Options for Living in Belize

By Lan Sluder

Excerpted from Easy Belize: How to Live, Retire, Work or Invest in the Little Frost-Free, English-Speaking Paradise on the Caribbean Coast by Lan Sluder, available as a paperback book or Kindle eBook from Amazon.com and elsewhere.


There are three options for those wishing to live or retire in Belize or to spend extended periods of time in the country. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

 

TOURIST CARD

This is the easiest, cheapest way to live in the country for a while, and it requires no long-term commitment.  The procedure is simple: You get a 30-day entry free (via a passport stamp) when you arrive in the country by air, land or sea. After 30 days, you can go to an immigration office (or police station in remote areas) and renew the tourist card monthly for US$25 a month for up to six months, and then US$50 a month after that.  After six months, you also must register as an alien. Citizens of the U.S., European Community, the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Suriname, Fiji, Hungary, Iceland, Kenya, Latvia, Lithunania, Seychelles, South Africa, Singapore, Slovakia, Soloman Islands, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Czech Republic, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Norway, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay, Zambia, Western Samoa, Zimbabwe, Tuvalu, Venezuela, Hong Kong, CARICOM member states and some other countries get a tourist card without having to apply in advance for a tourist visa. Nationals of more than 75 other countries must apply in advance for a tourist visa, and there is a fee. See the Belize Tourism Board web site, www.travelbelize.org for details.

 

As a tourist cardholder, you can enjoy Belize without a long-term commitment. You can buy or rent property, but you cannot work for pay. In theory, when you renew your tourist card, you are supposed to be able to prove that you have sufficient resources, set at US$60 a day, to stay in Belize, but this requirement is not usually enforced. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will be able to renew your card indefinitely, as rules and conditions can change, as you have no official residency status.  If you fail to renew your permit in a timely way, or if you overstay your allotted time, technically you are in violation of Belize law and can be deported. As a practical matter, if you can offer a good reason why you failed to follow the law, and are very friendly to Immigration officers, you’ll probably be let off with a short lecture from the official, and perhaps a fine. However, some people who overstay their tourist cards are sent packing.

 

QUALIFIED RETIRED PERSON STATUS

The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Act passed by the Belize legislature in 1999 is being implemented by the Belize Tourism Board. The program is designed to attract more retirees to Belize. In the first years of operation, the program attracted considerable interest and a number of applications. But the Belize Tourism Board now declines to disclose publicly how many applications it has received and how many have been approved. However, we understand that there are at most a few hundred participants in the program.  Interest in the program appears to be fairly high, but because of the income requirement, inability to work for pay in Belize and other factors, the actual number of retirees under the program in Belize is as yet relatively small and far fewer than are in programs in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico and elsewhere.

 

For those who can show the required monthly income from investments or pensions, this program offers benefits of official residency and tax-free entry of the retiree’s household goods and a car, boat and even an airplane. This program also eliminates some of the bureaucratic delays built into other programs. The BTB guarantees action on an application in no more than three months, but we have heard of qualified retirees getting approval for this program in only a few weeks.  

Who qualifies? Anyone at least 45 years old from anywhere in the world can qualify for the program. A person who qualifies can also include his or her dependents in the program. Dependents include spouses and children under the age of 18. However, it can include children under the age of 23 if enrolled in a university.  

Main benefits: Besides prompt approval of residency for qualifying applicants, import duties and fees for household goods and a vehicle, airplane and boat are waived.

Duty-free import of personal household effects: Qualified Retired Persons under the program can qualify for duty and tax exemptions on new and used personal and household effects admitted as such by the Belize Tourism Board. A list of all items with corresponding values that will be imported must be submitted with the application. A one-year period is granted for the importation of personal and household effects.

 

Duty-free import of a vehicle, aircraft and boat:  

a. Motor Vehicle: Applicants are encouraged to import new motor vehicles under the program, but the vehicle must be no more than three years old.  (An exception may be made in the case of an older vehicle with low mileage, but this would be decided on a case-by-case basis.) A Qualified Retired Person may also buy a vehicle duty-free in country.

 

b. Light Aircraft: A Qualified Retired Person is entitled to import a light aircraft less than 17,000 kg. A Qualified Retired Person is required to have a valid Private Pilot license to fly in Belize. This license can be obtained by passing the requirements set by the Civil Aviation. However, if the participant has a valid pilot’s license, that license only has to be validated by Civil Aviation Department in Belize.

