How? The Logistics of Living Abroad in Buenos Aires

For many people who find out that I am a US citizen that has made the decision to live in Argentina, the first question on there mind is usually- ‘Why’?  What would make someone from the US drop everything and come to live in Buenos Aires? Are you running from the law? The answer is no. Sure, I have my reasons, but let’s just say that I found myself better suited to life in Argentina.

One question that is not asked that often is- ‘How’?  How it is possible logistically to do such a thing? How can you legally live in Argentina?  How do you get work?  Where do you live? What’s the economy like? From time to time these question have come up and so I decided to try to answer with some info and practical advice for anyone who, like I once did, might be thinking of making a drastic change of habitat.

Immigration Laws 

Being a country partly forged by immigrants, Argentina has generally laxed immigration laws. For the most part, the country is open to immigrants from anywhere as long as you have a clean criminal record (but let’s be honest, they also hid nazis, so this may not necessarily a prerequisite).  Being a country that offers free university education and free universal medical care to anyone (yes, even foreigners!) Argentina does draw many immigrants who want to take advantage of such services without necessarily making the requirements for legal immigration.  Of course there are always ways to get through the system, but often times it does mean trading in certain rights or liberties to do so.

Argentina is a country that has lots of “illegal tourists” who exploit a simple loophole in the system to stay as long as they like and come and go as they please. This is because Argentina grants everyone a 90-day tourist visa, which has no limitations on how many times you can renew during any year, nor does it state that you can’t leave for the country in the afternoon and return the very same evening to earn another 90-day tourist visa. There are two ways that these people get by the 90-day visa rule. First let’s imagine that you leave the country to go some place like, I don’t know… Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay on the morning of your final day of your tourist visa.  You can have lunch in Uruguay and take the last boat back to Buenos Aires just to arrive and have a brand spanking new 90-day Argentine tourist visa, now you are good to go for another 3 months! This is great, but the ferry to Uruguay has gotten to be more and more costly, which has inspired the second way to sidestep this cotton-clad guideline.  The only penalty that can result of you over staying your tourist visa is a fee of $1500 ARS, which must be paid before you leave the country, assuming you have over stayed by less than 2 years. This fine can be paid in any Buenos Aires immigrations office (M-F only), or conveniently in Aeroparque and Ezeiza airports, as well as Retiro bus station 365 days a year.

This has led to many illegal tourists (usually referred to as expats) who have over stayed their visa intentionally for years.  While technically illegal this practice is definitely frowned upon, but in my experience I have never known anyone who was deported for this, although I have heard rumors of it. It really depends on your luck, if you have to pay your fine to an immigrations agent who is having a bad day it is possible that you could be barred from reentering the country, but not probable. This loophole may not be failsafe nor I do not pretend to be an immigrations lawyer, but in my experience I have known many who have remained in the country using this method for years (I even know a guy who has done this for 9 consecutive years). The major downside of doing this is that you are an illegal immigrant in the eyes of the law, you do not have rights to work legally, this can limit your ability to open a bank account, own property, and in many ways conduct a normal life.

For this reason if you plan on staying long-term, it is best to just get your Argentine residency. The ease of getting residency largely depends on what country (or countries) you have citizenship. For example residents of Mercosur countries can apply for temporary residence for a term of two years relatively easily, allowing them to work, study and nearly have the same rights as Argentines.  While those coming from countries outside of South America have a few more hoops to jump through.  For the latter a good dose of patience will be necessary in order to deal with bureaucratic and at times archaic institutions.

The main routes for non-Mercosur citizens to get residency or citizenship are through:

  1. You can obtain a temporary visa through enrollment in university level or higher education.  This is a temporary visa, which must be renewed each year.
  2. You can obtain a work visa, which must be sponsored by a company with an Argentine sociedad (locally registered business entity).  You must present a legal work contract from your employer to the immigrations office, which will allow you to take out a 1 year work visa.  You will have to renew this visa each year for the first three years until you are able to obtain permanent resident status, which is good for 10 years.
  3. If you enter into a civil union with an Argentine citizen you will be able to apply automatically for permanent residency. In order to do this you have to prove that you have been living with an Argentine to the Civil Registry of the City Government. There is one catch here, this can be stopped at any time by the person with whom you have entered into the civil union, meaning that if you break up, your significant other actually has the power to have you deported!
  4. Getting married to someone of Argentine nationality is probably the easiest way to earn permanent residency, enjoying all the same rights as any other Argentine with the exception of voting rights.
  5. Finally having a child within Argentina automatically gives you permanent residency status.

