The visa process

If you plan to stay in Spain for more than 90 days during any rolling 180-day period, a visa is required.  There is a variety of visa types applicable to any number of reasons for an extended stay (study, work, retirement, etc.)  The one for retirement is called a Non-Lucrative Visa, which means you cannot legally work while in the country (even remotely).  In order to qualify, you must prove a minimum steady stream of income and/or sufficient assets to sustain your proposed stay (more on that below).

The process for obtaining a non-lucrative visa for Spain isn’t exactly difficult; however, it is paperwork-intensive and necessitates that one meet a variety of specific time windows and authentication requirements.  Robert and I have assembled stacks of papers for each of us to satisfy the various needs of the Los Angeles Spanish Embassy.

I won’t repeat the laundry list of everything that must be submitted because others have already done excellent jobs of that (a great example may be viewed here).  Instead I’ll focus on  items that have presented particular challenges or simply left us scratching our heads.

I started researching the visa process in depth over a year ago.  A good friend from Oregon had moved to Spain in 2016 and was able to provide a wealth of advice based on her experiences.   Interestingly, since she went through the SF embassy, the list of required documents varied slightly from the list on the website of the LA embassy.  Turns out this is not uncommon because each embassy maintains a certain degree of autonomy (not unlike the political structure of the country itself). 

Booking the Embassy Appointment — The most interesting and stressful part of the process was obtaining the appointments.  Visa applications are only accepted in-person, and the visas must be picked up by the applicants when complete.  Check — two trips to LA.

The embassy schedules a grand total of eight appointments every work day, arranged in half-hour increments from 9 am until 1 pm (eight appointments a day for an embassy that covers So. California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado…)  You can make an appointment via the online scheduler no more than 90 days in advance of your desired date, and your appointment must occur within 90 days of your departure date.  Appointments are individual, not based on the family unit, so Robert and I each needed separately scheduled times.

Since the website very clearly indicates it can take up to 90 days following your appointment for the embassy to actually issue the visa, I came away bit nonplussed.  Upon further research of blogs and review sites, as well as digging into the site’s FAQs, I discovered the embassy typically turns around the visas in two to six weeks.   That opened up a window — not a comfortably big one — but hey, we don’t have much choice.

I started checking the on-line appointment scheduler to see how it worked, and it just plain didn’t.  Each date I searched over the next 90 days on the calendar came up “no appointments available.”  I figured the scheduler was down for maintenance or some other reason, so I waited a couple days and tried again.  Got the same result from my next two or three tries over as many days.  

Next I clicked on the “contact us” email link and inquired about the lack of operability.  The reply indicated the scheduler was working just fine, but that appointments book very quickly.  It was suggested I try around noon the following day for available times precisely 90 days out. So the next day I checked the scheduler around 11:55 am — no luck.  Again at 11:58 am — strike two. Then at noon straight-up — bingo! Staring back at me from the screen were eight chartreuse buttons sequentially marked 9:00 am, 9:30 am, and so on. (The embassy must have received loads of emails like mine, because this process has since been greatly clarified on their website).

Even though we were months away from wanting to book appointments, I was curious to see just how long these eight newly hatched time slots would remain available.  By 12:05 pm, five were left; by 12:10 there were only two; by 12:15, all had vanished. Over the next couple months I would occasionally perform the same exercise with remarkably consistent results.  The longest any appointments lasted was about 20 minutes.

When the time came to actually book our appointments, I drove home for lunch so Robert and I could sign in simultaneously — he on the iPad and I on the MacBook Air.  We sat there for a good five minutes clickity-clacking on our respective “refresh” buttons until like clockwork those eight precious boxes popped up and we snagged adjacent appointments for Monday, 9 September.

Criminal Background Checks — The trickiest balancing act is obtaining FBI criminal background checks and income/asset verifications.  This is because both must be issued less than 90 days prior to the embassy appointment (which can’t be booked more than 90 days in advance, remember?)  Break out the calendar!

While the Spanish government will gladly accept state criminal background checks, directly from the AZ Dept of Public Safety website I read, “Arizona law does not permit the Central State Repository to do a criminal history record check or to provide a clearance letter for the purpose of immigration, obtaining a visa, or for foreign adoption.”  

