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The Trámite Blues Not Unique to Costa Rica

Someone once remarked that in order to survive as a resident of Costa Rica, you need to have a sense of humor and a good book.

Any of us who have had to go through trámites (red tape) in Costa Rica know what this means. We have stood in endless lines, only to find out that whatever we wanted cannot be done today because it’s the wrong line, the wrong department, the wrong document, the wrong day, the wrong signature, the wrong size, the wrong information, the wrong order. Or something is missing, torn, blurry, lost, nonexistent or fishy. Or something is not stamped, not verified, not translated, not clear, not finished, not acceptable, not dated, not on file, not here. Or else, the law has changed. The requirements have changed. The fee has changed. The application form has changed. The address has changed. Or else, today is a Costa Rican holiday. The computer is down. The person responsible can’t speak English, doesn’t understand your Spanish, or is on a coffee break, at lunch, out on disability, on vacation, in a bad mood.

Often, in the middle of such experiences, we loudly assert how things are just not like this in the United States. I, too, have been guilty of such claims. 

Until, that is, my last visit to Seattle.

In preparation for applying for citizenship in Costa Rica, I needed to obtain my birth certificate from the state of Oregon and have it authenticated. First, I went to the Internet and clicked into a site that had the words “Oregon” and “government” in the title. It informed me it would cost nearly $200 to get my birth certificate. To my surprise, it was the site of a private company that obtained documents for people. Why would anyone pay to have someone get a birth certificate when it is so easy to get it directly from the state?

Well, maybe not so easy. When I finally found the official government site, I had trouble understanding the differences between ordering by mail and ordering by Internet. When I tried to call, however, I was able to connect only with machines that couldn’t answer my questions. When I tried to e-mail a question to the given address, it came back as a “permanent failure.” So, figuring that money talks, I finally opted for the more expensive Internet option. After I had made the transaction, the site informed me that I could track the progress of my request through a special website, and it gave me both an ID and PIN number to access this. It also said I would receive a payment receipt via e-mail. It turned out that the website was nonexistent, and I never received the promised receipt.

Despite all this, the certificate duly arrived in a few days.

The next step was to send the certificate to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office for authentication, known also as “apostille.” Once again, I logged onto a government website, that of the Secretary of State, and read the instructions. There, I learned that before mailing the birth certificate, I must first have it notarized by a notary commissioned in Oregon. I spent most of the next day trying unsuccessfully to locate a notary commissioned in Oregon. Finally, I talked to a woman who taught notary law. She told me that, first of all, notaries commissioned in Oregon exist only in Oregon, and, second, government birth certificates never have to be notarized. So, I called the Oregon Secretary of State offices, and, miraculously, a real person answered. She informed me that all documents except birth certificates must be notarized and that the directions on the website clearly state this. I was surprised. I knew I had carefully read the directions several times. At any rate, I proceeded to mail my birth certificate to the Secretary of State.

Confused, I went back to the website to reread the directions. Once again, it seemed to say the same thing: “Apostille or authentication for: notarization, vital record (birth/death certificate), or diploma/transcripts. Authenticating an Oregon Notarization: The procedure is simple. Send the original, notarized document to us, or bring it in to our office in Salem.”

After stating more or less the same in yet another paragraph, at the very end of the instructions there came a paragraph, as a kind of afterthought, that stated the applicant could come into the offices or mail to them “the certified copy” of the vital record. That is, the applicant was supposed to read between the lines that “certified copy” meant “but not notarized.” Or was it the word “original” that made the difference? Right. Perfectly clear.

But wow! My self-addressed stamped envelope with the authenticated birth certificate arrived anyway at my address in Costa Rica within a week of my sending it to the Secretary of State’s office.

So, OK, Oregon bureaucrats may not be able to write instructions worth a darn, but they get their work done anyway.

Oh no, now I have to begin the trámite in Costa Rica. This might take a year or so.


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