Just over a year ago, I moved to Barcelona in Spain to live abroad for the first time.
I booked a flight from San Francisco with little else in terms of preparation, an intentionally rash decision to experience what it would be like to land in a new country and improvise the establishment of a life there. I brought just enough possessions to stuff a carry-on bag and backpack, with my American passport serving as my only legal documentation.
This was possible since American citizens are permitted three months out of every six to stay in the vast majority of Europe (anywhere covered by the Schengen Area) without needing a formal visa. They just stamp your passport when you arrive and (maybe) check it when you leave to see whether you broke that rule.
Just a couple months into living in Barcelona, however, I realized that I wanted to live there for much longer and without frequent interruption. Discussing my options with other American expats, I learned that many opt to simply overstay the implicit three-month tourist visa and hope they don’t get caught, specifically when leaving Europe through customs.
I ended up testing that method by overstaying a couple of months, pushing my initial stay to five. But when I flew out of Barcelona that first time, the customs officer stared at my passport for an anxiety-inducing long amount of time then lightly grilled me for having broken the rule. He let me off the hook without a penalty, but the specter of running into real trouble — perhaps a fine or ban, who knows — during future trips made me think more seriously about obtaining a proper longer-term visa.
Fast-forward to June during my second stay in Spain on the tourist visa when I finally got serious about doing some research. I started off by visiting an immigration lawyer who had been referred by a group of friends, several of whom consulted with him to manage their own immigration issues. I visited him for an introductory consulting session wherein he laid out a few visa options given my situation:
- Student visa: If I were willing and interested in taking Spanish classes at a formal school (as opposed to self-teaching and working with a personal tutor, as I’d been doing), then I could apply for a student visa. The downside would be that I had to pay for and attend classes, somehow scheduling them alongside my other activities. Or, I could simply sign up and pay but not go, but that would mean burn money and risk getting caught, pretty much defeating the purpose.
- Work visa: I could find employment with a Spanish company and they could sponsor me to live in Spain. However, I had little interest in working for a local company let alone having me ability to reside in Spain rely on one.
- Entrepreneur visa: Apparently, Spanish law had been recently changed to permit entrepreneurs to obtain visas if they could whip up business plans and pitch decks that persuaded the government they would actually be profitable and employing Spaniards in short order. It seemed like a lot of work and, considering my predilection for speculative internet ventures, an exercise in bullshitting my way to a visa.
- Non-lucrative visa: I had heard rumors of this type of visa, one in which rich or retired people could basically buy their way into Spain by showing they were financially very well off. But before visiting with the lawyer, my impression was that the minimally required amount would be prohibitively high given my finances. Luckily, he informed me that the bar was actually set at a level the government had determined would simply support a person for a year, to provide assurance that the visa holder would not end up taking a local job or weighing down the welfare system.
This last option jumped out at me as my path forward. Luckily, due to some decent saving over the previous few years, I had enough savings in the bank to cover the requirement of €25,560 (or about $32,660 at time of writing). And that was really the main requirement. As long as I wasn’t carrying any serious diseases or criminal history with me as baggage, I was looking at fairly smooth sailing.
Unfortunately, I was about to get schooled by the world of government bureaucracy, learning just how frustrating it can be to piece together the procedural details of a visa application with minimal guidance from the Spanish government or anyone else for that matter (my lawyer turned out to be not-so-good at helping me get anything done so I struck out on my own). As such, I’ve learned through personal experience what it’s like to apply for this kind of visa, and I’d like to spare others some of the pain and mystery by relating that experience in detail.
A big caveat emptor: I’m not a lawyer so none of this should be taken as authoritative legal advice. I also applied for the visa through the Spanish consulate in San Francisco during the fall of 2014. What follows comes from my single experience, so while it’ll hopefully guide you towards a similar outcome, it’s highly advised that you cross-check any information here with the most official sources you can find. As far as you or I know, the lessons I’ve drawn could be unique to my application, or they may have been dependent on changing protocol, now outdated by the time you read this.
The non-lucrative residence visa application is a concise document, spanning a mere two pages. But therein lie a great number of details and potential pitfalls. Let’s start from the top and work our way down.