I found this a bit hard to believe so I called them up and was informed that this is because Arizona is a “closed-record” state.  I mean, really, I didn’t want someone else’s criminal history record, I wanted ours!  And this in a state where anyone can legally stroll around pretty much anywhere carrying an AR-15 or two…

Soooooo, we needed to get our clearances from the FBI on the east coast.  This involves applying for and paying on line, getting fingerprinted locally, snail-mailing the printout of the email confirmation and the fingerprints to West Virginia, and waiting for an email certificate in return.  Much to my surprise, this entire process was completed in eight days. I found it necessary to call FBI customer service with a follow-up question and was flabbergasted to reach a live rep after a single prompt and only a couple rings.  My question was answered quickly and professionally, and I was moved to compliment the rep on how much I was impressed with their service.

Clearances in hand, the next step was to have them apostilled.  I hadn’t heard of this before, but briefly it is a formal certification accepted by many countries based on a treaty from the 1950s.  Only states and the federal government may issue them, and only for documents issued by their respective jurisdictions. Hence, the FBI clearance needed a federal apostille, and you get those in Washington DC.  It can be done pretty cheaply by mail, but according to several blogs, that process can take weeks due to backlogs. Not wanting to bite my fingernails down to my wrists, I found a local service in DC (usauthentication.com) that will walk the applications and clearances to the Sec of State office, return in person two or three days later to pick up the finished documents, and then Fedex them back to us.  Best $152 I’ve ever spent, as that whole process was likewise completed in just over a week.

But we still were not done with the lousy clearances!  All embassy-required documents (plus any related apostilles/notarizations) must be translated into Spanish if not originally available in that language, and the work may only be done by a translator certified by the Spanish government.  In the United States there are maybe twenty of them, and none in Arizona. I randomly reached out via email to three, all of whom expressed interest in our project and were priced roughly the same. I selected one and had a very good interaction with her, emailing numerous documents back and forth over a number of weeks.  Not a cheap part of the process, as we spent $660 for all the required translations.

Oh, and don’t forget you need to supply a copy of each of the original documents and the translations.

Income/Asset Verifications — The minimum annual income requirements according to the embassy’s posted schedule are rather humble:  USD 28,406 for the primary applicant plus USD 7,102 for the second family member at the current Euro/$ conversion rate.   Fortunately we can meet this hurdle; however, this is where the various embassies’ autonomy can come into play.  A couple blogs pointed out that these figures represent minimum amounts needed — if the applicants plan to live in a higher-cost city (say, Madrid perhaps) the embassy may look for additional funding.  We have tried to anticipate this contingency and are hoping for the best.  

Documenting our funds involved contacting Vanguard and talking to two different representatives, explaining that we couldn’t simply download our statements from the web like they kept suggesting.  I repeated that the embassy requires a signed and notarized statement to confirm its authenticity. At the end of the day, we obtained the proper documents (and duly had them translated and copied).

Medical Insurance — The final wonky item is medical insurance.  A full policy covering all routine and emergency medical conditions, with no copays or deductibles, as well as repatriation coverage (getting a body back to the US) is required to have been purchased by the time of the appointment.  The embassy provides a list of approved Spanish insurance companies, but they all transact in Spanish — quite the challenge when making such an important decision. Then I stumbled onto an office of Sanitas (the largest insurer in Spain) that specializes in helping expats obtain policies in English (sanitasexpat.com).  What a find! Although we have already purchased the policy in order to satisfy the visa requirements, Sanitas was able to delay the effective date by 60 days until 1 November.

We opted for a more basic policy that requires treatment in-network and doesn’t cover non-emergency events outside Spain.  We figure we won’t be traveling to other countries that often during our first year anyway, and if we do we can buy travel policies for those short durations.  And Sanitas maintains a large and modern clinic in downtown Madrid that has at least four English-speaking doctors on staff. Total cost for twelve months of coverage for both of us was USD 2,750.

There are all sorts of other necessary documents like medical certificates, marriage certificates, applications, disclaimers, random forms in Spanish, passport photos, letters of intent, host letters…it’s a fairly extensive list.  But we’re ready for our Monday appointments and feel pretty good about them.

We’ll update when we know more.

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