Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Visa policy seems to evolve rapidly.  While preparing to apply for a visa to Bolivia for a planned trip to La Paz, Lake Titicaca, and Peru, I found that various websites had contradictory, outdated, or incorrect information.  This post will undoubtedly join the outdated ones within a few months or years.  For that reason, let me say up front: this post accurately depicts only the experience of a US citizen applying for a Bolivian tourist visa in person at the Bolivian Consulate General in Washington DC during May 2015.  This was the first time I’ve applied for a visa and I hope you will be able to learn from my mistakes.

Who Need Apply

If you are a citizen of Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, most countries in Western Europe, Turkey, most of South America, and several other countries, congratulations!  Bolivia likes your country.  You don’t need a visa to enter Bolivia.  Check your country’s specific documentation requirements like passport or ID for entry.  Alas, poor Americans.  Not only do US citizens need a Bolivian visa (unless they’re of Bolivian origin, apparently), but the requirements appear to be the most stringent of any country in the world.  My speculation would be that Bolivia’s requirements for a visa, required of US citizens since 2007, are in retaliation for similar treatment by the United States of Bolivians seeking a visa to enter the United States.  After all, as I understand it, US citizens are the only group in the world who need to prove “economic solvency” to enter Bolivia.

A US citizen may apply for a visa on arrival in Bolivia, currently for a fee of $135.  I decided it would be safer to apply for our visas in advance to avoid any nightmare scenario where we landed in Bolivia but were refused entry because of a missing document or something.  The fee is currently $160 to apply for a visa in advance.  You will need to identify the consulate serving your area.  Each Bolivian Consulate General in the US serves a specific region.  There are relatively few consulates in the country (and none in the Midwest), so the regions are quite large and can be curiously shaped. For instance, the consulate in Washington DC takes care of applications from nearby residents of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, and North Carolina but also the more distant states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota!  Check which consulate covers you- it will be Washington DC, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, or New York.

Documents Required

The first stage of the application is done electronically, but you’ll need to gather the required documents first.  Make sure your passport is valid for 6 months (the consulate website implies 6 months from the time of visa application, but I would suspect it’s 6 months from entry into Bolivia…call the consulate for clarification if you’re getting close to expiration).  First, you’ll need a digital passport-style photo.  You can either have it done commercially and scan it or do it yourself.  We took the photos ourselves against a neutral background and then used the US State Department’s Photo Composition Template‘s online tool to crop the pictures appropriately.  There are size restrictions for the file which I forget…I think it was 150kb for the photo.

Once you’ve identified the appropriate consulate, gather and scan the necessary documents.  (Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know I’d need to upload images of the documents until I finished the data entry and so I was scrambling to make it to the consulate before closing time.)  Be sure to clean the glass on your scanner- the consulate was reluctant to accept a couple of our document images because there were blurry sections, albeit in areas that I thought did not interfere with the necessary information.  After some discussion, they agreed to accept printed documents when the image had a blurry scan, but they clearly preferred to deal with it electronically.  In retrospect, it probably would have been easier to make screen shots of the itinerary and economic documents instead of scanning most of them.  (Just bring up the page in your browser, hit print screen, paste it in an image editor, and crop it.)

You will need to scan the following documents per the Bolivian Consulate General Washington website. Again there are size restrictions for the digital files- I can’t remember exactly but it was pretty small, like 300kb or 600kb.

  1. Image of passport information page (the one with your picture and demographic information)
  2. Itinerary
  3. Proof of economic solvency (a “bank statement or equivalent”)
  4. Yellow fever vaccination (listed as optional)

The passport is straightforward, but there are some opportunities for confusion with the others.  For the itinerary, the consulate website says you need both a copy of a travel itinerary and a copy of your hotel reservation or letter of invitation, but they only allow you to scan one.  I scanned a copy of my roundtrip airline itinerary and that was accepted.

For the proof of economic solvency, you may scan a bank statement and black out the account numbers, but your name and the account balance must be visible.  The logical follow up question is: How much money do you need to prove you’re economically solvent?  The consulate website doesn’t make this clear, but since the cost of living is comparatively lower in Bolivia, a few thousand dollars in your account *should* be enough.

The Thorny Issue of Yellow Fever Vaccination

The yellow fever vaccination is listed as optional during the application and the consulate website doesn’t list it as a requirement at all.  However, unless you have a medical reason not to get the vaccine (and there is a complicated waiver process available if your doctor advises against it), it is best to get your yellow fever vaccination and carry the International Certificate of Vaccination when traveling in South America.  The reason is that certain countries including Bolivia restrict entry from travelers who have visited other countries where yellow fever is endemic if they don’t have proof of vaccination.  Attempting to enter Bolivia from Peru, for instance, even if you already have a visa you will need the yellow vaccination card even if your Peruvian itinerary didn’t take you into any areas where there is a risk of yellow fever.

