The Short Version
We came to Ecuador on missionary visas, which are not too hard to get but have to be renewed every year or two, depending on the government issuing policy. Each renewal costs hundreds of dollars.
When Scott realized he qualified for a professional resident visa costing about the same but never expiring, we started pursuing this option.
The paperwork requirements for a professional visa were different than a missionary visa but didn’t seem onerous: basically state and federal criminal history reports, our marriage certificate, and Scott’s Oregon State University diploma, all authenticated (or apostilled) by the appropriate government authority.
But somehow things are always more complicated than they seem. For over two years we had changing Ecuadorean regulations (or different requirements on different Ecuadorean government web pages), paperwork expiring, documents in the U.S. when we needed them in Ecuador (and vice versa), difficulties with the FBI and the U.S. State Department, and obstacles which seemed insurmountable.
We dealt with five Ecuadorean government departments, five government departments in the U.S., an FBI channeler, an official translator, and a notary. We made 12 visits to the visa office and five to the national police, enough that we were frecognized by the guards and clerks in both agencies. And everything in Ecuador was in Spanish, sometimes rapid-fire Spanish we couldn’t understand.
When the visas finally came through—Scott’s August 5, 2016 and mine October 28, 2016—we were very happy that, as far as we can tell, we won’t ever have to do this again.
Lessons Learned (or things we should have remembered)
Remember the big picture. Scott and I are here to serve by God’s grace and the Ecuadorean government’s permission. It’s not about us. God is working out His purposes, shaping our character, using us to touch lives with His love. Keep the eternal perspective. (Scott is much better at this than I am.)
Persistence. Keep showing up, keep trying everything you can, keep a humble attitude with no hint of entitlement or disdain for the procedures. Write down the names of people you talk with and what advice they give you. Expect the best of people. Take every piece of paperwork you can possibly need; they often asked for something that wasn’t on the official list.
Kudos to Ecuador: They found a way to make it happen; the FBI and State Department did not.
It’s an adventure. It will make a great story some day. Keep your sense of humor.
The Long Version
We start thinking about getting a professional residency visa. While in Oregon for two weeks for a wedding, we get fingerprints taken at the Lane County Sheriff’s office and submit them to the FBI for a criminal background report. Scott finds his OSU diploma, we request our marriage certificate, and we get both authenticated at the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. (We don’t realize at this point that most of these documents will expire from Ecuador’s point of view in six months.)
Scott receives a “clean” FBI criminal history report; I get a rejection letter that my fingerprint card isn’t readable. We also learn that Reach Beyond wants us to stay on the missionary visa longer, thus putting the professional visa on hold.
Reach Beyond approves our applying for residency visas. I start wearing rubber gloves while doing dishes and housework to try to improve my fingerprints. I use lots of lotion. Nothing helps; my fingerprints are too worn to be read.
Jaime, a wonderful Ecuadorean friend and fellow accountant at Reach Beyond, and Scott get the OSU diploma registered at SENESCYT (Secretaria Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Technología, e Innovación), the first step to a professional visa.
While on vacation in Oregon, we start re-gathering the necessary documents: another authenticated marriage certificate, along with fingerprints cards for the state police and the FBI.
The state police technician tells me, “You will never get a readable fingerprint card. On a scale of 1-100, your fingerprints are an 8.” (Scott was an 85.) “We’ll do a background search on your name, date of birth, and social security number.”
The credit card Scott thinks he used for the FBI background report fee has fraud activity and is cancelled. Scott calls the FBI with the new credit card; the FBI doesn’t want the information until they have started to process his fingerprints.
The FBI criminal background office is so backlogged they haven’t even OPENED our request. We realize our state police reports and marriage certificate are going to expire before the FBI background check can be submitted with our visa application. I’m going to Oregon on a grandma trip (new granddaughter!), so we get our fingerprints taken at La Criminalística, the Ecuadorean national police fingerprint processing office, and I take these to the state police in Oregon. When the report is mailed to me, I get the reports authenticated in Salem. I stall on the marriage certificate, since that requires a trip to Portland.
After I return from the U.S., my fingerprints are rejected again by the FBI. We try to figure out what to do.
