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Moving to Colombia

If expats contemplating a move to Colombia can look beyond the country's documented troubles, they'll find an unspoilt land with a friendly and curious local population. Colombia is a geographically diverse country. Foreigners are constantly in awe of its scenic beauty, from vast mountain ranges to green prairies and lush rainforests. Most foreigners living in Colombia are based in the capital, Bogotá, but expats should be able to find a community of expats in most Colombian cities.

Living in Colombia as an expat

One of the major considerations of living in Colombia is safety concerns. While the government has done a lot to tackle drug trafficking, the issues associated with it are still rife. Muggings, burglary and credit card fraud are common crimes. These issues have caused Colombia's popularity as an expat destination to lag behind other South American destinations such as Brazil and Argentina. That said, its expat population is nonetheless steadily growing.

Many young expats come to Colombia to work as English teachers and spend a few years exploring South America. Other thriving industries include construction, medicine, and oil and gas. Having at least a basic knowledge of Spanish will not only be advantageous in the workplace but also help in interacting with the local population.

Accommodation can be found to suit almost every budget in Colombia, though expats generally opt for a fairly small selection of middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods that offer security and proximity to public transport, grocery and department stores, and restaurants.

Cost of living in Colombia

The cost of living in Colombia is low compared to North America or Europe. Bogotá, Colombia's capital, is much more affordable to live in compared to other major South American cities including Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Montevideo. While the cost of school tuition can be high, especially at private and international schools, expats will find that private healthcare is reasonably priced. These expensive elements of expat life in Colombia are also offset by low taxes.

Expat families and children

Colombia is becoming more and more popular with families, as expats are realising it's not the drug-infested, crime-riddled country that it's made out to be in films and media. There is plenty to do here for families, from adventure-filled holidays to kid-friendly parks, museums and restaurants in the major cities. Schools are also of a good standard, and those parents who'd like for their children to keep studying in the curriculum of their home countries will be pleased to learn that there are several excellent international schools in Bogotá and Medellín.

Climate in Colombia

Expats thinking of a move to Colombia can look forward to a great general climate, which is mostly tropical but has many variations within its diverse natural regions. Colombia’s tropical forests, deserts, savannahs, steppes and alpine zones each bring their own unique set of conditions. May to November is the wettest time of year throughout the country, while December to April is the dry season.

Relocating to Colombia will be an exciting step full of new opportunities, even for the most seasoned expat. While some extra safety precautions will be necessary, new arrivals should rest assured that the warm hospitality offered by the Colombian people will ensure that they settle in easily.


Fast facts

Population: Around 51 million

Capital city: Bogotá

Other major cities: Cartagena, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla

Neighbouring countries: Colombia is bordered by Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.

Geography: Colombia forms part of a region known for earthquakes and volcanic activity. The Andes mountain range dominates the country and most of the urban centres are set in the mountains. There are large coastal areas and deserts along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as vast areas of Amazonian jungle, shared with Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Colombia also has a few remote islands near Nicaragua. 

Major religions: Roman Catholicism and other denominations of Christianity

Political system: Multi-party democracy

Main language: Spanish

Money: Colombian Peso (COP)

Tipping: Tipping is common for foreigners, but locals rarely tip. Tipping in a restaurant is usually 10 percent of the bill. Some restaurants automatically add a service charge. 

Time: GMT-5

Electricity: 110V, 60Hz. Two-pin flat blade attachment plugs and three-pin (two flat blades with round grounding pin) plugs are used.

Internet domain: .co

International dialling code: +57

Emergency contacts:  123 (medical, fire and emergencies), 112 (local police)

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the right-hand side. Public transport includes minibus taxis, metered taxis and buses. Taxis are easy, safe and relatively cheap. Ride-hailing services are becoming increasingly popular in major cities. Getting a drivers' licence will often include a series of tests and a large amount of paperwork. Contact the local Colombian consulate before departure to jumpstart the process and avoid drawn-out complications.

Weather in Colombia

The climate in Colombia is tropical but has many variations within its diverse natural regions. Colombia’s tropical forests, deserts, savannahs, steppes and alpine zones each bring their own unique set of conditions.

May to November is the wettest time of year throughout the country. Generally, temperatures will peak around 86°F (30°C) between September and November. However, this is not true of all areas. Temperatures in alpine regions may dip instead of rise during this time. 

December to April is the dry season. Temperatures drop over December and January in most areas. However, few places drop below 50°F (10°C) and most remain above 59°F (15°C) at least.  

Average maximums are around 77°F (25°C) for the savannas, at least 81°F (27°C) in the rainforests, 84°F (29°C) and upwards in the deserts. The steppes and alpine areas are the coldest areas, sometimes dropping below 50°F (10°C). 

Major rains may cause flooding and deadly mudslides, especially in Colombia's interior. While the big cities are typically the safest, expats should always pay attention to weather warnings. In addition to flooding, earthquakes and volcanic activity are further environmental hazards to consider.

Embassy Contacts for Colombia


Colombian embassies

  • Embassy of Colombia, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 387 8338.

  • Embassy of Colombia, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7589 5037.

  • Embassy of Colombia, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 230 3760.

  • Consulate-General of Colombia, Sydney, Australia: +61 2 9955 0311.

  • Embassy of Colombia, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 3106.

  • Consulate of Colombia, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 563 7727.

  • Consulate of Colombia, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 499 5534.


Foreign embassies in Colombia

  • United States Embassy, Bogotá: +57 1 275 2000.

  • British Embassy, Bogotá: +57 1 326 8300.

  • Canadian Embassy, Bogotá: +57 1 657 9800.

  • Australian Consulate, Bogotá: +57 1 694 6320.

  • Honorary Consul of South Africa, Bogotá: +57 1 214 0397.

  • Honorary Consul of Ireland, Bogotá: +57 1 432 0695.

