Colombia – 10 Step Guide
Step 1: Visa and Legal
One of the most frustrating things about moving to another country is having to deal with visa issues, especially if its a country where you don’t speak the language. There has been a marked improvement over the last few years in Colombia with regards to dealing with visa applications, and the general rule in my experience has been that if you go to the trouble of ensuring you have all of the correct documents, you will get approved. However, the hard part is knowing exactly which documents are needed, and of course it varies from visa to visa. All visa information can be found here: http://www.cancilleria.gov.co/tramites_servicios/visas. The system has changed over the last couple of years, and you can now apply online from wherever you are in the world. There are also companies that work with you to ensure that you have all the correct documentation, but whatever method you choose make sure that you have done everything to find out exactly what you need – the lists are often unclear or ambiguous, and if you are unsure about whether you need to take something, it’s probably best you do. Better to have too much documentation than too little.
For most people the first step in moving to Colombia will be to be issued with a tourist visa, or Permiso de Ingreso y Permanencia. For most of you wishing to travel to Colombia it is issued upon arrival into the country and is valid for 90 days, with no additional cost or approval needed. Some countries must apply in the Colombian Consulate in their own country prior to arrival. For a list of which countries do and do not have a restriction, see: http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/practical-information/travel-to-colombia-information-and-advice/before-coming . Sometimes they will ask if you have return flights or accommodation booked, so be prepared.
If you are in need of an extension to your tourist visa past 3 months, up to another 3, this is easily obtainable, provided you can prove you will be leaving the country within that time. This is called a Permiso Temporal de Permanencia or prórroga, and all information can be found here: http://www.migracioncolombia.gov.co/index.php/tramites/permiso-temporal-de-permanencia.html. You can remain in Colombia as a tourist for up to 6 months (3 months initial tourist visa + 3 months extension) in one calendar year. This means that regardless of when those 6 months are in the year, it resets on January 1st. So, if you stay in the country for 6 months from January, then you will need to leave at the end of June and won’t be able to return as a tourist until the following January. If you are in the country for 6 months from early June you will have to leave in December but will only have to wait a month until you can return as a tourist. You can leave the country after 3 months, spend as long as you want away during the year, then return and get an extension for a further three months. The same as with applying for any visa, just be sure to leave plenty of time to sort it out.
The worker visa, or Visa de Trabajo, is the most common visa for foreigners wishing to live and work in Colombia, and can often be difficult to obtain. Firstly you need to have found an employer that is willing to employ you, and that is willing to provide you with the relevant documentation. Secondly, if it is your first work visa, you need to submit your documents at an embassy outside of Colombia. If you are at home in your own country and are lucky enough to have a job sorted, then you can visit an embassy there. However if you are in Colombia when work is offered to you, then this will mean making a trip to a nearby country to finish you application; namely Panamá, Venezuela or Ecuador. The visa itself costs US$245, plus a US$50 ‘study’ fee for them to essentially look at your application, plus whatever travel costs add up. The whole process from start to finish can be very costly, especially if you factor in flights and accommodation, so make sure you have enough cash to cover it. Finally all documents must be original and notarized. This means that if you are applying from your own country your future employer must send you all relevant original documents, having first notarized them, for you to then take to the embassy.
Student visas are a common way for many foreigners to extend their stay in Colombia without having to first find a job. They are normally issued for 6 months, and you are technically supposed to be attending some form of education (Spanish lessons or otherwise), but many just get it to be able to stay in the country and don’t do any studying. Again, there are companies that specialise in making all the arrangements for foreigners to be able to do this. You don’t have to travel out of Colombia to get this visa, just to Bogota, and it can all be taken care of in one day provided all your documentation is correct.
There are several other visas available to foreigners wishing to settle in Colombia, but the ones noted above are the most popular. Other visas include visas include if you wish to open a business in Colombia, or make an investment in the country, however for the majority of younger people the visas mentioned above should cover almost everything.