Work 

Getting a work visa is complicated because you must find a company that is willing to sponsor you, and that often means the firm is subject to heavy taxation on your salary, which can translate to your having a lower salary than you might like.  Most companies who will sponsor a foreigner to come and work for them in Argentina are well established, international firms. While I have heard of some large language institutes offering visa option to native English speakers, in my experience this is not the norm. Zona JobsStart up Buenos Aires and LinkedIn are a good resources for finding work through larger companies.

Trabajo en negro‘ is the equivalent of working under the table, and due to complex labor laws, Argentina has a large market of people who choose willingly to work illegally, or do so by default, not having any other option.  The positive side of engaging in something like this is that it allows you to get paid in cash completely tax-free.  However the negatives associated with this is a nearly complete loss of workers rights.  Meaning that you shall not receive any form of benefits: no healthcare, no vacation time, no pregnancy leave, no paid sick days, no yearly bonus, no retirement, no ability to organize, and the list goes on.

Most jobs that are taken by expats in Buenos Aires tend to be English teaching, Translation, Writing/Freelance work, Online Marketing, Tourism, and other jobs where knowledge of English or other foreign languages is indispensable.  Craigslist is a good resource for finding jobs in the ‘informal sector’. Many times internships are a good way to explore work within Argentina, as they can turn into paid positions or give you good contacts, not to mention help you decide if you like the work environment.  There are also the opportunities to volunteer within NGO’s, community organizations, or work in hostels in exchange for room and board.

Housing

Shared flats are what I would suggest for anyone moving to Buenos Aires for the first time. Living with others will help you immerse yourself in the language, forge friendships, and you don’t have to commit to a contract until you really know where you want to live. The closed Facebook group Comparto Depto is a good resource for shared flats.

If you do want to find an apartment on your own, you probably want to find one that is amoblado, or furnished, and also if possible dueño directo to rent directly from the owner and avoid payouts to middlemen.  The best way to look for a place when you know which barrio you would like to live in is to visit inmobilarias, or local real estate offices who manage rental properties as well.  Every neighborhood has several of these offices and they advertise local listings through a window display (only the bigger inmobilarias have websites). Another resource is Zona Prop’s alquileres section.

When renting, you generally have to pay first and last months rent as garantía and if you go through an inmobilaria you will have to pay a commission as well (an annual fee), but you can bypass this payment renting dueño directo.  If you rent directly from the owner they might include the expensas in your rent payment, if not you will be responsible to pay monthly fees for building maintenance and salary of your doorman.  Another bill in Buenos Aires is the ABL, essentially a city tax that you must pay on property (this can be paid monthly or annually at a discounted price).  At time of writing apartment rental prices in neighborhoods of San Telmo, Almagro or Palermo starting from about $7,000 ARS ($450 USD) per month.

Economy

One economist once said about the Argentine economy “There are four kinds of countries in the world: developed countries, undeveloped countries, Japan and Argentina”. In Argentina just mentioning the economy is opening a giant can of worms, so I am going to skim over the complexities of the Argentine economy, but dive deeper to provide more a practical side of how the bizarre economy affects the typical Porteño.

Argentina has a notoriously unstable currency, and horrendous inflation.  From December 2015 until May 2017 the country experienced historic devaluations, with currency fluctuating nearly 60% for the term. For the year 2016-17 the estimates on inflation were between 42% and 45%; April 2016 alone experienced 7% inflation in a single month!  So how does this all play out for the lives of most Porteños? Rampant inflation of course affects the spending power of everybody as prices tend to rise for all goods and services at about the same rate as inflation, unfortunately for most, salaries do not keep up.