  • New Zealand Consulate, Bogotá: +57 1 439 1666.

Public Holidays in Colombia

 

2021

2022

New Year's Day

1 January

1 January

Epiphany Day

11 January

10 January

Saint Joseph's Day 

22 March

21 March

Maundy Thursday

1 April

14 April

Good Friday

2 April

15 April

Labour Day

1 May

1 May

Ascension Day

17 May

26 May

Corpus Christi

7 June

16 June

Sagrado Corazón

14 June

27 June

Feast of St Peter and St Paul

5 July

4 July

Independence Day

20 July

20 July

Battle of Boyacá Day

7 August

7 August

Assumption Day 

16 August

15 August

Día de la Raza Holiday

18 October

17 October

All Saints Day

1 November

1 November

Cartagena Independence Day

15 November

14 November

Immaculate Conception Day

8 December

8 December

Christmas Day

25 December

25 December

Working in Colombia

An increasing number of expats are calling Colombia home, attracted by the natural beauty, welcoming locals, and easy-going lifestyle. The country has made impressive economic progress over the last 15 years despite political instability. It has enjoyed massive growth in the information technology, mining, construction and tourism industries.

The abundance of natural resources, relative stability of the economy, low cost of living and the nation’s promotion of free trade agreements have led to strong foreign investment in recent years. As one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies, Colombia remains an attractive destination for foreign investors and entrepreneurs.

Expat entrepreneurs often find that the process of starting a business is much less tedious than searching for a traditional job. Entering the Colombian job market is often quite difficult for expats, though some knowledge of Spanish will make the process easier. Securing a job before arrival is uncommon. Obtaining the necessary visas can be a lengthy and frustrating process as well. If a company wants to hire an expat, they will need to submit a document detailing the employment offer. They will also have to explain why they aren’t hiring a Colombian for the position. Smaller companies, such as TEFL language schools, may be reluctant to sponsor an expat's visa. 


Job market in Colombia

Due to the growth of tourism in the country and an increasing emphasis on locals learning English, most expats in Colombia tend to work as English-language teachers. These jobs are plentiful and are relatively easy to secure for native speakers. Teachers can work in government-sponsored programmes, language schools or they can give private lessons. The pay tends to be quite low, though. Many expats start off teaching in an effort to make connections and adjust to Colombian culture in a more relaxed environment.

Expat job markets are largely centred on Bogotá and Medellín, but jobs can be found across the country. 


Finding a job in Colombia

It can be difficult to find a job before arriving in Colombia. Colombians value face-to-face contact and prefer to meet prospective employees in person before making hiring decisions. However, expats can begin the process from home by making contacts via social media, professional networking sites and expat groups or forums.

Other expats may prove to be the most useful resource in searching for opportunities, though job advertisements can also be found in local newspapers, on noticeboards and community forums, or through online job boards. Spanish fluency will be crucial when searching for a job on Colombian websites and in the local classifieds. Many employers won't speak English either. It's important to make sure all necessary documents, including resumes, have been translated into Spanish.

In some cases, it may be easier to start a new business in Colombia rather than finding a traditional job. The country is actively promoting entrepreneurship and seeking foreign investment. 


Work culture in Colombia

Expats will find that fostering good relationships with friends and colleagues is central to Colombian work culture. Inland cities such as Bogotá and Medellín are more formal in their work culture, while in coastal areas like Cartagena locals have a more relaxed approach to business.

Time and punctuality are not generally of great importance. Expats should be prepared for meetings to start late and run overtime. They shouldn't be offended if colleagues are not punctual for appointments. 

Doing Business in Colombia

Colombia is one of the most stable economies in Latin America. It experienced a historic economic boom over the last decade despite political turmoil. The country is rich in natural resources and has experienced rapid growth in the industries of information technology, construction, mining, shipbuilding and tourism. Colombia is now one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world and has been enjoying above-average economic growth and decreasing poverty levels for several years.

In The World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020, Colombia was ranked 67th out of 190 economies. The country scored highly for the ease of obtaining credit (11th), protecting minority investors (13th), and resolving insolvency (32nd), while falling short in enforcing contracts (177th) and paying taxes (148th).

Before conducting business in Colombia, expats should familiarise themselves with the local customs that will influence their dealings in the country. Colombians are warm and expressive, emphasising the importance of family and friendship. So establishing personal relationships and building trust is crucial to a successful working environment. Family-owned companies, or family members working together, are quite common in Colombia for this reason.

The Colombian approach to time and punctuality is very flexible, both socially and in business. Expats should not take offence if meetings begin an hour late or if a colleague calls back a week later instead of the next day. Business proceedings need to allow for small talk and socialising, and should not be rushed. 


Fast facts

Business hours

Working hours are generally Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm, with a one or two-hour lunch break. Although some companies may conduct business on Saturdays, the weekend is usually reserved for family.

Business language

Spanish is the official language of Colombia. Although an increasing number of businesses may have English speakers on their staff, it is advisable to engage an interpreter and to ensure that initial contact with potential business partners is conducted in Spanish. Any effort made in speaking the language, even with basic greetings, is sure to be met with a positive response.

Dress

Appearance is important in Colombia. Expats should be neat and presentable and should dress conservatively in dark suits and ties for men, and dresses or suits for women. Clothing may be less formal in the warmer regions of the country.

Gifts

Gifts are generally received well and are expected when visiting a colleague’s home. It is polite to say thank you and show one’s appreciation. However, wrapped gifts should not be opened in front of others. Women are typically given flowers, particularly roses, while men will appreciate a bottle of liquor, as imported alcohol is expensive in Colombia.

Gender equality

Although gender equality may be something of an issue in Colombian society, it should not be a problem for foreign businesswomen in the corporate world as they will be treated with courtesy and respect (though perhaps some curiosity). 


Business culture in Colombia

The business culture tends to be quite formal in the major cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, with a more relaxed attitude in the hot coastal regions. It is always important to engage in small talk before focusing on business concerns, and Colombians also prefer doing business in person. Face-to-face meetings are favoured over phone calls or emails.

Greetings

Handshakes are central to Colombian culture and are expected upon arrival and departure, accompanied by direct eye contact and a smile. Once business partners know each other well, greetings may become warmer and men will embrace and pat each other on the shoulder, while women kiss once on the right cheek. First names should only be used once invited to do so. People should be addressed by their title – Señor (Mr), Señora (Mrs) or Señorita (Miss) – and their surname.

Saving face

Communication tends to be quite subtle and indirect in Colombian business so as not to offend. To save face, expats should read between the lines, using context and non-verbal cues. Colombians may decline without saying 'no' or 'I can’t do it'. Mistakes should never be pointed out in a public setting.

Communication

Though communication may be more indirect than expats are used to, Colombians are also very warm and animated communicators. It is important to engage in small talk, asking about family, friends and hobbies, before diving into business discussions. Trust and personal relationships are central to Colombian culture. In terms of personal space, Colombians may interact within closer physical proximity than expats are used to.

Meetings

Business meetings should be scheduled a few weeks in advance and confirmed closer to the time. Since time is very flexible in Colombia, it is a good idea to leave a few hours in between appointments in case meetings are delayed or last longer than expected. Meetings do not always follow the agreed-upon agenda, and will generally go on as long as they need to – one should not try to rush the proceedings. Corporate lunches and dinners are a popular method of conducting business in Colombia.

Attitude towards foreigners

Colombians tend to have a positive attitude towards foreigners. They'll always ask one’s opinion about Colombia and how it differs from what was expected. Colombians are eager to help their country escape its global reputation as a place of violence and drugs by welcoming foreigners and emphasising the best of Colombia. 


Dos and don’ts of business in Colombia

  • Do accept invitations to social events

  • Don’t offer opinions on local politics or make jokes about drugs or Colombian history

  • Do make an effort to learn some Spanish

  • Don’t mistake Colombian animation for aggression, as it is an emotional culture

  • Do take time with business dealings, rather than rushing things

Visas for Colombia

Depending on their nationality and the purpose of their stay, expats may need to get a visa in order to enter, work, study or live in Colombia. Expats should ensure they know which type of visa is required. Colombia offers many different categories of visas. Most of these enable foreigners to stay in the country for one year or more.

Colombia’s visa rules changed late in 2017. Visas can now be classified under three broad umbrella categories: Visitor (V), Migrant (M) or Resident (R). There are more than 30 subcategories that are divided under each umbrella category. It’s important that expats understand the new visa rules before applying for a Colombian visa. 


Visitor visas for Colombia

Citizens from many countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and South Africa do not need a visa to enter Colombia as a tourist for up to 90 days. Expats should consult their local Colombian embassy to find out whether they need a visa or not.

The visitor visa is aimed at foreigners who are going to Colombia for tourism purposes or to do business, participate in academic exchange and studies, do an internship or volunteer. The visa also applies to expats who are being transferred for work by an international company or those who are travelling for a working holiday.


Migrant visas for Colombia

The migrant visa is intended for foreigners who want to visit Colombia for short trips or to stay in the country temporarily. The visa is available to expats who want to live in Colombia and establish themselves, but don’t meet the requirements of the resident visa.

This visa covers what in the past would have been marriage, work, retirement or student visas. Expats who are a spouse of a Colombian national, adopted parent or child of a Colombian national, employed full time, a businessperson, investor, retiree or landlord could all be eligible for this visa.

The migrant visa is typically valid for three years. However, this depends on the purpose of the visit. If a visa holder leaves Colombia for more than six consecutive months, the visa will expire.


Resident visas for Colombia

The resident visa is for expats who want to establish themselves permanently in Colombia. If a foreigner has held a migrant visa for longer than two or five years (depending on the category of the visa), they may become eligible to apply for a resident visa. This visa is also available to expats who have invested significantly into the Colombian economy. 

Resident visas are valid for up to five years and allow the visa holder to take up any kind of employment in Colombia.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Cost of Living in Colombia

The relatively low cost of living is a major attraction for expats considering a move to Colombia. With low taxes and many first-world amenities, Colombia offers expats a high quality of life at a relatively low cost.

As is usually the case, the cost of living in smaller cities or rural areas is lower than in major cities such as Bogotá and Medellín. Services and locally produced goods tend to be affordable, while imported goods are more expensive. According to Mercer's Cost of Living report for 2020, Bogotá, Colombia's capital, ranked 181st out of 209 cities. This is much lower than many other major South American cities including Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Montevideo.

Colombia’s large wealth disparity means it is possible to enjoy a lavish Western lifestyle or to pinch pennies when necessary. Foreign currencies afford expats great purchasing power when compared to the Colombian Peso (COP).  


Cost of accommodation in Colombia

Although rent is likely to be an expat’s greatest monthly expense, the cost of housing in Colombia remains affordable. The cost of utilities is also low. Due to the country’s extreme wealth disparity, accommodation can easily be found to suit every budget.


Cost of public transport in Colombia

The cost of travel in Colombia is on par with other South American countries. Within the cities and smaller towns, taxis, motorcycle taxis and buses are ubiquitous and cheap. Regional buses and domestic flights are also reasonable.


Cost of education in Colombia

The cost of tuition in Colombia can be high, especially at private and international schools. Public schooling is free, but tuition will be in Spanish and may not be up to expat standards. Fees for the top international schools are similar to those worldwide.


Cost of healthcare in Colombia

Although the public healthcare system is generally of a high standard, most expats will opt for private healthcare in Colombia. Expats will find that private healthcare is reasonably priced and the standard of care is generally excellent.


