Guatemala Guide

Living in a foreign country poses a lot of logistical challenges (where can open a bank account? or even, how do I get there?). Often the internet can be a great source for answers to these questions. But we've too often found in Guatemala that you can't find the information that you'd expect to on the internet; I guess no one is posting it. So, as a public service of sort, here is a catologue of some information about Guatemala and Central America that might be useful to other travelers out there (and is probably of little interest to others).

In this post, you'll find information on the following topics (just click on the item in the list below and it will take you directly to that topic if you, shockingly, don't want to read everything):

  • Driving to Central America
  • Importing your car to Guatemala
  • Guatemalan Tourist Visa Extensions
  • Opening a Guatemalan bank account
  • Getting a Guatemalan Birth Certificate for your child
  • Getting a Guatemalan passport for your child
  • Applying for a Guatemalan residence visa

    Of course you can fly but flying is no fun, so I drove to Guatemala. The drive is fairly easy, since you only have to traverse Mexico. While Mexico isn't the safest place in the world these days, as long as you are cautious (don't drive at night) and smart (stick to main roads and don't drive anything too fancy), you should have fun. It is possible to make it across Mexico in a couple of days (via the Gulf Coast) or to stretch it up to several weeks (in which case you can hit a lot of the country). In terms of details, you can find info on this drive lots of places on the web (but if you want some details on one of the trips that I did you can find it here and here)

    The one thing I couldn't find on the internet was whether it was possible to cross into Mexico with a temporary US license plate. After some nervous moments at the border, the answer is that you can do so; in fact, the Mexicans don't much seem to care about what license plate you have on your car.

    And to quickly address another widely debated topic on the web, about whether to get an "en transito" permit for your car or whether to just get the regular tourist car permit, I'd highly recommend the regular tourist permit, even if you have a good bit of luggage/equipment that you're bringing South with you. In my experience, with fairly full cars on two separate occasions, as long as you're not bringing a washing machine or somesuch, then no one cares what type of permit you get and the regular tourist car permit is much easier and more flexible.

    This can be a bit of hassle as you need to go back to the border to do the importation paperwork (assuming you went the sensible route of entering Guatemala the first time around with a tourist car permit). You'll need lots of copies of everything to do with your car (including title information, the tourist permit that you entered with the first time around, etc.). And you'll need to hope that SAT (the Guatemalan tax authority) computer system is working; I had to spend the night at the border when it crashed and they couldn't process my importation paperwork (the good news is that the border town of El Carmen has a fairly decent hotel right next to the bridge to Mexico and the Mexican town of Tapachula, about 10 miles away, has lots of good hotels and restaurants).

    In terms of the value of your car and thus the tax you pay, XelaPages has good info on how these calculations are done (see The only thing that I would add is that supposedly you can also have the car valued based on how much you purchased it for (assuming that you recently purchased it for your trip to Central America) rather than using the assessed price from the Nada Guide (see this link to go directly there: But in order to do this you both a bill of sale and proof of payment (such as credit receipt, credit card bill, canceled check, etc.). In my experience the the amount I paid for the car and assessed value were about the same so it was easier to go with their valuation than to jump through the hoops of proving my purchase price, but if you somehow got a great deal on your car then you might want to come armed with lots of proof about the purchase price.

    One last note, if you're thinking about buying a car to import to Guatemala (or Central America generally as most countries seem to have the same basic system for vehicle importations), the assessed value a vehicle varies depending on what trim level you have. For example, a Jeep Liberty Sport and a Jeep Liberty Limited (which has luxury features such as a sun roof, leather seats, etc) have different assessed values, as the the Nada website (see above) makes clear when you drill down to a specific model of car. So if you have a choice and want to save some money on the import tax then go with the bare bones model. Yes, having a sun roof would be nice, but as an example, it can end up costing you about $500 extra just on the import tax.