I make two fruitless calls to the FBI. They seem to have no alternative process for people like me. I’m told, “Sometimes people have to submit 10 or 15 times before we can read their fingerprints.”
We contact an FBI channeller, a business which promises to get results from the FBI within 1-1/2 weeks, much better than four or five months! The channeler tells us that the FBI will do a name and date of birth match; this turns out to be false. He then says he’s heard that Ecuador will accept two authenticated FBI rejection letters.
We decide to submit my fingerprints through a channeller and, if that fails, submit the two rejection letters to the U.S. Secretary of State for authentication. I get fingerprints taken at La Criminalística again. Someone is traveling to the U.S. so we shuttle two fingerprint cards and the channeller paperwork to the US. If one set of fingerprints is rejected, the channeler will submit the second set immediately.
We shuttle my first rejection letter to our daughter Vjera in Oregon; she receives our U.S. mail and has the second letter. If my fingerprints are rejected again, she’ll send the two letters to the U.S. Secretary of State for authentication when she sends in Scott’s report, which is expected any day.
Scott’s FBI application is finally opened. After three calls to the FBI, Scott is able to get the credit card number changed so his fingerprints can be processed. The FBI person says, “Ok, your new credit card is registered. I’ll put you back in the queue and you’ll hear from us in 12 to 16 weeks.” I hear this big, “Oh, no!” from Scott’s office. The FBI person takes pity on Scott and keeps his application at the front of the queue where it should be.
I order another marriage certificate which Vjera will get authenticated. We hear from the channeller that the FBI has rejected both sets of my fingerprints.
Vjera receives Scott’s FBI letter (yay!) and submits my rejection letters and Scott’s FBI report to the U.S. Secretary of State, writing one check for both fees.
The U.S. State Department calls, leaving a voice mail that they can’t authenticate my FBI letters because they are not official documents. I’m to call and leave payment information for just Scott’s authentication (since they have one check for both fees). I call, talk to an unhelpful person, and try to convince her that the letters are official documents: they have my name and a case number on them. I leave a message for the person who called but don’t leave the payment information because I want to wait until he calls back and I can plead my case with him.
Without returning my call, the State Department returns all our letters unauthenticated to Vjera. Vjera mails Scott’s back with the correct payment.
Our son Simon comes to visit and brings my two (unauthenticated) rejection letters. We’ll try to get Ecuador to accept them. If not, I’ll get another missionary visa.
I decide to try another set of fingerprints through the channeler. But at La Criminalística, everything goes wrong. One technician gives me a blue pen to fill out the fingerprint cards, then another says it has to be in black ink. I am almost in tears. I have no more cards to fill out. I explain my situation to them and they try to help, saying that I should be able to get a letter from an Ecuadorean lawyer saying I don’t have any fingerprints. It is yet another possibility; will anything work?
We apply for new US passports. We still have seven years left on our current ones, but we decide we want ten years before the visa had to be changed to a new passport. This takes two trips to the U.S. embassy but goes very smoothly.
Vjera receives Scott’s authenticated FBI background check, 5-1/2 weeks after she sent it in the second time. We thought it was lost and Scott spent a lot of time trying to reach someone at the State Department and confirm it was there. He is almost ready to submit another set of fingerprints via the channeller when Vjera emails that she’s received it. She FedEx-es it to someone in California who is coming to Ecuador.
We realize that I can’t apply for my visa until Scott is granted his. Mine is an amparo visa, a spousal visa connected to his. Both of our missionary visas expire August 14; the timing is going to be really tight for mine.
We visit la Dirección Nacional de Migración (Policía Nacional) and each get a Certificado de Movimiento, a record of our movements in and out of Ecuador, one of the visa requirements. This is a great government department, with short lines and no paperwork.
Scott returns to SENESCYT to get his OSU diploma registered under his new passport number rather than his old one.
On July 17 Scott gets his documents translated by an certified translator and the translations notarized. This involves two trips to south Quito, two hours each. (Later he does two more trips for my documents.)
The translator doesn’t want to translate my FBI rejection letters, and recommends we take them to the visa office to see if they will accept them and, if not, what they suggest.
On July 18 we talk with a supervisor at the visa office (actually called El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Movilidad Humana). We explain my lack of adequate fingerprints, and show him my FBI rejection letters. He disappears for about 1-1/2 hours (!). When he comes back he has found a successful visa application by a U.S. citizen who had his two rejection letters notarized in California and then had the notary’s signature authenticated by the California Secretary of State. He says something like, “I think this will work.”
In the next few days, we shuttle my rejection letters to our ministry service center in Colorado to be notarized and submitted them to the Colorado Secretary of State for authenticated.
On July 19 Scott submits his paperwork to the visa office. He is told he will get an email in two to four weeks.
On August 2, Scott finds an email in his spam filter saying his visa has been approved and giving him a date and time to bring in his passport, which he does.
On August 10 Scott retrieves his passport (with his visa in it) and gets his cédula (national identity card) at Registro Civil the same day. This all took five hours. One of our Ecuadorean co-workers jokes that Scott’s visa is a baby because it took nine months to arrive (November to August)!
On August 11, the last business day before my missionary visa expires, we submit my application with everything but my FBI report. I’m told I will receive an email in two to four weeks telling me what documents I’m missing. I’ll then have 60 days to bring in the email and the documents to the visa office.
Because my visa application is in process, I’m in compliance with the visa laws. I just can’t leave the country until I have my new visa. I start checking my spam filter every day for an email from the visa office.
On August 22 my FBI letters arrive back in Quito. We get them translated and notarized.
On September 17 after five weeks with no email, we go in to the visa office to check. They say they emailed me four days before! A helpful person prints out the email (which I never received), gives me a copy, and accepts my FBI letters to attach to my application. If we don’t hear anything in two weeks we should come back to check.
On September 30 we return to the visa office and are told my visa should be ready in another week.
On October 7 the person helping us speaks really fast and we’re not sure we understand everything. Scott asks him to slow down and he does for about ten seconds and then he speeds up again. We think he says that my visa has been approved, which is very good news if that’s really what he said. It only lacks the signature of his supervisor, but she hasn’t signed anything this week. He tells us to come back in ten days.
On October 14 we return to the visa office. After waiting a couple of hours, we are told that the visa was approved September 28 or 29 and has been waiting for a signature since then. Maybe it will be ready next week.
On October 20 we make our weekly trek to the visa office. The young lady who helps us takes more initiative than the young man of the last two weeks. She finds my application and figures out why it isn’t being signed. The top boss isn’t happy with my rejection letters being notarized and authenticated in Colorado. She (the boss) says the FBI rejection letters have to have an official signature on them and be authenticated in Washington, D.C. by the U.S. State Department. The young clerk is very nice but very firm that this is an Ecuadorean requirement..
This is a major blow. I have been through all this before, calling the State Department and then the FBI, trying to figure out some way to get an official, signed letter that could be authenticated. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Plus the supervisor (13 weeks before) had told us to do what we did with the notarizing and authenticating in Colorado.
The clerk asks us to wait for a few minutes, sending us out into the waiting room. We pray that God will somehow open a door to work out His will. Things look very hopeless. I am trying not to cry and Scott is trying to calm me down.
When she calls us back, she has a copy of a normal, authenticated FBI letter, just like Scott received. That was very thoughtful of her, but it still isn’t something I can do without fingerprints.
But Scott remembers the name of the supervisor we talked to in July, and we ask if we can talk with him now. She calls him, he is busy, but suggests we come back the next day. I am leaving for a retreat before the office opens the next morning, so we ask if we can see him Monday.
She asks a guard to take us upstairs to make an appointment. After about ten minutes, the supervisor comes out and meets with us himself! He takes us into an enclosed office and says, “I have a problem with my supervisor.” The problem is that she doesn’t agree with what he told us to do.
But while we were waiting, he was explaining our situation to her, advocating for us, and asking her to make an exception. So she agrees that she will accept a letter from a doctor saying I don’t have any fingerprints.
How amazing! We swing quickly from hopeless to, “This is really possible.” We are so grateful that God answered our prayer so quickly and opened a way.
The supervisor tells us to bring the letter directly to him and that it shouldn’t take long to get the visa approved.