Step 2: Accommodation
Finding somewhere to live in Colombia doesn’t have to be a difficult process, but sometimes it can be. Given that most young people stay at home until they get married, there isn’t huge amounts of accommodation out there. Also, a lot of apartments are let out unfurnished, meaning you may have to buy furniture.
There are plenty of families or couples, as well as solitary older individuals, that rent out a room in their house or apartment. This can be a good option as the price more often than not includes bills and the room is already furnished.
Probably the best way to find a room is www.compartoapto.com where users can either advertise spare rooms and their apartments, or search for apartments in all areas of the city. You don’t have pay anything to browse, but there is a small charge if you want to get in contact with the other person. This service covers all major cities in Colombia.
Another option is Craigslist (www.craigslist.com) where you can search under vivienda for rooms or whole apartments to rent. It may take a bit of time to sift through all the information but there is often lots of good stuff on there.
There are also hostels which rent out long-term rooms, as well as aparthotels for foreigners. These may be good for when you first arrive in a city, but if you want to meet locals and make friends then get out and into a flatshare.
Step 3: Transport
Up until just a couple of years ago the only cheap mode of travel between cities was the bus. The bus is still there, and is still by far the most popular, but now budget air travel has become a serious alternative.
Most of the time you don’t need to book the bus in advance can just show up at the bus terminal an hour or so before the departure time. For major cities there are buses departing fairly regularly, so provided it isn’t a public holiday (festivo or puente) just make sure you turn up in good time. Bear in mind that bus travel, and road travel in general, can be pretty scary. Its very common to see buses and trucks overtaking on blind bends, but they are in radio contact with each other and so know if it is clear up ahead. Just try not to look out of the window!
If you want the peace of mind of having a seat booked, and want to be able to check departure times, then go to the website of some of the big bus companies, such as Expreso Bolivariano (www.bolivariano.com.co) or Brasilia (www.brasilia.com.co). Alternatively you can ring the bus terminal for more information:
Bogotá: (031) 423 3600
Medellín: (034) 44 8020
Cali: (032) 668 3655
Budget air travel has really taken off in Colombia (no pun intended), and is now a serious alternative to the bus. If you book early and are relatively flexible it can be cheaper than the bus, and an hour flight is always preferable to 12 hours on windy mountain roads. Viva Colombia (www.vivacolombia.com) is the only true budget airline, but you can sometimes find cheap deals on LAN (www.lan.com) and Avianca (www.avianca.com).
Inner city travel is, frankly, a bit of a mess. Private companies hold the majority of city bus routes, and there is not, at least ostensibly, a central database where you can find a list of where each company and each route goes. Basically you just have to ask. These buses can get extremely crowded at peak times, and you will more often than not have someone performing or trying to sell you something.
Most cities will have a primary, state-run mass transport system, such as the Transmilenio in Bogotá, the MIO in Cali and the Metro in Medellín. These systems cover major routes only.
Step 4: Work
Finding a job in Colombia can be a very tough process. The vast majority of foreigners that come looking for a job end up finding some form of work in the language teaching industry. You’re best bet at securing a work visa is by working for a language institute and getting them to sponsor you.
To work in any other industry, fluent or near-fluent Spanish is essential. The reality is that most companies won’t consider you when they see you need a work visa, but getting a job outside teaching, although difficult, is possible. I’m testament to that!
If you are an experienced worker, you can try some of the big job sites, such as www.trabajando.com or www.elempleo.com. Other sites I found which is better for foreigners is www.computrabajo.com.co and www.craigslist.com.
Step 5: Health and Pension
Colombia has an integrated health and pension system that every worker whether freelance or contracted must pay into. The amount you contribute depends on your salary, and you cannot receive a payment from your job without being signed up to both. If you are employed then your employer pays almost all of it, with a small contribution coming out of your paycheck. If you are freelance you pay the whole thing.
The health system in Colombia can be extremely stressful and time consuming to get anything done. A visit to the ER can often mean a wait of a couple of hours, and you may be waiting a fair time for an appointment if you just want to see a GP. This doesn’t have to be the case, as it all really depends on which Health Service Provider or EPS (Empresa Prestadora de Salud) you are with.
