Expat Life in Colombia

By John Douglas

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Summary: Moving to Colombia? John Douglas provides a wealth of information on housing, security, cost-of-living and more.

Colombia - Expat Life

A person moving to Colombia would likely be one of the following: (1) A retiree; (2) A person who has or will have a job; or (3) A person with no job (not a retiree) such as a casual tourist or one interested in staying a while.

Since few can afford to live in a hotel and temporary housing may not be safe (robberies are very common and outside of family or close friends, it is wise to trust no one), one must seek refuge in an apartment or a house.

(1) A retiree is at a disadvantage since a retiree's income, as substantial and secure as it might be, is not considered to be "income" if the source is a pension of another country or even Colombia itself since in the event of a default of rent, the landlord or dueno has no legal access to it. Thus, the burden of proof of other income, such as from investments becomes extremely important, unless one can afford to purchase a home outright or pay the rent in full for one year (12 month leases are the minimum). Other options can include opening a CD for a value equivalent to 6-12 months of rent, something that might be difficult for a person of limited means. It is possible that other "departments," analogous to states in the US, have different requirements that may be less stringent than Cudinamarca where Bogotá is situated.

Another issue is a need for personal references in Colombia, necessary for opening a bank account or establishing a rental contact. Generally, one needs a "backup" person who would be willing to sign their name to a rental agreement and continue payments should the tenant default. It is a good idea to open a bank account as well, but not all banks will allow non-residents to do so. Thus, ask about the requirements from any of the many banks in Colombia. There are no US based banks in Bogotá but there are banks headquartered in other countries with a presence in the US and Colombia.

(2) A person moving to Colombia with a job has the best of both possible worlds: income and income that counts toward securing a place to live, but the employee may still need one or more personal references mentioned above.

(3) A person moving to Colombia with no job and no other income might find it difficult to stay here beyond the maximum period of time allotted for a tourist unless one has ample cash in their checking or savings account for survival and can afford a temporary place to live, such as a hotel, a temporary inn, or hostel.

However, such a person will most likely rent if not purchase a house or apartment. Selection of a location is based on economic need. There are 6 levels in Bogota, 1 being the least and 6 being the most expensive. Estrato 5 or 6 will cost $1,000/month and up but are more secure with many layers of security. Estrato 4 is a common compromise and provides security and modern construction.

As has been pointed out in this forum by others, the northern sector of Bogota offers modern housing with good security, although the new apartment complexes, while well constructed, offer virtually no sound insulation in the concrete walls. The older apartments offer more sound protection and smaller complexes are more conducive to comfortable living. Expect to pay $500-$600 per month for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apt, but one and two BR apartments are available for less. Unlike apartments in the US, apartments in Colombia come without refrigerators, washing machines (electricity is expensive so few people can afford a dryer), microwaves, or even light bulbs. Thus, the appliance industry is alive and well in Colombia.

In brief, price, security, and location are paramount in selecting a residence. Location factors include proximity to the TransMilenio and other bus routes, street noise, grocery and department stores (Carulla, Exito, Olympica, Carrefour, CaFam), restaurants, etc.

Any American or presumably other foreigner wishing to stay beyond the maximum time for a tourist can either ask for an extension or apply for a visa at any of the Colombian consulates across the globe. Within 15 days of arriving in Colombia, one needs to apply for a Cedula or national ID card at D.A.S. in your city of choice. Upon paying a fee to a DAS specified bank and completing the application in Spanish, return the application to DAS to be photographed and fingerprinted. The cedula will be ready in a matter of days from the DAS office. In this manner, one doesn't need to carry a passport. The cedula is renewable annually until one has met the requirements for residency, which is 3 years.

Most Colombians are kind and friendly, but Americans are not that common here so we are an item of curiosity. As such, we should take precautions as to where and how we travel within this country. Americans can register online with the U.S. Embassy, which is far away from the city center because of its size. If one needs to talk with a specialist in the embassy, another photo ID is needed, such as a state driver’s license.

It is best to carry only the cash you need for the day and your cedula or copy of your passport when you venture into the streets of Bogotá or any other large city. Avoid traveling on the TransMilenio or buses that are crammed with people during rush hours. As has been said by others, carry only those things that you can afford to lose.

The US dollar has done well since October 2008 in Colombia, up about 35% against the Colombian peso earlier in the year. One dollar is worth about 2300 pesos. Obviously, this financial relationship is important for anyone whose source of income is not the peso. It is wise to use a debit card (VISA is preferred as the transaction fee is 1%) for a source of cash. Your bank will give you a higher rate of exchange than will the many houses of exchange that can be found in some banks, malls, and grocery stores. Use the "cajeros" with a locking glass door for maximum safety. There is usually a security guard nearby to discourage robberies.

Colombia does not have a pensionado program, such as can be found in Panama. The minimum income requirement for expatriating from the US to Panama has been raised recently and the overall cost of receiving the pensionado visa, mediated by a lawyer, is at least $3,500, excluding travel costs. Real estate prices in or near Panama City are surprisingly high, mimicking or exceeding those in the US. On the other hand a visa and cedula for Colombia can be obtained for about $300.

The food in Colombia is abundant and affordable. Tropical fruits abound. These are some of the recent prices in fruit markets: Oranges: 18 cents/lb; Mandarin oranges: 21 cents; Papayas: 41 cents; Bananas: 29 cents. Mangoes are currently out of season. Milk, dairy, beef and chicken prices are comparable to those in the US. Eggs are a staple here and are about $2 a dozen, but can be purchased for less than half if one looks for promotions or specials. Such prices will obviously fluctuate relative to the US dollar.

About the Author

Retired and living in Bogotá. Former tax consultant, writer, editor, teacher and researcher in both the public and private sectors.

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Comments about this Article

gypsysoul
Sep 6, 2010 09:57

well, it dosent make it seem very "fun" how about the good side?? how about just trying to live temproarily..without all the worries of "home ownership??" are there any fun things about living in Colombia???

guest
Feb 2, 2011 05:36

Pretty dry, factual writing and information. Based upon his description of life in Bogota it appears less than perfect. As I am considering an assignment outside any major city in Columbia it is apparent that security is less than desired anywhere in the country. thanks, you've made my decision for me. No thanks!

NYPD8905
Jul 29, 2014 17:27

This information is at least 5 years old. Get someone that can bring us up to the present. I have lived in 5 Laitn Ameican countries in the last 3-4 years. and I have never heard of stoires like your stating . As I stated something is missing here.. With all these credientials at least come back to the present . The prices cannot be correct if your talking about at least 5 years ago. I am not buying this bullshit story.

guest
Mar 5, 2016 13:10

The current exchange rate has climbed to well over 3000 to 1 making an even better deal if your exchanging from dollars.

Last updated on: Mar 05, 2016

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