Expat Life

Dealing with the Ecuadorian bureaucracy: Advice for expats and prospective expats

By Lee Shrader

A few thoughts about interacting with government agencies in Ecuador. First, let me say that this will be old news to those of you who have been in Ecuador a while, but might be helpful to those newly arrived or looking to come to Ecuador. My thoughts were prompted by someone who recently posted something to the effect that “they would wait until there was official information posted online from the government in English.”

My wife and I have obtained professional visas, driver’s licenses, IESS insurance and SRI registration. I have also obtained an Ecuadorian Amateur Radio operator’s license.  At no time did we find complete and accurate information posted online – in English or Spanish. Government personnel were generally helpful and sometimes more than one would expect and, yes, back when we got our visa’s there was information online in English about what was required, but it was hardly complete. In the beginning, I was fortunate to get some assistance from Visa Angels to help deal with a bad fingerprint problem. Since then, I have relied on my wife who fortunately speaks very good Spanish and is a very patient person.

For most interactions with the Ecuadorian government, there are generally two routes available:

  1. Go it on your own. I wouldn’t recommend this unless (a) you (or a spouse or other friend that will help you) has a decent command of Spanish and (b) you have the patience to visit the government office(s) several times—usually, at least three times—to get what you need accomplished, or
  2. Hire a knowledgeable and experienced facilitator or lawyer. These come in various sizes and shapes from those who offer minimal advice and assistance to those who will do almost everything for you—more about that later. Recognize that no matter who helps you, you will usually have to round up some paperwork on your own (e.g. fingerprints for background checks).
Navigating the Ecuadorian bureaucracy is not easy.

Whichever, path you take, recognize that whatever documents are required will generally have to be translated into Spanish. This is a Spanish-speaking country after all. And while some folks may have gotten away without using a “certified” translator, most, if not all agencies will require that the translator have their translation notarized by an Ecuadorian notary. So, expect to pay for the translation and for the notary fee.

Further, if your documents are from a “foreign” (not Ecuador) country they will generally have to be authenticated. In the U.S., that means obtaining an apostille, which is an internationally accepted verification that the notary who signed the document is in good professional standing. For some government documents, this is rather straightforward, although another expense. For example, FBI background checks are authenticated by the U.S. State Department. Government documents such as birth certificates and state background checks are authenticated by the state in which they are issued. Getting an apostille is not automatic. It generally requires completing a request for authentication and submitting a fee to the authenticating agency.

However, for some documents authentication is somewhat more difficult. For example, many  states will not authenticate a college diploma, as such. However, in most instances this can be resolved by creating a brief affidavit certifying that you are of sound mind, etc. and that you have knowledge of the contents of the document and certify that it is true and valid. Then take this to an attorney in the U.S. who can notarize your signature on the affidavit and then send the whole thing to the authenticating agency in your state. (It may be different in other states, but the Ohio Secretary of State authenticates and requires notarization by a notary whose term does not expire or the notarization must be certified by a Clerk of the Court. Notaries who are attorneys have terms that do not expire.)  They apostille (or authenticate) the attorney’s signature and this is generally accepted in foreign countries as authentication of the original document.

Doing it on your own

If you are doing things on your own, the best next step is to go to the Ecuadorian government agency that will be providing whatever you need (visa, driver’s license, etc.) and ask them what is required. Certainly, you can look online at the government website and/or research on blogs, but if you go that route be prepared to be thoroughly confused. The government websites are often behind the times and/or provide incomplete information and the blogs attest, at best, to whatever is the latest experience in a given governmental location. Often requirements vary from location to location—what is true in Quito may not be true in Azogues, etc. And what was required a year ago may be quite different than what is required right now. [Okay, if this is already looking like a route that you don’t want to follow, go ahead and look for an experienced, knowledgeable helper.]

Expect delays. Expect to wait.

Most government agencies in Ecuador have some employees who can speak English, but there may still be a “language barrier” if the conversation gets involved. (We who are attempting to communicate in Spanish should appreciate this.)

Each governmental office seems to operate within the general confines of the law, but specifically within the interpretations of the highest authority in that particular office. Moreover, most of the government agencies, somewhat like those in the U.S. are overworked and understaffed. And, you will usually find a strong attention to detail—names and numbers must match exactly on all documents. Someone once suggested that a part of the reason for this demand for exactness is that these government jobs are in great demand and carry a certain amount of prestige. No one wants to make the mistake that causes them to lose their position.  I don’t know if that is the reason or not, but I do know that names and numbers (e.g passport and/or cédula) must be the same on all documents.

