Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mobility Act -- Immigration Law 2017 -- What You Need to Know!

The one thing you can be sure of in Ecuador is change and now we have new changes in residency visas.  To clarify the many questions that I’ve received, I’ve decided to blog about it. There are still some unknowns about the new act, but I’ll clear those up as I receive news.

Back in the day (meaning when we got our permanent residency visas in 2010), we went to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Washington DC and received our 12-IX and three weeks later upon arriving in Ecuador we had our permanent residency visas (pensioner’s visa) good for 12 years instead of 10 – don’t ask (we still don’t know why that happened). 

There were some stipulations, however, and they had to do with travel. We couldn’t be out of the country more than 90 days for the first two years and then up to 18 months the third year. I call it the 90-90-18 month rule. Unless, you were going for citizenship and then it was the 30-30-30 day rule; you couldn’t be gone from Ecuador more than 90 days in a three-year period. Now we do know some folks who got their citizenship despite that rule, but it took some "lawyering" to get it done.

Our experience with the pensioner’s visa process was seamless (seven years ago) with the aid of an immigration attorney in Quito. It was textbook perfect.

Forget everything I just told you because those are the old rules and these are the new rules, which have some significant changes.

Under the old law there were two categories non-immigrant and immigrant visas, which have now merged so you can dismiss those two words from your vocabulary and now they’re all lumped into the following: pensioner’s visa (retired); investor’s visa (25K in the bank or equivalent property); religious visa (missionary or pastor); student visa; professional visa; volunteer visa and sportsman visa (I have no idea what that entails), and dependent visas (I’m dependent on my husband’s pensioner’s visa), and lastly international protection visas.

I’m going to begin with the Permanent Residency Visa, since most folks are planning to stay (even though they usually don’t and leave after five years to explore other international destinations or back to the States).

Permanent Residency Visa: Allows foreign citizens to stay in Ecuador for an indefinite period of time. If you obtained a temporary visa (which I will talk about at another time) and decide you want to stay indefinitely you will need the following:

*Apostilled criminal background check (FBI). 

*Proof of economic resources. For example for the pensioner’s visa, you must prove that you have $800 per month for life and $100 for each of your dependents.

*All the necessary legal paperwork for the categories listed above.

A temporary resident can be eligible for permanent residency if they married an Ecuadorian citizen (that happens a lot – especially with the teachers we work with); they have stayed in Ecuador for at least 21 months; they’re related to an Ecuadorian citizen (or permanent resident of Ecuador); and  minors or disabled person dependent on a permanent resident of Ecuador. If you are going from a temporary visa to permanent residency visa, you’ll need a valid Ecuadorian criminal report or valid criminal background check and proof of economic means to remain in Ecuador.

Here are the big changes (read carefully):

*Proof of foreign medical insurance or enrollment in Ecuador’s health insurance system (IESS) or private Ecuadorian health carriers (Humana, Salud, Confiamed, etc.).

*Travel Restrictions. This is quite a change from the previous rule. A person with a permanent residency visa cannot be out of the country more than 180 days each year (previously it was 90) during the first two years and after that you may leave the country up to five years (previously it was 18 months). Wow, that’s a big change! The penalty for staying out more than 180 days during the first two years is $1,500.

There are still some things that need to be clarified. For example, those of us who received our permanent residency and cedula seven years ago – are we grandfathered into the new law? What about the folks who started their paperwork in 2016 and are caught in the middle – do the new rules apply? And what type of health insurance must they show. For example, you’re only eligible for IESS (Social Security System of Ecuador), after you become a resident.

My Thoughts: I think it’s a good thing that foreigners are required to show proof of medical insurance before entering the country. One of the reasons why we came to Ecuador was for the excellent medical care, but we had a private policy for three years before we signed up for IESS. And as far as the extended periods of stay outside of Ecuador, I think it’s also a good thing especially for those of us in the sandwich generation with parents who are still alive, children and grandchildren (oh my!). Our problem is this: We’re 61 years old and aren’t eligible for Medicare (yet), so we have to buy medical insurance when we travel to the States (and it isn’t cheap!). And to add insult to injury, under Obamacare we can’t be gone more than 30 days from Ecuador or we have to pay a fine for exceeding those limits. Now, I know Obamacare is being repealed, but as expats we don’t know what the new restrictions will be (better or worse).

As mentioned, the biggest changes are the proof of health insurance (how much coverage I’m not sure about) and, of course, the travel restrictions. I’m not sure what the new fee schedule will be for each of the permanent residency visas (if any), but I will keep on top of it.

Next time, I’ll tackle the change in temporary visas. I won’t update the book Living and Retiring in Cuenca:101 Questions Answered until I’m clear on the new fee schedules (if any) and any other changes.

Until next time…hasta luego!

Connie and Mark 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Seven Years in Review

It’s hard to believe, but we’re coming up on seven years in Cuenca—almost as much time as we spent in Italy, so naturally it’s a time of reflection (the good and the bad).

The other day a newcomer asked, “What’s changed in the time that you’ve been here?”

At first, I didn’t have an immediate response (my mind went blank) and then it all came to me. Here’s a list (by no means complete), but it will give you some idea of the transformations that have taken place in this beautiful city we call home.

1. More Security. I remember when we first arrived, the only police presence were the officers in their brown uniforms with their fluorescent vests. Now, we have transportation police at intersections with video surveillance; citizen police who patrol the parks and streets on foot, bicycle and sometimes horseback, and Wi-Fi and video surveillance in the major parks and streets. It’s incredible when you stop to think about it compared to seven years ago. Also, we have a major 911 Call Center and you can bring your phone into a local police station and they can program it so they have all your vital information and your address, so in an emergency you just hit a single digit and help is on its way. Sure there’s still petty theft, but no more than you would expect from any large city.