Whichever EPS you choose is up to you, and different EPSs are more prevalent depending on the city. You need to check with the locals in the city to find out which is the best EPS – a good one will have clinics (puntos de atención) all over the place, a bad one will have just a few to service the entire city. It really is worth doing your research on this – what you pay into it doesn’t change depending on which you choose, but the quality of service may vary wildly. If you can read Spanish, here is a link to the evaluation carried out by the Ministry of Health into all EPSs in the country: http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/salud/ARCHIVO/ARCHIVO-12907383-0.pdf.
When you are signed up to an EPS, and are making contributions through your employer or personally, healthcare is pretty much free. There are small copays for seeing the doctor, operations and prescriptions, but these never tend to be more than $10,000.
What you choose as far as pension company doesn’t matter too much, as all of them have the same function. Unless you are planning on remaining in Colombia for the rest of your life, you won’t need to worry too much about your pension. Women can claim their pension at 57, men at 62, so long as you are still in Colombia.
Before you can get paid by your new employer you will also need a RUT (Registro Único Tributario) number. This is a tax number and is easy to get, but can be time-consuming. There is supposedly an online portal where you can apply (https://muisca.dian.gov.co/WebRutMuisca/DefInscripcionRut.faces) but as tends to be the case for Colombian websites it is often down for one reason or another. Another option is to just go in person to the DIAN (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales) and take along your passport and any accommodation details you have for where you are living. You can check where the nearest centro de atención is to you by visiting here http://www.dian.gov.co/DIAN/12SobreD.nsf/pages/Centros_atencion_y_horarios. The offices tend to open at 7am, and like everywhere in Colombia will already have a sizeable queue outside by that time. There are actually people you can pay (around $40,000) who will wait in these queues for you. If you go yourself, then make sure you get there early – some of the lines can be horrendous.
Step 6: Money and Bills
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian peso. Living costs are cheap, but not as cheap as some people expect. Check up to date exchange rates here: www.xe.com.
What you pay in terms of bills depends on what estrato you live in. Colombian society is divided geographically into estratos, the poorest being 1 and the richest being 6, the idea being that the richer members of society pay more for public services than the poorest. Foreigners going to live in Colombia will generally be living in estrato 4 upwards, so you won’t find that this system affects you too much. Household bills, including internet, water, electricity and gas will cost you around $100,000 pesos each month, and can be anything from $200,000 for a really cheap place in estrato 3, up to over a million for a decent place in estrato 5 or 6. 2 to 3 million will get you a room in a seriously top of the line apartment in a fantastic location.
To open a bank account with a Colombian bank you will need to have a job sorted, be opening a business or be making an investment in Colombia. Which bank you choose really depends on which city you are in, so just ask the locals which to choose with the best network of cash points, or cajeros. In Bogotá it is, unsurprisingly, Banco de Bogotá, whereas in Medellin, given that the headquarters are located there, it is Bancolombia. Some of the biggest banks are:
- Banco de Bogotá: bancodebogota.com
- Bancolombia: http://www.grupobancolombia.com/
- Davivienda: davivienda.com
- BBVA: bbva.com.co
- Banco de Occidente: bancodeoccidente.com.co
Step 7: Mobile Phone and Internet
There are 4 main mobile networks in Colombia, and these are Claro, Movistar, Tigo and Uff. You should check which one has the best tariff for you by going into a store or finding a network stall in one of the many malls that Colombia has. But really which one you choose will depend on which one your friends, colleagues and acquaintances use. Some of them have really good deals, sometimes free, for calling someone on the same network as you, so make sure you do your homework.
Most places you move into will already have internet set up which will most likely be included in your rent. The majority of packages include TV, phone and internet. However if you do need to set it up the company you choose will depend on the city, as different companies have near monopolies in each city. The big ones are:
- Bogotá: ETB (etb.com.co)
- Medllin: UNE (part of the larger Empresas Públicas de Medellín) (une.com.co)
- Smaller cities: Telecom/Telefónica (telefonica.co)
Step 8: Social
Colombians are extremely social and love the opportunity to tell visitors how great Colombia is. This can seem quite arrogant, but it is really just them wanting you to see the best of the country they love so much.