Cost of groceries and eating out in Colombia

Groceries are likely to be one of the larger expenses each month. A number of everyday products need to be imported and are thus relatively expensive. Shopping at one of the large grocery store chains such as Éxito or Jumbo allows for a better selection, but at a significantly higher cost. Buying local products and shopping at local markets, butchers and street stalls will greatly reduce the cost of food.

The cost of eating out will vary greatly depending on the neighbourhood and type of cuisine. Most cities and towns offer a variety of restaurants to suit any budget. The cost of eating out and drinking out in Western-style bars and restaurants can be moderate to high in price. In Colombia, lunch is the primary meal of the day. Local neighbourhood restaurants typically serve a set menu (menú del día) for as little as COP 8,000, which includes a bowl of soup, a chicken or meat dish served with rice and salad or plantains, and a fresh juice.


Cost of living in Colombia chart 

Prices may vary depending on product and service provider. The list below shows average prices for Bogotá in April 2021.

Accommodation (monthly rent in a good area)

Three-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

COP 1,800,000 

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

COP 3,200,000

One-bedroom apartment outside of city centre

COP 1,050,000

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

COP 1,700,000

Shopping

Eggs (dozen)

COP 6,200

Milk (1 litre)

COP  2,730

Rice (1kg)

COP 3,700

Loaf of white bread

COP 2,900

Chicken breasts (1kg)

COP 11,600

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

COP 8,000

Eating out

Big Mac Meal

COP 18,000

Coca-Cola (330ml)

COP 2,600

Cappuccino

COP 4,550

Local beer (500ml)

COP 5,000

Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant

COP 80,000

Utilities

Mobile-to-mobile call rate (per minute)

COP 213

Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month)

COP 105,000

Basic utilities (per month for small apartment)

COP 275,000

Transportation

Taxi rate (per kilometre)

COP 6,000

Bus fare in the city centre

COP 2,500

Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

COP 2,425

Culture Shock in Colombia

Colombia has been shaped by a wide range of cultural influences. Although the culture and lifestyle may not appear completely alien, expats will notice many idiosyncrasies which they will have to adjust to. The experience of culture shock in Colombia will vary depending on an expat’s personality, lifestyle and location. Western-style shopping malls, grocery stores and restaurants can be found in all the major cities, whereas adapting to life in smaller towns and rural areas will be significantly more challenging.

While the country is becoming increasingly popular with tourists and expats, foreigners still generate a fair amount of fascination and curiosity from locals. Expats should be ready for stares and invasive questions, well-meaning though they may be.

Almost everyone in Colombia loves dancing and football. Colombians are generally family-oriented. Expats will undoubtedly be invited to the homes and family events of their new Colombian friends. 


Time in Colombia 

Life tends to progress at a much slower pace in Colombia. The local approach to time and punctuality is highly flexible, both socially and in business. Enjoying more public holidays than most other countries, Colombians place great value on their family time, festivals and traditions. Queueing and waiting in long lines are commonplace. The practice of jumping these lines can also make visits to banks or shops tedious affairs. 


Meeting and greeting in Colombia

Colombians are usually welcoming, lively and passionate. People from Bogotá, Medellín and other inland regions may be slightly more formal and reserved, while those from the coastal regions are often more laid-back and expressive. Expats should adjust their greetings accordingly to make sure they do not offend local people.

Appearances are important in Colombia. Expats will find that personal care services such as hairstyling, manicures and pedicures, teeth whitening, and even plastic surgery are far more affordable than in many European and North American countries. Everyone is generally expected to be well groomed and neat at all times. 


Women in Colombia

As a predominantly Catholic nation, people in Colombia are generally conservative, especially in terms of traditional gender roles. Sexual discrimination can be common, with men and women expected to conform to traditional gender roles. That being said, there is a growing number of women in business and they tend to be respected by their male colleagues. 

Like many countries in Latin America, chauvinism or machismo can be a problem. Female expats will have to deal with catcalling and harassment in the street, while men will be expected to pay for everything on a date or in a relationship. 


Language barrier in Colombia

Although the government has made bilingualism a priority, the average Colombian will not speak much English. This is particularly apparent outside of the major urban centres. Learning Spanish will be essential for any expat hoping to integrate and fully adjust to life in Colombia.

The Spanish of the inland regions tends to be relatively easy to understand, but even expats who speak the language well will find it difficult to understand Colombians from the Caribbean coast, as there is a huge range of vocabulary and slang. Regional meanings can also vary widely. 


Safety in Colombia

Eager to put the stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings behind them, Colombians do their best to make foreigners feel welcome in their country. They work to put forward an image which is warm, generous and sociable. Expats may find that although people are generally friendly, they can also appear oblivious to those around them.

Safety in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, but street crimes like pickpocketing and armed robbery are still common. Expats should therefore take certain basic precautions and be vigilant about personal safety. Expats should also stay vigilant around roads, as Colombians tend to drive aggressively and have little patience for pedestrians. 

Even though Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, some groups have refused to demobilise. This means there are parts of Colombia that are still suffering from a war between guerillas, paramilitaries and government forces. Expats should avoid these areas.


Food and drink in Colombia

Lunch is the most important meal of the day in Colombia. In rural areas, everything comes to a halt for two hours each day as people go home to enjoy a hot meal with their family. The Colombian diet is very carbohydrate-heavy and includes a lot of sugar – countless soft drinks, fruit salad drizzled with condensed milk and tubs of dulce de leche sold on street corners.

Drinking in public spaces is legal in Colombia and a beer costs the same as, or sometimes even less than, a soft drink in the ubiquitous corner store tiendas. Coffee, particularly the strong and bitter tinto, is everywhere, as is freshly squeezed fruit juice. Water and other soft drinks are often sold in plastic bags which may be unusual for expats.