    With most passports you get an automatic 90 days when you enter Guatemala. To get another 90 days you can just leave the country (outside of the CA4: El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua) or you can renew your visa in Guatemala City. There is some info out there on renewing the visa but seems fairly out of date. As of March 2011, here's what you need to renew your Guatemala tourist visa:
    - One passport photo in black and white
    - A copy of the front and back of a valid (eg not expired) credit card
    - A photocopy of the first page of your passport (the one with your picture and personal data)
    - A photocopy of the page with your most recent Guatemala entry stamp
    - Your passport
    - The equivelant of US$16 in Quetzales (don't try paying in dollars, even though that's what the prices are quoted in, as they change your dollars to Quetzales at the current rate and then back to dollars so that it ends up costing you more- don't ask me, it's Guatemala)

    At the office (which is actually a quite professional customer service center) they'll give you an application to fill out; it is also available on the web at (at the bottom of the application form it has the requirements). Migracion also has a more general website ( but it is so terribly organized that it is hard to find anything useful. All this goes to the Migracion office in Zone 4- detailed info including phone numbers (which actually seem to get answered!) here: Then 8 days (yes, 8 days later) you have to go back to pick up your passport with your visa extension. In terms of when to go, I would highly recommend going as early as possible (they open at 8am) to avoid lines, which can get rather long.

    Opening a Guatemalan bank account
    It is possible for a foreigner to open a Guatemala bank account, although not all banks allow it. In typical fashion some banks have byzantine requirements that are impossible to fulfill. In my experience Banco Reformador has very straightforward requirements (essentially only a passport and an application form) and makes it easy to open an account with minimal hassle, just make sure to ask about the fine print (fees, minimum balances, withdrawal limits, etc) as different types of accounts have different features and constraints.

    If you're reading this (in English) then you're probably a foreigner that is thinking of giving birth in Guatemala. First, congratulations. Second, your child (assuming your home country allows it) will be a dual citizen as Guatemala grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the country. Getting the Guatemalan birth certificate is pretty straightforward.

    The hospital where your child was born should give you a document that has all the birth details on it. You need to take this document to RENAP (the National Registry of Persons or the Guatemalan equivelant of the Census Bureau) in the town where the child was born or where you reside (our son was born in Guatemala City and we live in Xela, but we were in Antigua so we tried to get the birth certificate there but they refused to help us despite the fact the I pointed out several times that it is the National Registry of Persons). In Guatemala City, RENAP's main office for this sort of thing is located on 2nd street just off Reforma in zone 9. If you have everything in order (see below for details), the office is pretty efficient.

    In addition to your child's birth form from the hospital, you should also bring the usual photocopies of your relevant information (first page of the passport, etc). Also, it is a good idea to bring a copy of your marriage certificate/license, if you have it; they requested it when we went there but it doesn't seem to be a routine requirement and could probably talk your way around it if you had to.

    Also, in Guatemala City and likely in other towns as well, they request a Boleto de Ornato, which is basically a registration fee you pay to be able to do municipal government transactions (it doesn't seem to serve much purpose except for raising revenue for the local government). It only costs a couple of dollars but I would highly recommend getting it ahead of time, especially if you're in Guatemala City. While the process to get it is simple (you pay, they hand you the little slip), you can only get it a few places and those places sometimes run out (how this is possible or makes any sense is beyond me, but whatever). So if you get it ahead of time (like the day before) then you won't waste time running back and forth to the RENAP office.

    In Guatemala City, you can supposedly get the Boleto de Ornato at the Banco Rural next to RENAP but the line is often long there and they had run out the day that I was there (by the way, in Xela the process is much simpler, you can get it at the City Hall, off the Parque Central, and the line is rarely longer than 3 people). You can also get it at the Banco Rural underneath the municipal building (City Hall) in Guatemala City. Be sure to hold on to the Boleto, it is good for the year and they may ask for it when you do other transactions for your child (passport, etc).

    I'd recommend getting a few copies of your child's birth certificate from RENAP. They are cheap (about $2 each) and if you're doing a US report of birth abroad, a Guatemalan passport, Guatemalan visa stuff (by the way, having a Guatemalan child means that you can apply directly for permanent residency, skipping the more complicated steps that are required for the temporary residence application), etc., they'll ask you for a copy of this birth certificate.

    Finally, the child's name on the Guatemala birth certificate will automatically be the given names (first and middle name as Americans call it) plus the father's last name and then the mother's last name. But, if you're American, you can list the more conventional US nomenclature on the Certificate of Birth Abroad and passport (for info on the fairly straightforward process for this the US Embassy of Guatemala has all the info you'll need:

    Again, I'm assuming that you're not a Guatemalan national if you're reading this (though the steps are actually basically the same in this case). To get a Guatemalan passport for your child you need to go to the passport office, of which there are a couple of offices throughout the country; see this link for the addresses (scroll down) and the requirements:

    In terms of documents, you need the birth certificate you got from RENAP (see above) and your Boleto de Ornato (again see above). Both parents also need to be present, with their passports (as a side note, it is permissible for the parents to be in the country on a tourist visa). As always, bring relevant photocopies (in this case a copy of the parents' passports, including the front page and the visa or most recent Guatemalan entry stamp, and the Boleto de Ornato). Also, of note, is that the RENAP birth certificate must be less than 6 months old.

