Are you heading to Colombia? You can compare a range of different travel money products in this guide to help you manage your money while you're in Colombia and save on fees. We outline the pros and cons of using prepaid cards, debit cards, credit cards and foreign cash in Colombia so you can find the right travel money solution for your trip.
Rich in natural beauty, Colombia has a lot to offer. The armed conflict which has characterised the nation has all but ended and a new Colombia is opening its doors to the world. Desert, jungle, tropical beaches and bustling metropolises attract an increasing number of tourists every year.
If you’re planning a trip to Colombia, it pays to do your research before you leave. Colombian Pesos (COP) are the currency of the Republic of Colombia and the only currency accepted in Colombian towns and cities. Credit, debit and travel money cards are accepted in fewer places than Australia and ATMs are expensive to use, so compare travel money options and apply for the product that’s going to let you withdraw cash for less.
Travel money options for Colombia at a glance
Travel money option
Travel prepaid cards
Protected by PIN & chip
Multiple supported currencies
Emergency card replacement and backup cards
Ideal for managing your travel budget
No prepaid travel money cards that let you load and spend COP
May charge currency conversion fees, ATM withdrawal fees and local ATM operator fee
Security with chip and PIN
Direct access to own money
Save on overseas ATM fee when you withdraw
$0 account keeping fees if you deposit at least $2,000 per month
Unlimited free withdrawals at selected banks
Only one option: Citibank Plus Transaction Account
Currency conversion and international ATM fees
Some credit cards waive overseas ATM fee
Protected by PIN & chip
Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
Cash advance fees
Higher spending limit
Can be costly with initial purchase charges
Not all merchants accept travellers cheques
Greater payment flexibility
More difficult to manage expenses
Higher risk of theft
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How different travel money products work in Colombia
Using a credit card
Make your money go further in Colombia by using a credit card with no currency conversion fee. There are credit cards that also waive the international ATM fee; however, you shouldn’t use a credit card to make a cash withdrawal. Period. Cash advance fees, interest charges, ATM charges and foreign currency conversion charges all apply when you withdraw cash on credit. Some Bankwest credit cards waive the international ATM withdrawal fee, but even without this fee ATM withdrawals on credit are still the most expensive way to get cash from an ATM. As a general rule, credit cards should only be used for over-the-counter purchases. Credit card transactions work a little differently in Colombia:
Número de cuotas. When the teller asks you "numero de cuotas?" they want to know how many months you plan to pay off the credit card transaction. This system divides the total value of the transaction over the number of months you plan to ‘pay it off’. For example if you make a $300 purchase and you ask for 10 months, you’re charged $30 a month in addition to any interest charges the credit card transaction accrues each month.
Identification. It’s likely that you need to show photo identification, such as your passport, when you make an over-the-counter credit card payment. In most cases anything with your picture and your name will be enough to prove you’re the cardholder.
Using a travel debit card in Colombia
Compare transaction accounts based on their currency conversion fee and international ATM withdrawal fees. These fees are the major charges you’ll incur using your debit card in Colombia. There are transaction account providers that waive international ATM withdrawal fees, some providers even forgo the currency conversion fee as well.
ATM alliances. Colombian ATM fees can be hefty. You can avoid paying some ATM fees by opening a Citi account and making withdrawals from Citi ATMs. Citi has a presence in major Colombian cities such as Bogotá and Medellin. Citi also has one of the highest ATM withdrawal limits in excess of 800,000 Pesos (approx. $350AUD). Plan your withdrawals accordingly to cut down on ATM withdrawal fees.
Using an EFTPOS card in Colombia. If you have an EFTPOS card and not a debit card, you can make withdrawals at selected ATMs only. Banco de Bogotá and BanColombia do not accept foreign cards without a chip. Look for a Davivienda ATM. You can make withdrawals using your EFTPOS card here.
Card payments. Credit and debit cards are accepted in major retailers such as Exito, which is like the Woolworths or Coles of Colombia, large restaurants, hotels and merchants inside shopping centres. You’ll be hard-pressed using your credit card off the beaten track. Make sure you have cash if you plan on visiting small towns. For example taxis, tiendas esquina (corner shops), and tiendas baratera (discount shops) and cafeterias don’t take cards.
Using a travel money card
Generally, prepaid travel cards are a good way to access your own money overseas by loading Australian dollars on the card and transferring it to whichever of the multiple supported currencies is best suited to you. However, there are some restrictions to use travel cards in Colombia, including:
Currency conversion fees. There are no prepaid travel money cards that let you load and spend COP. This means you’ll be charged a currency conversion (of probably 3%) every time you use the card to make a purchase in Colombia. There’s no real advantage to using a travel card if you can’t load the currency of the place you’re visiting. Travel card foreign currency exchange rates are also often worse than Mastercard and Visa debit and credit card rates. You’ll also incur a currency conversion fee and/or a travel card ATM withdrawal fee as well as the local ATM operator fee when you withdraw COP from a Colombian ATM.
Using an ATM
In the big cities such as Bogota, Medellin (pronounced Med-e-jin), Cali, Ibague, Cartagena, Barranquilla and so on, ATMs and banks are everywhere. In fact, you’ll find that the level of service and the state of the facilities is as good, if not better, than what’s offered at home. Just watch out for the line-up inside the bank if you need the services of a teller during business hours — queues can get a little intense.
Note the following about using an ATM in Colombia.
