Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

Background

I am a South African riding my motorcycle in South America for the last few years. I have been in Argentina since before the Covid lockdowns and since most land borders opened on 1 November 2021, I decided to take the opportunity to head to Chile. Unfortunately due to the new Omicron variant ravaging the population, Chile closed their borders on short notice and so I decided to head to Bolivia. This post describes how I did it. It was neither fun, nor easy.

For reference, I crossed from Argentina to Bolivia on 22 December 2021. For about 5 days prior, I was in Salta, Argentina. The aim was to cross via La Quiaca, Argentina, to Villazon, Bolivia. Now, let’s get started.

The Madness

Finding information on getting into Bolivia was not easy. My primary source of information was blog posts because there appeared to be no clear information on the government website.

When Chile closed their borders, we immediately contacted the Bolivian embassy to find out if we could cross by land. The answer was yes, but also that this was only possible via La Quiaca. We took their word on this – after all they are the Bolivian embassy – but this information was apparently incorrect as we would later discover. However, for this reason, we headed to La Quiaca.

South Africa is meant to be a visa on arrival country, so it seemed safe to assume I could simply show up at the border and get my visa there. But La Quiaca is a smaller border crossing and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t run into any problems. So while in Salta, I thought I would ask the embassy. After all, it should only take 5 minutes, right?

We left Salta a day and a half later.

We entered the embassy on Monday morning around 9am and asked if we could, indeed, obtain a visa at the border. Their systems were down across the country, but the lady assured me that I would need to pay $160 (this is incorrect) because South Africa is from a Group 3 country (also incorrect). She said she would like to confirm this (thankfully), but we would need to return around 1pm. We were also told that while we could leave via La Quiaca, we would be unable to return via that border crossing (yet more incorrect information).

At 1pm their systems were still down, but she now knew for certain that South Africa was a Group 2 country and no payment would be required for the visa. However, she had no idea if it would be possible to process visas for visa-on-arrival at the La Quiaca border, or at the embassy there. Since La Quiaca was 6 hours away, I hated the thought of turning a 6 hour trip into an 18 hour trip due to me having to return to Salta to fix this problem, so I stayed, hoping to obtain my visa in Salta.

But the visa printing machine was broken, and a technician would only arrive to fix it after hours on Monday. Even then, there was no guarantee it would be fixed. We were asked to return at midday on Tuesday, and I found a hotel for the night.

On a positive note however, we met two Israeli girls at the embassy who were struggling with the same problem. From them, I learned I needed to fill in a form online. I had a paper version of this form which I thought I needed to complete in pen, and submit at the embassy, but I was wrong. More on this later.

At midday Tuesday, we were told to return around 15:30, technically after hours, because they were busy. At 15:30, my documents were processed and I was issued a visa. The process took almost 2 hours. On Wednesday we rode to the La Quiaca border, arriving around midday. After 5 hours of processing, while standing in direct sunlight for the most part, we were finally allowed into Bolivia.

The process was awful from start to finish. I have read other blog posts where people were let through in 5 minutes at airports. Our experience was completely different.

I will list the steps below, briefly, then cover each in detail.

The Steps

  1. Figure out your country grouping. If you are from a group 1 country, you can probably get in with no complex steps, so you can pretty much stop reading here. But more on this later. For everyone else …
  2. Fill in a form online. You will be taking this form to the embassy to get a visa
  3. Within 48 hours of arriving, you will need to complete an online declaration. This is a Covid measure
  4. You will need a valid PCR test within 72 hours of arriving
  5. Have proof of Vaccination, preferably with a QR code.
  6. You will require vehicle insurance (if travelling with your own vehicle), and medical insurance covering Covid
  7. Optional but highly recommended: Speak fluent Spanish, or have someone in your group who can speak fluent Spanish. I had Ana. We are in Bolivia now because of her.

Sounds straightforward right? It’s not. Let’s cover things in more detail.

Country Groupings

Bolivia classifies travellers by country. There are 3 country groups: Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3.

