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Neu and I got married in Brazil 2004, at that time I was still on a tourist visa and only spoke very basic Portuguese. Had I known what a bureaucratic paper trail we were embarking on, I might never have agreed to marry him.

Bureaucracy in Brazil is a nightmare, and it seems to me that if something can be done with only one piece of paper, someone will have decided that at least 5 more pieces are indispensable. All these different pieces of paper will undoubtably have to be obtained in triplicate from different government bodies, in different buildings. Those buildings will most likely be in different parts of the city with odd opening hours and will depend on the computer system which invariably will be down when you need it.

The first step in getting married was to visit the registry office in the local town, where I expected there would be some paperwork to fill out. Having taken the only bus into town at 5.30 in the morning, we waited for the registry office to open at nine. The minute the shutters went up it was chaotic, lots of people at the desk speaking loudly to the staff who seemed to be dealing with three or four different requests all at the same time. We joined the queue of people sitting on the benches which lined the walls.
When our turn came the Registrar told Neu he would need to supply:

  1. his birth certificate and
  2. his Identity card

Then she took out a piece of paper and began to write a list, we waited, the list grew, finally she handed it over and said that this was what I needed to supply:

  1. Passport
  2. Birth certificate
  3. *marriage certificate (my previous marriage)
  4. *Divorce certificate (from my previous marriage)
  5. *Police clearance check from England
  6. Federal Police clearance check, Brazil
  7. Statement of verification of tourist status from the Federal Police, Brazil
  8. Clearance from the Federal Justice, Brazil.

* Items 3, 4 and 5 (which thankfully I already had) to be translated into Portuguese by an official translator. Items 5, 6 and 7 only available from the respective federal departments in person in Fortaleza.

The registrar said we also needed two witnesses, I assumed she meant on the day, well yes we needed two on the day but we also needed another two now, to witness our intent to marry, people who knew us and would vouch for our good character. I looked at Neu, thinking that pretty much stumped us before we’d started. I wasn’t sure anyone could really say they knew me, apart from his family and they could not act as witnesses. The registrar urged us to find someone immediately as she said there was a lot to organise and it would take time to book the judge, I was due to be going back to England in a few weeks and unless the process was started today, she doubted there would be time to fit it all in. Again I looked at Neu.

A man with an older woman came over and exchanged some words with Neu, I didn’t understand but I assumed it was good news as there were lots of smiles, the man shook my hand then the woman kissed me and Neu said something about sugar cane and torches, which was completely lost on me.(*I’ll explain later)

The man and his mother were from the village, the man said they would be honoured to act as our witnesses, he spoke to the registrar who took out an enormous book which we all signed, followed by more kisses and handshakes. The whole thing struck me as rather ridiculous as, although I was very grateful to them, I had no idea who he or his mother were but as Neu said, that didn’t matter, they knew me (as did pretty much everyone in the village) and that’s what counted.

The next day one of Neu’s friends drove us to Fortaleza. First stop the Federal Police were things didn’t get off to a good start. We had to wait for ages in the foreigners department before speaking to a surly young policeman who wouldn’t deal with Neu (being in the foreigners department I guess) but didn’t speak English. I suspected he believed our wedding to be a sham as he didn’t seem at all inclined to be helpful. After he’d issued the  tourist document, I asked about the other document but he said we didn’t need it and went to walk away. I wasn’t sure I’d understood and called him back, repeating my request for the other form, he gave me a blank stare. At this point Neu’s friend leaned on the counter and asked in a loud voice if there wasn’t someone there who spoke English, saying it was crazy that we were in the department for foreigners but no one could communicate. Unfortunately the policewoman in charge took serious offence to him, and shouted at him to go and sit down, he refused, she immediately put her hand on her gun at her hip and told him in no uncertain terms to sit down! In nano seconds we had gone from a frustrating situation to a dangerous one and I begged him to back down, which thankfully he did, albeit reluctantly. Another policeman came out, he didn’t speak English but was more helpful and said that as far as he knew, the document we had was the only one the Federal Police issued in relation to marriages.

With our one document from the Federal Police, we went to the Federal Justice to be told that I couldn’t have a justice check done, because to be entered in the system I needed a CPF number which, as I was still only in the country on a tourist visa, I couldn’t have. I was also emphatically told that they had never heard of any one needed a justice check to get married.

We left Fortaleza and headed back to the registrar in the local town, to be told we definitely needed the other two documents, we would have to go back to Fortaleza.

Another friend who lives in the village and speaks English and Portuguese took us back to Fortaleza to try again. We took our son with us this time, I find in Brazil that babies generally make people more helpful. In the Federal Police, at the sight of our son, the surly policeman of the previous visit was more helpful and the more helpful policeman was positively enchanted. In no time at all it was discovered that the document we needed was from a different department of the federal police, so off to that room to be told I had to fill out a form and pay a fee and that the document would be ready in a few days. We explained that we needed the form as soon as possible, the policeman said he’d do what he could and that we should come back an hour before closing time.

We went to the Federal Justice. A sign on the door said they would only be opening at midday and warned that the computers had been down for three days with no estimate of when the problem would be fixed. Great!

While we waited for the Federal Justice to open, we phoned an official document translator from the list the Federal Police had given us, the man we spoke to assured us that the documents would be ready by the next day, he couldn’t give an exact quote but it would be about R$50. per page. As our friend was staying in Fortaleza overnight, he said he could collect them for us, so we took the documents over to the translator.

