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(Paper)Work in Progress
Moving to Portugal: boxes, D7 visas, and FBI background checks
We are in the thick of it. Our move from San Francisco to Portugal is less than three months out now, and boxes have begun to cluster in the corners of our home.
So far we’re only packing up the things we won’t miss for a long time: books we’ve already read and crystal bowls that look pretty in china cabinets and fancy clothes for fancy parties (because who does those anymore?).
We’re taking the packing slow and easy. We’ve got 69 days until the 20-foot shipping container gets parked out front and filled with (almost) all of our earthly possessions.
Slow and easy means we have time to make considered choices about what stays and what goes. Do my well-worn copies of the His Dark Materials trilogy deserve a trip across the Atlantic? Yes! But I’m not feeling so kindly toward my old rubber gardening shoes, so in the bin they go.
The winnowing is satisfying. I feel lighter, and more organized. (I have a thing, you see, for organization. It might be a kind of disease.)
We’ve made a list of appliances and furniture and dishes and other sundries that haven’t made the cut. Some get listed on Facebook marketplace, and disappear after a day or two. Like the dining room table Marido and I purchased at a little secondhand shop on Market Street in the Castro back in 2004 or so. That shop’s not there anymore.
Now the table is gone, too. So is the corner hutch in this photo. And the desk from my daughter’s room—a street score that we sanded and repainted a few years ago. Until last Tuesday, it housed her snow globe collection and stacks of drawing paper.
All my large gardening pots now live in a friend’s back yard. In a week or so, this plant outside our front door (I think it’s a dracaena?) will grace the home of another friend with its spindly charm. (It’s a full-circle story: The friend who’s taking it actually gave us that same plant 20 years ago when we moved into our first SF flat. It was a much smaller plant back then. I don’t think that’s an endorsement of my green thumb so much as the plant’s hardy nature.)
Even Filha has gotten into the sort-and-purge spirit, collecting a pile of stuffies and small assorted trinkets and doo-dads (including, yes, the snow globes) to give away to friends.
But the biggest progress in the last two weeks has come in the form of paperwork. The official kind of paperwork.
The D7 Visa
I’m not going to pretend that this is a How-To sort of newsletter. There are plenty of other, more official sources out there that walk folks through the Portuguese visa application process. I have no desire to be one of them. I am using this space to document our journey, to tell you how it went (how it’s going, actually) for our family.
The simplified, us-specific version is this: In order to move to Portugal, you must have a residency visa. There are several different versions of these visas, all for different purposes. We are applying for the D7 version. Once you have a visa, you can enter the country (because of the pandemic, Portugal, like most other EU countries, does not allow US tourists to visit right now). You have to apply for the residency visa from your home country; you cannot apply from Portugal.
The D7 visa gives us four months, once in Portugal, to apply for a residency permit from the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF). Once we have those residency permits, we’re good for two years. Then we have to renew our residency for another two years, and so on.
After five years of official residency in Portugal, we can either apply for permanent resident status OR dual citizenship. But that’s a ways down the road.
Today, we’re in the midst of our D7 application. There’s a giant list of paperwork that must be prepared before you apply.
Two passport photos per person
Your passport and copies of your previous visas
Health insurance for the Schengen area
Cover letter stating the purpose of your relocation
Flight dates and times
Criminal record certificate
Proof of sufficient finances to support yourself
Proof of accommodation (either a rental agreement or proof that you own a domicile that is not a ruin)
Proof of civil status
Proof of economic status
Proof of a Portuguese bank account
Individual Tax Identification Number (a Portuguese social security number)
That’s what this giant red binder is for—collecting all those documents…
For at least six months now, we’ve been filling this binder with financial statements and identity documents and letters of intent (aka “Why do you want to live here?”). We got our tax identification numbers, or NIFs (Número de Identificação Fiscal)—very important to have, and very tricky to obtain during a pandemic that prevents you from traveling to do all this paperwork in-country! (And as it turns out, getting our NIFs was far easier than opening an international bank account remotely, when you can’t show up to prove your existence. But somehow, through luck and Marido’s patience and tenacity, we’ve done both.)
Consulate Notaries & State Apostilles
To get our NIFs, we had to find a lawyer in Portugal who would represent us, and then take copies of our passports to the Portuguese Consulate in San Francisco so they could notarize them. (They had to be notarized by a Portuguese authority—a regular California notary would not suffice!) The Portuguese notarized documents look very fancy and official, though.
We got quite familiar with a few of the folks at the Consulado Geral de Portugal, since we had to go to them for notarizations multiple times—to get our NIFs, to complete paperwork for our house purchase, to authorize a few different powers of attorney. (Lucky that we live in San Francisco and the consulate is just 20 minutes away. There are only three Portuguese consulates open in the U.S. right now—in San Francisco, DC, and New York.) Most of these trips/notarizations would not have been necessary in non-COVID times, because we would have been able to travel to Portugal and go to Finanças in person, sign the deed for our house in person, etcetera.
But we’re now near-experts on how to obtain a notarization from a Portuguese authority while in the U.S., and also on how to get an apostille. Do you know what an apostille is? I had no idea, until we began this process.
Apostilles authenticate the seals and signatures of officials on public documents such as birth certificates, court orders, or any other document issued by a public authority so that they can be recognized in foreign countries who are members of the 1961 Hague Convention Treaty.
At this point in our paperwork journey, we have obtained apostilles from the Illinois Secretary of State in Springfield and the Wyoming Secretary of State in Cheyenne. We are now waiting on apostilles from Oregon, Virginia, and California—to verify the authenticity of our respective birth certificates.