"This visa allows you to reside in Spain without engaging in any type of lucrative activities."
This basically means you can live in Spain and do whatever you want as long as you don’t work for a Spanish company.
"The process may take between 2 to 4 months from the day all documents are presented."
This was the part that gave me the most anxiety. The lawyer in Barcelona assured me it would take just a matter of days to apply and get approved. Others warned it may take a few weeks, still giving me the chance to swing through San Francisco for less than a month and return to Barcelona without missing a beat. But when I read 4 months, my heart sunk and I spent weeks readjusting my expectations.
The time between submitting the application and receiving an approval notice ended up lasting only 19 days (just under three weeks). So, while the formal estimate is 2-4 months, that clearly wasn’t accurate guidance in my case and only served to stress me out. I should note, however, that the consulate official told me in person that it would probably take two months, with the quickest in recent memory having gotten processed in three weeks. Perhaps I got lucky or managed to prepare better than the average applicant. Either way, I’m glad it was a pleasant surprise.
The official also told me that the clock wouldn’t start ticking on my application process until I had returned to the consulate to deliver a final, missing document (the notarized criminal record clearance, which hadn’t been mailed back to me yet). This echoed the official guidance here in the application’s instructions. However, she ended up starting the process without that document, saving me about two weeks of waiting, since I think she was happy with how thoroughly everything else had been prepared. So, it pays to put your best foot forward even if can’t manage to bring everything ready in time for your application appointment.
"Once your visa is authorized, we will contact you by email or mail, and you (and all your family members applying for a visa) will have to come in person to this Consulate General within a month with your passport and an itinerary of flight to Spain to obtain the visa."
This is pretty straightforward. I ended up receiving notice of my application approval by email. It stated that I had a month to come back to the consulate in person to pick it up, and that I needed to both book a flight to Spain before pickup. Additionally, because I had indicated I wanted to leave for Spain ASAP, I was asked to notify the official by email a few days before my visa pickup with the flight’s date. Presumably that information would be used to set an official start date for the visa’s one-year applicability.
"For information about how to obtain the Apostille of the Hague Convention in the US, please visit: http://travel.state.gov/law/judicial/judicial_2545.html"
Ok, so this was a bit of a head-scratcher for me. "What the hell is an ‘Apostille of the Hague Convention’ and is it going to be a pain to get it?" were my first thoughts. The answers turned out to be both simpler and more complicated than expected.
"Apostille" is French for…notarization or something? I don’t even know how to pronounce it, but basically it’s an internationally recognized form of notarization. You have to get it from the government, and you have to do so either by mailing it to them or dropping it off in person, then waiting weeks for return processing. In California, that means mailing it to the California Secretary of State or driving to Sacramento, the latter of which may save you a few days but ultimately, it’s a waiting game regardless.
Here’s the catch: an Apostille (which comes in the form of a cover letter with a stamp that gets imprinted half on the original document and half on the letter) is required only for the criminal record clearance. And this clearance, as I detail below, must be obtained from the government as well. However (and this is important!), even though they’re both obtained from the government, you have to do so by processing paperwork with two separate government departments via mail.
Once you get the criminal record clearance back from one department, you have to mail it out to a different department, leading to more waiting. The department that produces the clearance can’t provide an Apostille for it as well, nor can that department mail the clearance directly to the department that can provide an Apostille for it. Bureaucracy at its finest.
I found these exact instructions for obtaining an Apostille in California. They entail mailing the original clearance document, a basic cover letter, a check to pay $20 in processing fees, and a self-addressed envelope the department can use to send the notarized version back. It took a total of just over two weeks from when I mailed out the original document to when I received it back, notarized by the Secretary of State.
"The Consulate of Spain in San Francisco will consider applications for Visas BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. One appointment per person. To schedule an appointment visit our website."
The best official information about the various visa options available, plus a direct link to making an appointment online, can be found here.
Book your appointment early. I found that the earliest available slot was three weeks out, so this isn’t something you can plan to do last minute. I also had to reschedule my appointment (something they say you can do only once) because I wasn’t ready yet, and the earliest reschedule time was also a few weeks out. So while the online appointment-making process is straightforward enough (and free), do it early and reschedule quickly should the appointment date start creeping up and it becomes at all apparent that you won’t be prepared in time.