In the larger cities, expats should have no trouble finding restaurants serving cuisine of any type. Imported food items will be available in the larger grocery stores, but usually with a hefty price tag attached.


Transport in Colombia

As Colombia is a developing country the standard of public transport may be inferior to what expats have come to expect at home. Traffic in Bogotá is notoriously bad. People on the street tend to walk slowly, and chaos rules the roads. Drivers in Colombia pay little attention to stop signs, traffic lanes or indicators. Omnipresent motorcycles also completely ignore road rules as they wind their way through traffic.

Local buses don’t stick to timetables or advertised routes. People simply hail the bus as it goes past and hop off wherever they need to. Although the buses are often crowded, street vendors and performers will frequently push their way through the throngs to sell their wares or serenade passengers. The major cities of Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla have rapid transit bus systems, and Medellín is the country's only city with a metro.

Accommodation in Colombia

The price of accommodation in Colombia is rising as its economy develops, but expats will find that housing remains affordable.

When choosing accommodation, expats need to consider factors such as cost , security and location. As a result of the country’s wealth disparity, accommodation can be found to suit almost every budget. Expats will generally be limited to a fairly small selection of middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods that offer security and proximity to public transport, grocery and department stores, and restaurants.

The majority of expats settle in Bogotá, the culturally rich and bustling capital. Another favourite city is Medellín, which is known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ due to its comfortable climate. Cali, the capital of salsa dancing, and Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena, along the Caribbean coast, are also popular locations, though the heat and humidity in these cities may prove too much for some foreigners.

Whether renting or buying, expats without a sound knowledge of Spanish may struggle through the process of finding and then securing accommodation in Colombia. They may also be more susceptible to exploitative landlords and various scams. Expats who are unfamiliar with the local language and culture should enlist the help of a professional translator or a friend who is fluent in Spanish.


Types of accommodation in Colombia

The type of accommodation an expat chooses will depend on the town or neighbourhood they want to live in, their family's requirements and, of course, their budget. Generally, the further one moves from the city centre the more choice they'll have and the more affordable the properties will be. 

Expats will find that modern apartment complexes in Colombia have good security. They often offer amenities like a pool or small gym. Older apartment blocks are usually more spacious and comfortable. They also tend to have better soundproofing than more modern buildings. Houses are typically exorbitantly expensive and are generally situated further away from the city centre.

Single expats, those on a tight budget or those who need somewhere to stay while searching for more permanent housing might consider renting a room in a private home. Many have private entrances and include access to the entire house and its amenities while allowing expats to improve their Spanish. Although Colombians tend to live at home until they get married, expats may also be able to find a room in an apartment shared with Colombian roommates.


Finding accommodation in Colombia

Securing a house or apartment in Colombia may be difficult, and even more so for expats who don’t speak Spanish. There is a high demand for properties in the more affluent areas of every Colombian city. Expats should therefore establish their budget well in advance and research their preferred neighbourhoods to focus their search.

The best method of finding an apartment is to walk around the desired neighbourhood, talking to locals and looking for ‘se arrienda’ or ‘for rent’ signs, and contacting the owners via phone or email. Many apartments and houses are rented by individuals rather than agencies. It is quite unlikely that the owner will speak English, so expats should enlist the help of a Spanish-speaking friend.

Expats can also use a real estate agency, search the classifieds of local newspapers, or refer to expat forums where other foreigners may advertise available rooms or properties. There are several different online portals for people in Colombia looking for roommates or advertising apartments.

When searching the internet expats should avoid using English sites, as these are generally marketed at tourists. Local websites will yield a larger number of options at greatly reduced prices.


Renting accommodation in Colombia

Renting accommodation in Colombia can be a tedious process. Rental agencies typically require lots of paperwork to be filled out and references to be given. Expats will find that renting a room in a shared house or apartment is more relaxed and informal. 

The rental market is competitive and fast moving. Expats should definitely do some research before leaving their home country, and shortlist suitable cities and neighbourhoods in Colombia that will suit needs and budget. 

Furnished or unfurnished

Both furnished and unfurnished housing is available in the major urban centres, although furnished apartments are typically significantly more expensive.

Unfurnished apartments often lack many of the appliances that expats would expect, such as refrigerators, washing machines and microwaves. That said, renting an unfurnished apartment is often much more affordable, and expats who will be staying in the country for a year or more will find buying their own furnishings worthwhile.

Short lets

A short let is a good option for those who may only be in Colombia for a few months. They also allow new arrivals to get to know an area, before committing to a long-term lease. A short let usually offers some flexibility in the length of the rental. These properties are often furnished.

The rental process

After deciding on the area they want to live in and the type of property they would like to rent, expats will typically research properties online. They would also then contact real-estate agents to set up viewings.

Once a suitable property has been found, and an agreement has been made with the landlord, the estate agent will draw up the contact. Before the contract can be signed, the estate agent will need to check references and do some background checks.

An inventory (inventario del inmueble) should be made at the beginning of a tenancy agreement. Both parties should keep a copy for their records. The inventory should be signed and added to the tenancy contract. It should typically include details of the contents of the property. Both the tenant and landlord or agent should note any damaged furniture or fittings.

References and background checks

Colombian real-estate agencies require background credit checks. This may prove difficult for expats without a credit history in the country, but a salary slip or bank statement will usually be accepted.

Leases

Expats will need one or sometimes two Colombians to co-sign the rental agreement. These co-signers will generally need to be property owners and will be responsible for payments should the tenant default. Expats may find that local friends are either unable or unwilling to take on this responsibility, but an employer will often help with the process.

Although real-estate agencies tend to be strict about this requirement, expats can often avoid the necessity of Colombian co-signers by paying a large percentage of the rent upfront, or by negotiating directly with the landlord.