It’s been an adventure in official paperwork. And it’s not over yet.
The Saga of the Yellow Envelope
One of the big-ticket paperwork pieces you need for your D7 visa is an FBI Background Check, also known as an Identity History Summary. Portugal wants to know that you’re not an asshole. Or at least that there’s no official record of you being a criminal-style asshole.
So you’ve got to get yourself fingerprinted and mail the prints and your essential personal info off to the FBI. A few weeks later, they send you a sealed manila envelope with the results of your background check inside.
It’s crucial that you DO NOT OPEN this sealed envelope. If you do, you’re going to have to trot off to your local Secretary of State’s office and get that document—you guessed it—apostilled. Our local Sec. of State is 2+ hours away in Sacramento, and there are no appointments available thanks to this global pandemic we’re all enjoying.
So. The envelope stays sealed.
In a fit of overeagerness, we ran our FBI background checks last fall. We both got two stiff yellow envelopes in the mail, on the same day. We did not open them. It didn’t matter. Turns out, those reports are only good (to the Portuguese government) for 6 months. Then your background needs to get re-examined, because lord knows what you’ve been up to these last 6 months, all locked up in your house.
As soon as we returned to San Francisco from our Midwest adventure in early February, we sent our fingerprints off to the FBI again. We had an appointment scheduled to hand over our D7 applications on March 9. Plenty of time, right?
Sure. As long as the United States Postal Service doesn’t fuck up. (Foreshadowing.)
On Monday, February 22, the FBI emailed us and said, “Tadaa! We have finished your Identity History Summary and mailed your report!”
On Monday, March 1st, one official manila envelope was shoved through our mail slot. It was Marido’s. Mine was nowhere to be seen.
“Don’t panic,” he said, as I began panicking. “It’ll be here tomorrow.”
It wasn’t. Wednesday came, and Thursday, and Friday, and no yellow envelope for LaDonna arrived.
I called the FBI. “I think the post office lost my Identity History Summary,” I said. The southern-sounding gentleman on the line clacked his keyboard to check on my report and said, “Yup. Seems like they probably did.”
“Can you track it and see where it’s at?” I asked.
“Uh, no ma’am. We cannot track that envelope,” he replied.
“But… you’re the… FBI!?” I stammered.
“It was sent First Class Mail,” he said. “There’s no way to track it.”
Although my brain was stuck on that whole “the FBI can’t track it” thread, I pushed through.
“So, I have an appointment for my Portuguese residency visa next week,” I said, “could you print a replacement report and mail it out? Maybe expedite it? With tracking?”
“Well, ma’am,” he sighed, “according to FBI policy, we cannot replace that report until three weeks have gone by. So you’ll have to wait until…” he clacked his keyboard to consult his calendar, “until March 15, and then call us and request a second report. Also, we are not able to expedite Identity History Summaries. It’s not our policy.”
“That’s, that’s not good,” I said lamely. But I already knew there would be no arguing with FBI about policy vs. common sense.
So on March 9, Marido, Filha, and I put on our going-out-in-public pants (the not-sweatpants-kind) and ventured out to the VFS Global—Visa Facilitation Services—office in downtown San Francisco. Sans one FBI Identity History Summary report.
I was nervous. I don’t know why. We were prepared (except for the part where the post office LOST MY FBI BACKGROUND CHECK, but you know, that’s not our fault.)
The woman who called us over to Window #3 was very lovely. We told her about the missing report right away. She commiserated. But she also held firm—my visa application couldn’t go anywhere without that report.
I tried not to be crushed. It was to be expected. Everyone is beholden to those official policies. We made an appointment later in March for me to return, solo, hopefully with that FBI report in hand.
Then she went through all our other paperwork. Proof of house purchase, proof of Portuguese bank account, NIF numbers, all those proofs and papers that were so maddeningly difficult (and slow!) to obtain. She eyeballed our big red binder with approval. In that, at least, I felt validated.
Files were stamped, money orders were produced, and 2/3 of our visas—Marido’s and Filha’s—were on their way. Fists were bumped. Sighs were breathed.
But I am still waiting for that damn yellow envelope.
I got up early on Monday, March 15, to call the FBI as instructed—three weeks after my original report was mailed. I spoke to a very kind woman who told me she would send me an email with instructions for “how to request a replacement Identity History Summary.”
The email subject line read simply: “Peach.”
I shit you not. Peach. You know that’s a straight-up code word!
Peach contained very specific directions for what I needed to do to rectify the ineptitude of the postal service. This is what it said:
Within 15 minutes I had written that letter, printed it, signed it, scanned it, and emailed it. I am organized. I am prepared. I am worthy of the yellow envelope!
Today (two days later), I panicked again. I called the FBI. I got the same southern gentleman whom I spoke to back on March 5. I explained, as briskly as I could, the situation.
“So I’m just calling to check on the status of my replacement report,” I finished.
“Ma’am,” he sighed, “Who did you talk to? Did you email? Or fax?”
“I called,” I reported. I might have been a bit testy. “On Monday. I spoke to a woman. She sent me an email. It was titled ‘Peach.’”
“Ah,” he said. And I swear his voice changed timbre. I knew Peach was a code word!
“I’m the one who handles the Peach requests, ma’am,” he said. “Give me just one moment.”
He clacked away on his keyboard.
“Oh, yes, I see my colleague received your signed statement and sent it to the proper department. And let me see,” he clacked some more, “I’m just reading the notes here. And, yes, yes, it was sent out with the mail yesterday. You should be receiving it soon, ma’am!”
I thanked him profusely and hung up. And now Operation Yellow Envelope has begun once more.
All eyes on the mailbox!
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer