Yes – it turns out you CAN get a tourist visa on arrival in La Paz Airport, even at 1:22a on a Sunday (if you have the correct paperwork and money).
On our recent trip to Bolivia, there was a lot of uncertainty around whether we could get a tourist visa upon arrival at the El Alto airport in La Paz. I researched online, went to the US State Department website (which has great country specific information) and also went to the website of the Bolivian Embassy in LA.
My efforts were met with confusion and contradictory information, so I started digging deeper, seeing out forum posts from recent travelers, talking to a tour company who does Bolivian trips, and FINALLY calling the Bolivian Embassy. Prior to that call, I was somewhat certain that we’d be able to get a visa at the airport, but doubt crept in, especially since we were arriving in the wee hours on a Sunday (scheduled arrival time was 1:22a). I had fears of being turned back or being held in a room waiting for normal business hours. Images of Tom Hanks in the movie “The Terminal” rolled around in my head. What if the Visa guy doesn’t show up until 8a on Monday morning?!?
I decided to go straight to the source and talked to a less-than-friendly person at the Bolivian Embassy. I was a bit crushed by that conversation. The staff member at the Bolivian Embassy told me, under no uncertain terms, that you must get a visa prior to leaving the US, there are NO visas issued upon arrival at the La Paz airport, and that visa processing time is 5 days, depending upon how many applications they receive. I need my passport for work and didn’t have the time or desire to try and do a last minute hoop jump. We were left with no choice but to take our chances with the inconsistent information suggesting that we’d be ok, and hope that the travel gods smiled upon us.
And smile they did!
When we arrived in La Paz, approaching the immigration booths, there is an identical booth just to the right which is used to process visa on arrival applications. The process takes about 5-10 minutes per person. If there’s a line of visas to process, be prepared to wait a bit while they take photos, enter information into the computer, collect your paperwork and put it neatly into a folder, print out your visa and put it in your passport, etc. In our case, we were curbside about 30 minutes after getting off the plane. Easy! It helped that we were fully prepared with the checklist of items needed for the process.
What paperwork do you need?
Prior to arrival, we had the following paperwork with us in a travel folder:
- Printout of hotel reservations: REQUIRED. If you don’t have a printout of your hotel reservation, you can use an itinerary from a travel tour group, or printout from Booking.com (or similar). Each person who needs a visa must have their OWN printout, even if you’re sharing the room. If you don’t have a hotel reservation, you must have a signed invitation letter from the family where you’ll be staying.
- Passport Photo: REQUIRED. I didn’t see a facility to take passport photos in the immigration hall, and even though they took our photo multiple times with the webcam connected to their computer, you must have a physical printout of your mugshot in hand. They only used one, although the information we had suggested you need to bring two passport photos.
- Departure flight information: REQUIRED. Each person must have their own printout of your onward flight information. Our travel plans after Bolivia were back home to the US, and based on reports I’ve read online, they need to have flight details not just out of the country, but all the way back home. One of the write-ups I found online said she presented a flight reservation from La Paz to Lima, and this was NOT accepted. In that case, she had to also present their flight reservation out of Lima which took her back home (after a holiday in Peru). Luckily, our last stop on our trip was Bolivia, but if you’re on a longer journey, you may want to have a series of departure flight itineraries printed.
- $160 in new, crisp, unmarked, fresh non-B series, US $20 bills. The Tourist Visa fee for US citizens at the time we arrived was $160 per person. There were many many reports online saying that the bills presented were not accepted because the were worn, torn, crumpled, or they were marked in one way or another (handwriting, or ink marks along the edge of the bill) of of a B-series number (apparently a series of counterfeits had been circulating around South America). Bring spares just in case since there isn’t anywhere in the immigration hall to exchange or take out money. This was actually a challenge for us. I went to 3 banks at home before I was able to get bills which weren’t worn. With our new/crisp $20 bills, the Visa guy didn’t give us any problem. He did make a comment that the money we handed over was very nice, so obviously he was paying attention.
That’s all the paperwork that was actually used when we went through, but the Bolivian Embassy and our research indicated a number of other documents which might be needed, and we had on hand, just in case.
- Yellow Fever Card. Although this wasn’t asked for when we went through, supposedly it’s a requirement if you’ve recently been traveling to a country which has a risk of Yellow Fever.
- Printout of adequate funds, either a recent bank statement (with account numbers removed) or credit card statement. This made me a bit uneasy, and thankfully they never asked for it. I guess I get where they’re coming from… they want to make sure you’re not going to be burden, but I don’t really like handing over that kind of info.
- Sworn Statement. The Visa application process at the Embassy requires you to fill out a sworn statement, which is more of an application than a statement. It asks for name, passport details, phone numbers, travel plans, etc. It takes a bit of time to fill out, and we had it on hand, but they never asked for it. Instead, we had to fill out essentially the same information on the 3 forms handed to us on the airplane.
- Multiple photocopies of your passport. Probably a good idea to have these stashed away with you somewhere anyway, but they weren’t needed for the Visa on Arrival in La Paz.
All of this gets you a 10 year visa to Bolivia!
At the end of the day, we had a great experience with the friendly visa man who gave us our visa on arrival in La Paz’s El Alto airport at 2am on a Sunday, mainly because we were prepared. There were people in front of us and behind us that weren’t so lucky. We overheard an interaction between the visa processor and a man didn’t speak any English or Spanish, and didn’t have any hotel information (or an invitation letter from the family he was visiting). I’m not sure how it got resolved and I wasn’t about to hang around to find out!