How to Survive The Foreigner’s Office

Author’s Note: This post seemed fitting today, considering my first experience with the dreaded papeleo started on July 3rd, 2007, when I applied for my student visa to come to Spain. Likewise, I just picked up my five-year residence card on Friday.

On my first trip to Sevilla, six years ago nearly to the day, I was breathless at the site of the half-moon, colonnaded Plaza de España, nestled just out of the historic center and at the helm of the plush María Luisa Park. The Triana tiles gleamed in the early July sunlight as I sat writing on a bench in the mural depicting Valladolid, a city I had just moved away from. I brought my travel partner, Catherine, the very next day. While not as bowled over as I, she did know that it was the fictional Planet Naboo of Star Wars fame.

Two years in the future, I was applying for a visa at the Chicago consulate. The deal was that Spain put a shiny visa on an entire page of my passport in exchange for 90 days in the land of toros and tapas. From there, I would need to go to local police and present a mountain of paperwork claiming I had a salary and health insurance. Seemed easy to present a few pieces of paper and stand in line.

Think again – what ensued has been a very ugly battle between me and the central immigration offices of Andalucía, a little bit of trickery (ok, flat-out lying) and finally securing a five-year residency card after thirteen months of appointments, photocopies and a lawyer.

Estés dónde estés, here’s a few tips to make your trip to Extranjeros a little more smooth:

Brush up on your vocabulary
The people who work in the oficina de extranjeros are called funcionarios. Spain, like Italy, has a high number of civil servants, and those Spaniards wishing to have job security and work short hours take an exam called an oposición to be able to be one. If selected, they are entitled to have breakfast at the precise hour you arrive to the front of the line. You’ll need to turn in all your papeleo, paperwork, to these people, so follow the advice below, too.

At the office, you’ll need to queue up and get a ticket. When your letter and number is called, you turn in your documents and receive a snobby-ass look and the word that you’ll come back for your fingerprints – your huellas, in addition to paying a tax and presenting two or three recent photos. Note that in Spain, these foto carne are much smaller than their American counterparts. After that appointment, you’ll have to wait 45 days to pick up your plastic card, and chat up a security guard to let you cut. I learned that two prorrogas in.

Know what you need to bring, and bring photocopies
Tres fotos carné? Form EX-##? Best to do your research, as every official act performed in the office has a different set of requisites. For pareja de hecho, for example, I had to present a certificate stating I wasn’t already married, signed and stamped by an official US Notary. Not necessary for an extension on your student visa. Speak to your consulate or embassy, download the forms to turn in here, ask about tasas, or fees, and bring a few small pictures. That said, made at least two photocopies of each document and have anything notarized if it’s a copy to turn in. Believe me, this will save you headaches, as this woman can tell you. Got a stapler? Toss that in your bag, just in case.

Dress appropriately, and bring a Spaniard along if you can
Showing up and looking nice can really make a difference, especially here in Sevilla, where appearances are everything. I have been in a skirt when everyone else is in flipflops and board shorts, but am generally greeted with a smile and a willing attitude.

Likewise for bringing a Spanish friend. My dear amiga Kelly told me this as she was applying for a work visa last year. She swears that having her saint of a boyfriend along meant more efficiency and no Sevillana stink face. If you’ve got a willing friend, invite them to a coffee in exchange for a few hours of quality time with you (And by quality time I mean you pulling out your hair time).

Go at the right time
Officially, winter hours in the office are like a banker’s: 9-5. In the summer, don’t expect the office to be open past 2. I remember my first trip to the office in October of 2007, clutching a paper folder with all of my documents. I left my house barely at 6am, arriving to stand at the end of a very, very long queue. At 8am, you can get your number, but our dear friends the fucnionarios won’t roll in until after 9. For this reason, I tend to show up either right at 9am, or after everyone has had their breakfast rotation at 11.30. It’s also advisable to go after 1 p.m., as the wait times are generally shorter. Note that some tasks have only a certain number of tickets assigned each day, so if you’re merely renewing a student visa, go whenever te da la gana. If it’s something like asking for your marriage book, the earlier, the better.

Be patient
Chances are you’ll be sent to multiple offices, to numerous people. The rules for every type of trámite are complex and must be followed precisely. Use message boards, other expats from your countries and the consulate to be as prepared as possible before you go, and realize there will be lines to wait in, documents missing, frustrations to be had. But, really, it all works out. I waited thirteen months to be able to hold a little red card in my hand, and now don’t have to go back (barring a residence change) until February of 2016. A little patience goes a long way in Spain, especially in the foreigner’s office.


All you expats: Have any extranjería horror stories? Tips for making the process any degree less painful? Got enchufe somewhere? Tell me about it in the comments!

Two month mark

September 12 is the day I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Granada, Spain to begin an eight-month stint as a high school English language teacher in southern Spain. I start October 3, just one day after my orientation.

The day I got notice that I had one a grant from the Ministerio de Educación y Cienca de España – April 30 – I screamed so loud I lost my voice. I couldn’t believe I had to wait until October to start my job and move away. I started doing a ton of research – reading books, planning itineraries, researching Andalucía, talking to people who had lived or studied in the South. But every day, I find something else I’m going to miss about the US. Even really stupid stuff, like watching football on TV or going back to school for tailgating. All that stuff will be here when I come back, and I’m sure I’ll become a huge fútbol fan anyway.
This past weekend, I was in Iowa City for one last time before I leave for Spain. It was strange being back while Jess was talking about 401K plans, and I realized how ungrown-up I feel. My “job” will be working for 12 hours a week. I realize that I can always get a real job when I come back to the States, but I want to feel grown up and not have to worry about spending too much money when I go out downtown. Everyone else is going to be all together, while I will have no one! I can’t even imagine how I’m going to budget or if I’ll ever get used to everything being closed for siesta (though I could definitely get used to napping in the middle of the day!). knowing that I will have to start my big kid life in another language is already overwhelming me, and I can’t say for sure whether or not I’ll be prepared. Yikes.
The town I’ve been placed in is called Olivares, and it’s about 10 miles outside Seville. I’ll be teaching in a high school, which typically means students will be 14-16. The town has about 8,500 people, so I decided to just commute and live in Sevilla.
The last few weeks have been crazy. If I’m not working so I can afford to live and travel, I’m doing research or running around trying to get things ready to leave. The last two months have gone by insanely fast, and I can only imagine that I’ll be boarding a plane to head to España before I realize it!
Hasta pronto!
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