A Practical Guide to Money in Colombia

A spread of Colombian pesos issued in 2016 in various denominations.
Photo © Luis Echeverri Urrea/Dreamstime.

When planning foreign travel, knowing the ins and outs of practical day-to-day money matters counts. Familiarizing yourself with the local currency and general exchange rates is key, as is knowing how to access your money, common methods of payment, and even banking laws and tipping customs.

Colombian Currency

Colombia’s official currency is the peso, which is abbreviated as COP. Prices in Colombia are marked with a dollar sign, but remember that you’re seeing the price in Colombian pesos. COP$1,000,000 isn’t enough to buy a house in Colombia, but it will usually cover a few nights in a nice hotel!

Bills in Colombia are in denominations of $1,000, $2,000, $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000, and $100,000. Coins in Colombia got a makeover in 2016, so you may see two different versions of the same coin amount. Coins in Colombia are in denominations of $50, $100, $200, $500, and $1,000. The equivalent of cents is centavos in Colombian Spanish.

Due to dropping oil prices, the Colombian peso has devalued to record levels, making the country a bargain for international visitors. In early 2020, one U.S. dollar was the equivalent of COP$4,000.

Most banks in Colombia do not exchange money. For that, you’ll have to go to a money exchange, located in all major cities. There are money changers on the streets of Cartagena, but the street is not the best place for safe and honest transactions!

Travelers checks are not worth the hassle, as they are hard to cash. Dollars are some-times accepted in Cartagena and other major tourist destinations. To have cash wired to you from abroad, look for a Western Union office. These are located only in major cities.

Counterfeit bills are a problem in Colombia, and unsuspecting international visitors are often the recipients. Bar staff, taxi drivers, and street vendors are the most common culprits. It’s good to always have a stash of small bills to avoid getting large bills back as change. Tattered and torn bills will also be passed off to you, which could pose a problem. Try not to accept those.

Consignaciones

Consignaciones (bank transfers) are a common way to pay for hotel reservations (especially in areas such as Providencia and remote resorts), tour packages or guides, or entry to national parks. It’s often a pain to make these deposits in person, as the world of banking can be confusing for non-Colombians. On the plus side, making a deposit directly into the hotel’s bank account provides some peace of mind because it will diminish the need to carry large amounts of cash. To make a consignación you will need to know the recipient’s bank account and whether that is a corriente (checking) or ahorros (savings) account, and you will need to show some identification and probably have to provide a fingerprint. Be sure to hold onto the receipt to notify the recipient of your deposit.

ATMs

The best way to get cash is to use your bank ATM card. These are almost universally accepted at cajeros automáticos (ATMs) in the country. Cajeros are almost everywhere except in the smallest of towns or in remote areas. Withdrawal fees are relatively expensive, although they vary. You can usually take out up to around COP$300,000-500,000 (the equivalent of around US$150-250) per transaction. Many banks place limits on how much one can withdraw in a day (COP$1,000,000).

Credit and Debit Cards

Credit and debit card use is becoming more and more prevalent in Colombia; however, online credit card transactions are still not so common except for the major airlines and some of the event ticket companies, such as www.tuboleta.com or www.colboletos.com. When you use your plastic, you will be asked if it’s <credito (credit) or debito (debit). If using a tarjeta de credito< (credit card) you will be asked something like, “¿Cuantas cuotas?” or “¿Numero de cuotas?” (“How many installments?”). Most visitors prefer one cuota (“Una, por favor”). But you can have even your dinner bill paid in up to 24 installments! If using a tarjeta de debito, you’ll be asked if it is a corriente (checking) or ahorros (savings) account.

Tipping

In most sit-down restaurants, a 10 percent service charge is automatically included in the bill. Wait staff are required to ask you, “¿Desea incluir el servicio?” (“Would you like to include the service in the bill?”). Many times restaurant staff neglect to ask tourists about the service inclusion. Of course if you find the service to be exceptional, you can leave a little extra in cash. Although tipping is not expected in bars or cafés, tip jars are becoming more common. International visitors are often expected to tip more than Colombians. In small-town restaurants throughout the country, tipping is not the norm.

It is not customary to tip taxi drivers. But if you feel the driver was a good one, driving safely and was honest, or if he or she made an additional stop for you, waited for you, or was just pleasant, you can always round up the bill (instead of COP$6,200 give the driver COP$7,000 and say “Quédese con las vueltas por favor” (“Keep the change”). Note that sometimes a “tip” is already included in the fare for non-Colombian visitors!

In hotels, usually a tip of COP$5,000 will suffice for porters who help with luggage, unless you have lots of stuff. Tips are not expected, but are certainly welcome, for housekeeping staff.

Value Added Tax

Non-Colombian visitors are entitled to a refund of value-added taxes for purchases on clothing, jewelry, and other items if their pur-chases total more than COP$300,000. Save all credit card receipts and fill out Form 1344 (available online at www.dian.gov.co). Submit this to the DIAN office (tel. 1/607-9999) at the airport before departure. You may have several hoops to go through to achieve success. Go to the DIAN office before checking your luggage, as you will have to present the items you purchased.


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If you're planning to travel to Colombia, you need to read this practical guide to Colombian money