"The consular administration has full authority to evaluate, and request more documents than those submitted by the applicant. The latter is hereby informed that submitting the aforementioned documents does NOT guarantee automatic issuance of the visa. The documents accepted in order to process the visa, will not be returned."
In my experience, the consulate never requested any documents not listed in the application, so I presume they put this caveat in here just to give a heads up that they might do so if things get complicated.
"ORIGINAL and ONE PHOTOCOPY of each of the following items must be presented"
For paranoia sake, I actually brought three photocopies of every item to the appointment. And I believe that a second photocopy came in handy for at least one or two of them (I can’t remember which). So, spend the additional ink and paper to print out these extra copies and take them with you in an envelope of backups just in case. I brought four envelopes in total: one with the originals, one with the required copies, and one with the double sets of backup copies.
"National visa application form: The application forms must be signed and filled out in print."
This form is fairly straightforward. The typical catch for most people is probably how it asks for a "Postal address of applicant in Spain". If you haven’t spent time in Spain and arranged an apartment or some other accommodation already, then this seems like a catch 22. I’ve read elsewhere that you can probably get away with just listing the city to which you intend to move. Fortunately, I had already arranged an apartment in Spain by the time I applied so I listed its address here.
The form also asks for how many entries are requested (one, two or more than two). My presumption with this visa was that it permits unlimited entries, so I was confused why it would be asking. I marked "more than two" and the topic didn’t come up at all during my appointment. I’ll have to see whether this becomes relevant once I start traveling to and from Spain with the visa.
It also asks for a "Date of intended entry into Spain". Given that the consulate encourages (rightly) that you shouldn’t book your flight to Spain before the visa is approved, and that approval takes an unpredictable amount of time, this is also a bit tricky. I simply put a date that was a month out from my scheduled appointment plus the phrase "or once issued". The official asked me about this during my appointment and I just emphasized that I wanted to leave for Spain ASAP. This may have helped get my application processed faster as well because they knew I wanted to go immediately.
A note on signatures, for this form and all other documents: the official made a point during my appointment that they had to be hand-written. I have the habit of signing documents electronically with a digitized version of my signature. But she required that I sign each document again in person since this wasn’t adequate for the consulate’s legal purposes. I’d recommend simply signing all originals by hand before making copies to avoid this hassle during the appointment.
"Form EX-01: Form must be signed and filled out in print. Only available in Spanish"
This form is also easy enough (if you can read Spanish or use a translation dictionary). There are a few checkboxes that basically give legal consent for various things, and you’ll want to simply check these off. The biggest point of confusion was whether I needed to check off any box beneath the "INICIAL" section of "4) TIPO DE AUTORIZACIÓN SOLICITADA". I checked the first primary box for "INICIAL" but left the others below it blank, which the appointment official said was fine.
"Original Passport: Valid passport for a minimum of 1 year, with at least one blank page to affix the visa."
If you already have a passport, just bring it with copies (like for everything else). But be sure to check the "minimum of 1 year" requirement. I realized that my passport was actually set to expire within a year, so I had to go through the weeks-long process of mailing it in to get a new one. You can do this pretty easily from your local post office. Some even have staff specifically trained for passports, which is useful. But it will add more waiting time that you need to budget properly ahead of your scheduled visa appointment.
"Two passport size photos: (White Background, 2x2in) One per application form."
I got my photo taken and had these printed easily at a local FedEx Office branch. However, I printed a total of eight since I knew I would need two to apply for my NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjero) in Spain, which is essentially basic government registration that enables a number of things such as opening a bank account.
I paper-clipped these to the upper-left corner of the two forms above plus their copies, using a total of four photos. During the appointment, though, the official removed the photos from the Form EX-01 and its copy, so I ended up submitting only two (for the national visa application form and its copy, to which she stapled the photos).
"Notarized document explaining why you are requesting this visa, the purpose, the place and length of your stay in Spain and any other reasons you need to explain, with a certified translation into Spanish."
