February 2, 2018
By IL‘s Ecuador Insiders, Wendy DeChambeau, Jim Santos, and Donna Stiteler
The Visa Angel on Your Shoulder
By Donna Stiteler
Four years ago, Jodie Mansfield was applying for a residence visa, intending to move from Rhode Island to Cuenca, Ecuador. She asked the owner of the container shipping company she was working with if he could give her a reference for a lawyer to help her complete her paperwork.
“He told me not to spend $1,000 getting someone to help,” Jodie says. Applying for the visa isn’t difficult, “it’s just a lot of work gathering papers.”
When Jodie successfully completed her paperwork on her own in three weeks, she took her new visa to the container shipping company owner to show him he had been right. He said, “OK, now let’s talk about Visa Angels.”
“What’s a visa angel?” Jodie asked.
“You are,” he replied.
Getting her visa had proved not to be as difficult as Jodie imagined, and she realized she could share her experience with others—to help them through the process. Now that she was retired, she had the time to do it. “I knew that if I could do this, others could. All they needed was some hand-holding,” Jodie says. And so she signed up with Visa Angels, a volunteer organization created as a do-it-yourself visa service to assist expats.
Jodie understands firsthand the importance of getting a visa quickly. In 2013, she decided to check out Cuenca, and by the second day of her exploratory trip she was in love. “I was relieved to find what International Living said about Cuenca was true. It ticked off all the things on my list…weather, cost of living, health insurance, and the beautiful architecture.” After her trip, Jodie started planning for a move to Cuenca in a year-and-a-half, after she retired.
But her plans to move to Cuenca were expedited after she became unemployed. Following surgery, she was placed on disability, and found her job was no longer available when she was ready to return to work. This meant her move to Ecuador was accelerated, with less money to fund it.
Jodie’s experience in finding an inexpensive way to get her visa inspired her to start with Visa Angels in Cuenca. It became her personal mission to help others who needed cost-efficient alternatives. Jodie and eight other volunteers in Cuenca now help expats navigate the paperwork and the application process. Jodie and fellow volunteers Gio, Maria Ines, Abby, Sharon and Scott McNeil, and Ransom and Laurie Nichols are a close-knit team with one goal…to save you money.
The idea of getting a visa without hiring a lawyer or facilitator can seem a Houdini-like feat. But according to Jodie, the process is more systematic than complex. The hand-holding and guidance provided by Visa Angels takes the fear out of completing the process yourself. “The paperwork you have to gather is only good for 180 days, so we help with timing and take expats through the process step-by-step,” says Jodie. “We work with people before they come to Ecuador, because it’s easier to get all the documents you need while you’re in your own country. We check the documents (we have an inexpensive translator), we take you to appointments, and work with you until your visa is in your hands.”
The visa process requires navigating a system that is focused on details. One piece of paperwork not completed to Ecuadorian specifications, and you have to go back for another appointment. “But when you think about it, this is a visa that allows you to live here for the rest of your life, so they should be picky,” says Jodie. “This is not a high-paying job for those issuing visas, but it’s a prestigious one. And if they make a mistake and do not get the legal paperwork right, they could lose their job… Having good relationships with the workers in the office helps avoid mistakes. They respect us. And we respect them.”
Jodie sees the demand for visas growing rapidly as Ecuador and Cuenca continue to attract expats from around the world.
“We actually exchange around 200 to 250 emails with every client to assist them during their visa process… And of course, we don’t ask for any money for this.”
In Cuenca, because of the influx of new people, it can sometimes take months to get an appointment at the ministerial offices to be granted your visa. Because of this, Visa Angels now looks for appointments in other cities in Ecuador that dispense visas within a two-week period.
Visa Angels is currently looking for volunteers willing to be trained to help expats interested in making Ecuador their home. Because the volunteers now have to travel, sometimes for hours, to help complete paperwork, Jodie is working on ways to compensate them for travel and time. “The most expensive visa we have done cost around $300, which is far less than the $1,000 to $1,500 fee from facilitators or lawyers,” she says.
Jodie assists in pet relocations as well, once helping an expat bring four Dobermans into the country. She explains that it’s her pleasure to help expats find their way to Cuenca. “I wanted to volunteer doing something. There are many things to do here, like help the animals, or volunteer at domestic abuse shelters. But I wanted to do something to help expats on their next journey.”
For Jodie, the best moment of all is when clients are finally handed their visa. “That moment when they step outside of the ministerial building holding their visa is just so special. They start crying, and I start crying, and it’s just one of the best moments—that feeling of ‘we did it.'”