A general introduction to immigration law and policy in Uruguay

Betty Q. Hixson

All questions

Introduction to the immigration framework

Law No. 18.250 dated 17 January 2008, and its implementing regulations in Decree No. 394/09 dated August 2009, clearly establish that:

The Uruguayan state acknowledges as an inalienable right of migrating people and their relatives, without prejudice to their migration status, the right to migration, the right to reunification of family, to due process and access to justice, as well as equality of rights with national citizens, regardless of sex, race, colour, language, religion or creed, political opinion or otherwise, national, ethnic or social origin, nationality, age, economic situation, wealth, marital status, birth or any other condition.

The legislation in question states that immigrants will have equal treatment with Uruguayan citizens with respect to employment.

Uruguay, in turn, binds itself to adopt the measures necessary to ensure that immigrants are not deprived of any of the rights covered by the labour legislation because of irregularities in its continuance or application.

With regard to the categories of residents, foreign people can be admitted to enter and stay in the national territory in the categories of non-resident and resident. The resident category is then divided into permanent and temporary residents.

A permanent resident is a foreign person who enters the country with the intention of staying indefinitely, and who meets the legal conditions for doing so.

Pursuant to Article 74 of the Constitution, children of Uruguayan people are granted with citizenship just by the fact of ‘approaching’ (i.e., having a domicile in) the country.

A temporary resident is a foreign person who enters the country for a certain period. The citizens of the Member States of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and associated states are eligible to apply for temporary or permanent resident (or both) status.

Citizens and people with permanent or temporary residence may enter and exit the national territory as many times as they wish, it being enough to prove their status in the way established by regulations.

A non-resident is a foreign person who enters the country with no intention of staying either indefinitely or temporarily in the national territory.

Upon the expiry of authorised residence terms, foreigners must leave the country. In certain cases, the National Immigration Office may extend the length of stay if acceptable reasons are provided or if an immigrant requests a change of migration category before the expiry of the relevant term.

Foreign people allowed in one of the above-mentioned categories may request to be changed from one migration category to another, provided they meet the requirements established by regulations for those purposes.

Uruguay does not require a visa from citizens from any of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or from the majority of the South American countries.

Generally, admitting foreigners into the category of permanent resident is supported in Uruguay by a migration policy interested, on one hand, in the planning of selective migration and, on the other, in promoting and facilitating the entry of immigrants with capital that would be used in activities that encourage economic, social and cultural development.

i Legislation and policy

Law No. 18.250 introduced new elements to the Uruguayan immigration legislation, thus refreshing it considerably.

Prior to the approval of the Law, a decree approved in 1947 that regulated the entry and residence of foreigners comprised the whole existing regulatory framework; however, it did not contain provisions for applying migration policy criteria to residence applications by foreign nationals who had already entered Uruguay.

With regard to entrepreneurial ventures, there are exemptions allowing immigrants to bring assets necessary to the intended activity. Furthermore, Law No. 16.340 of 1992 provided for the granting of benefits to foreigners in retirement abroad who settle in the national territory and make investments as described in said rule.

In relation to this, Investment Law No. 16.906, within the scope of Law No. 18.083, dated 18 January 2007, with its amending and concordant regulatory decrees, granted tax advantages to foreign investors establishing business ventures in Uruguay.

For the purposes of the regulations in force regarding immigration, a migrant is any foreign person who enters with the intention of residing and settling in the territory, permanently or temporarily.

The state allows immigrants the rights and privileges established in the Republic’s laws and in the international instruments ratified by the country. The following are excluded from the regime of entry, residence and exit from the country:

  1. diplomatic and consular staff from foreign countries accredited in the Republic;
  2. people coming on official missions from foreign states or international organisations;
  3. foreign staff with diplomatic immunity and privileges of international organisations with offices in the Republic, duly accredited;
  4. foreign technical and administrative staff sent to render services in diplomatic or consular missions, or of international organisations that have diplomatic immunities and privileges;
  5. relatives and foreign service staff of people previously mentioned in (a) and (c) who have diplomatic immunities and privileges;
  6. diplomatic and consular staff from foreign countries and international organisations temporarily residing in the national territory; and
  7. those determined by the government because of special and legitimate circumstances.ii The immigration authorities

The main authorities involved are the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Interior is in charge of the management and control of immigration, according to the provisions of Law No. 18.250, its powers being:

  1. to authorise the places through which people can enter or exit the country;
  2. to grant and cancel the residence status of foreigners as set out in the Law with the exception of those cases regulated under Law No. 19.254; and
  3. to expel foreigners according to the grounds provided in the Law.

