How to Move to Spain: Applying for the Non-Lucrative Residency Visa
The priority mail package arrived last week. I'd last seen it in Washington, DC, as I handed it over with my visa application to an ornery staffer at the Spanish consulate there. Unsure if my application would be approved, I tried my best to forget about it until the evidence arrived on my doorstep in Southern California. With trepidation, I gingerly tore the envelope open. Inside rested a letter from the consulate, my various application documents, and my passport. Miraculously, a shiny new visado adorned one of the pages, and the letter from the consulate detailed how to claim residency once I arrive in Spain. Under the signature is a logo created by the Spanish tourism agency, commanding me in bold black letters: "I need Spain."
Need it, I do. But I'll back up for a moment and say that although my original idea was to move to Spain immediately, my recent changes of plans have me feeling like wandering for a while rather than committing to a new home. So for now, I'm staying in California through Christmas, and then I'll begin my adventures in Madrid before New Year's Eve. There's something poetic about aligning my movement with the fresh start of a new year. Then I'll travel for a while - my first experience flying solo - and see how I feel and where I want to end up. Maybe that will mean I stay in Spain, maybe not.
That said, I'm delighted to have the option to move to Spain, which feels like my second home, and I worked hard to make this visa happen. I thought I'd share everything I learned in case any of you lovely readers make the impulsive (but great) decision to up and move to another country. I benefited so much from others' detailed blog posts about how the process works and I'm paying it forward.
The How: Don't Panic
When I announced I was moving to Spain, the first question most people asked me was, "How?" Spain being the gorgeous country it is, pretty much everyone understood the why, but that was the easy part.
U.S. citizens can visit countries in the Schengen Area (most of Europe) for up to ninety days in a 180-day period, but any longer than that and we need a visa. Given that I'm not a student, not working for a Spanish employer, and not related to any Spanish citizens, the prospect of trying to obtain a long-term visa was daunting, to say the least. I spent a lot of time on travel blogs trying to figure out how in the hell anyone else managed to make the move.
Enter the Non-Lucrative Residency Visa, also known as el Visado Residencia Sin Fin Lucrativo. The name hints at the parameters of the visa: it allows long-term residency in Spain, but on the condition that the applicant is not working in the Spanish economy. As the consulate's website indicates, the visa is appropriate for someone who is either (1) not working or (2) working remotely. As a freelance writer, I fall into the latter category. This means I can work for any company or organization as long as they're not based in Spain. I speak fluent Spanish but my writing in the language is not up to journalistic standards, so I'd never planned to write for Spanish publications anyways. I'd found my solution.
The problem? The processing time for the visa listed on the consulate's website is two to three weeks, and I'd purchased a one-way plane ticket departing in five. That meant I had about a week to assemble everything I needed for the application in order to be sure I'd get my passport back before my flight. After a panicky Friday night, I collected myself and spent the weekend researching my options. The end result is that the visa ended up costing more than if I'd completed the process over several months, but I did get it done in a week. All I can say is never underestimate the power of persistence, strong coffee, and sheer will.
The What: Documenting My Entire Life
The list of documents required for the Non-Lucrative Residency Visa is long. Make sure to check your consulate's website, as the requirements vary depending on where you're applying, but the documents listed for the consulate in Washington, DC are as follows:
- National visa application form
- Recent passport photo
- U.S. passport or green card/visa (plus a copy)
- Financial proof that you can live in Spain without working there (plus copy)
- Proof of health insurance coverage in Spain (plus copy)
- Federal or state police report, translated into Spanish and bearing the Apostille of the Hague (plus copy)
- Medical certificate, translated into Spanish (plus copy)
- Money, honey (to pay various fees)
- Proof that you live in the area served by the consulate where you are applying (I used my DC ID)
Basically, I needed to prove to the Spanish government that I am an upstanding, healthy, and financially solvent citizen who poses zero risks to the Spanish public. And that requires a lot of paperwork. Most of these documents needed their own uniquely thrilling (read: bureaucratic) process to obtain, so I'll detail them below. Some were straightforward to get, but others were a headache and a half. Aside from the entertainment value of my various antics, I'm hoping this provides a helpful overview of how to gather these documents in an altogether too-short time frame.
The Basics: The Indignities of Passport Photos
The first items you'll need are relatively simple to obtain: the visa application, passport, and passport photo. Luckily for me, the passport part was easy. I already had my passport, and it met the requirements of an issue date within the last ten years and an expiration date more than six months in the future. If you don't have your passport yet, you'll likely need to give yourself several months to get one, though there may be ways to expedite the process.