Lastly, the legislators, again not unlike in the U.S., often place unreasonable timelines on the offices that have to implement the law—saying that things must be done within a timeline that does not take into account writing procedures, creating systems or training people.  The result is that procedures are often rolled out and then revised various times before they are finalized. And, for similar reasons, it may take many months before there is “complete” information on the government website.  So, if you choose to take the “do it yourself” route, please have some patience and remain courteous when dealing with the folks in the government agencies. They are dealing with the same changing procedures and systems, as you are. Expect, in most cases, to have to go to their office (1) to find out what is required, (2) to bring back completed documents for review, and (3) to make corrections and resubmit.  Of course, it could take more than three trips, but usually it is at least three trips to get things accomplished. Perhaps you can see why a good many people seek help. (Jim Santos discusses this and the “reverse-reciprocity-copy-corollary” in his blog: https://jimsantosblog.com/2017/06/30/the-paper-chase-applying-for-ecuadorian-citizenship ). The “reverse-reciprocity-copy-corollary” simply state is that if you have a copy of a document, it is not needed and if you don’t you must have one.

And don’t be surprised if, in the process, you are asked to obtain a document or action from a second agency and find that they aren’t prepared for (or don’t know about) the requirement. These problems usually get resolved, but it takes time and, early in the implementation of a new procedure or system, you may be caught in this “catch 22” situation. Breath deep and remember this is no fun for the government employees either!

Hiring help

Let me say at the outset that, as a new immigration law and regulations have been released, there has been some confusion lately and some criticism of some law firms and facilitators. As in all cultures, some people will try to take advantage of fear and confusion, but there have also been, in my opinion, some honest attempts to help that have been misinterpreted. Several Ecuadorian law firms have posted summaries of the new immigration law and, later, of the new regulations, translated into English. However, since, as discussed above, the new laws are not always released with reasonable timelines for implementation, what is stated in the law is not always what is the immediate practice. Thus, people have been confused over what is really happening and have attributed this confusion to bad motives on the part of some of these law firms and facilitators. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Law firms have generally provided translations of the law and facilitators have provided information on current practices—unfortunately, not always the same thing.

There are several types of services available. Reading the blogs and recommendations, they all seem to have their advocates (and their detractors). It is up to you to decide how much you want to pay and how much responsibility you want to turn over to a third party.  I will attempt to classify a little, but these classifications are totally arbitrary:

  • Language facilitators – translate for you when dealing with whatever situation. Some are more specialized in dealing with government agencies and some with medical situations. They generally don’t take responsibility for getting things done and are usually the least expensive.
  • Advice giving facilitators—usually still leave a lot of the action up to you, but have (or at least advertise to have) experience in dealing with specific issues such as getting visas, obtaining a driver’s license, registering with IESS, registering with SRI, etc. They provide advice and counsel on where to go and how to go about doing things. Most will accompany you to the agencies and provide assistance in completing documents and/or dealing with the government employees. Some, but not all, will provide transportation. Usually the next most expensive.
  • Leave it to me facilitators—this includes most lawyers, but there are also others who provide this service. In my opinion, this is the most convenient for those who do not wish to be bothered with the details, but also the most difficult to evaluate, the riskiest and the most expensive. These folks take most of the details out of your hands, interact with the agencies on your behalf and hand over the results to you. In some cases, you can have actions taken on your behalf while you are still in your “home” country. (I say difficult to evaluate, because I have read high praise and heard strong complaints about some of the same agencies/facilitators. It is difficult to tell, in some instances whether it is a poorly prepared client complaining or actually a bad action on the part of the agency/facilitator. And, risky because you are turning over a great deal of responsibility to someone else.)

Whichever of these options you choose, do as much due diligence as possible. Check out references and compare alternatives. Be wary of how much money you turn over before getting any results. Obtain detailed information about what is and what is not included in the service. Be especially clear about what costs are and are not included in the fees you are paying. (Most agencies and facilitators do not include the fees that must be paid to government agencies in their fees.  Some do not include translation fees, etc. Be sure that you are aware of any costs outside of the fees to the agency and/or facilitator.) And be aware that the legal alternatives for non-performance in Ecuador may not (and usually are not) be the same as in your “home” country. Ecuador is not a litigious society and most attempts to solve problems with litigation are much more difficult than, for example, in the U.S.

And then settle back and enjoy the new adventure — but be patient.
________________

Lee Shrader and his wife have lived in Ecuador for nearly three years. He has a Ph.D. in Psychoeducational Processes and was an organizational development consultant to government, business and education for over forty years and a university professor for seven years.

  • Karen

    Pretty sound advise. You can spend a lot of money and time “guessing” what the various agencies want as far as documentation when the simplistic and cheapest way is to just ask them.

  • Suz

    Kudos on a clearly stated and comprehensive, well written and balanced approach article on a complex issue.

  • Rebecca

    Brilliant. Thanks for explaining the frustrating process. It’s much easier now to have compassion for those who seem to be trying to keep me from my goal. 🙂

  • MountainHombre

    Great article Lee. It has advice that completely meets my experiences.

    I especially liked your advice: “Breath deep and remember this is no fun for the government employees either!”

    I had a brief stint working for the IRS in costumer service. It was the worst job I EVER had. Many things were ill defined in the law. We were held accountable by our “customers” for the laws, the interpretation of the laws, the enforcement of the laws, etc. All the while, we had no control over any of these. And we weren’t allowed to say “call your congressman”, despite most of the issues arising from their ineptitude/greed.

    The advice applies to any interaction with a low level employee in the private sector too. Many things do not make sense. Often, the employee has many constraints put upon the performance of their jobs.

    Be nice! Often, the reps have SOME flexibility. I’d hope that you’re kind because you’re a humane person. But, even if you’re a curmudgeon, kindness may get you some extra help, a bit of great advice, etc.

  • David D

    Lee, I’d be VERY interested in your experience in getting an amateur radio license, and perhaps on reciprocal operating privileges, in Ecuador. The info on arrl.org is very old and I am sure it suffers from the same problems as you’ve noted in your article. — 73 Dave KF6XA

    • Lee Shrader

      Ahmed Perez in the Guyaquil Radio Club told me to go to ARCOTEL in Cuenca. They regulate all commnications including “radioaficionados,” in Ecuador. ARCOTEL is located near the corner of Calle Luis Cordero 16-50 and Avenida Héroes de Verdeloma. The guard took me to a very helpful engineer who explained that I needed:
      1. A very simple letter to the head of ARCOTEL requesting registration as a radioaficionado.
      2. A copy of both sides of my cedula and a copy of the information and visa pages of my passport
      3. A copy of my U.S. Amateur Radio License
      4. A copy of a summary of the technical specifications of any equipment I had and would be using.
      I had to provide some information in an Excel spreadsheet–nothing difficult, things like phone number, address, email address, U.S. call sign, etc.
      All communications were in Spanish and the engineer helped us complete the letter and information–don´t know if anyone spoke English, but we communicated in Spanish. Submitted the information and about a month later got an email asking if a specified Ecuadorian call sign was okay. Replied yes and a few days later got another email indicating I needed to pay $10 at Produbanco and then come in to the office. Did that and signed another document and waited about a week and went in and picked up my Ecuadorian license. As with all things there processes were in flux because of a new communication law, but all were very helpful.

  • Jean McCord

    Well done! Thanks for an excellent article.

  • Lourdes Mordini

    Good article. Key words: “be patient.” I could tell you stories. And I am an educated native Spanish speaker, so it is not only a matter of language. The employees in the government offices are poorly trained; many times the fear of losing the job makes them give the wrong or incomplete information instead of recognizing they do not know enough and forwarding the question to a higher authority. The 3+ visits rule is very realistic.

  • LadyMoon

    Excellent, sane article. However, I would add–check on your attorney if you are not getting a response in a week or two. They are human and things can fall through the cracks. Ultimately, it is still your responsibity.

    • sueb4bs

      And one atty that I relied on was unable to complete the job I had for her! She was overburdened and overworking as too MANY people recommended her. So follow LM good advice and check up on the progress made…

  • Michael Berger

    A well written article for sure and I like how often the theme of hiring help is repeated since that should be the key take away for most expats who can easily afford to pay for such assistance. For those that are inclined to go it alone here are some additional tips:

    1. Manage your expectations. As the author said expect it to take multiple trips and understand that any and all excuses for not processing your paperwork are likely to be presented. Never assume how much time and hassle any given thing will require to complete, your attitude should be one of willingness to continue on until completed no matter how long it takes. Don’t assume that there is any correlation between what is written in the law and how things are actually implemented. Try to disable the logical part of yourself to the extent possible and don’t look for any reason behind any policy or procedure. “Government Is Not Reason, It Is Not Eloquence — It Is Force”

    2. To avoid long lines try to have all your interactions with government offices take place Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday between opening time and noon. Always do your stuff ahead of when you need it so that if the line is too long you can leave immediately and come back another day. The stress of having a line of people waiting to be attended is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why excuses for not proceeding with your paperwork are made. Monday morning lines are usually the worst and anything in the afternoon is a waist of time as the lines are longer and the workers are very sluggish after having had a two hour lunch. Of course with so many holidays “Monday” may all on any day of the week so always avoid trying to do anything the first business day of the week.