Moreover, the Ministry of the Interior may, by legitimate resolution, delegate to the National Immigration Office any of the aforementioned powers.

On the other hand, the National Immigration Office is a national agency, administratively autonomous but under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, and has the following powers:

  1. to control and supervise people’s entry to, residence in and exit from the country, in compliance with legal and administrative regulations in force, as well as to declare as irregular the entry or residence of foreigners if they are unable to prove their immigration status in the country;
  2. to reject foreigners when they attempt to enter the country;
  3. to demand travel authorisation of Uruguayan or foreign underage persons who have their domicile or principal residence in the country;
  4. to register people’s entry into and exit from the national territory, and record the corresponding statistics;
  5. to control the residence of foreign people in relation to their immigration status in the country;
  6. to grant and cancel a temporary residence permit and authorise its extension;
  7. to grant the extension of residence to those who may have entered the country as non-residents;
  8. to authorise a change of residence category for foreign people who regularly enter the country as temporary residents or non-residents;
  9. to regularise the status of immigrants when necessary;
  10. to inspect international means of transportation of passengers and crew members to verify the fulfilment of regulations in force related to the entry into and exit from the country;
  11. to apply the administrative penalties corresponding to those breaching migration regulations as provided in Law No. 18.250, and to collect the relevant fines;
  12. to receive and propose the taxes that may correspond to the services rendered; and
  13. to provide measures for the expulsion of temporary residents and non-residents when required by the Ministry of the Interior.

In turn, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its central office in Montevideo or its consulates, has the following powers regarding migration:

  1. to receive, control and assess applications for entry to the country that may be processed abroad, then to forward them to the National Immigration Office for their execution according to the regulations passed for those purposes;
  2. to grant visas of entry to the country in the categories provided in the regulations;
  3. to promote the policies and programmes of the state regarding immigration; and
  4. to grant and cancel the residence status of a specific category of foreigners: spouses, partners who have lived with the person who becomes a permanent resident following a court judgment, parents, children and grandchildren of Uruguayan citizens, and Mercosur citizens and citizens of associated states, pursuant to Law No. 19.254.

Two entities with indirect participation in the application of migration legislation stand out in Uruguay’s administrative institutional structure.

By means of Law No. 14.312 dated December 1974, the National Employment Service was created within the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, to which is assigned, inter alia, the function of ‘Advising on the programming and execution of migration plans of necessary workers, according to the situation of the labour market and employment balance in the territorial aspect’.

Subsequently, Law No. 14.489 of 1975 created the National Human Resources Office, which incorporated the National Employment Service with its assigned functions.

Another entity of note in relation to migration is the National Institute of Colonisation, created by Law No. 11.029 dated 12 January 1948, which is an autonomous entity with legal personality. Chapter VI of Law No. 11.029 discusses immigrant colonisation. Section 7 defines several categories and, according to nationality, classifies immigrants as autochthonous; groups of settlers coming from abroad who are specialised in some agricultural or agro-industrial activity; or mixed groups, where the number of immigrants does not supersede the number of natives or residents that make up the colonies.

Decree No. 394/09 established the National Immigration Committee, which is specifically in charge of coordinating immigration within the Ministry.

iii Exemptions and favoured industries

Law No. 18.083 established exemptions for the tax on business activities on the sale of agricultural property, and on carrying out industrial or agricultural activities.

These benefits are applied in general and automatically for all taxpayers, including foreign investors and workers with temporary or permanent residence in the country.

An investment is considered to be a purchase of property aimed at making up the fixed assets or intangible assets of a business.

Benefits for the installation of industrial parks have also been included.2

The year in review

The number of applicants for residence in Uruguay has increased dramatically, mainly as a result of the migration of Argentinean citizens, including the setting up of large companies in the country. Further, the Uruguayan economy has undergone a process of adjustment based on commercial expansion, and despite trends resisting this expansion, the economy continues to grow. The influx of foreign employees has led to an increase in the qualified workforce, essentially composed of qualified and university-educated professionals. In addition, the transfer of employment in Uruguay from the secondary to the tertiary economic sector reveals meaningful changes in the development of the main labour market indicators.