 

c. Boat: Any vessel that is used for personal purposes and for pleasure will be accepted under this program.  If for whatever reason a Qualified Retired Person decides to sell, give away, lease, or otherwise dispose of the approved means of transportation or personal effects to any person or entity within Belize, all duties and taxes must be paid to the proper authorities.  The Belize Tourism Board states: “Qualified Retired Persons must note that only after three years and upon proof that the transportation that was previously imported to Belize was adequately disposed off, will another concession be granted to import  another mode of transportation.”  

Income requirement: To be designated a Qualified Retired Person under the program, the applicant must have a monthly income of at least US$2,000. A couple does not need to show US$4,000 a month – just US$2,000, as the applicant is normally an individual and the applicant’s spouse is a dependent under the program. The income rules for Qualified Retired Persons are, like many things in Belize, a little confusing. On first reading, it looks like the income must derive from a pension or annuity that has been generated outside of Belize. The rules do not specifically say so, but according to Belize Tourism Board officials U.S. Social Security income can be included as part of this pension requirement. This pension and annuity information then has to be substantiated by a Certified Public Accountant, along with two bank references from the company providing the pension or annuity. These substantiations may not be required if your pension and/or annuity is from a Fortune 500 company. Several retirees have told me that they were able to include other forms of income, including investment income, in the US$2,000 figure, if supported by a CPA’s statement that the income would continue indefinitely. In this latter case, the US$2,000 a month income (US$24,000 a year) can be substantiated by showing records from a bank or other financial institution in Belize that the retiree has deposited the necessary money.  

Background check: All applications are subject to a background check by the Ministry of National Security.  

Application: Applications for the program must be made to the Belize Tourism Board in Belize City and include the following:  

• Birth certificate: A certified copy of a certificate for the applicant and each dependant.

 

• Marriage certificate if applicant is married and spouse is a dependent.

              

• Police record: A police record from the applicant’s last place of residency issued within one month prior to the application.  

• Passport: Color copies of complete passport (including all blank pages) of applicant and all dependents that have been certified by a Notary Public. The copies must have the passport number, name of principal, number of pages and the seal or stamp of the Notary Public.

 

• Proof of income: An official statement from a bank or financial institution certifying that the applicant is the recipient of a pension or annuity of a minimum of US$2,000 per month.

 

• Medical examination: Applicants should undergo a complete medical examination including an AIDS test. A copy of the medical certificate must be attached to the application.

 

• Photos: Four front and four-side passport size photographs that have been taken recently of applicant and dependents.

 

The application form for the Qualified Retired Persons Program is available for download on the Belize Tourism Board Website at www.belizeretirement.org.  Application fees and costs for the QRP program total US$1,350 for an individual or US$2,100 for a couple.

 

For information on the program, contact:  Belize Tourism Board, P.O. Box 325, Belize City, Belize, Central America; tel: 501-223-1913 fax: 501-223-1943. If you have questions or problems, try contacting the Program Officer.

 

OFFICIAL PERMANENT RESIDENT

Application requirements and most benefits are similar to those of the Retired Persons Incentive Act, but there are some important differences. The application process itself and the supporting documents needed are similar to those for the QRP, although the applications are processed by different organizations.

Here are the main differences:  As a regular permanent resident, you have two major advantages over a participant in the QRP program.  First, you do not have to deposit any particular sum in a bank in Belize. However, you do have to show financial resources sufficient to obtain residency status.  Second, as a permanent resident, you can work for pay in Belize. You also enjoy some advantages as a resident rather than a “long-term visitor” as you are considered as a QRPer, such as not having to pay the land or sea exit tax when departing Belize. As a permanent resident, you can vote in local (not national) Belize elections.

You must live in Belize for one full year before you can apply for regular permanent residency. During this period, you cannot leave the country for more than 14 days. Even a short, two-hour visit to Chetumal counts as one day’s absence.  Note, however, that the Immigration and Nationality Department sometimes interprets this requirement only as meaning that you cannot leave the country for 14 or more CONSECUTIVE days.

Here are the documents you must have to apply for permanent residency (photocopies of original documents must be submitted along with the original documents):

• Application form.

• Passport.