Rental contracts in Colombia usually last 12 months. This can be negotiated though, depending on the landlord. Landlords and tenants can legally terminate the contract early if the other party doesn’t comply with the terms set out in the lease agreement.

Deposits

In Colombia, insurance companies function in place of deposits. A landlord will draw up a contract with an insurance company. This company will offer security against arrears and damage to the property.

This kind of policy should cover the property owner for 36 months’ rent. It also covers a fixed amount for damage to the property. The cost of the policy will be written into the lease agreement. The tenant will either have to pay a monthly charge that is added to the rental price or they would have to pay an annual lump sum.

Utilities

In Colombia, charges for services such as water, electricity and gas are determined based on usage as well as strata. The strata system helps subsidise the cost of utilities in lower-income neighbourhoods. This means expats will pay more for these services in the more desirable neighbourhoods of the city. Hot water is a luxury that many people in rural Colombia forgo, especially on the coast where it is incredibly hot and humid. Expats should be sure to confirm that their chosen property has hot water.

It is usually the tenant's responsibility to pay for services such as water and electricity. This could vary between properties. Expats should ensure that the person responsible is stipulated in the rental agreement. Utilities are generally included in the rental price of short-term leases.

Healthcare in Colombia

Healthcare in Colombia has become known for its quality, coverage and accessibility. The country generally provides care of an excellent standard at a relatively low cost. This attracts numerous medical tourists looking for affordable treatment.

Health insurance is compulsory. All residents must be registered with a health service provider. Insurance is provided by both public and private companies to promote competition and a higher standard of service.


Public healthcare in Colombia

Public healthcare in Colombia can be of a high standard but its quality and reliability tend to be inconsistent. Patients in public hospitals often face overcrowded emergency rooms, long waiting times and a shortage of doctors. 

Despite this, the level of care in the major urban centres can be excellent, with well-trained doctors and well-equipped facilities. On the other hand, access to healthcare in more rural areas can be challenging.

The majority of expats in Colombia opt to have some form of private healthcare plan as a back up or for medical emergencies.


Private healthcare in Colombia

Expats living in Colombia will find that private healthcare is easily accessible and affordable, even on a local salary. The country boasts a modern private healthcare system centred on the major cities. There is a range of insurance and treatment options for almost every budget. 

Private healthcare in Colombia also attracts many medical tourists, especially from the US, who are wooed by the high quality of care and the low prices. This is particularly true for cosmetic surgeries and dental work.


Pharmacies in Colombia

There are numerous pharmacies in cities and towns across the country. Many of these, particularly the large pharmacy chains, operate seven days a week and are open 24 hours a day. Some pharmacies offer home delivery services. Medication is also available over the counter at relatively low prices compared to those in the US and Europe.

Pharmacies tend to be well stocked and many medications that require a prescription in other countries can be bought over the counter in Colombia. While there aren't strict regulations on bringing reasonable amounts of prescription medication into the country, expats are likely to find that purchasing their medication in Colombia will be significantly cheaper than in their home country.


Health insurance in Colombia

Residents of Colombia must be insured under one of two regimes. The subsidised regime is for low-income families and is known as SISBEN (El Sistema de Selección de Beneficiarios para Programas Sociales). Meanwhile, the contributory regime known as EPS (Entidade Promotoras de Salud) is for those earning above the minimum monthly amount. Most expats will fall into the latter category.

The EPS contribution is part of an employee’s salary. Expats with a contract that meets the minimum salary requirements must join the contributory health system. The system requires appointments to be made in advance. A referral from a GP is needed before seeing a specialist. Some services may require a small co-payment. 

Expats are also advised to take out private medical insurance, even if they pay into the national healthcare plan. Most health issues can be dealt with at one of the many hospitals or clinics, but in the case of chronic or long-term illness it is advisable to have the extra cover in case specialist care is required. Private health insurance can be purchased from several local or international providers.

When moving abroad with an employer, it's likely that a corporate healthcare plan will already have been put in place. If moving independently, expats should consider purchasing private insurance to top up the services available in the public system.


Health hazards in Colombia

The tap water in major cities is generally safe to drink, although many houses and apartments have small water-filtration systems installed. Expats should not drink tap water outside of the major urban centres unless it has been boiled, filtered or sterilised. 

Mosquito-borne viral diseases, including yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya, pose a significant threat in Colombia. Malaria is also prevalent in some regions. Expats should take the necessary precautions. When travelling to high-risk areas of the country, expats should use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, and make use of window and door screens.


Pre-travel vaccinations for Colombia

The following vaccinations are recommended for expats travelling to Colombia:

  • Yellow fever

  • Typhoid

  • Hepatitis A

  • Routine vaccinations, if not up to date (measles, tetanus, poliovirus etc.)


Emergency services in Colombia

The national ambulance service of Colombia is called the Servicio de Atención Médica de Urgencia (SAMU). It is available throughout the country and is free to all citizens. Health insurance will typically also cover the cost of ambulance services.

In Colombia, every clinic or hospital must provide immediate medical care to anyone who requires emergency medical attention.

In case of an emergency, expats can call the national emergency number (123) and will be redirected to the appropriate service. For English-speaking operators, it's best to contact the Colombian tourist police.

Education and Schools in Colombia

Colombia has a high literacy rate thanks to mandatory education until middle school and a strong emphasis on vocational education. The public education system is governed by the Ministerio de Educación Nacional (Ministry of National Education), but the standard of public schooling does vary rather widely, tending to lag behind in the more rural areas of the country.

Private schools form an important part of the education system. There are also numerous international schools in cities across the country. Though there is no specific regulation for or against homeschooling in Colombia, it isn't a common practice.

The school year generally starts in January and ends in November for public schools. Private schools tend to use a different calendar, starting in August or September and finishing in June.