The visa application form can be found online, but I just filled out and signed a hard copy at the consulate. The form is only a few pages long and requests basic information including your passport information, U.S. address, contact information, and your address in Spain. Since I don't have a place there, I listed the address of my Airbnb, but I got the sense that this isn't particularly important. I'm not even going to be staying there anymore since I changed my departure date. If you don't have any address, I'd just list the city where you plan to live.
Funnily, the passport photo proved to be the most obnoxious of the basic documents to collect. The Sunday after my initial Friday panic, I traipsed around downtown DC for a couple hours before finally getting my hands on a decent photo. I started at a Walgreen's in Chinatown, where I became the test case for a new staffer learning how to take passport photos. The lighting was bad, the photo was dark, and then the camera died. After letting them wrestle with it for ten minutes, I moved on. The Fedex office nearby had a system failure, and I finally wound up perched on a stool in the back of a CVS, next to piles of candy bar and tampon boxes. A kind employee took my photo and assured me the lighting was correct. Something about this gentle soul struck me as trustworthy, so I rolled with it and the photos turned out fine.
The Financial Proof: Not for the Faint of Heart or Wallet
I admit that the financial documentation was the most nerve-wracking part of the entire process. In order to prove that I can live in Spain without working, I had to show either a sufficient source of remote income or proof of adequate savings. Since I'm a new freelancer and didn't have any income from my writing at the time of application, I had to rely on my savings. I'd been saving up for a while as part of my original plan to take a round-the-world trip, but the consulate doesn't provide any guidelines on the minimum amount you need to show for your application to be approved.
In classic bureaucratic fashion, the only response they gave me when I asked how much I needed was, "Enough." Some of the blogs I read listed a monthly or yearly requirement, but when I mentioned the numbers to the consular staff in DC, they looked at me like I had three heads. They also didn't give me any guidance about which documents to provide. The visa requirement sheet I picked up in the office ominously warns, "This is the most important requirement for this type of visa," which only served to increase my anxiety.
In the end, I asked for a signed letter from my bank indicating the total amount in my checking and savings accounts. I also provided documentation of stocks I own in order to shore up my savings in case they weren't enough. I absolutely benefited from class privilege here. It's possible that without these investments, which were gifted to me by family members, I would not have gotten approved. My ability to save was also augmented by my lack of student loans and the fact that I had a well-paying job, though I was still living on a non-profit salary in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
In conclusion, you'll either need money, a remote gig, or very detailed and thorough independent/freelance income documents. Moving to another country in this way requires class privilege, pure and simple. It's messed up but true.
The Health Documents: Why You Should Work with Doctors
Getting the health-related documents wasn't too difficult, but that's because I got by with little help from my friends - specifically, my co-workers. I was working at a health center in DC when I applied for the visa, and I was also a patient there. I looked up an online template to find out exactly what the medical certificate needed to say and then drafted the letter myself. (This blog post offers some helpful details as well as the template.) I then had a certain Spaniard translate it for me - hey, he broke my heart, but at least he did me this favor - and gave it to my doctor to sign when I went in for a physical exam. It's important to note that they may need an MD to sign it. My doctor is a PA (Physician's Assistant) so we asked a provider with an MD to cosign the letter.
I'm sure getting the medical certificate wouldn't be all too difficult regardless of your provider, but having a doctor who also knew me in a professional capacity and trusted me to draft the letter was certainly helpful. Plus, my appointment was down the hall from my office, so I didn't waste any time in the process. Some consulates may require the medical certificate to be translated by a sworn translator, but at the time of writing this (November 2017), the DC consulate did not. They just needed an accurate translation.
As for the health insurance, I had already identified a travel insurance company I wanted to use during the early planning stages for my now-canceled round-the-world trip. Nomadic Matt wrote a glowing review of World Nomads, which is what first tipped me off to their services. Given that my job at the health center was assisting patients with enrolling in healthcare and benefits programs, I assessed the program and costs myself. I decided they were the best option, but there are plenty of others. The main requirement for the visa is that your coverage works in Spain and has a minimum of 30,000 Euro coverage (World Nomads offers $100,000). I initially bought six months of coverage, but the consular staff told me when I applied that I only need the first ninety days.