Group 1 countries appear to be for neighbours. People from these countries, like Argentina, do not even need a passport to enter. Their national ID card is sufficient. If you are from a Group 1 country, chances are you can enter with minimal difficulty. Just ensure you have 2 photocopies of all documents required at the border (e.g. for the PCR test, insurance, etc).

Group 2 countries are for people who need a visa, but where no payment is required. South Africa is a group 2 country, and South Africans qualify for visa on arrival. This does not appear to be a problem at airports, but at land borders, nobody seems to know whether it can be done, even when asking at embassies. So I opted for getting the visa beforehand at the embassy.

Group 3 countries are everyone else, eg. the US, many countries from Europe, Israel, etc. Travellers from these countries need a visa, and as of the time of our entering (December 22, 2021), they need to pay $160. According to the embassy, the wait time for the visa is 48 hours to 3 weeks. The Israeli girls we met at the embassy insisted their friends got visas in Mendoza on the same day and paid just $30, but the lady working at the embassy bluntly stated they were wrong, and what they claimed was impossible. Make of that what you will.

Visa Durations

The homework I had done stated that the visa duration is 90 days, like most other South American countries that South Africans may enter. This is only technically correct.

Foreigners may stay in Bolivia for a maximum of 90 days per year, but visas are allocated for at most 30 days at a time. You may go to migrations offices in certain cities and obtain a 30 day extension at most twice, giving you a total of 90 days. You cannot obtain a 90 day visa as a regular tourist, but you can get a 30 day visa and 2 x 30 day extensions.

Incorrect information

As mentioned above, we were told by the Bolivian Embassy (in Buenos Aires) that only La Quiaca was opened. This is incorrect. Apparently all land borders were open. One of the border agents even asked why we were crossing at La Quiaca to go to Tarija when a different border crossing was so much closer to the town.

We were told by the Bolivian embassy in Salta that we could leave only via La Quiaca. This is also incorrect. Apparently we can leave and enter from any crossing.

We were initially told by the Bolivian embassy in Salta we needed $160 to cross because South Africa is a Group 3 country. South Africa is a Group 2 country and no payment is required. Admittedly, the Salta embassy later corrected this.

But please note that all this information was obtained from embassies. From official sources. And all the information was incorrect. So do your own homework, call around, and do not trust a single source of information.

The Online Form

In order to apply for a Visa, you need to fill in an online form. This form can be found at the following link:

https://portalmre.rree.gob.bo/formvisas/

I got to the link by searching for “visa application form Bolivia” on Google, and the first link was for “Formulario Solicitud de Visa”

This link is valid as of the time of writing this blog post i.e. 6 January 2022.

This is a multi step process and for the most part, the process is very straight forward. Enter your name, country of residence, reason for entering, etc. The final step is where it gets tricky.

You will need to supply:

  1. Proof of financial solvency. For this, I got bank statements online. They were sufficient
  2. An itinerary of your stay – I opened up a word processor and wrote out what I would do in the country e.g.
    1. Enter country on 22 December
    2. Spend 5 days in Tarija
    3. Spend 5 days in Santa Cruz
    4. etc
  3. A recent photo of yourself – it needs to be a certain size so a selfie probably won’t do. See below.
  4. I needed proof of where I would be staying. I booked accommodation via AirBnB, so I just got a copy of the booking from them
  5. Proof I was vaccinated against yellow fever. Thankfully I am and I have a copy of my yellow fever vaccination card.
  6. A copy of the application. This is tricky because the last step of completing the application is submitting a copy of the application that you’re trying to complete. It’s a catch-22. However, on the page where you submit your documents, there’s a link that lets you view your application. I opened the link in a new browser tab and that link was a PDF copy of all the information I had entered till that point. I saved a copy of that PDF, then submitted that copy as the last step. It was the correct thing to do. Note that I also signed the PDF before submitting, but that does not seem to be required. Note also that at this step of the process, the form you submit will not have a reference number at the top.

Now here’s the next, really tricky bit. There is a strict 500KB limit on all document submissions, and a 150KB limit for the passport photo.