Public schools in Colombia

All mandatory stages of education in Colombia are subsidised by the state, allowing lower-income families access to free schooling. Children can attend state-sponsored community nursery schools or daycare centres from the age of one. Children enrol in elementary school at age six.

Secondary education is divided into four years of compulsory basic secondary schooling (ages 12 to 15) and two to three years of optional vocational education (ages 15 to 18). Students are offered different technical and academic specialisations.

Although expats will be able to enrol their children in public schools, many choose not to due to the varying standards of public education. Children who don’t speak Spanish will find public schools extremely challenging. That said, it could also provide a great opportunity for cultural immersion, especially for the little ones who'd pick up the language easier than older kids might.


Private schools in Colombia

There is a large variety of private schools in Colombia, and the standards, entry requirements and fees at these schools may vary considerably. Generally, private schools offer higher standards of learning, smaller classes and a wider range of extra-curricular activities. Private schools are attended not only by expats but also by the children of wealthier Colombian families. 

Most private educational institutions are either bilingual, teaching classes in both English and Spanish, or international, where a foreign curriculum is used and teaching language varies. Several private schools offer the globally recognised International Baccalaureate.

Parents should carefully research schools before enrolling as although some schools call themselves ‘bilingual’, teachers may have only an intermediate knowledge of English and most classes may be taught in Spanish.


International schools in Colombia

There are numerous international schools in Colombia. The majority are located in Bogotá. There are also international schools in major cities such as Medellín and Cali.

Expats will find English, French, German and Italian schools in Colombia. Like many of the private schools, these are attended by a large number of local students.

International schools adhere to the educational model of their affiliated country. Schools will generally follow the national curriculum of this country, but many offer internationally recognised qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB). The teaching language is usually that of the school's country of origin but many international schools offer bilingual programmes as well.

International schools offer a high standard of education, similar to international schools across the globe. Tuition tends to be on par with private education in Europe or the United States, which is very expensive by local Colombian standards. Admission and enrolment procedures vary from school to school.


Special-needs education in Colombia

Expat parents of children with disabilities should consider an international school in Colombia, as these institutions provide the best special-needs care and education. Policies and regulations for children with special education needs in Colombia are implemented by the Ministry of Education, and while the system aims to include children with disabilities within mainstream schools, there is still much room for improvement.

International schools will cater for most disabilities including hearing, vision and other physical impairments as well as mental disabilities. We recommend parents do thorough research of each school to ensure that their child will be accommodated, as not all international schools cater for special-needs kids, or perhaps not all disabilities. Spaces at these schools also tend to fill up quickly so parents should apply well in advance. 


Tutoring in Colombia

Tutoring can be a valuable tool for expat children in Colombia, whether they need help learning Spanish, or other speciality subjects, or for assistance in preparation for entrance exams or SATs. A good tutor can also serve to boost the confidence of expat kids in their new environment or with a new curriculum.

We recommend expat parents enquire at their children's school about reputable tutors, or alternatively browse for a recommended tutor on online resources such as Apprentus or Upwork.

Transport and Driving in Colombia

Getting around in Colombia is not always a straightforward affair as expats will soon learn. Although most cities have extensive bus and public transport systems, expats often find that using these can be an unpleasant, slow and crowded experience. Driving is an option, but heavy traffic and the prospect of dealing with the unpredictable and dangerous drivers typical of Colombia make this a decidedly unappealing option for some.

Additionally, the fact that a sizeable portion of the country's south is covered in rainforest complicates matters further. Expats wishing to travel in this region will find themselves restricted to travel by boat. Even then some of the more remote areas still can't be reached. 


Public transport in Colombia

Buses

As far as public transport in Colombia goes, buses are usually the best option. They are cheap and most of Colombia is well connected by bus, both within and between cities. 

Most major Colombian cities have some form of rapid-transit bus system. The infrastructure for these is generally quite good, with dedicated bus lanes and well-positioned stations. In Bogotá and Cali this bus system is known as the Transmilenio, and in Cartagena as the Transcaribe. 

Inter-city buses are often more comfortable than inner-city buses. They usually have aircon and may screen films (although these are almost always in Spanish). Some bus drivers prefer to play music and as such, passengers looking for peace and quiet should make use of earplugs. 

Trains

Colombia does not have an extensive train system. After years of civil conflict, the vast majority of the country’s intercity railroads have been destroyed or abandoned, though some are still used for industrial purposes and carrying cargo.

Medellín is Colombia’s only city with an inner-city metro system. Expats will find that it is generally efficient, clean and safe. There are also a handful of tourist trains and routes, but these are not designed for everyday travel.


Taxis in Colombia

Taxis in Colombia are a cheap and convenient way to get around, though the way they operate differs from city to city. In the interior of the country, taxis are usually metered. However, in coastal cities, expats may have to negotiate a flat fare. A good grasp of Spanish will help avoid the 'gringo tax' that opportunistic drivers sometimes charge unsuspecting foreigners.

The best way to get a taxi is to use a call-ahead service to order one. The taxis from these companies are usually reputable. It's also possible to flag down a taxi on the street. Expats should exercise caution in this case and only hail official taxis, which are yellow.

Taxi drivers are usually happy to serve regular customers. They'll often provide a business card with their contact details so that customers can get in touch when they need a taxi. This is a good idea if expats find themselves using taxis regularly and come across a driver that they find trustworthy. Motorcycle taxis are also available and can be a useful way to bypass the traffic.

Ride-sharing services such as Uber are available in most Colombian cities. Expats who cannot speak Spanish will find that these services are an easy way to get around the language barrier, as there is limited room for miscommunication with drivers and no need to read Spanish street signs or maps.


Driving in Colombia

Colombian drivers are known for driving impulsively and unpredictably. This makes the roads chaotic and dangerous. Expats should avoid driving if possible and rather hire a driver or make an arrangement with a taxi driver. The quality of the roads in Colombia varies hugely and traffic is a problem in larger cities.