That done it was time for the Justice department to open, so back over to them. Once again we said what we wanted , to be told that, although the computers were now working, I couldn’t have the document because as they had explained before, I didn’t have a CPF number. Our friend asked to speak to someone senior and we were ushered upstairs. The man who came to speak to us was lovely but no more able to help, in the end he suggested that we put my name (minus the CPF number) into the computer and see what happened, most likely it would spit out a blank page but maybe that would suffice, if not then the registrar would have to call them. We went back downstairs where the first man we’d spoken to typed my name into the computer. Unfortunately there was such a back log owing to the earlier computer failure, our document wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow, our friend said he’d pick that one up too.

Back to the Federal Police, the document was nearly ready but we would have to wait about another hour or so. When we did get that document it didn’t seem to have a great deal of information on it either but at least we had it. We headed home on the bus, feeling exhausted but relieved that things were moving in the right direction and so grateful to our English-speaking friend for all his help.

The next day our friend tried to collect the translations but they were not ready after all, the translator said that we should phone to find out when they would be ready but they could only be collected on a Friday or a Monday, he still hadn’t said how much we would have to pay. All this was so frustrating as we don’t have a car and Fortaleza isn’t exactly close. At least our friend had got the document from the Federal Justice and as the senior man there had suspected, it was a piece of paper with the logo of the Federal Justice at the top, underneath which was my name and the rest was blank.

We took the documents we had to the registrar, who was quite happy with the blank page from the Federal Justice department. We explained about the translator and the registrar, trying her best to be helpful, said that she would be in Fortaleza on the Monday so could collect the documents for us, she would pay by cheque and we would pay her back.  Of course that was too simple, the translator refused to accept a cheque, so more delay while we got the cash to the registrar and then had to wait for Friday when thankfully the registrar was going back in and was finally able to pay for and collect the completed documents.

Now we had to wait for the judge to check the details and give us a date. Meanwhile I was told I should work on my testimony, my what!   It was explained to me that we would be required to tell the judge why we wanted to get married, this terrified me, not because I didn’t have a good reason, but because I would have to say it in Portuguese which I had no faith I could correctly do.

The time ticked by, my leaving date was drawing ever closer. The registrar rang, the judge had noticed a mistake in a date in the translation, the documents had to be returned and corrected, more delay.

A few days later she rang again, something about the British consulate wanting money for a service, she was surprised as no other consulate charges for this (what ever it was) so she would try an alternative. I never did find out what the problem was but she must have resolved it without the need for payment, which was a relief as so far we’d spent a small fortune.

Finally we got a phone call late in the afternoon to say the service would be the next day at 11 o’clock  in the town hall. Neu rushed around to find enough cars to take us, the children, our two witnesses and his mother (I insisted that she come, he didn’t think it necessary) to the town, I was so exhausted from all the tooing and frowing that I could barely get up any enthusiasm for what was to take place the next day.

The following day on arriving at the town hall, my mother in law to be, stepped out of the car and burst into tears, only to turn them off again when we were told there would be a delay and we should wait and wait and wait and wait.

After what seemed like forever we were shown into a tiny dark room with a huge table in the middle and filing cabinets on one side. Out of the window, the view of neatly clipped grass was interrupted by the stacks of broken chairs and the odd bit of bicycle leaning against the glass. We shuffled in around the table and waited, a large overhead fan swooped round under a flourescent light, creating a strobe like effect in the room and making me feel decidedly ill. The registrar tottered in with another enormous book, which made me giggle and then feel embarrassed because she was followed by the judge.

The judge introduced himself, shook hands all round then asked Neu to explain why he wanted to get married now, today. Neu explained how we had met and ………… the judge listen patiently, all the while I was dreading my turn and thinking I was bound to make a mess of it. When Neu finished the judge nodded his head seriously, then turned to me. I took a deep breath and said the only thing I was sure I could say “Because I love him”.  The judge thumped his hand down so hard on the table that everything on it bounced, we all leapt “That’s what I wanted to hear, I don’t care when you met, how you met, where your from, I only want to hear that you are getting married because you love each other!” Phew that was easier than I’d thought then. He gave us a lecture about how a good marriage is one where the man keeps the woman happy (not sure Neu remembers that bit), pronounced us man and wife and told us to sign the book. Neu asked the judge about the rings, he said “Oh do what ever you like with them, my jobs finished”, having wished us luck and kissed the baby, he left. My mother in law now had an official cry as we put our rings on, we took a couple of photos and then the batteries in the camera died, kind of summed it up really. We hadn’t quite finished with bureaucracy though, we had to return to town to collect another piece of paper, our rather elegant marriage certificate.

Our wedding photo, with Neu's mum (middle) looking SO happy!

Our wedding photo, with Neu’s mum (middle) looking SO happy!

*To express his gratitude to the man from the village who had offered to be our witness in the registry office, Neu said that when I went back to England I would buy him a wind up torch (very useful out here), the man was so touched that he offered us some sugar cane to plant.

Getting married in Brazil can be complicated and takes time (more than a month) with fees to be paid at various steps along the way. You can hire a legal representative to help organise all the necessary documents and carry out much of the leg work and if you’re not on the tight budget that I was, then having someone who knows what is required and can speak on your behalf would be helpful, however your presence would still be necessary when requesting documents (from the Federal Police for example) or registering intent to marry.

The site of the US embassy has some helpful and clear advice for US citizens marrying a Brazilian in Brazil. The advice probably covers all foreign nationals but don’t assume this. If the couple are both foreign nationals the rules and requirements may well be different again.

If you think this story could help someone else who’s thinking of getting married in Brazil, or just feel like helping me out, please hit the Share and Like* buttons and leave a comment!

You might also like An unexpected Brazilian, English Romance.

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