quite well during the process, so never lose your temper as they hold the power to make your life difficult – including finding a reason to deny your application entirely should they so choose. It works the other way too though – they can also make problems miraculously vanish if they like you, so that’s what you want to aim for.
Every stage of any bureaucratic process in Argentina is fiddly, laborious and open to interpretation by low- and mid-level officials, so be prepared to be patient and flexible and keep copies of all forms and documents and notes on all meetings and phone calls.
Getting my visa for the first time took a couple of months from start to finish, at the Argentine Embassy in London. Renewing it for the first time in Salta took 6 months, and nearly drove me mad. If it’s looking desperate and you value your sanity, there are agencies and lawyers who can sort it out for you if you are prepared to pay. It’s probably best to get a recommendation first, though, even if it’s from the Migraciones staff.
With your visa sorted out, life’s then a breeze of wine, steak, and sunshine, right? Wrong. Argentines probably dedicate at least two working days a month to tramites, which are as such an integral part of life. So it is for expats, too. Receiving a parcel from abroad ought to be simple, with it arriving at your house and perhaps requiring a mere signature. But that would be too easy. The President in her wisdom considers anything entering the country a threat to Argentine industry, be it a Christmas present from a relation abroad, or a book, DVD or any product that simply isn’t available in Argentina. This means that any parcel larger than a flat A4 envelope entails a summons to the municipal post office, where you must first queue to pay a small storage and admin fee, then again to see to the customs inspector, who will ask you to open the package in front of him. If there’s an invoice or receipt in with it, you’ll then be asked to go to the Banco de la Nacion to pay (more queueing) 50% import tax, before returning to the post office (more queueing again) with the receipt to collect your parcel. This all typically takes a whole morning, and gives you the impression that you might have time-travelled to Soviet Russia in 1975. The keys again are patience and being polite and charming to all officials, who have the power to make things easier or harder for you.
Another thing that you’d think would be simple but isn’t is transferring money from abroad. You can currently carry in up to US$10,000, which may well be worth it if you’ve got somewhere safe to keep it, as after that you’re going to spend plenty of time queueing again to try to get any more in. The simplest way to bring in money from abroad is to withdraw pesos from an ATM using your foreign card, which incurs total fees of 3-5%, however daily withdrawal limits prove problematic if you encounter any extraordinary expenses such as buying a car or property. It’s at this point that you have to broach the uber-tramite of involvement with AFIP, the state tax agency.
Since as soon as you own assets (such as cars or property) in Argentina you have to pay asset tax, it’s probably not a bad moment to find an accountant, who can not only fill in your returns but advise you on the registration process. This will involve multiple trips to multiple government offices. Again I would recommend an initial reccy – normally the receptionist or security guard can advise you on which forms you need and where to queue to get them, and, most importantly, the quietest, quickest times (probably either early in the morning or 20 minutes before closing time). Once you’re fully registered with AFIP (did I mention that you need your residency visa sorted before you can register?), you can then open a bank account. All the same rules apply – go at the quietest time of day, find out what documentation you need in advance, etc. to save spending all day doing something that would take 20 minutes online in Europe, Asia or the States.
With your bank account up and running, you then have to seek advice on which government plan will allow you to bring money into the country depending on what you want it for. There are various plans, all subject to different rules and limits, for money to live off, to buy property, and numerous other things. Then make your transfer by phone or internet from your foreign bank and after a week or two start calling your Argentine bank to ask where the money is. The chances are they won’t be able to find it, and will ask for more information about the transfer from your foreign bank. As always, it’s really helpful to know someone by name (and for them to know you) at both ends. When they do eventually find it, you will have to fill in a claim form at the bank, and within a week or so the money will actually land in your account. The whole process normally takes 2 – 4 weeks.
So to sum up, be prepared to dedicate significant amounts of time to reconnaissance missions, wrangling, queueing, to-ing , fro-ing, befriending, photocopying, politely persisting, note-taking, listening to telephone hold music, and generally traipsing round government offices to carry out what ought to be simple, quick tasks, pulling your hair out at the obvious, cheap improvements to efficiency that would save thousands of people thousands of hours every year at every stage, in pursuit of your dream. Is it all worth it though? Definitely.