• Evidence, such as passport pages with immigration stamps, that you have been in the country for one year.

• Recent police record for yourself and all members of your family over the age of 16.

• Evidence you have acquired property in Belize if you are claiming that you have – but owning property in Belize is NOT required to obtain permanent residency.

• Alien registration for yourself and all members of your family if you have resided in Belize for six months or longer.

• Certificate of health including HIV and venereal disease tests for you and all members of your family – these tests must be conducted in Belize.

• Three passport-size photos of yourself and all members of your family.

• Birth certificates of all applicants.

• Marriage certificate (if applicable).

• Recent local bank statement if means of financial support is not otherwise demonstrated.

• Temporary work permit if you are planning to work for pay.

• Income tax statement.

After approval, you have up to one year to bring in household effects duty-free, on a one-time basis. However, the duty-free exemption does not apply to a vehicle, boat and airplane, as it does for the Qualified Retired Persons program.  

It is somewhat expensive to apply for regular permanent residency. Application fees for Permanent Residency vary by nationality, ranging from US$250 to $5,000. For Americans, the fee is US$1,000 per person. There is also, upon approval, a fee of US$150. In addition, if you use an “expediter” in Belize to help you with the paperwork, you'll likely pay a fee of around US$1,500, plus several hundred dollars in travel and photocopying fees and taxes.  Note that these fees are per-person, not per-application, as is the case for the Qualified Retired Persons program. For example, an American married couple applying for permanent residency would pay US$2,000 with the application and US$300 for residency cards after approval. Some applicants also have been required to post a bond, supposedly to guarantee the cost of repatriation to their home country, should that ever be required. The bond amount varies, ranging from several hundred dollars to as much as US$2,000. Other applicants say they have not been required to post the bond.  Residency cards are no longer provided -- instead, your passport is stamped.

 

You apply to the Belize Immigration and Nationality Department rather than through the Belize Tourism Board. For information and application form, contact: Immigration and Nationality Department Ministry of National Security and Immigration, Belmopan City, Belize, Central America; tel.: 501-222-4620; fax: 501-222-4056. 

Time for approval of a permanent residency application varies. Some find that the process goes fairly quickly, taking only a few months. Others say it took up to a year, or longer, for approval.

Pros and Cons

Each option has pluses and minuses. The main advantages and disadvantages are:  

Tourist Card  

Pros: No commitment, no financial requirement, flexibility, little red tape.  

Cons: No tax advantages, no official status, inconvenience of having to renew periodically, monthly fee of US$25 to $50 per person to extend, possibility rules may change, can’t work for pay in Belize.

Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program  

Pros: Quick approval, application through Belize Tourism Board rather than Immigration Department, some residency rights (except voting), tax-free entry of household effects, car, boat and airplane, only have to live in country for one month a year.

Cons: Must deposit US$24,000 a year in a Belize bank, somewhat costly application process, can’t work for pay in Belize, must be 45 or over, still have to pay tourist exit taxes when leaving the country, basically are considered a long-term visitor rather than a true resident.

 

Official Permanent Residency

Pros: Full residency rights (except voting in national elections -- you can vote in local elections), can work, open to anyone regardless of age, tax-free entry of household effects.

 

Cons: Year-long residency before applying, more red tape, costly application process, and some people are turned down for minor details; you can bring in household goods but NOT a car, boat or airplane free of duty.

 

The controversial Economic Citizenship program, under which foreigners were able to buy a Belize passport and residency rights for a fee of US$25,000 to $50,000, was discontinued in 2002.  

In addition to these programs, regular citizenship in Belize is a possibility for those living in Belize over a long period. To acquire citizenship, applicants must have been a resident or have permanent residency status for a minimum of five years. Applicants for citizenship need to provide essentially the same supporting documentation as those applying for permanent residency. Applicants also must demonstrate a knowledge of Belizean history. Note that for citizenship residency purposes, stays in the Belize under the Qualified Retired Persons program do NOT qualify.  To become a citizen, you would have to give up QRP status (perhaps having to pay back the duties you escaped under QRP), apply for permanent residency, and begin the five-year residency from scratch.

Caution: Rules and regulations and the interpretation of them change frequently in Belize.  Do NOT assume that this information is the last word on any matter pertaining to entering or staying in Belize.  

 

Copyright 1999-2010 by Lan Sluder. All rights reserved.