Argentine peso valued against US Dollar (Dec. 2015-May 2017).     Source: Investing.com

Fluctuations in currency can affect you greatly depending on which currency you are paid. It is possible for people who freelance, work in tourism, or other industries to be paid in foreign currencies, for the lucky few this is a privilege that allows to buffer the effects of inflation. However, with the roller coaster peaks and valleys of the peso’s value, devaluations can also affect your salary when you go to convert the foreign currency to pesos (which of course you need to pay rent, groceries, entertainment, etc). Within the past couple of years the general trend of the peso is that it is devaluing, but it does have moments where it temporarily spikes, and this affects your spending power.

Imagine this scenario, you are paid $1,000 USD in an overseas account at the end of each month. At the end of January 2017 the foreign exchange rate was 16.126 ARS/1 USD, and when you go to exchange your monthly salary of dollars to pesos you will receive about $16,126 pesos.  However by the end of April 2017 the peso has climbed in price against the dollar and the exchange rate is now 15.513 ARS/1 USD.  At the end of April when you go to exchange, you only receive $15,513 pesos, meaning that you are earning more than 600 pesos less than you did months ago.  Couple that with the rising inflation, and not only do you have less money, but goods are also more expensive, hence your buying power decreases.  Before you start to bitch and moan take one thing into consideration, if you are able to earn in dollars, pounds, or euros you are more fortunate than probably 98% of Argentines, for whom the symptoms of economic depression have no safe guard.

For many day to day purchases Argentina is still a cash economy.  Wanna buy coffee in a café? Groceries from a corner market? A ride in a taxi? Top up your sube card? Solo efectivo, or cash only is the diatribe for most of these purchases. Get used to carrying cash and don’t even think about trying to ask a server to split a check on different cards. Purchases of many larger ticket items do accept credit cards, places like shopping malls, hypermarkets, an increasing number of restaurants are starting to accept credit cards, even some taxis are getting in on accepting payment with plastic recently.

It will be a good idea to keep a bank account in your home country to use for savings, larger purchases, or for emergencies.  Check with your bank before you leave to see about signing up for an international card with no international fees and be sure to check about the expense for ATM withdrawals, which can be quite costly. Besides the peso, Argentina has been addicted to US dollars for some time at one point even having a black market that much favored the US legal tender. Aside from the national currency, dollars are the most readily acceptable foreign currency, although the black market no longer exists and some places may not accept USD as a form of payment.

Comparatively the cost of living in Argentina is cheaper than most European, North American, and Oceanic countries, however it is one of the more expensive economies in Latin America. In Buenos Aires many costs, such as housing and transportation, are cheaper than you could expect to pay in the Europe or North America.  Costs of some foods like fruits and vegetables are probably the same or cheaper than other countries, while manufactured foods and imported brands will be about the same or more expensive. One major benefit in cost of living is that Argentina does provide universal medical care and free education to all, significantly reducing the expenses of education and health care.

Transport 

Owning a car is both expensive and impractical within the city of Buenos Aires in just about all aspects. Purchasing a car is more expensive in Argentina, insurance and nafta (fuel) can be quite costly, and parking is another expense to consider.  With millions of people coming in and out of the city center everyday automobile congestion is also a problem.

Public transport in Buenos Aires is quite good and relatively inexpensive in comparison with other countries.  The Subte (subway) is the fastest way to commute, however its limitations are its operating hours (5 am-10:30 pm; 8 am-10:30 pm Sundays & Holidays); during rush hour it can be very crowded, and it only operates within Buenos Aires city. The colectivos, or buses, have more than 200 lines in the greater Buenos Aires area, they are the best options for late nights, and they extend beyond the limits of the city to the province.  Train is generally the cheapest option, leaving from Constitución, Once, Chacarita, and Retiro. Train is your best bet for many destinations beyond the city in the province (Tigre, La Plata, even Chascomús) and has the added plus of being able to bring your bike on for the same price.  There is a very good interactive online map and app that shows you the easiest way to move about the city. To travel on public transport you must buy a tarjeta sube at any subway station for $25 ARS and then charge it to travel on subte, colectivo or tren.

Buenos Aires Subte, the first metro system in South America.

At time of writing a one-way bus ticket costs $6.50 ARS ($0.42 USD), while the subte costs $7.50 ARS ($0.48 USD) and the train costs around $5 ARS ($0.32 USD) within capital.  One negative associated with public transportation is that service can sometimes be interrupted for technical malfunctions or labor disputes.

