The Bolivian Visa Extension Nightmare

I almost have my visa extension. I will get my passport back in 3 days; everything went well, relatively speaking.

I’m going to split this post up into 2 main parts. The first is for people who want to know what to do. It will just state the facts with little else. Part 2 will focus on my less than stellar experience.

Part 1 - What You Need To Know

Preface - Read this first!!!

As noted in my other posts, the Bolivian government does not supply accurate information. The steps required to perform a visa extension are relatively straightforward, but I did not find a single source of information that accurately details what is required. So I am detailing it here.

This information is correct as of 17 January 2022. I obtained my visa extension for 30 days at a migrations office in Santa Cruz De La Sierra. Additionally, note that I am from South Africa, which is classified as a Group 2 country by Bolivia, and as such we qualify for visa-on-arrival for which we do not pay. If you are from, for instance The United States, you are from a Group 3 country and while the general process will be similar, expect differences, especially in terms of cost. Ditto for Group 1 countries.

The documentation problem

Firstly, if you dig deep enough on the government website, or even look at the sign on the wall at migrations, you will note that the information supplied is to obtain a visa for entering the country. That information lists the required documentation for a new visa only, not for a visa extension!!!

Where to go

On the official government website, various migration centres are listed for Santa Cruz. For a visa extension, you need to go to the migrations office in centro, at the corner of Calle Sucre and Calle Potosi.

Other visa offices, like the one at Ventura Mall do not process visas for foreigners. I know because I tried first at Ventura Mall and was turned away.

When to go

Go within 5 days of your visa expiring. On a successful application, your passport will be taken away and you will need to return to collect it 3 days later, so factor that into your travel plans. The extension is valid from the date of allocation. So if you apply, say, on day 14 of your trip, and your visa is allocated on day 15, you will have an additional 30 days from day 15 i.e. you won’t get 60 days, you’ll get 45 days in Bolivia (in this example).

Going to the migrations office earlier in the day is better. They open at 8am. I arrived around 10am on a Monday and I had a 4 and a half hour wait.

Also, and take this with a pinch of salt because I do not know this for certain, I read (on a Google Maps review from 2 years ago) that visa processing stops at 12:30pm. I don’t know if this means they stop allowing people into the building, or even if that information is now outdated. Be aware regardless.

What you need

  1. A photocopy of your passport
  2. A photocopy of your existing visa from your passport
  3. A photocopy of the page in your passport that shows the entry stamp you received when entering Bolivia
  4. A photocopy of the document you received from migrations when you entered the country (for me, it’s a small white form, about half a page long, that’s filled in by hand but that has an official migrations stamp)
  5. A photocopy showing where you will be staying - I use Airbnb so I selected my existing reservation and selected the option “Get a copy for visa purposes”
  6. A photocopy of your exit plans. This could be a plane ticket, or bus ticket, etc. In my case, I am traveling with my own vehicle so I needed a copy of the form I received from aduanas (customs) when I entered the country
  7. 2 passport photos. My photos were in colour. I do not know if black and white photos are acceptable
  8. Cash or a card for payment. For me, the cost was 592.50 Bolivianos. I have no idea why, since I am from a Group 2 country and should not need to pay, but my Spanish isn’t good enough to question this. So I paid.

What I did not need

  1. I did not need to fill in any form online or download a form and fill it in myself. When applying, the person processing your application will request photocopies of the data and fill in the form for themselves on the computer.
  2. I did not need a copy of my bank statements (i.e. proof of financial solvency)
  3. I did not need a copy of my yellow fever vaccination card
  4. I did not need a copy of my itinerary
  5. I did not need any proof of medical insurance
  6. I did not need a vaccine certificate, or anything Covid related

Other things to carry

Coins, preferably in Bs 1.00 or Bs 0.50 denominations. At the Santa Cruz office, there was a lady who did printing and made photocopies in the same room where your application is processed. The cost is Bs 0.50 for a photocopy, and Bs. 1.50 for a colour printout.

For printouts, the lady has a Whatsapp number. You send her the documents via Whatsapp and she prints them for you.

As a bonus, she also sells snacks.

People were going to her to get photocopies as their applications were being processed. So if you need a copy of something, having a few extra coins will really save you lots of time and effort. You will need her services, even if you have your own copies, as I will explain later.

Lastly, if you’re going to be waiting long, you may want to use the bathroom. When I was there, the bathroom didn’t have lights. Most people were using the torch on their phones. Hopefully this was just a one-off problem and not a regular occurrence.

The Process

Please note once again that I did this at the migrations office in centro, Santa Cruz. If you apply for the visa elsewhere, your mileage will likely vary.

  1. When you enter migrations, you need to tell the security guard you need a visa extension. He will check to ensure you have the correct documents. In my case, he pointed to the wall and asked if I had all the relevant documentation. The information on the wall is not for a visa extension!!! Regardless, that’s the official list, so say yes. The list will say, for instance, that you need to fill in a form online, and that you need a copy of your yellow fever vaccine card. These are the requirements for a new application! There was no list of requirements for the extension. So nod, say you have everything, do whatever, so long as you get to the next step which is …
  2. Ensure he registers you. He will take your passport and enter your details into the computer (and return your passport immediately). You are now in the system. He should direct you to the third floor. My experience was different. You can read about it in Part 2.
  3. The third floor is the waiting room where you will be processed. A computer calls out the name of the next person and where they need to go. You have no number. There’s no list of who’s going to be processed next, or where you’re positioned in the queue.
  4. Now you wait. Maybe you get lucky and the wait isn’t long. I waited four and a half hours with no indication whatsoever my turn was coming up. Nobody was willing to assist. I was one of many people in the same unfortunate situation. I advise taking something to keep yourself entertained.
  5. Eventually you will be called. Supply the information requested of you, and you will be asked to pay. I paid by card. This part of this process was very smooth and everyone was very friendly and patient, especially considering my almost non-existent command of Spanish.
  6. It will be necessary to visit the copy lady. For instance you will need a copy of your application. Migrations will print out the application, but you will need to make a photocopy of the printout at your own expense. Also, if you pay by card, you will need a copy of the receipt. So carry carry Bs 1.00 and Bs 0.50 coins.
  7. If all goes well, migrations will keep your passport and give you a form with a date when your passport, complete with visa extension, must be collected. Do not lose the form!!!! Take a photo of it to be safe. You’re done!

Part 2 - The Story

(This was written on my phone while waiting at the visa office)

I’m now 10 minutes shy of being in the visa queue for 4 hours. I truly despise Bolivian government inefficiency.

I need a visa extension. But much like my experience getting the visa, which you can read about on my website, the process has not been at all smooth so far. And once again, it boils down to lack of information.

There’s no clear guidelines that explain the process: things like where to go, what documents are required, and how much I need to pay, if anything. A few sentences exist on the government site, but they cover getting the visa. And it is mentioned that the visa may be extended, but no details are specified for the actual extension. Which is why I once again relied on years old blog posts that, aside from being Pre- Covid, I suspect may now be incorrect. The simple, near pain free experience of other travelers is certainly not echoed in my experience.

My process so far was simple (he said sarcastically). I stood in line to talk to the guard at reception. 10 minutes later, I explained I’m from South Africa and I need a visa extension. He flipped through my passport and told me I had no stamp showing I entered Bolivia. I pointed out the stamp, and he, almost grudgingly it seemed, sent me to the first floor. Here, I had no idea where to go, so I asked, and a busy lady told me to head to the third floor.

Two flights of stairs later found me in a room full of seated people, with a row of counters at the front and off to one side. A lady manning a photocopier and printer occupied the far corner of the room. Periodically a computer system would call out a name and counter number, and that person would head to the appropriate counter to be processed.

But how would the computer know my name? I asked and a lady told me to wait with the rest of the crowd. As everyone else was busy, I asked the photocopy lady and she told me to ask at one of the counters. With no other options, I interrupted one of the workers to ask if I was in the right place, and she said my name would be called because the guard downstairs registered me on the system. Except he didn’t do that.

Three flights of stairs later found me talking to the guard at the entrance. I told him I need an extension and I need to be registered on the computer. So he lackadaisically checked I had the required paperwork to proceed (against the wrong checklist), but nevertheless registered me and up I went again, hoping I was in the right place.

That was over 4 hours ago now. There are no queue numbers. I’m just sitting and waiting, with no way of knowing how long the delay will be. Others whom I can only assume are here for the same reason seem annoyed, but also resigned to waiting patiently, as though they’ve been through this massive waste of time before. I’m the newbie it seems.

At first I panicked and thought I would run out of time, and hurriedly tried to organise myself, using numerous opportunities to make copies of just about everything I thought may be needed. But I’ve given up caring now. I just want …

Literally as I was halfway through typing that sentence my name was called. Actually obtaining the visa extension was a relatively smooth process, as I detailed in Part 1. The staff were efficient, patient, and friendly. Processing was smooth. Obtaining the extension, from the time my name was called, to the time I left was perhaps 20 minutes.

The 4.5 hour wait with no feedback was unacceptable, as was the lack of documentation requirements. Unfortunately that appears to be a typical part of Bolivian life. The attitude is very much one of “that’s just the way it is”. But if you magically happen to have everything you need, things will go smoothly. Eventually.

I still hate Bolivian government bureaucracy with a passion.