Tourists can generally use their drivers' licence from their home country, but residents will have to get a Colombian drivers' licence once they have received a Cédula de Extranjería (a Colombian ID document for foreigners staying in the country). 

Expats who are planning to purchase a car should be aware that in major cities a system known as Pico y Placa has been put in place to help deal with the infamous Colombian traffic. Based on the last digit of its registration number, each vehicle is assigned two days a week during which it cannot be on public roads in peak traffic hours. 


Cycling in Colombia

Cycling is becoming popular, especially in Bogotá, which has over 186 miles (300km) of cycle paths and lanes, although some of these lanes don't connect. A local community group called La Ciudad Verde has taken to painting their own lanes to remedy this. As these aren't official paths, expats should take caution when using them. Bicycles can be very expensive, so expats are advised to look for second-hand bicycles instead of buying new.

In most major Colombian cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, the local council have put in place a health initiative known as Ciclovía. Every Sunday between 7am and 2pm the cities’ main roads are closed to traffic and are used by pedestrians and cyclists. This is a popular Sunday activity for families and groups of friends.  


Walking in Colombia

Colombia's reputation for crime has given many the impression that it isn't safe to travel by foot, especially within the cities. However, many expats find that this is an exaggeration of the situation and generally feel safe walking in busy areas. The grid system layout of the streets also makes cities such as Bogotá and Cali easy to navigate by foot. It's still best to exercise caution by not walking around at night, and walking in a group or with a partner. It's also important to stay alert and keep valuables out of sight. 

Banking, Money and Taxes in Colombia

Handling banking, money and taxes in Colombia comes with its share of bureaucracy. The language barrier may also mean that expats have to enlist the help of a Spanish friend or translator.

As in any country, tax matters can become complex. It may be worthwhile for expats to hire a tax professional to ensure they remain on the right side of the law. 


Money in Colombia

Colombia's currency is the Colombian Peso (COP). Unlike most other currencies which are usually subdivided into cents or an equivalent, the peso is the lowest unit of Colombian currency. It isn't further subdivided.

  • Notes: 1,000 COP, 2,000 COP, 5,000 COP, 10,000 COP, 20,000 COP and 50,000 COP

  • Coins: 5 COP, 10 COP, 20 COP, 50 COP, 100 COP, 200 COP, 500 COP and 1,000 COP


Banking in Colombia

Banking in Colombia is a relatively straightforward process. Expats will find that as long as they have the correct documents, opening a bank account is simple. It's also easy to find ATMs and most places accept credit cards.

Opening a bank account

Expats wishing to open a savings account or current account can do so at a local Colombian bank or a multinational bank such as HSBC or CitiBank.

There are several documents required to open a bank account. These vary from bank to bank but usually include a Cedula de Extranjería (Colombian ID document for foreigners), passport and visa, proof of address, and proof of employment and income. Some banks may ask for references or require a Colombian guarantor – expats usually find that employers are willing to fulfil these requirements.

Applications usually take about two weeks to process. Expats will be notified of the approval and will need to go to the bank to fetch their new card.

Credit cards and ATMs

Expats are unlikely to be granted a credit card from a Colombian bank unless they already have an existing credit record in the country or have been banking in Colombia for six months or more. New arrivals in need of a credit card will either have to bring one from home and possibly bear steep transaction fees or else apply for a credit card with an international bank in Colombia. References from a previous bank back home can boost their chances of approval.

In major cities, credit cards are accepted just about anywhere including shops, hotels and restaurants. Expats should, however, not be surprised if they're asked to present some form of identification before they can pay with a credit card. In smaller towns, places that accept credit cards may be few and far between. Similarly, ATMs are easy to find in big cities but can be scarce in smaller towns.

Some ATMs only offer withdrawals at certain hours of the day or place a limit on withdrawal amounts at night for safety reasons. Expats should be aware of their surroundings at all times while using an ATM and should be wary of anyone loitering close by. 


Taxes in Colombia

Tax in Colombia is either deducted monthly from a salary or paid in an annual tax return. Tax return submissions usually close around April or May each year and there is a penalty for filing tax returns late.

Full-time residents – foreigners who are in Colombia 183 days or more within a tax year – must pay tax on their total worldwide income. Those who spend fewer than 183 days a year in Colombia are only taxed on their earnings from within the country.

Expat Experiences in Colombia

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories from other expats who are living there. Enjoy the interviews below and the insight they afford, and please contact us if you live or have lived in Colombia and would like to share your experience. 


John and Susan Pazera are American expats living in Medellín with their two fur-babies. They moved to this dazzling city in the hopes of making travel through South America easier and more accessible. Read all about their expat experiences in Colombia.

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Adam, an American expat, moved to Colombia for a year as a volunteer teacher. Eight years later, he still lives in this beautiful country. Adam works as an English teacher in Cartagena. Read his interview to learn more about his expat experiences in Colombia.

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Taryn is an Australian expat who spent five years living in Bogotá, Colombia. Having worked in the city as an English teacher, Taryn has valuable insights for anyone considering a move to South America to work in education. Read her interview about her experiences living and teaching in Colombia.

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Karen Attman is an American expat who has spent the last 22 years living and working in Latin America. Read her interview about her experiences as a long-term expat and business owner in Bogotá, Colombia.

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Jose is a South African expat who spent several years working and living in Bogotá with his wife and daughters. Read his interview on how he adapted to the local culture and built a life in Colombia.

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Jade Longelin is a French expat living in Colombia's capital, Bogotá. Read her interview to find out about her life as a small business owner in this vibrant South American city. 

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Stuart Oswald is a British expat living in rural Cundinamarca, Colombia. He has been living in the country for over 10 years and uses his extensive knowledge and experience to advise other expats hoping to relocate. Read more about his life as an expat in Colombia

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