I then wrote World Nomads to request a letter detailing my coverage, and their customer service staff was helpful and prompt in supplying the document. When my plans changed, I requested three months of coverage rather than six, since I'm not sure if I'll move to Spain, and they were also incredibly helpful with that change. I haven't even used the insurance yet, but based on their customer service, I highly recommend them.
The Background Check: Fast or Cheap, but Never Both
I've saved the best for the last. The background check and subsequent Apostille were far and away the most complicated, confusing, and costly component of my visa application, largely due to my compressed timeline.
The requirement consists of a federal or state background check from the place where you live. The consulate's factsheet for the visa, which I picked up in person from their office, says that a state background check must be from where you have lived for at least six months in the last year. The website, however, says that it must come from where you have lived for the last five years. Given that I had been living in DC for less than five years, I opted for a federal background check just in case.
The standard processing time for an Identity History Summary Check from the FBI, also known as a criminal background check, is twelve to fourteen weeks. That was not going to work. The good news is that I quickly found an FBI-approved list of channelers, who help to expedite the process. I settled on National Background Check, Inc. based on customer reviews and the fingerprinting office's proximity to my house. The bad news? Channelers are expensive. A standard background check from the FBI with the three-month wait time is $18, and going through a channeler cost me ten times that amount.
I first had to go to the fingerprint capture location in downtown DC. It was tucked away in an office building and difficult to find, but once I arrived the staff were extremely helpful. You provide proof of identity and complete a basic form and then they take your fingerprints and do the rest. The process was costly because I had to pay separate fees for fingerprinting, processing the request, expediting the request, and next-day shipping. Normally they take three to five days, but getting the document the following day more than doubled the price. The background check showed up at my house the following morning as promised, however, so at least they're reliable. The bottom line for obtaining your federal background check: give yourself several months or be prepared to pay a lot of money. I detail the costs in another section later in this post so that you can see exactly what I paid.
Getting the background check was pricey but straightforward. It's what had to happen next that proved tricky.
The Apostille: Why You Should Work with Lawyers
You may recall in the visa requirements I listed that the background check must have something called the "Apostille of the Hague." I had no idea what this was, but a quick Google search revealed that it's a certificate that legalizes documents for use in a foreign country, specifically countries that are party to the Hague convention. Without an Apostille, my background check would not be recognized by the Spanish government.
The State Department is the only entity that can Apostille a federal document, such as my FBI background check. They will only give you the Apostille if you provide the original document, which was, of course, in English. The problem is that the Spanish consulate wanted the document to be translated into Spanish and then given the Apostille. If the State Department wouldn't Apostille anything other than the original, how in the world was I supposed to get a translated version certified? I puzzled for a full day before figuring out the solution. It turns out that the State Attorney's office can also provide the Apostille, and all they needed was a document notarized in the state to do so.
This is when I remind you yet again that I could not have pulled this off without help from my friends. The health center where I worked happened to be a medical-legal partnership, and I worked in the legal services department. One of the attorneys there - if you're reading this, K, know that you basically saved my life - is a certified Spanish translator. She translated the background check into Spanish and another co-worker who is a DC public notary notarized the document. I then took the translated and notarized document to the DC Government Notarial Section and they gave me the Apostille right away.
I also dropped off the original background check at the Department of State Office of Authentications just to cover my bases, but I probably didn't need to do that. Unlike DC government, State takes a few days to process an Apostille request. You go to the office during 8-9am walk-in hours, queue up, fill out a form, and drop off the document. They give you a receipt that you return with in three business days to pick up your document and accompanying Apostille. If you don't live in DC and can't just stroll into the State Department, the document will have to be shipped to them and then shipped back to you.
All in all, getting the background check and Apostille was a harrowing and unpleasant experience, and my amazing colleagues made it significantly easier than it would have been otherwise. It's also worth noting that I have no idea what would have happened with my visa application if I'd had any arrests on my record. I've risked arrest several times during direct actions (protests) but have never been booked, and I don't know what the Spanish government would deem unacceptable. I assume they decide on a case-by-case basis, but I'm not sure. Activists beware, I guess (but don't stop protesting).
The Application: "She Doesn't Even Go Here"
After a week of waking up early and biking all over DC to collect the documents, I finally rolled up to the Spanish consulate on Monday morning, seven days after my Sunday passport photo adventure of the previous week. In the most Spanish turn of events ever, there was a strike. Based on the signs I saw, embassy employees were striking for higher wages. After having worked with diplomatic staff to help them enroll in health insurance, I don't doubt that the pay isn't great. Thankfully I didn't have to cross a picket line to get inside, since they were huddled in a group away from the entrance.