    The initial application process is pretty straightforward. You start by meeting with a passport officer. After reviewing your application materials the passport officer issues you a receipt that you need pay at Banco Rural, about $30 (by the way, it is normal for them to keep the application materials, including the parents' passports, while you are going to the bank). Once you bring the paid receipt back, you meet with the photo technician, who doubles checks the data and takes a picture of the baby. That's it. Apparently in Guatemala City they issue the baby's passport on the spot, but in Xela you have to come back in a couple of days to pick it up.

    A couple of notes here, first, while both parents technically need to be present, I was able to do the first part of the application (submitting the forms and getting the receipt to take to the bank by myself). Second, as always when doing these things, best to get there early as lines (for a passport officer, for the bank, and for the photo technician) can get quite long. Finally, the child's name on the Guatemala passport will automatically be the same as on the RENAP birth certificate: the given names (first and middle name as Americans call it) plus the father's last name and then the mother's last name, but for the child's US passport it is possible to get just one last name (see above).

    If you've gotten this far in Guatemala, you know what you're up against in terms of bureaucracy, and you know that this is going to be a pain. So I'm going to skip the things that you'll already know by now: where the Migracion office is, that you always need a lot of photocopies of everything, get there early, etc. Also, of note, I'm only going to talk about the steps to apply for permanent residency on the basis of having a child that is a Guatemalan citizen (though most of the steps are the same- the main difference is that to apply for a temporary residence permit you need to have a guarantor). You can get some specifics on applying for temporary and permanent residency visas by following this link:

    Of the requirements to apply for a residence permit, the only really complicated one is getting a copy of your criminal history (or hopefully lack thereof), called the Constancia de Carencia de Antecedentes Penales in Spanish or a Good Conduct Certificate in English. What makes this difficult is that you need to get it from your home country or city (unless you can somehow prove that you've been residing in Guatemala for at least 5 years). For Americans that means a trip back to the US since the Embassy won't issue this and it takes a long time for the State Department in DC to process it (see here: ). Most local police departments in the US can issue these within a week or two (more below on what you can do if you can't go back to the US).

    Once you get this Certificate of Good Conduct from your local American police department, you need to take it to the closest Guatemalan consulate so that they can legalize it (basically stamp it saying that the police department's stamp is authentic). In addition to the Certificate of Good Conduct, the Guatemalan consulate only requires your passport and a small fee (about $10). Then, you need to take this consulate stamped certificate back to the Ministry of Exterior Relations in Guatemala City (2 Avenida 4-17, zona 10) so that they can authenticate the authentication of the consulate.

    If you can't go back to the US to get this Certificate of Good Conduct then the other option is be to fingerprinted in Guatemala (see details below) and send these fingerprints back to your local police department so that they can run a criminal check. To do this requires either a relative in the US who is willing to do the local police department and consulate steps for you or a lot of faith in FedEx or the US Postal Service. If a relative is doing it for you, be sure to check with the local police department as to what kind of authorization they need to have in order to submit paperwork on your behalf (a notarized letter would probably do the trick in most cases, but it is still worth checking).

    Getting fingerprinted in Guatemala is a pain because, like many things in the country, there is no system or application process. The first thing you need to do is take a photocopy of your passport (supposedly they require a copy of every page but then don't always ask for it). Then take 2 copies of letter addressed to the chief of police requesting that you be fingerprinted for visa application purposes (and including your full name and passport number) to the PNC office at 10 Calle 13-92, Zona 1 in Guatemala City. The people at the front desk will stamp this letter received and tell you to come back another day. The people in the relevant office (whomever they are) seem to process this pretty quickly, but probably best to wait a couple of days before coming back, just in case.

    When you return you can pick up a copy of your letter, which has been stamped with your case number (or some code that you apparently need). Then you take this letter to the Criminal Records Division (or somesuch) which is out in Zona 6, next to the police academy (the people at police headquarters will give you the address). After again explaining what you need and submitting more photocopies, these people will eventually fingerprint you (free of charge!). Then you can send this fingerprint card back to the US so it can go to your local police department. Good luck!