The next week I go back to La Criminalistica for a set of fingerprints to show a doctor. We try unsuccessfully to find a doctor who will write a letter for me. Reach Beyond has clinics and a hospital, but nobody feels qualified to write the letter. They talk about lawyers and police doctors. Jenny, our department secretary, makes many calls trying to find some options for us.
Thursday afternoon Scott and I go to La Criminalística, hoping they can point us toward a police doctor. They remember me, of course, and we talk with them about our need for some kind of certificate or letter saying my fingerprints aren’t legible. Scott shows them my fingerprint card (from the day before) and asks, “Could you do a search with these fingerprints?” They say, “No, only one of the ten digits is readable.” Scott asks, “Would you write us a letter saying that?” They answer, “We’ve never done anything like that before.”
But they take pity on me and try to figure out how to help me. One of the technicians takes us downstairs to talk to the (female) Capitán, a take-charge, think-outside-the-box person. She tells him to take photos of me having my fingerprints taken, write a letter explaining that I don’t have legible fingerprints, provide a technical explanation, and attach my fingerprints.
(We don’t understand everything that is said, but I hear, “This is her fifth trip here” more than once. They are very generous in trying to figure out some way to help.)
We go back upstairs and he takes photos and then spends 1-1/2 hours writing his letter! We just sit and wait, thinking, “He can take as long as he wants; we will be very happy to have a letter.” He asks a variety of questions (Did I do a lot of cleaning? Did I use bleach?), and writes a great letter. He uses WhatsApp to send it to his Capitán for her approval (I guess WhatsApp is preferable to email). Then we go back downstairs where he prints and signs it, the Capitán initials it, and I sign a copy that I have received the original. Then we walk home, very, very grateful. When we show the letter to Jenny Friday morning, she says it is amazing to get such a wonderful letter from a government agency. She says, “God really blessed you.” And He did.
Friday morning October 28 I turn in my letter to the supervisor at the visa office and he checks with his boss and then says, “Yes, it is acceptable.” BIG sigh of relief because of course it isn’t what they had asked for, although we think it’s better. I tell him if there is any chance my visa can be approved that day I will wait. So I do. I have my Kindle and sit and read. After five hours he waves at me and tells me to pay my $200 fee and turn in my passport! I almost can’t believe it.
On October 31 I take a big batch of homemade sweet rolls to La Criminilística as a thank you.
November 6-8: Sunday I make a huge batch of oatmeal cookies, enough for the entire visa office. Monday I pick up my passport and visa and give the clerk the cookies, with a special thanks to the supervisor who was so helpful. We get my certificado de empadronamiento which I need to get my cédula. But when we get to Registro Civil, we are told I have to wait 24 hours to get my cédula.
The interesting thing is that Scott was able to get his cédula the same day he got his visa. That was three months before, so maybe the procedures changed. Or God could have opened the way for him to get it in one day since I needed to put his cédula number on my application the next morning (before my missionary visa expired). We’ll probably never know why, but it’s an interesting theory.
Tuesday I go back to Registro Civil and get my cédula, managing not to do a happy dance right there in front of everyone. Success!
If you are still reading this, you might be in the same situation I was, with your fingerprints too worn to be read. Here’s what I suggest:
- Have your fingerprints scanned digitally (both the county sheriff and the state police used this method). If you have worn fingerprints, an alarm will sound that the fingerprints are not readable. Make two separate submissions of fingerprint cards to the FBI so you can get your rejection letters as quickly as possible. (Don’t do this through a channeller; you need actual rejection letters from the FBI. The channeller will only send an email when you are rejcted, although if your fingerprints are readable they do send an official letter which can be authenticated.)
- After your two FBI rejection letters, ask your congressman if he or she can get an official rejection letter from the FBI. It needs a signature and the FBI seal for the State Department to authenticate it.
- If that fails, talk to the Ecuadorean visa office. Will they accept a letter from a lawyer? From a doctor? Do they suggest something else? Proceed from there.
- If that fails, go to La Criminalística and ask for help. Tell them the situation and that they are your last hope. We have the copy of the letter the nice young man wrote us and will share it; just remember it was a HUGE favor to us that they wrote it.
- Let us know how it turns out!