What's it Like to Work in Bolivia?

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"How can I find work in Bolivia?" "Do I need to speak Spanish to get a job in Bolivia?" "What is the typical salary I should expect to earn in Bolivia?" "Do I need a special type of work permit for Bolivia?" "Would it be easy to start my own business in Bolivia?" "Is investing in Bolivia very risky?" "If I marry a Bolivian, will I can get citizenship and a work visa?"

Since 2007, when BoliviaBella.com went online for the first time, some of the most frequently asked questions in our forums involve doing business in Bolivia and working in Bolivia. While we cannot possibly answer every question personally, we do offer dozens of public forums on our website to help you get responses from others who live, work or do business in Bolivia on topics such as salaries, visas, work permits, business ventures, entrepreneurship, and other issues relating to working here such as relocation, finding a home, and the immigration and residency process.

What's it like to work in Bolivia?

On this page, we'd like to attempt to answer, in a very general way, some of the most frequently asked questions about employment and/or doing business in Bolivia. Keep in mind that every person's experience will be completely different, because we all bring to the table different skills, customs, personalities, finances, and more. Our responses to these questions are based on personal experience as business owners in Bolivia, the experiences of foreigners we've assisted in doing business or finding work in Bolivia, and on interviews with expats who have lived and worked in Bolivia. None of this should be taken as legal advice.

If I marry a Bolivian will I get a work permit?

No. All foreigners who wish to live and work in Bolivia must apply for residency first. (Tourists, visitors and volunteers cannot legally work for pay.) Even if you marry a Bolivian, you must still apply for residency on your own. You will present a marriage certificate as proof, and residency is usually not denied to foreigners married to Bolivians unless they have a criminal background, but your residency application is an individual matter, the results of which do not entirely depend on your being married or not.

Bolivia doesn't issue "work permits" per sé. If you have a work contract from a company in Bolivia to prove that you've been hired to work here, that will be presented to Immigration officials and the Ministry of Labor. Once you've been approved for residency, the latter will stamp your actual work contract to approve you to work legally in Bolivia.

If you plan to be self-employed, you must prove to immigration officials that you have sufficient monthly income or savings to support yourself throughout the entire time you reside in Bolivia, and to carry out the business you are declaring will be your source of income. If approved, you must then successfully complete all steps to legally establish a company in Bolivia. This your "permission to work" for as long as you uphold all Bolivian laws and pay all taxes on time.

Can I get a job if I don't speak Spanish?

If you have been hired by a foreign company or school to move to Bolivia for work, and that company or school does not require you to speak Spanish, then yes. If you plan to partner with a Bolivian national to start a company or will invest in an existing company, maybe. But if you plan to apply for jobs as a regular employee at Bolivian companies, it is very unlikely you would be hired. Bolivian companies are not required to provide interpreters for non-Spanish speaking employees. Alternately, if you plan to be self-employed, it would be very difficult. You will need to speak Spanish if you plan to communicate with your clients and employees.

How much can I expect to earn in Bolivia?

There is no single answer for this question because your income will depend on your specific skills. However, in very broad terms, it's important to be aware that salaries in Bolivia are usually much, much lower than in North America, Europe, Australia and other countries. Unless you are hired by a company that offers a "foreign-style" salary to you, because it cannot find Bolivian nationals with your particular skills, you will need to be honest with yourself about the kind of lifestyle you plan to keep.

As examples, employees at shops and restaurants, and administrative assistants and other office workers, often earn less than $200 per month. Teachers at Bolivian public schools, police officers, bank tellers, and public servants at government institutions generally earn an average of US$300-500 per month. People in managerial positions can earn the equivalent of US$500-1000 per month or more. Needless to say, most foreigners generally seek work with foreign companies, are self-employed, or are living in Bolivia on their savings or the retirement pensions they earn from their countries.

Is it easy to start a company in Bolivia?

Generally speaking, it's actually not that hard. Surprisingly, up to 60% of Bolivians are self-employed or freelancers. Bolivia has a very large "informal" work sector. These are generally market sellers, tailors and seamstresses, owners of small shops, etc. They are self-employed, but their declared income remains under the amount considered "poverty level", so their taxes are very low. Most pay no taxes at all. Many informal freelancers work as gardeners, housekeepers, pool cleaners, street sellers, painters, tour guides, etc. They are not registered anywhere and their income is tax free. However, most of them live in poverty as well.

If you wish to set up a sole proprietorship (referred to in Bolivia as an "empresa unipersonal"), the process is a bit time consuming, but actually quite easy. You will pay a public accountant to write up a spreadsheet that shows your start-up investment amounts and what you will be investing in, which you take to the tax authorities (Renta Interna) where you begin the process of registering your company. You will visit several offices such as Fundempresa (the government's official registry of all companies), as well as local government offices, to whom you will also pay taxes. You will also obtain a license to operate and a taxpayer ID number, among other things.

If you plan to set up a limited partnership alone, or invest in an existing Bolivian company as a partner, the process is longer and more complicated with greater legal ramifications, but overall is more time-consuming than it is difficult. If you plan to open a hotel or restaurant, there will be additional steps to take because you will be serving food.

Before you can do any of these things, you must have already been approved for legal residency in Bolivia, which is also not so much a difficult process as it is time-consuming. Difficulties are more likely to arise when you don't first have your personal life in order. For example, if you entered the country illegally, if you cannot prove you have the investment income you say you do, or if you have a criminal background. You must, at all times, pay all taxes on time and uphold all Bolivian laws.

Bolivians are very entrepreneurial

We have a saying in Bolivia: "de la necesidad nace la creatividad" (creativity is born from need). Bolivians are given a very early start in the "entrepreneur" mentality. Most families cannot afford to send their children to school or university. Children work from a very early age, much earlier than in more developed countries and often under very harsh or adverse conditions. They learn to sell, bargain with customers, make change, do inventory, figure out exchange rates and convert currencies, etc.

By their pre-teen or teen years they are often responsible for large parts of the business. They may be left alone to mind a store, sent out to do marketing or meet with customers, (this is a common sight), and often can be seen at banks paying bills, making deposits, or changing currency. It's sad that so many young people are kept out of school to work. However, the upside is many of these young people go on to own businesses, some of them very large.

Among the sector of the population that can afford to send their kids to the best schools and foreign universities, most parents teach their children that they should always strive to own something rather than end up working for someone else. In fact, a great majority of young people who are sent to overseas universities are expected to study Business Management, either because they are being pruned to take over an existing family business (which may be very large) or to start their own. Because of this, many Bolivian entrepreneurs are quite young. It's not surprising that in 2008, Bolivia was named the most entrepreneurial country in the world.



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