It is generally really easy to meet people, either on a day trip, through work or a night out, and they will always make an effort to introduce you to their friends. On nights out, especially in Medellin, you will no doubt get offered aguadiente (or guaro), a spirit made with aniseed that tastes a bit like bad sambucca but not as sweet, by a nearby group of Colombians. This is a great ice breaker and means, basically, that they want to hang out. It works the other way round too, so if you see a group of people you want to mingle with just offer them some of your guaro! Just don’t be afraid of chatting, and certainly don’t be afraid of dancing! There are more than enough sexy locals to help you learn!
Going out, depending on where you choose to go in the city, can range from cheap to expensive. If you go to one of the local bars or licoreras you see all over the cities you will be looking at about $2,000 – $2,500 for a bottle of domestic beer. This can rise to $10,000 or even more in the swankier clubs. The Zona Rosa is the area of the city where there is the highest concentration of bars, restaurants and clubs, and this is usually the most expensive part of town, but also the best for foreigners to meet locals and socialise. If you want a more Colombian experience its best to stay away from these areas as there are quite often lots of US chains and imitation bars or restaurants. But if you want to see the beautiful people, and Colombia has plenty of them, then this is the place to be.
There are plenty deal-of-the-day websites in Colombia, and you can find some great deals for eating, hotels and even adventure sports. The best known ones are www.cuponidad.com and www.groupon.com.co.
Colombians also love to keep fit. There are cheap, medium and expensive gyms all across the cities, and even free gyms in some city parks. On Sundays in most of the big cities they close down a lot of roads and open them up to cyclists and runners.
Step 9: Sightseeing
With a culture and heritage as rich as Colombia’s, not to mention some of the most beautiful geography and fauna on the planet, as you can imagine there are plenty of excursions to do.
You can check the government’s travel website for an idea of things to see and places to go (http://www.colombia.travel/), but the best way to find out is through local knowledge. Locals will be more than happy to help you with suggesting sites, national parks and other places worth visiting, be it coffee plantations in the Eje Cafetero, hidden beaches on the Caribbean Coast or the best place to kayak in Santander. The hardest problem you will find is trying to fit it all in whilst you are there!
Step 10: Culture and Language
Colombia´s history reaches way back to pre-Columbian times, and these influences can be seen today. From the country’s Native American heritage, to the bustling cosmopolitan streets of Bogotá, to the African, Caribbean and even Middle Eastern influences found in the Caribbean coastal cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla, it really is a melting pot of different cultures. This is clear from various foods, dances and traditions found up and down the country.
Colombians are proud of their country, and are more than willing to tell you. Like I have said before, to some this might come across as arrogant, but it isn’t. They want you, the outsider, to see and experience what makes life in Colombia so good, and will go well out of their way to make you feel at home. They are among the most kind, friendly and earnest people in the world, and will go to great lengths (in most parts of the country) to accommodate you. You don’t get named the happiest country in the world three years running for nothing! Colombians are open, lively, welcoming and hospitable to foreigners, often preferring to give you the wrong information than nothing at all. To the more conservative cultures this can be quite overbearing, but embracing and kissing all the time are hardly tough things to get used to. Another thing that’s difficult for foreigners to bear at times, especially on the Caribbean Coast with all its tourism, is that some Colombians will take any opportunity to make a quick buck off of foreigners. They are constantly pestered, and in Cartagena the very real chance exists of local police performing random searches in the hope of extorting money for drugs found on your person, even if there aren’t any. Most of the country is extremely poor, and the wealth disparity in Colombia is among the worst in the world. The rich are very, very rich, and the poor are very, very poor. One upside to all this is that Colombians are very industrious when it comes to making money, and pedestrians and cars at crossroads can be treated to amazing displays of circus skills, tricks and acrobatics.
Dance is a huge part of almost every Colombian’s life. Whether it’s salsa, merengue, vallenato, bachata or reggaeton, learning to dance is a rite of passage for any self-respecting Colombian. Wherever you are in the country (even the more austere and reserved capital, Bogotá) there will be speakers blaring out some form of Latin music, and where there is music, there are people dancing. The absolute last thing you should do when presented with the opportunity is refuse to dance. The words “I don’t dance” are completely alien to Colombians. They don’t care if you are incredible or downright awful; all they want to do is to dance. A very tough part for a lot of westerners to get used when they start going out with a Colombian girl (or guy) is seeing their partner dancing with others. Don’t worry – it doesn’t mean anything. They are simply doing what they do and there needn’t be anything romantic about it. Salsa is probably the most danced-to of all the genres, and the style varies from city to city. Caleños from Cali claim their city to be the home of Colombian salsa, whilst Medellín is supposedly the reggaeton capital of the world. No matter which city you are in, one thing is for sure: you’ll need to get on your dancing shoes.
Religion in Colombia is a very complex topic. The main religion is Christianity, with Roman Catholicism still being the dominant force. Whilst technically a secular country, the Vatican still holds a great deal of power over the population, even at the legislative level. Other religions are on the rise (Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Evangelical Christianity), but the influence of the Catholic Church can be seen absolutely everywhere; in education, hospitals, on buses, in jails, statues at the side of the road. On Sundays the crowds flock to Mass, and First Communion is still a huge event in many families’ lives. Many people are intensely religious, and if you hold no faith it is sometimes better not to say it when asked what you believe. Colombians are deeply superstitious, and many folk tales and other such superstitions, such as astrology, are widely believed.
After talking about religion it seems only fitting to talk about football. There are other sports such Colombia’s national sport, Tejo, a game which involves throwing discs at exploding targets, but football (or soccer if you are that way inclined) reigns supreme. Colombians are extremely passionate about their football, so much so that this passion often manifests itself as violence. If you do go to a game, then be very wary of pickpockets and fighting.
Family is the most important thing to Colombians. Similar to other Latin American nations on account of their strong Catholic heritage, the Family is the centre of daily life. Children generally live with their parents until they marry, and it is not uncommon for poorer or extended members of the family to all live under the same roof. Although attitudes towards family are changing, especially in cosmopolitan Bogotá, the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker is still the norm.
There are a few minority indigenous languages still spoken in more remote areas of the country, but Spanish is the dominant language. Many say that Colombia is the best place in the world to learn Spanish, as it is seen to be purer and easier to understand than in other countries, but the reality is that there is a variety of different dialects spoken all over the Colombia, with a wealth of slang and regionalisms thrown in just to confuse foreigners. Rolo Spanish, from Bogotá, is probably the easiest to understand, while the Paisas from Medellín have their own very strong accent and slang. Costeños from the Caribbean coast speak so fast, and don’t pronounce so much of words, that it is nigh on impossible for many Colombians to understand, let alone foreigners.
Huge supermarkets dominate the marketplace when it comes to groceries. Exito is by far the biggest, and its yellow and black colours can be seen everywhere in every city. Every one of these hypermarkets doesn’t just sell groceries, they sell everything you could possibly need at home; electronics, clothes, homeware.
These supermarkets don’t necessarily have the best prices, but most foreigners will find themselves doing most of their shopping there for the sake of convenience. You can find most things there, but variety definitely isn’t one of their strongpoints. There are shelves and shelves of different types of rice and Colombian cheese, but very little choice of fresh vegetables or foreign foods. If you want variety and the more exotic ingredients not normally cooked by the locals, you need to go to the more upmarket supermarkets, such as La Carrulla.
There are a number of delicatessen stores in the richer areas of town that sell very expensive imported foods, normally from the United States. These can be good to pick up the odd ingredient you may be missing for that curry you have been wanting to make, but a bit pricey to shop in all the time. Organic farms are becoming more popular, and will deliver you most fresh vegetables that you want, but these are often poorly advertised, exclusive and won’t deliver all over the city.