Here’s what I wrote for my statement of purpose letter:
September 1, 2014
Consulate General of Spain 1405 Sutter Street San Francisco, CA 94109
Dear Consulate General of Spain,
I am requesting a non-lucrative residence visa to live in Spain.
The purpose of my stay will be to learn the Spanish language and culture while I take time off of work to focus on my hobbies and explore the country. I plan to live in Barcelona for a year.
I have included bank statements totaling [redacted] in savings, which should satisfy the 25,560€ (or $33,849.11 at time of writing) minimum income requirement for this type of visa. I have also included medical and criminal records that demonstrate how I have no contagious diseases or criminal history.
Additionally, I have included the certificate of a Spanish health insurance plan that has no deductible and covers me in excess of 30,000€.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sincerely, Mark Hendrickson
I wrote the letter in English since a "certified translation" into Spanish was required, for this and other documents. Unfortunately, the official instructions are generally very silent on what that means. I emailed the consulate about it and they sent me back a separate document (not found online, as far as I can tell) both explaining the general translation requirements and listing specific local, pre-approved translators I would have to use.
I called around to several of them, which are a mix of seemingly corporate translators and individuals who translate part-time. After having some awkward phone calls with a few (imagine: calling someone’s home phone number and having their spouse pick up first), I found a woman who was very responsive and available to quickly translate this document and the others listed for translation. I emailed her digitized copies of the documents and she translated them in a matter of days. Then she handed off the translated versions (stapled to printed copies of the originals plus her own cover letters explaining the translations) in person in exchange for $250 total.
Just be sure that you go with a translator approved by the consulate since there are others providing translation services that may not be considered "certified" by the consulate even if they have other certifications and reassure you they’re applicable.
As far as notarization for this letter, I simply went to a local UPS Store with notary services and had them perform a simple notarization in person wherein I signed the letter in the presence of the notary and they produced a cover letter with relevant information and stamp.
"Proof of enough periodic income (investments, annuities, sabbaticals and any other source of income) to live in Spain without working. The minimum income required is 25,560 Euros annually plus 6,390 Euros per each additional family member. All documentation must be certified translated into Spanish."
This requirement contains the crux of this type of visa: finances. Basically, you have to demonstrate that you’ll have enough dough to live in Spain independently.
The term "periodic income" is quite ambiguous here even though they list a few types of income sources. The general theme seems to be reliable money in that the Spanish government doesn’t appear inclined to accept any type of income that may fluctuate, such as a paycheck (oh right, remember you’re not supposed to be working anyway?).
Luckily, basic cash sitting in a bank account counts as income here. It’s a bit of an unwritten rule, but if you can simply print out bank statements showing that you have (and perhaps importantly, have consistently had) enough money in a savings account to meet the minimum income amount, you’ll satisfy this requirement. That’s what I did and they didn’t question any of the record details.
"Police Criminal Record clearance must be verified by fingerprints. It cannot be older than 3 months from the application date with a certified translation into Spanish. The certificate must be issue from either: a) State Department of Justice. Original clearance letter form signed (from the States where you have lived during the past 5 years). It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the corresponding Secretary of the State. b) FBI Records, issued by the US Department of Justice – F.B.I. It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the US Department of State in Washington DC. You must also get a police record from the countries where you have lived during the past 5 years."
This requirement led me on a costly, time-consuming goose hunt. I went with option A using a service called Live Scan, which is apparently the only viable option for requesting and obtaining this clearance.
The in-person Live Scan service is relatively straightforward once you know where to go and which form to bring. There is a list of locations in California that support Live Scan, namely UPS Stores. You go with the relevant form filled out, they electronically scan your fingerprints, and off your application goes. About two weeks later, it should show up in the mail as a simple letter saying (hopefully!) you don’t have any criminal record on file.
Note that when counting the roughly two-weeks wait for obtaining an Apostille for this letter (as detailed above), the total time for obtaining this clearance with Apostille amounted to just over a month. So, as with everything here, get the ball rolling early.
Unfortunately, I had to go through the Live Scan process twice having screwed it up the first time. It turns out there are at least two different types of Live Scan applications you can submit: one for regular "record review" (intended for individuals who want to personally review their record status) and another specifically intended for visa applications and other immigration-related purposes.
