Please Take a Number: Introduction to Trámites

I am back in Chile.  I love Chile.  The ever-present mountains, the mote con huesillo on a hot summer day, the sopaipillas on rainy winter days, the impossibly infectious timbre of Chilean Spanish, and the impossible abundance of quirky Chilean-isms.  It’s great.  There is, however, one aspect of Chile that I cannot stand.  The red tape, the paperwork, the processes and processing…bureaucracy.  While there is no one word with which we as Americans can so ubiquitously identify the experience of processes, paperwork, and proceedings, in Chile the word is trámites.  And it’s all too common a word.


I expect that over the next several years, I will have quite a bit to say about trámites.  But before I take out my machete to cut through all this red tape, I’d like to provide some brief ground rules to give you a basic understanding of trámites in Chile.

  • Everything closes at 2pm.  The banks, the government offices, any building you would need to be able to successfully get through trámites closes.  And not for lunch and a siesta.  For the day.
  • Get there early.  Find out when the building opens and get there either early or during a time when there won’t be many people.  Sometimes it’s good to get there about a half hour after they open so that you don’t have to deal with the people that rushed to get there as soon as the doors opened.  But regardless…
  • Bring something to read.  Or a game to play.  Or someone whose company you enjoy.  Because you’re going to be there for at least a couple hours.  Which also means that when they send you to another building, you will have to wait for another day, because it will already be 1:30pm.
  • You must take a number for everything.  If you think this might not be the case because there is no number board and the number dispenser is empty, think again.  A woman with a roll of numbers might just pop out of that closed office door to hand out numbers to the few people waiting.  And then she will call the numbers out of order.
  • In spite of the very long processes described above, face-to-face interactions are often the fastest way to get an answer.  For example, if you want to know the price of sending a letter to your family back in the United States, the post office’s website probably won’t give you the answer.  If you call the number provided on the website, they will probably direct you to another number.  If you call that number, it probably won’t exist.  When you call back, you will be told that you will simply have to go into a local branch.  By the time you get there, the branch will probably be closed.  With the post box inside the building.  Hypothetically.
  • Pitutos: the express tickets.  Pituto means having an “in” with someone.  It means you can show up and have that person give you all the information you need and rush you through the process in a much more expedient fashion.  Which is probably why the rest of us without pitutos have been staring at a number board that has changed six numbers in two hours.
  • You might get the wrong information.  If someone doesn’t know the solution to your problem, they will either send you somewhere else, tell you it can’t be done, or advise you with whatever solution occurs to them as a feasible possibility.  They also may do all of these three things in one conversation.  Also, they might tell you something is impossible when really it’s only complicated.  Even if you know the process already and you’re just looking for them to give you the go ahead.

I think you’re now basically ready for your first trámites.  Remember:

  • Call, but don’t expect them to answer.
  • If they answer, don’t expect them to know the information you’re looking for.
  • They are going to send you somewhere else.

I hope these guidelines serve you well.  Knowledge is power.  More specifically, possession of what the culture of power deems to be knowledge grants you the cultural capital to be able to play the trámites game well.  But really, you’re just better off knowing someone on the inside…social capital ftw.


2 thoughts on “Please Take a Number: Introduction to Trámites

  1. Pingback: Trámites: Bureaucracy’s Blue Screen of Death (Part 1) | Chilean Adventures of the Pelirroja Peligrosa

  2. Pingback: Welcome to the AA meeting: Assimilating Activists… | Chilean Adventures of the Pelirroja Peligrosa

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