Some friends had a disaster on their honeymoon when Costa Rica refused them entry after traveling from Peru.  Yellow fever isn’t even found where they had traveled (Lima and Machu Picchu) but they were still refused entry without proof of yellow fever vaccination.  One moral of the story is that you should always check the country vaccination requirements (the State Department’s country specific information pages is a useful guide), but requirements can always change with little or no notice.  The easiest thing is to just get the shot, which was less painful (but a lot more expensive) than a flu vaccination!

Update on September 1, 2015:  Arriving by air from the United States to El Alto, the Bolivian passport control officer did not examine our yellow fever cards nor did he appear to check our passports to see if we’d recently traveled to any yellow fever-affected country.  However, I suspect that officers operating at border crossings between Bolivia and countries were yellow fever is endemic (like Peru) probably do check for such things.  I believe my original advice is sound even if it turned out to be not applicable in our particular case.

Visa application on the Bolivian Consulate General website
Visa application on the Bolivian Consulate General website

Online Statement Entry

Once you have your documents in digital form, you may begin.  Click “Sworn Statement For Visa Application” on the appropriate consulate website.  The forms are in Spanish and English but sometimes the responses are only in Spanish.  That’s not usually a problem, but be careful on the choices for marital status.  Also, your country is “ESTADOS UNIDOS”… don’t look for United States or America.  After you supply your email address, you will be emailed a code good for 48 hours.  Enter the code to continue.  As best I can tell, you can’t request a code on one computer and start it on another.  If your documents are ready, the application process is mostly straightforward with one exception.

At one point you are instructed to enter your national identification number.  I entered my SSN since the US really doesn’t have a national identification number, and SSN popped up when I searched online for US identification number.  I intially was going to enter my passport number, but that’s a separate field elsewhere in the application.  Curiously, when I delivered it to the consulate, the staff member who took the document initially said, “This is wrong,” apparently expecting the national identification number to match the passport.  When I explained why I filled out the form the way I did, she accepted the application.  I would advise anyone else applying to call the consulate and ask what they want for this section.

Once you complete the data fields, you will have the chance to view a draft visa application PDF.  Don’t stop here; the text on the PDF will indicate that it’s not yet valid.  Continue to a page to upload the rest of your documents.  Now you will be able to print out the completed visa application.  Images (except your passport photo) are not attached to the document but don’t worry, the consular officers will be able to see them on their computer.

Applying for the Visa

You now have two weeks to get the completed application and passport to the appropriate consulate.  Since I have family in the DC area, we preferred to apply in person during a visit.  If you live further away, you’ll probably have no choice but to mail it or use a visa service for an additional fee.  Be sure to enclose return envelope and postage and don’t forget to sign the application.  The Bolivian Consulate General in Washington is located at 1825 Connecticut Avenue, a few blocks north of Dupont Circle Metro.  Curiously, Google Maps shows the entrance to the building on nearby Florida Ave, but that is incorrect.  The consulate has its own entrance facing Connecticut Avenue just north of the main entrance to the office building.

Staff were very courteous, notwithstanding the adrenaline spikes we experienced when she identified problems with a couple scanned documents and the national identification number.  Although some websites indicated visa payment is done by money order, the consulate did accept Visa (appropriately enough!) and MasterCard…”But they don’t take American Express.”  The staff member told us the visas would be ready for pick up in nine days (it turned out to be ten, but not a big deal).  She provided receipt stickers.  We confirmed that with the stickers, someone else could pick up the passports, and my parents were able to do so the following week without any problems.  Fortunately, we called first to confirm they were ready since it took a day longer than we’d been told.  The visa takes up a full page in the back of your passport.  The tourist visa is good for ten years for multiple entries for up to 30 days at a time (extensions may be possible).  Since your passport will always expire before the visa, I’m not sure what happens then.  Maybe you can bring the old passport on the trip or have the visa transferred to the new passport.

Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

  • We didn’t fill out our applications online in advance because we didn’t know if it had to be completed the day we were actually applying (it’s good for two weeks, which in retrospect makes sense given that many people are mailing their applications).
  • We should have called to request clarification on what goes in the “national identification number” field.  If your coffers aren’t that full, you may also wish to clarify how much money is needed to prove “economic solvency.”
  • Since we didn’t know until the day we planned to apply that we’d be scanning documents rather than just bringing in copies of the documents, we found ourselves rushing to get the documents scanned, uploaded, and traveling to the consulate before they closed at 3pm.
  • Due to our haste, we were sloppy and could have had our applications rejected because some of the scans had blurry sections due to dirty scanner glass.  Fortunately the consulate accepted paper copies of certain documents.
  • Don’t forget to sign your application, especially if you’re mailing it.
  • Scanning was time consuming and unnecessary for some documents; we needed to scan the vaccination certificate and passport but we could have pressed print screen to get the itinerary and economic documents digitalized faster than scanning the printed copies
  • Call the consulate to make sure the passport/visa is ready for pick up in case it takes longer than expected.

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus

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