I failed to notice this latter option even existed when first applying for Live Scan, so while the resulting document was perfectly accurate, it wasn’t written in a valid format for my visa application. I heard this bad news over a week into waiting for Live Scan to process, which delayed my overall preparation time and increased my costs. Fortunately, the California Department of Justice was responsive to my inquiry emails; otherwise, I would have waited a week longer before uncovering the mistake.
"Medical Certificate with a certified translation into Spanish, which should be a doctor’s recent statement (not older than 3 months in doctor’s or medical center’s letterhead) indicating that ‘the patient has been examined and found free of any contagious diseases according to the International Health Regulation 2005’. Must be signed by a M.D."
This turned out to be another, costly requirement due to confusion about how to go about obtaining such a doctor’s letter.
Essentially, all you should have to do is schedule an appointment with a normal doctor, who will ask you some simple questions about your health and perform a routine checkup. You can then have have them write, print and sign a simple letter to satisfy this requirement.
However, only after going through an entire checkup with a doctor at my regular health clinic was I told that she couldn’t write this sort of letter for me. It had something to do with how she wasn’t certified to write anything related to international law, meaning she could write the bulk of the needed statement but not the presumably crucial part about "according to the International Health Regulation 2005".
I discovered this at the tail end of my appointment even though I had specifically told the clinic about my need to have this letter produced as a result of the appointment, and both the scheduling staff member and doctor had assured me beforehand that it would be possible. I ended up going back to the same clinic to have an entirely new checkup performed by a different doctor who could write the full letter. But unfortunately this meant more time and (luckily, insurance-covered) money. So be sure to get very explicit and considerate recognition ahead of time by your doctor that they can produce what you need before placing yourself on the hook for medical costs by going through the checkup first.
"Proof of having international medical insurance while in Spain, with a certified translation into Spanish."
This is one of the more ambiguous requirements. We all know what medical insurance looks like (right?) but "international"? What does that mean exactly?
I emailed the consulate to find out and they responded simply that the insurance had to have zero deductible and coverage up to 30,000€. On those bases alone, my individual, private American insurance plan was inadequate. And I was still wary of getting a separate American plan for fear that it wouldn’t cover me properly in Spain.
Fortunately, I have a friend in Barcelona who has helped other expats obtain local health insurance for their own immigration needs. I contacted her and she sent me application forms for a standard (?) health insurance plan from the Spanish company ASISA. Within a few days, the application was fully processed and I had a new Spanish insurance plan, which appears to have no deductible or limit to how much they’ll cover (it beats me how that’s possible for the modest monthly price they charge, but hey, I’m American).
The downside here is that I’m now paying for two individual health plans – one for the US and one for Spain – but using the confirmation letter of my ASISA coverage (sent to me digitally and by default after my application was approved) worked without a hitch. I plan to keep both plans since if I get moderately sick in Spain, I want the option to get fixed up at a local hospital. And if I get majorly sick, I want the option to come back to the US for more intensive treatment.
"Authorization form M790 C052, plus the Authorization fee. Please visit our website to check the most recent visa fees. We only accept cash (exact change) or money order. No personal check, no credit cards. The processing fee will not be returned even if the visa is not granted or cancelled."
This form handily comes with precise instructions, in English no less, about how to fill it out. So, there’s not much to worry about here.
What did catch me a bit off guard was the expected application fees to be paid during my appointment. I brought $140 in cash per the outline of fees provided by the consulate, but I ended up paying $14 more since I hadn't noticed that second fee. This was okay since I brought extra cash, which you should as well. The consulate official luckily had change but I’d recommend bringing a handful of ones, fives and twenties just to ensure you can produce whatever extra, exact cash payment may arise.
In total, I spent about 4-5 months preparing all of the above items. It’s hard to calculate how many hours were involved exactly but it was a bunch spread out over sprints of a few hours here and there.
My recommendation would be to start a full half year before you intend to apply, just so you don’t have to panic as I did at various moments when I realized that certain parts would take longer or involve more details than expected.