Security. If you’re worried about making large withdrawals from an ATM (common sense is the best way to approach this situation), ATMs are usually placed inside a small room adjacent to the street, and you can lock the door when you enter to make a withdrawal. If the ATM is attached to a bank, security guards stand right outside during business hours, and your hotel may even be able to arrange an armed escort if you plan on withdrawing a large amount of cash.
ATM limits. Each ATM operator has a different maximum daily withdrawal limit. The maximum withdrawal is lower for foreign cards; most Colombian banks let you withdraw up to 600,000 pesos at a time (approx. $300). Some banks will have a higher or lower limit, the maximum withdrawal amount for foreign cards is usually displayed on the ATM welcome screen. Citi has the highest ATM withdrawal limit as well as the highest fees. You can make a second or third cash withdrawal up to your bank’s maximum daily withdrawal limit; just watch out for ATM withdrawal fees.
Fees. Standard international ATM fees apply when you make a cash withdrawal in Colombia. You’re asked whether you want to view the charge before you enter your PIN to complete the transaction. Some ATMs can provide information about this fee; while other ATMs say "information not available". ATM fees can vary between 6,000 and 9,000 pesos per withdrawal.
Language. Banco de Bogotá, BanColombia and Banco de Occidente ATMs are Spanish only. Davivienda gives you the option of selecting English after you insert your card.
Donations. Interestingly, you’re given the option of making a donation to Colombian charities when you make an ATM withdrawal. You have a couple of options for how much you’d like to donate, press "no" if philanthropy isn’t your thing.
An expat in Medellin
David took an English teaching position in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. Before he started work, he spent a month travelling around Antioquia (Medellin is the capital of Antioquia). David based himself in Medellin and travelled by bus to the popular tourist spots: Laguna de Guatape, Santa Fe and Turbo.
Why did you take these cards? He says the Citibank gave him the following benefits: no currency conversion fee on ATM withdrawals and over the counter purchases. The 28 Degrees Platinum Mastercard also charged no currency conversion fee. Neither card charges an account keeping fee, so they cost him nothing to keep once he started work and used his Bancolombia debit card.
Where could you use your cards? David says he used his Citibank card at ATMs and he never had a problem with acceptance. He also used this card to buy food from Exito, which is like the Woolworths or Big W of Colombia, at restaurants, fashion retailers when he purchased a new pair of shoes and to buy tickets when we went to the cinema. He says he never had a problem using his card inside a shopping centre. When he bought beers from the local corner shop, he had to pay cash. He also had to pay cash when he purchased his bus ticket to Laguna de Guatape, Santa Fe and Turbo. The tickets were $10 - $30 for each journey.
What about ATM withdrawals? He used his Citibank Visa card to withdraw from ATMs. He paid the operator fee of a couple of dollars each time he made a withdrawal and was pulling out about $200 per transaction. He stuck to ATMs attached to banks and never had a problem.
What’s your travel money recommendation? David speaks highly about the Citibank Plus. He says this is the standout debit product for any overseas trip, he also says it works pretty well in Australia too, he could make free ATM withdrawals at Citibank and Westpac Group ATMs.
Do you have any travel money tips? Opening a Colombian bank account. You need to show that you are a resident of Colombia before you can open a bank account. You will need to show residency papers or your cedula (Colombian national identification card) as well as provide a residential address.
Colombian pesos come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 banknotes. There are also 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 pesos coins. Battered and worn 1,000 pesos notes will be accepted by vendors within reason.
Find cash and ATM's in Colombia
Foreign exchange and changing cash
COP is the national currency of the Republic of Colombia. Colombian pesos are not the same as Mexican pesos. COP can be a volatile currency. Exchange rates may change marginally during your trip. For example in 2015, the value of Australian currency has grown from a low of 1,800 pesos per Australian dollar to a high of 2,300 pesos. An average priced meal is 5,000 - 10,000COP and a soft drinks and cervezas (beers) are approx. 2,000 - 3,000COP each.
There is no shortage of foreign exchange offices in Colombia. You can get your money changed at a bank or at a dedicated money changer. Banks are everywhere and money changers can usually be found in a shopping centre: Centro Commercial and Multicentro are similar to our Westfield shopping centres and can be found in all Colombian capital cities. These exchange offices exchange most international currencies including Australian and United States Dollars for a good rate.
Foreign exchange offices have a cap on the amount of money you can change at a time. Brush up on some basic Spanish to ask about how much money you can change in one go.
“¿Cuál es el máximo? - What is the maximum?”
Don’t be a papaya!
Avoid being an easy target for thieves by showing some common sense and keeping your valuables on hand at all times.
Don’t leave your mobile phone on the table when you’re at a bar or restaurant.
Do no let your bags out of sight — ever — thieves are crafty, and can switch one of your bags with a dummy bag in half a second.
Only carry what you need when you leave your hotel or hostel.
Aguardente is the local spirit and one of the most popular drinks. Don’t drink too much, it can sneak up on you.
Carry identification with you at all times. Police will often stop locals and tourists alike for random checks for weapons and drugs.
Colombia is safer than the prevailing international sentiment would have you believe. The civil war is all but finished and the dark days of Colombia’s history are just that: history.
You need to show that you are a resident of Colombia before you can open a bank account. You will need to show residency papers or your cedula (Colombian national identification card) as well as provide a residential address.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has issued a travel warning for Colombia, especially for travel outside the major cities. Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena receive the majority of tourists to Colombia. These cities are safe to travel to and explore. Exercise common sense.
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