The Ridiculously Long and Complicated Road to Acquiring a Carte de Sejour

29 11 2010

Literal Translation: Card of Stay (which is essentially a residence card)

Let me start by saying that we are very fortunate to have acquired this card.  Many other companies have not figured out how to do it for their expats and there are a lot of people who have been living here much longer than us without cards.  Instead, they make trips to Congo or Cameroon every few months to renew visas.

From the beginning…

When Joe was here back in May/June, the company HR guy began the process of getting Joe the residence card.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work and they instead contracted a separate agent to do the entire process for us.  His name is Nestor and he is a Gabonese man who has unlocked the code of securing residence cards (at least for the time being.)

Nestor begins by preparing all paperwork.  I can’t actually tell you what is on this paperwork as he has someone fill in all of the information and I never actually saw it other than to sign the bottom.  Every other day, Joe gets an urgent call from Nestor’s office saying that they need our passports NOW.  Joe complains as he is busy at work and can’t drop everything to drive home, pick up the passports and take them to his office… but he does it anyway.  This paperwork is sent away, to where I have no idea, and eventually returned with an all important stamp/press seal of approval.

Next, we are required to leave the country.  Most often, people are sent to Congo or Cameroon.  Joe and I tried to go to Sao Tome, a resort island off the coast of Gabon, but we were turned down and banished to Pointe Noire.  We are required to leave for 48 hours but it usually turns into more because one needs a visa to enter Congo and they take your passport at the airport to issue it and that usually takes a few days.  (We tried to work our way around that by getting a visa before going but when we arrived they told us the visa wasn’t correct, cancelled it, and kept our passports anyways.)

Upon returning to Gabon, we present the original papers that were returned to us, to an immigration officer.  It is extremely important to have everything perfect.  The papers must be the originals, not copies, the stamp must be in the correct place, the dates must be correct, and we pay 45 000 cfa ($90.)  The officer looks everything over, scouring for loopholes so that you can be denied.  If you aren’t, they scan your fingers, take your picture and provide you with a temporary 30-day visa.  They stamp the papers and return them to you and send you on your way.

Nestor anxiously awaits the new visa and stamped papers to begin filling out the second round of paperwork.  He resumes calling Joe every other day demanding passports or signatures until everything is in order and then a trip to Libreville is booked.

We catch an early morning flight to Libreville and head directly to the immigration office.  Nestor has some sort of connection there as we bypass lines of people waiting outside and head directly to a side door.  It is very important to be dressed nicely as people have been turned away at the door.  Upon entering, we are shuffled on to a bench where 5 people, no more, no less, must sit and wait.  You sit for several hours trying to figure out how everything works because no one actually tells you anything.  Nestor tells us to listen for our names to be called which is impossible because they call from the other side of the room and there are a hundred other people shuffling about and talking.

It appears that Nestor has some sort of deal with one particular immigration officer who may or may not have been paid in order to let us jump the line.  After 2 hours of waiting, I am called forward and surprisingly Nestor accompanies me.  Prior to this, he wasn’t allowed to help unless there was a problem.  The officer scours the papers and finds something wrong with them.  He demands that Nestor explains but never accepts the answer, scans my fingers, and directs me to sit back on the benches.  Half an hour later, I’m called to a different man who looks over our ‘offenses’ and assigns a penalty  (the going rate for us white people seems to be 300 000 cfa or about $600.)  We are then directed to the cashier to pay the fine.

We resume sitting on the benches waiting for our names to be called again, this time for the photo.  Once called, I enter a cubicle and answer a few questions, have my fingerprints scanned again and get the photo taken.  I resume my place on another bench and again, wait for my name to be called for the fourth and final time to receive the actual carte de sejour.

Voila, process is complete.  Nestor swoops up the card telling me that he needs to take it for one reason or another but assures me I will have it in my hands in a few days.

To recap… 2 trips to Pointe Noire, an infinite number of trips to Nestor’s office, 4 passport photos, a wedding, a day at the immigration office in Libreville, several thousand dollars, 4 months of frustration but I am the proud new owner of a Gabonese Carte de Sejour.  If we’re still here, we’ll get to do it all over again in 2 years!

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