Decide when you’d ideally like to move to Spain and then work backwards from there. If it takes up to six months to prepare and possibly four months to get approved, that’s nearly a year (10 months) from start to finish. Granted, you could get approved quickly like I did, cutting the processing time to under a month and the total time to something more like five months. But unless you’re already in a time crunch, it’s best to avoid the stress of constantly praying for the best-case scenario.
A big aide in my preparation was a spreadsheet in which I laid out all of the requirements in rows and tracked their status in columns.
The rows included:
- National visa application form
- Form EX-01
- Two passport-sized photos
- Statement of purpose
- Income proof
- Criminal record clearance
- Medical certificate
- Proof of medical insurance
- Authorization form M790 C052
- Authorization fee of $140 in cash
- Appointment confirmation
And the columns included:
- Physical Original Ready?
- 3 Copies Printed?
Not every item requires every column. Notarization, for example, only affects two (the statement of purpose and criminal record clearance). But most require the majority and it’s hard to track the exact status of each item unless broken down into this level of spreadsheeted detail.
Also to organize everything, I made a practice of digitizing every document regardless of whether it was completed yet. That empowered me to reference the various documents on the fly as I worked my way between them, without having to dig up physical records based on my location.
My appointment was scheduled for the start of the consulate’s work day (10am), so when I arrived, it was pretty quiet. The San Francisco consulate is a modestly sized building, one that feels as though it was probably converted from a residence at one time. So there was no confusion as to where I had to check in, wait or go to meet with my assigned review official.
The staff also spoke perfect English and was generally friendly, at least based on what you’d expect from a government office. So it never gave me the vibe that I was being interrogated by a faceless organization, which reassured me I’d be okay should I need to inquire about anything while waiting for my application to process.
My official accommodated the fact I’d showed up for my appointment missing one document (the criminal record clearance) since it hadn’t been mailed back to me with an Apostille by the Secretary of State yet. She told me to simply swing by the consulate to drop it off without an appointment once it was in my possession. I don’t know how many of these missing items she would have tolerated to accept my initial application, but I got the impression that this sort of piecemeal application is not unexpected.
The in-person application experience was smooth enough. I waited maybe 15 minutes then went upstairs to sit down at a desk across from the official in her office. We spent maybe 20 minutes total going through the two packets of documents that I handed her: one with originals and one with copies. She lightly reviewed them and asked basic questions as she went. It was nothing amounting to an interview or interrogation of any kind.
Once she had stapled and collated a bunch of the documents, she told me to come back with the final document then simply wait for the application to process. I got the impression that she’d have to send the paperwork off to another department (one, I later found out, was based in Barcelona) as part of the process and, once she heard back from them, would relay the result to me.
Overall, in addition to the considerable amount of time involved, I spent roughly $928 during the application process:
- $33 for eight passport-sized photos and printing at FedEx Office (two for application, two for anticipated NIE application back in Spain, plus four spares)
- $110 in password renewal fees
- $6 to mail passport renewal application
- $50 for first Live Scan application to receive a review of my criminal record from the CA Department of Justice
- $50 for second Live Scan application (whoops)
- $17 to overnight mail my criminal record and corresponding materials to the Secretary of State for an Apostille
- $20 in fees for Apostille
- $197 for doctor visit to obtain basic health clearance letter
- $11 for statement of purpose notarization
- $280 for certified Spanish translations ($250 plus tip)
- $154 in Spanish consulate application fees
On top of that, I’m now paying about 46€ per month for Spanish health insurance.
The consulate official both called and emailed me once my application was approved, notifying me that I needed to stop by the consulate once more within a month to drop off my passport, have them paste the visa inside of it, and return it to me within the same day. She also requested that I send her basic information about my flight back to Spain so she could match the visa start date with it.
Once the visa was obtained, I had 90 days to return to Spain and use it at the local police department to obtain a residency card, which would serve as the actual documentation permitting me to stay an entire year.
After the first year, I should be able to renew the visa twice from Spain, first after a year and for two additional years, then two years later for an additional two years. Theoretically, that means I should be able to use this visa for up to five years, extending it as desired from Spain.