2. High Speed Internet. We now have fiber optics all over Cuenca and in our condo building it was installed free of charge. Our kids in Pennsylvania still don’t have fiber optics and we live in a “developing” country.

3. IESS Medical System. When we first arrived we had to have a private medical policy because IESS was not accepting new patients and you had to take a physical exam. Basically, if you weren’t in perfect health you weren’t accepted. That’s all changed. For $78 per month, Mark and I are both covered for hospitalizations, office visits, labs, medical procedures, surgery (inpatient and outpatient), and prescriptions. It’s one of the most efficient systems we’ve ever been part of. We make our appointments online with the same doctor. We’re usually seen within one to three days. Medical records are electronic and we’re seen on time. We’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes. If we need to see a specialist, the wait time is longer. But we always have the option of seeing one of our private physicians for $25-$35 per visit. Now that we’re in our 60’s, we appreciate the fact that we are part of a stable, reliable, and efficient medical system.

4. Easy Come, Easy Go.  It goes without saying that people come and leave Cuenca just like the restaurants. As soon as you find the best restaurant in town, the next thing you know it’s moved or gone out of business (especially in El Centro). The average for a couple is about three to five years before they move on (either to another part of the world or back to the States). Some of the issues that draw couples back are taking care of elderly parents; grandchildren; and health problems. We are at a high altitude and if you have heart or lung conditions, Cuenca is definitely not the place for you. We receive 20% less oxygen at 8,300 feet and therefore all the vital organs in your body are deprived of oxygen. If you have pulmonary problems or heart issues, look for a place at sea level.

5. Transportation. We have a love/hate relationship with the buses in Cuenca. If we could change anything it would be the pollution from the buses, cars and vans. Emission control is certainly something that they’re working on, but not fast enough. I always cover my face with a scarf when I’m out and about and when I run along the trails. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back home and found soot all over my face—streaks of pollution! I don’t even want to think of what my lungs look like. The greatest concern is for younger children who are most susceptible to the particles that lodge in their lungs and stay there! The tranvia (electric train) has made progress, but is often stalled because of contract negotiations. For a while it was making great strides, but now it’s stalled again. It’s on again and off again. I suspect that by 2018, it might be done (hopefully). They are looking to buy new eco-friendly buses, but at $120,000 a piece it might be a while before we see the fleet of 350 being replaced. Mark and I usually walk everywhere and find Cuenca one of the most walkable cities we’ve ever lived in.
Photo courtesy of El Tiempo

6. Language Learning. Mark and I learned Italian in our 20’s and Spanish in our 50’s – what a difference a few decades can make. I still read in Italian, but I’m more fluent in Spanish now (obviously) because I speak it every day. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. We see that with our students all the time. A year after they’ve finished 16 levels of English at CEDEI, they can barely answer a simple question. If you only hang around expats, you’ll have a harder time learning. Our younger teacher friends who have boyfriends/girlfriends are fluent in three months. We’re now at the stage where we can read the newspaper, watch TV in Spanish, and understand basically everything, but we work at it. We write down new words every day and then try to incorporate them into our daily conversations. Just like English, you’re always learning!

7. This is Home. Now when we go back to the States, we refer to Cuenca as home. I still believe after seven years that our family and friends haven’t truly accepted it. I think in part because we didn’t ask their permission to move overseas. But for us it was the best decision we could have ever made. This year we’ll receive our social security, which means we can save that income. Our condo is paid for, so we’ll continue to live on my husband’s UPS pension and continue to save, save, save. We will do more traveling, but we want to build up a nest egg again, which is something we definitely couldn’t do in the States. With property tax of $53 a year and condo fees about $58 a month, it only makes sense to buy if you can.  If you own your home, you can easily live off of $1,300 - $1,500 per month. We also don’t own a car (and never plan to), so you can save even more (no gas, no maintenance, no car insurance, and no worries about theft). In fact, almost all our friends who own a car have had some sort of theft problem. We think it’s a luxury not to own a car.

Although many things have changed in Cuenca—including more expats—it’s still the same place we fell in love with. The climate is still the best part (no need for heat or air conditioning). It reminds me a lot of San Francisco – moderate all year long. However, I will say this: I’ve been in some Ecuadorian homes on a sunny day and they’re downright cold! The reason being is they don’t allow the light in because they’re usually surrounded by a cement barricade and the homes are dark. The key to living comfortably in Cuenca is don’t buy more than you need. Our condo is 850 square feet (two bedrooms, two baths that are on separate ends of the house) with windows, windows, and more windows letting in morning and afternoon sun. We have friends who have a five-bedroom home (two levels) and they keep their space heaters running constantly. We love our place and the view that we have (Andes Mountains, view of the city, and the Church of Turi). Best decision we ever made was to buy. And we would never buy a single-dwelling home—only a condo. Almost everyone we know who has bought a single-standing home has had a home invasion and if they leave for a few days or a few weeks, they have to have someone stay at their place. Even our friends with state-of-the art security systems have had break-ins. We enjoy 24-hour security and we can leave any time we want without fear of someone breaking into our place. Peace of mind is worth everything.

Would we do anything differently? Yes, we would have retired at 40 instead of 55, but that simply wasn’t possible. However, we run into young couples all the time in Cuenca who have retired at 40 and when I ask them how they managed that they say, “We didn’t have kids!”

There you go…the secret to retiring early (not having kids), but then we wouldn’t have our precious granddaughter, Clara Joy!

Until next time…Hasta Luego!

Connie & Mark 

P.S. Did I mention that you can now get blueberries delivered to your door?! I always told Mark that there was only one thing missing in Cuenca and now our lives our complete. BLUEBERRIES!

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