These economic and financial changes, however, have had no significant impact on wages and jobs, and unemployment rates have not varied substantially.

Uruguay leads the most relevant rankings; for example, in recently published indexes, Uruguay was ranked first in South America in the following areas:

  1. democracy: democracy index, Economist Intelligence Unit;
  2. size of middle class (percentage of population): World Bank;
  3. lack of corruption: corruption perceptions index, Transparency International;
  4. quality of living (Montevideo): quality of living rankings, Mercer;
  5. prosperity (measures income and wellbeing): Legatum prosperity index, Legatum Institute;
  6. security (for multinational executives): Latin security index, Latin Business Chronicle;
  7. press freedom: press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders; and
  8. peace (measures safety and security, conflict and militarisation): global peace index, Institute for Economics and Peace.

Strictly with regard to immigration, the establishment of the forest industry (especially internationally owned pulp mills and plantation companies) has entailed a search for skilled labour from not only countries in the region, but also European countries (e.g., Finland).

According to current information, Uruguay’s total population is estimated at 3.25 million and the number of immigrants exceeds 3 per cent of the population. The volume of Argentinians, Brazilians and Venezuelans recorded in Uruguayan censuses has been increasing over the past 20 years.

The immigrant population comprises 54 per cent women and 46 per cent men. Demographics show that it is an ageing population, with more than 50 per cent being over 50 years of age. Nevertheless, in view of the heterogeneity of the immigrant group, the age characteristics of this population should be considered in the context of their national origin. In this respect, there are clear differences between immigrants from the Southern Cone and those from Europe: while fewer than one-third of the former are positioned at the older end of the age range, more than eight out of 10 Europeans are over 50 years of age.4

The educational level of the immigrant population falls largely within the mid-range, although more than a quarter of this group has completed 10 years or more of study (i.e., they have achieved a high level of education). Furthermore, immigrants native to the region have a greater impact than Europeans in the higher and mid ranges of educational levels and a lower impact in the low-level segment.

Finally, Law No. 19.254 passed by the Uruguayan parliament in September 2014 represented a milestone: this Law gave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the authority to grant and cancel the residence status of a specific category of foreigners: spouses, partners living with a person who becomes a permanent resident following a court judgment, parents, children and grandchildren of Uruguayan citizens, and Mercosur citizens and citizens of associated states. The legal term for granting permanent residence, in these specific circumstances, is 30 business days. Requests and applications under this Law have increased exponentially.

Outlook and conclusions

Law No. 18.250 and its implementing regulations introduced relevance to obsolete migration legislation. However, of greatest significance has been the change in the authority with competence for Mercosur citizens from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This was the result of a change of direction in government policy, in addition to a favourable situation boosted by the world crisis. In Uruguay, the economy enjoyed superlative growth, assisted by the continuation of an economic policy that commenced a decade ago, and this has clearly been reflected in immigration trends in the country.

As mentioned in Section III, the number of applicants for residence in Uruguay has increased dramatically, mainly as a result of the migration of Argentinean, Brazilian and Venezuelan citizens, while the influx of foreign employees has led to an increase in the qualified workforce.

European and North American citizens continue to contribute to the economic development of the country, especially through investment in real estate and in the services sector. Furthermore, there are a great many individuals and families from developed countries, which together constitute a wealthy sector in Uruguay. Asia has proved to be a main source of future immigration into Uruguay, as Chinese multinational companies are setting up in the country.

In the industrial sector, on the other hand, the entry of European, Japanese and Brazilian capital has brought increased development, manifested in the arrival of a skilled workforce from abroad to help realise these advances, and in the national debate regarding the level of technical education in Uruguay.

For Mercosur citizens and citizens of associated states, applications to obtain permanent resident status have been shortened and delays reduced. The number of applications has increased substantially. This represents the coming to fruition of a policy publicly announced by the government.

Argentina relevantly led the ranking for immigration into Uruguay during 2020 and the trend continued in 2021.

Significantly, the government has issued several decrees prohibiting entrance into the country as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. However, the same decrees include exceptions under which certain foreigners, fulfilling certain conditions, may be accepted for entry into the country. This situation seems set to continue for at least the entire first half of 2022.

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