Moving to Ecuador

Ecuador Immigration Guide

Interested in moving to Ecuador? This is our simple Ecuador Immigration Guide, containing all the info you need to get started. From getting a visa to finding work and (eventual) citizenship – it’s all here. Read on!

QUICK FACTS

  • The Republic of Ecuador has a population of ~13 million (according to a 2012 census), and has an area of 283,560 sq. km. It is divided into 24 provinces.
  • The immigrant population has been estimated by the Ecuadorian government at somewhat over 200,000, or ~2% of the total population. The immigrant breakdown: Colombians: 123,000; Peruvians: 31,000; U.S. citizens: 22,000; Spanish: 20,500; Cubans: 11,500; Canadians: 2,000; Venezuelans: 1,500; and Argentinians: 1,500. Most English speaking immigrants are found around Quito, the capital city, with other large populations in Guayaquil and Cuenca. There are also large enclaves of expats along La Ruta del Sol (Pacific Coast) and in a number of smaller communities in the Sierras.
  • Ecuador has a strong growing economy, supported by increased oil production, and exports in shrimp, bananas, coffee and flowers.
  • Health insurance is a mixed public private system with the government reporting that over 93% of the population is covered. Medical care is relatively cheap, even for the uninsured; medical tourism is growing. Ecuador has a very high average life expectancy (~75.6 years according to 2011 data).
  • Colonized and ruled by the Spanish for more than 300 years, Ecuador gained its independence in 1830.
  • The unique Galápagos Island chain is located 1,000 west of the mainland. Studied extensively by Charles Darwin, the islands contain a number of endemic species (including the waved albatross and blue-footed booby). All in all, Ecuador is considered the most biodiverse country in the world per unit area.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

  • Currency: US Dollar (USD). Ecuador is one of several countries that use the USD as its official currency. All paper bills are USD, though the government has also issued a number of coins in $0.05, $0.10, $0.25 and $0.50 denominations for local use. The $1.00 coin is greatly preferred over the $1.00 bill.
  • Spoken languages: Spanish is the primary official language. 13 other languages and dialects are also spoken, such as Quechua and Shua in the Sierras (Andes). These are modern dialects that have developed from the languages used at the time of the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire.
  • Major religions: Roman Catholic (80%) and Protestant (11%). Jewish, Buddhist and Mormon believers make up the majority of the remainder.
  • Largest cities: Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.
  • Ecuadorians are friendly people and are quick with a smile. They love to get to know foreigners. Trying to use some Spanish, even if done badly, gets high marks. The first time you are introduced a simple handshake is expected. However, once they know you, women practice the beso (kiss) wherein they touch cheek-to-cheek and make a kissing noise. Men receive besos from women, and continue to shake hands with other men.

Why move to Ecuador

  • Ecuador’s mix of a strong healthcare system, reasonable costs, business opportunities, and healthy lifestyle has put several of its communities on “Best Place to Live” and “Best Place to Retire” lists. This is especially true for the old, Spanish Colonial university town of Cuenca, with an extremely active English speaking community that has exploded in growth the last decade.
  • Ecuador is a small but an incredibly bio- and culturally diverse country, housing not only the Galápagos Islands, but also featuring the La Costa (Pacific Coast), Las Sierras (Andes Mountains), and Oriente (Amazonian Rain Forest)
  • Ecuador has quickly gone from being economically and politically unstable to one of the more stable countries in South America. There is a steadily growing economy that is fueled by exports (especially oil), a stable government, universal education and near universal healthcare.
  • Foreigners are accepted and welcomed – Ecuadorians are extremely easy to get to know and love to show off their families, food, and their country.
  • Benefits if you are working in Ecuador include:
    1. Workers get two additional (13th month) paychecks each year. One before Christmas, and one before the start of the school year (April).
    2. There are a total of 9 mandatory holidays in Ecuador. There are also a wide variety of local holidays – for example, almost every city celebrates its own Independence Day.
    3. All workers are entitled to 15 days of paid vacation.
    4. The Ecuador constitution requires that all employees receive 15% of the profits made by a company, to be paid in April.
    5. Maternity leave is paid for 10 weeks, 75% paid for by the government (25% by the employer).
    6. Retirement age begins at 60 to receive benefits (this is sometimes extended to 70 years depending on the work history of the employee). Those 65 or older also receive a number of discounts for transportation (50% discount on national air flights, for example) and other services. Most businesses have separate lines for disabled, pregnant and over-60 persons, meaning few lines at the bank or supermarket.
    7. Workers who have worked in the same company for more than three years, who are fired or laid off without just cause must be paid a month’s full wage for every year they worked at the company. All employees must also receive an additional amount equal to 25% of the last month’s wage if terminated.
  • Ecuador is full of unique history and culture, from Inca Ruins to 500-year-old cathedrals and mountainous jungle trails (often used for extreme sports competitions).
  • It is a beautiful place, with dazzling natural scenery, uncrowded but world-class beaches, resplendent parks and gardens, stunning mountains, cloud forests, the Amazon rainforest, mangrove swamps, and highland plains.
  • It seems every small village has its own special craft. For example, one village produces “Panama Hats” (the originals come from Ecuador, not Panama). Another village produces hand-carved wooden furniture, while yet another specialized in Alpaca-wool rugs, and so on. The artisan-ship is centuries old, impeccable in quality, and surprisingly inexpensive.
  • The cost of living in Ecuador is low. The minimum wage stands at USD $340/month. Most expats can find they can live magnificently well, often in a large home with a housekeeper/cook, for less than $1800/month.
  • Food is fresh, varied, and very cheap (if you go to the local open-air markets).
  • Rent is generally affordable (with the exception of upscale areas in the major cities). Many landlords prefer renting to foreigners (expats have a good reputation for paying their bills on time).
  • Utilities (electricity, water, cable, telephone) are very cheap. The country has excellent cell phone coverage (at least around the larger towns and cities).
  • Public transport is extensive and cheap. Long distance buses are clean, comfortable and go almost everywhere in the country for less than $15. Rural areas feature small pickup trucks or motorcycle taxis.
  • The expat communities tend to work together, with lots of special events and gatherings to keep the news and gossip flowing. It’s a beaten path.
  • The country is receptive to foreign investment, with relatively open visa options. Many expats have set up businesses in the tourism, import/export, and hospitality industries.

REASONS NOT TO MOVE TO ECUADOR

Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.

  • Popular reasons for not liking Ecuador are: the language barrier, the chaotic transportation system, deadening bureaucracy, and restrictive import policies.
  • While the situation is not as bad as in neighboring Colombia or Venezuela, Ecuador is still a male-oriented society with a strong machismo culture. A woman accompanied by a man will find that all conversation (e.g. from salespeople, doctors, bankers) directed to the male. Even women will talk business with the man – and ignore the other woman. This can be frustrating for those moving from Western countries (in particular, from the “anglosphere” of USA/UK/CAN/AUS/NZ).
  • Ecuadorians (like many Latinos) go by their own time. If a plumber says he will return Wednesday to finish the job, he might come back in two weeks. A party that is scheduled to start at 6 pm will probably see the first guest at 7 pm.
  • While plentiful and cheap, transportation is often dirty, loud, rusty and crowded. Roads are often poorly maintained. Roads are typically not marked with lanes, so it is not uncommon for 3-4 files of cars scooting around on a road designed for two lanes.
  • People pay debts slowly. Billing systems are haphazard. It is not unusual to realize you have not received a water bill in three months until a crew comes to your door to shut service off.
  • Deposits for rent and utilities are generally considered to be fees to pay for installation. It is possible to get a deposit back, but it will often take several months and several visits to collect the money.
  • There is a large disparity in quality between the public and private school systems. You get what you pay for.
  • The country practices an extremely restrictive import control system to protect local businesses and to prevent dollar flight. Import taxes can run as high as 100% for items as vehicles, electronics and foreign food items. Despite the low wage structure, imported items are very expensive. Used cars, computers and smart phones are sold at prices people from other countries would consider outrageous.
  • Navigating government regulations/bureaucracy can be complicated and confusing. Buying or leasing property (or setting up any business) requires the services of a local abogado (lawyer) to guide through the red tape.

VISAS AND FINDING WORK

  • Ecuador visas are divided into two types: those for temporary stays and those for more permanent residence. Temporary visas do not allow people to work, although many people do work under the table, sometimes for years. They have relatively few restrictions – with no vaccination requirements or currency restrictions.
  • Tourist visas are simple to obtain for most visitors and are valid for 90 days, although they can be extended up to 180 days. Most simply require a passport valid for at least 180 days from entry. Visitors from the US and EU countries can simply arrive in Ecuador with a valid passport and receive the visa.
  • There are also a number of student and cultural interchange visas. These are available for those who will be staying longer than 90 days and have already been accepted to a school, volunteer or cultural interchange program. These are good for 12 months. In the past these have been simple to extend, but recently there has been a new regulatory push to require people using such visas for longer than 12 months to apply for a resident visa.
  • Asylum seekers can request either to receive refugee status, eligibility to asylum or the recognition of the refugee attribute. People accepted into Ecuador due to humanitarian or political reasons (according to international law) receive a residence permit. This visa is normally good for one year but is renewable.
  • Travelers who can document that they are employees of a business or are investors can receive a Business Visa. This is good for one year and can be extended more than once. There are lengthy restrictions on business operations in Ecuador – for example, 80% of local employees n the business must be Ecuadorian. In general, those doing any kind of business in the country are advised to employ the services of an abogado.

OBTAINING RESIDENCY AND CITIZENSHIP

People who want to live and work in Ecuador must acquire either an appropriate visa (for volunteer or cultural interchange positions), or identity cards, called cedula or a censo. Among ways you can qualify for a work or residency visa are:

  • A Resident Investor visa is available for a person who is investing a minimum of $10,000-$25,000 in Ecuador, depending on the exact circumstances. The funds must go either directly into the investment (business, real estate, etc) or be deposited in an Ecuadorian bank. As the exact circumstances and required amount varies widely, it is recommended that you employ an experienced abogado to work through your options.
  • Professional visas are available for up to one year and can be extended almost indefinitely. It is designed for professionals (e.g. lawyers, doctors, teachers) with a recognized university degree who wish to practice their profession in Ecuador.
  • Pensioner’s visas are for those looking to retire in Ecuador. A person needs to demonstrate that they are receiving a pension from their home country of at least $800 per month.

STARTING A BUSINESS IN ECUADOR

The growing economy and stable political situation of Ecuador makes for numerous opportunities. Many expats have opened successful import/export businesses, tourist companies, restaurants, or hotels/inns. With that said, Ecuador has a unique business culture and there are a number of points to keep in mind:

  • Start by hiring an accountant and a lawyer. Ecuadorian tax and employment laws can be baffling to the newcomer. Local experts can guide you through the early days and steer you away from expensive mistakes.
  • Look to the foreign enclaves in Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and along the Ruta del Sol. You will find other expats who know the system and can provide you with important tips and contacts. Most of these areas also have local chambers of commerce dedicated to expat businesses.
  • Be patient. Business and government in Ecuador goes at its own pace. Business here is as much about contacts (who you know) as it is about identifying on a market opportunity. If you expect to rush through the process, prepare for frustration – the successful realize that everything in Ecuador takes longer than estimated (and plan accordingly).

FURTHER READING & RESOURCES


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