    3. You will often find yourself in situations where you are like a human ping pong ball bouncing back and fourth between two different agencies who each insist on you getting a paper from the other agency before you can proceed. When this happens the best thing to do is first to explain the situation to a higher up person and if no solution is provided then get their landline phone number so when you go to the other office you can get the two people talking by phone to remove the roadblock. Your attitude should be that the government has a problem in their systems and it is up to government employees to figure out how to solve the problem. In every case where I have gotten somebody from both offices on the phone with eachother they have come up with some kind of solution that allowed things to proceed.

    4. Take advantage of the inconsistency that exists here. Different people in the same office will tell you different things and it is not uncommon for the same person to tell you a different thing on a different day than what they told you before. This is normally very frustrating especially for expats. One good strategy is to take another number just before your number is about to come up, if your paperwork is not excepted due to what appears to be a technicality or undocumented policy you can often take the next turn with another person and get the paperwork through. When there are multiple offices for the same thing such as is the case with notaries the requirements may be legally standardized but are implemented differently or not at all in depending on which office you are in.

    5. The way Ecuadorian bureaucrats think is in some ways like a computer, one they find any reason not to proceed they stop and tell you what is missing. They rarely continue to parse your paperwork after finding that initial problem unless you ask them to look over the rest of your paperwork and tell you what else may be missing. This will save you multiple trips that you would otherwise have to take finding out one by one different things that are missing. Understand that the requirements listed on government websites often don’t include all the things that will be asked for when you are actually trying to push your paperwork through.

    6. Never assume you are done. Even if someone smiles and tells you that you are all done ask specifically if anything else needs to be done with the paper in any other office. Unless you ask most people will never tell you about the critical next step that must be done and you can leave with the impression that you have completed something that has not been completed in the eyes of the government.

    7. Whenever possible try to transmute the feeling of frustration into fascination. If you do this early and often it will prevent frustration from turning into anger. Fascination is a similar emotion to frustration so as soon as you start to feel frustrated try to turn it into fascination. Think to yourself something like “wow, isn’t it amazing how slow these people are” be surprised and amazed that anybody could be so slow or so stupid. This puts you in the position of observing the insanity around you from more of a detached third person perspective and may cause you to smile or even laugh about what is going on. Once the fascination wears off transition your thoughts to something else until frustration is triggered again.

    Note: The above tips are for the purposes of completing paperwork when that is what is in your best interest and you are initiating the request; the strategies and tactics for defending yourself from hostile government actions initiated against you are very different.

  • Jane

    Great article, as every EC resident would attest. However, I would add this: If you are “going it alone”, it helps to go to the top if/when you are not getting what should be legitimately given to you.

    Ecuador has an extremely hierarchical structure. A low grad employee, of, say, Ministry of Immigration, is not trained to solve problems or to demonstrate any initiative. S/he will do exactly what they are told to do. The person on the top is the one who makes decisions and has initiative and creativity, well, probably not everybody, but I have been lucky 🙂

    Our experience with a few lawyers has been …, well, unfortunate. Have never used facilitators. A mixture of my “Spanish” and English of the high officials have resolved all matters.

    • sueb4bs

      I agree 100%, Jane. Go to the top, ask politely but firmly BUT do not give in until you have achieved what you need. And, you can do it yourself. In 2012 it took me, by myself ONE YEAR to complete all of the requirements and receive my cedule in Quito., (things had been apostilled and in order for months but the govt was ill-prepared to handle us all waiting in the queue) The last quarter of that time I had the help of a Minister of Correa’s govt going to bat for me, aha! Anyway 5 years later I am alive and enjoying life and you will be too.

  • sueb4bs

    Thanks very much for this advice. I have lived in Ecuador several years but it is helpful to read through this again. You write a lengthy but sensible treatise here on getting around and getting stuff done in this country. I , for one, appreciate your time, care and effort to organize the information well.. Of course, anywhere around the world this process requires a some time and patience sometimes. Thanks again..