I went up to the window and gave my application materials to the staff member helping me, who reviewed each of them. I was required to provide originals and copies of almost all the documents, but it turns out the copies were just for me to keep. I gave her everything required and then some. I'd decided to include my flight and Airbnb confirmation as well, since the website suggests providing any supporting documents you can regarding the move to Spain. Finally, I included a letter of intent, which wasn't required in DC but which some bloggers (in Chicago, for instance) found to be a surprise requirement not listed on the consulate's website. A letter of intent explains why you want the visa, aside from the obvious fact that Spain is a beautiful place. I wrote about my desire to pursue writing, perfect my Spanish, and return to the culture I loved living in as a college student. I even surprised myself by mentioning that I want to write a book, which, once written, I realized is true. When I asked the staffer if she wanted the letter, this piece of my heart, she shrugged and took it.
I then had to wait. I watched bright-eyed students and Spanish families and sharply dressed businessmen get called up to the window, and I kept waiting. Finally, when I was the last one left, it was my turn.
I bounded to the window, exactly $151 in cash for the fees clutched in my hand, and the woman stared me down and asked to see my DC ID, which I'd already shown them once. She threw the ID on the counter and jabbed her index finger at the address:
"Whose house is this?"
"Mine," I answered, taken aback. She explained that I had a California address on my investment statement and had provided them with a prepaid envelope to ship my passport to California, and demanded to know where I live. I told her that I live in DC but since I'm moving to Spain - which is, ahem, why I was there in the first place - I'm going back to California to visit family.
She was not convinced.
I offered to bring in my voter registration, my lease, my utility bill, my W-2, my paystubs, all of it - not to mention, I told her, that the requirements to get a DC ID in the first place are stringent, and I'd met them. She waved her hand at my offer, dismissing my three and a half years living in the District, and sighed.
Flipping her long hair over her shoulder, she glared at me and said, "Even though you do not live here, and you are just visiting, and you live in California, I will accept this application." She had the air of Mother Theresa doing a great favor for the downtrodden, only even more magnanimous. I'd love to say I had a witty retort, but I just shoved my cash across the counter, took my receipt, and ran. It wasn't until I hopped back on a bike and pedaled away that I started laughing at the absurdity of someone telling me where I lived. Never a dull moment with the Spaniards.
The Cost: Priceless?
Here's my breakdown of all the costs associated with my visa application. I'm warning you now, it wasn't cheap.
- Passport photos: $15
- Fingerprints: $20
- FBI channeler background check fee: $50
- Next-day expedition of background check: $75
- Next-day shipping of background check documents: $50
- Apostille of the Hague from the State Department (original background check): $8
- Apostille of the Hague from DC government (Spanish translation of background check): $15
- Copay for my physical exam: $10 (though I would've spent this anyway)
- Travel insurance for 90 days: $250 (definitely comparable to US health insurance prices)
- Printing and copying costs at Fedex office: $20
- Visa fee: $140
- Residency fee: $11
- Prepaid priority mail envelope to ship my passport to California: $23
- My sanity: apparently for sale when I want something badly enough
Total cost of this godforsaken visa: $687
Since I would be paying a comparable amount for health insurance if I was staying in the United States, however, the actual cost of just the visa materials was $437.
If I had given myself a few months instead of a few days to collect the documents, I could have avoided the need for a prepaid envelope and hefty background check fees and taken off another $200 from my costs. So I'd estimate that for someone with a lot of lead time, this visa should cost between $200 and $250, or about half of what I paid. Of course, I ended up pushing my flight back and didn't need to rush quite so much, but what can you do? Hindsight is 20/20.
The Conclusion: Stars Aligned
A lot had to fall into place at just the right time in order for me to complete this application in a week, which is why I don't necessarily recommend (scratch that, I definitely don't recommend) doing what I did. I followed my heart and my gut, though, and in the end the universe rewarded me for it.
I have ninety days upon my arrival in Spain to decide if I want to live there, and I truly have no idea what I will do. I'm hoping that once I get over there and indulge my wanderlust for a while (stay tuned for where I plan to go) there will be a small, quiet voice inside of me that tells me where I need to be. All I know right now is that I can't wait to go back.