I am a big advocate for cycling in Buenos Aires, the city is extremely flat, and since 2010 has been steadily extending cyclist infrastructure, now with more than 150 KM’s of integrated cycle lanes and a free bike share system that operates 24 hours a day. More and more Porteños have been turning to the bicycle as a means for commuting in recent years and this has helped change the attitudes of drivers, which is starting to create not only a consciousness, but actually a bike friendly culture.  You can find a used bikes for sale through the closed Facebook group Intercambio de Bicicletas.

Things that you should bring with you

Traditionally Argentina’s borders were closed to try to bolster national industry, while today the policy is moving towards more open borders, it is still difficult to get many things produced outside Argentina. As a result of the protectionist policies, many products are either impossible to find or much more expensive due to heavy tariffs on imports.  Brand name shoes, clothes, and consumer electronics all cost considerably more, and because of this some Argentines often go on shopping holidays to Chile or even to Miami to get these kinds of goods. Amazon and Apple will not even deliver in Argentina, so not only should you bring with you iPhones, Macbooks, etc. but it’s also a good idea to bring extra chargers for all such products.

Other things that I always bring with from outside are comfort foods that are impossible to come by in BA, such as peanut butter, Marmite, or Vegemite.

Don’t forget to bring your peanut butter! Photo: AARP

Lifestyle

OK, OK, I didn’t mean to scare you off with so much talk of the economy, here’s the part where I tell you how great life in Buenos Aires really is. For a huge capital city and one of the world’s major metropolises, Buenos Aires has a delectably kicked back pace to it.  This is not New York or London and Porteños know that better than anyone else.  Life moves the way it should elsewhere, get your shit done, but don’t let that stop you from sharing mates with your compañeros, having your lunch outside on sunny day, or stopping everything to have a conversation with a friend that you run into on the subway. In other words Porteños have mastered the mentality of working to live, and not living to work.

This innate sociable nature is one of the most endearing and characteristic traits of Argentine society. Porteños get creative to overcome economic hard times and cling to the all-importance of community by putting on regularly occurring social events such as group dinners, asados (barbecues), or house parties, in many cases splitting the incurred costs. Argentines are also extremely family oriented and there is no better example of that than a Sunday in Buenos Aires, a day always reserved for family and friends.  On Sunday the streets are ripe with billowing plumes of parrilla smoke, the pace drops to rhythm of a meat-induced coma as the day is typified by massive lunches, outings to parks or the local street fairs.

Porteños are also an extremely enlightened populace, in my estimation Buenos Aires is the cultural capital of South America. BA oozes with culture and there is something for everyone’s tastes; from opera to independent theater, from guardia vieja tango to electric cumbia, from ballet to poppin’and lockin’ on public transport, from posh galleries to street art. In BA culture is inescapable.

So implanted in society is this insatiable appetite for cultural expression that politicians have had to clamor to this demand of their constituents, one former President even claimed that the culture was a right guaranteed to all.  As a result, tons of events are free, everything from museums to concerts, film festivals, street fairs, cultural celebrations, tango lessonsyoga classes, and even seeing the symphony at the Teatro Colon can be done without dropping a single centavo!

Sharing mate in Parque Las Heras, Palermo. Photo: Lívia Castro

To answer the question, how do I do it? The answer is simplicity. I live relatively simply, I share a modest apartment in a middle-class, residential neighborhood.  I cook at home most nights, I ride my bike or take public transport to get around, and I have a borrowed a Netflix password from someone (thanks mom). Leisure activities for me include picnics in the city’s many parks, sharing mates with friends, reading, photography, and at least once a week I make a point to eat a hearty asado.  I go out once or twice a week max, often to museums, galleries, house parties, or dinner with friends. Living a simple but rewarding lifestyle allows me to live within my means and even save a little away, which I inevitably spend on traveling. In many ways you could say that what I have learned most from my Argentine friends and family is to respect what is important in life, and not to worry about too much about what isn’t worth it. I may not be rich, but I can say that I am proud of a sustainable lifestyle that, for me, is definitely a happy one.

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