Despite having all the information, I needed to sit with an image editor and rescale all my photos (like the yellow fever card and passport photo) to meet the document size limits. It was exceptionally frustrating. You may think you can obtain a recent photo of yourself by taking a selfie. Think again. A selfie is likely to be several megabytes large. You will first need to crop the photo to be square, then reduce the size to be under 150KB.

Once all documents have been submitted online, you will receive a PDF copy of the application, but this copy will have a reference number at the top eg. RREE-VC-738473. The number is very important! If you only have RREE-VC-, it means your document has not been submitted, or in other words, the Bolivian embassy is unaware of your application! You need this number!!!

Make Photocopies

You need three (that’s right, three) copies of almost EVERYTHING you submitted, including three copies of your application that has your application code (eg. RREE-VC-738473), as well as 3 copies of your passport. I was not asked to submit a copy of my passport, but I still needed 3 copies.

One copy of every document, including a copy of the application was required at the embassy. An additional 2 copies were required at the border. One copy of all documents for both Bolivia and Argentina was required by the Argentinian authorities, and one copy of all documents for both Argentina and Bolivia was required by the Bolivian Authorities.

I needed around 40 pages of photocopies at the border, and around an additional 20 pages at the embassy. I estimate I needed between 50-60 pages of documents to cross the border at La Quiaca. These documents were (I will try and list everything I can remember):

  1. The application form (with the reference number)
  2. My passport
  3. My exit declaration form for leaving Argentina (Only needed at the border, so 2 copies)
  4. My entry declaration form for entering Bolivia (Only needed at the border, so 2 copies)
  5. My itinerary
  6. Proof of financial solvency (required for getting the visa only, so one copy of each page)
  7. Details of accommodation
  8. Yellow fever vaccination card
  9. PCR Test Results (required at the border only, so I needed 2 copies)
  10. Proof of vaccination. I used my vaccine certificate with a QR code (only needed at the border, so 2 copies)
  11. Proof of medical insurance, with Covid Cover (only needed at the border, so 2 copies required)

Now, of course you may be looking at that list and thinking I’m crazy. After all, you submitted a lot of this information online, so why would you need copies? Or perhaps you’re thinking you have a digital copy on your phone and you can just show it to the border guards. After all, that’s what I did when I visited Uruguay not too long ago.

But this is the La Quiaca crossing into Bolivia, and holy crap do they love processing paper. If you do not have paper copies, you will be asked to get them. The staff are very polite and will instruct you to head into town (La Quiaca) and return when you have the copies. I was missing 2 copies of my passport, and I was told to do exactly this, despite having a digital copy on my phone, and my actual passport in my hand. Thankfully I had extra copies in a different bag.

Make photocopies of EVERYTHING

Regular Stuff

  1. Ensure you do a PCR test. That’s pretty standard for travelling these days so I will not go into further detail.
  2. Complete a declaration for exiting Argentina (assuming that’s what you’re doing). The link is: https://ddjj.migraciones.gob.ar/app/home.php . Note that this is a 2 step process. In step 1 you enter your email address. You will then receive an email with a link to complete step 2.
  3. Complete the declaration for entering Bolivia. You can find it here: https://www.rree.gob.bo/ingresobolivia/?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
  4. Ensure you have medical insurance
  5. Ensure you have copies of your Covid vaccine certificate
  6. I needed copies of my yellow fever vaccinations when applying for the visa, but not at the border. Your mileage may vary.

And of course, make copies of all these documents; two copies of each, but preferably three!

If Entering With A Vehicle

This was surprisingly easy overall, though still a little confusing. Here, I needed my passport and proof of vehicle ownership. The vehicle ownership document is just my registration document I received when I purchased the vehicle, so nothing special there.

No extra photocopies were required.

I did not need to present my driver’s license, despite having a valid one. Nor did I need to present any international driver’s license (thankfully, since there is no international driver’s license valid for South Africans to drive in Bolivia)

There was only one step I was unable to complete. It is required that a “Sivetur” form (or Formulario Sivetur) be completed. To find the form online, simply Goolge “Sivetur”. As of the time of writing, the link is:

http://anbsw01.aduana.gob.bo:7401/sivetur/Parametro.jsp

The form requires you to specify details of your vehicle. Some of the values are just weird. For instance I needed to select a type of motorcycle and the options were things like “monkey bike”, “ninja”, and “chopper”, none of which applied to me. The idea is to select the closest match, despite your selection being possibly incorrect.

However, I was unable to complete the form because my license plate did not match the format used in Bolivia (which makes sense since my motorbike has a South African license plate).

This was not an issue. The friendly customs officer filled in the form for us, after Ana spoke to him and explained the situation. Having a fluent Spanish speaker with me made all the difference.

Crossing the Border

When we arrived, a guard immediately told us we will not be able to cross. Vehicles were not allowed to cross the border. This was disheartening, but we had come all this way so we parked and waited in the queue to see what would happen. The guard was wrong. We could cross. We did not need any special service, or permission, or anything of the sort. Yet more incorrect information.

We waited for less than 15 minutes before being processed. But there is little to no shade there. The processing is done out in the open, not inside a building. There are a few small trees, but not enough to offer protection from the sun.

The process was different from every other border crossing I had done (I’ve crossed from Uruguay to Argentina, to Brazil, to Paraguay, to Argentina, to Chile, and done that quite a few times now).

All documents for both Argentina and Bolivia were required immediately. You do not exit Argentina, then enter Bolivia. You provide two copies of EVERYTHING at once. Because we were not expecting this, we were slow to retrieve the mountain of paperwork that was suddenly required for two people. The border officer took us aside and collected the papers. We had no idea that copies of everything would be required here as well, but thankfully I had made three copies of everything so we didn’t run into problems.

To be clear, all documents for exiting Argentina and all documents for entering Bolivia were required by BOTH Argentina AND Bolivia, and all documents were collected up front.

I was literally kneeling on the floor finding the required paperwork while Ana acted as translator and kept the guard busy so he wouldn’t just leave us there because we were unprepared. Do yourself a favour and arrange all your documents neatly, then staple related documents together to avoid the same bad experience.

The documents will be collected and you will be left outside in the sun. Some time later, an officer from Bolivia will walk across to the Argentina side and collect the submitted paperwork before returning to the Bolivian side. This may be immediately, or in 10 minutes, or in 30 minutes, or an hour. You just need to wait. In the sun.

After what seemed like forever, but was closer to 3.5 hours from the start of the ordeal, our paperwork was successfully processed. We were given a form and instructed to rejoin the queue. A short wait later and we were processed again. There was some minor problem, but it was resolved within 20 minutes and we had successfully passed migrations on the Argentinian side only.

Because I was bringing a motorbike across, we needed to speak to Aduanas (customs). After a bit of back and forth (they did not want to release the bike from Argentina until we were certain the bike would be allowed into Bolivia, so we needed to check that first), we waited in line for the bike to be processed. The waiting and processing took a combined one hour, approximately. During this time, we were told we were lucky. Sometimes it takes 2-3 days to cross!

After passing through migrations for Argentina, and then Aduanas (customs) for both Argentina and Bolivia, we finally got to migrations for Bolivia. This process was pretty smooth. My passport was checked and I received an entry stamp.

I enquired and it turned out I could have gotten my visa there i.e. visa-on-arrival. But the embassy at Salta was unaware of this. So the 1.5 day delay was mostly just a waste of time.

After around 5 hours of processing at the border – by far my longest border crossing, we crossed into Villazon late enough in the day that it was unwise to make our planned trip to Tarija, 4 hours away. We found a hotel and spent the night.

The Joke

While approaching the Bolivian migrations office, we crossed a bridge and could see people illegally cross the border at their leisure, in full view of all the customs officers and border guards. Nobody cared. It really made me wonder if we’re not the idiots for following the rules.

2 thoughts on “How to Cross Into Bolivia By Land Border”
  1. […] The government loves paperwork. And lots of it. Everything submitted online needs a photocopy or three. I needed close to 60 pages of documentation to cross the border, and was required to prove things like financial solvency, and provide a detailed travel itinerary in order to get a visa. A myriad of checks were performed before I could enter the country, and the process was downright painful. Quite literally too. The 5 hour border crossing left me sun burnt. I documented the ordeal here […]

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