Changing Money in Colombia

When it comes to changing your travel money, it can be difficult to decide which method to use. A vacation in Colombia gives you a wealth of options for accessing your money and purchasing foreign currency – from using airport exchange counters to taking along traveler’s checks – but every method offers its own range of benefits and drawbacks. So what’s the safest, cheapest and smartest way to access your money during your Colombia vacation? You’ll find a full list of your options below.

General Tips

Keep your bank in the loop: inform them you will be traveling three to four days before leaving, otherwise they may see charges from overseas, suspect fraud and freeze all transactions on your card. Always leave your debit card at the hotel, unless you plan to use it for a purchase or withdrawal, and only use ATMs during the day in secure, well-lit areas – preferably indoors. You should also bear in mind that MasterCard and Visa will add a 3% fee to all your transactions.

Never change money on the street, con artists will often approach you offering a great exchange rate for your dollars. They often have a bogus story as to why they can offer better exchange rates and will even give you the money to hold up front. However, these deals are always a scam and you will end up losing money. Only change money at official change desks or inside a bank.

Debit card purchases/ATM withdrawals
Using your debit card for withdrawals is a convenient way to access local currency in Colombia, and ATMs can be found on every block in all major cities. Debit cards also offer the option of purchasing on the card, which gives you the advantage of not having to carry large amounts of cash around with you, and the ability to pay for things when you don’t have currency to hand. However, depending on your bank’s policy you may have to pay hefty fees for this convenience.

Bank of America customers will be charged a flat $5, plus 1% foreign transaction fee, for each withdrawal made from any non-BOA ATM located outside the US – and they currently have no ATMs available free of charge in Colombia. In addition, the owner of the ATM may change a fee for balance inquiries, transfers and withdrawals. On average, an ATM withdrawal of $100 in Colombia will give you approximately 175,000 COP. For purchases made with debit/credit cards, BOA charges a 3% foreign transaction fee, according to the purchase amount.

Customers of Citibank may use any of the one million ATMs in their network free of charge. There are many Citibank branches in the major Colombian cities, and their easy-to-find ATMs (just look for the MasterCard logo) will charge all non-Citigold members a standard 3% foreign transaction fee – so a $100 ATM withdrawal will give you approximately 182,600 COP. Purchases made on a Citibank debit card will also be charged a 3% foreign transaction fee.

If you bank with Chase you’ll be charged $3 on each ATM withdrawal, as well as a foreign transaction fee of either 3% or $5 – whichever is higher. Purchases made with debit cards will also incur the 3% foreign transaction fee. There are both Chase ATMs and network-affiliated ATMs in Colombia, but using them may also result in a fee from the owner. All in all, a $100 withdrawal with Chase, considering all fees, would leave you with more or less 177,600 COP.

Capital One is a name typically associated with credit cards, but they also offer an interest-free online checking account that provides valuable benefits for travelers. CO Account holders can withdraw from any Colombian ATM that displays the MasterCard or Cirrus logo without charge and without the costly foreign transaction fees charged by other banks. That means a $100 withdrawal will give you around 188,000 COP (minus any ATM surcharges). There’s no foreign transaction fee on purchases either, and they even offer fee reimbursement for any charges you incur while using different ATMs.

Although there’s no minimum deposit, you will need a $500 deposit to open a Capital One online checking account.

Traveler’s checks
The idea is great: checks you can carry around with you, which can then be exchanged for local currency and will be replaced if they are lost or stolen. Unfortunately, the reality is very different.

There are very few places in Colombia that accept traveler’s checks. The majority of banks and exchange counters will not take them, and those that do invariably require a Colombian resident to co-sign them for you. Western Union offices are an exception, but can be difficult to find. With virtually no restaurants, shops or malls taking them either, traveler’s checks are a poor choice.

Currency from your local bank
For most trips, one of your best options is exchanging money with your local bank before you leave home. However, in the US surprisingly few banks carry Colombian pesos. Of the three banks mentioned above, Chase is the only one that sells pesos and they charge a $5 fee for purchase. While the current exchange rate is 1,880 COP to $1, Chase offer just 1,601 COP per $1, so including the $5 fee you can expect a $100 exchange to give you just 152,000.09 COP.

Exchange counters
Depending on the length of your journey, a currency exchange counter (‘casas de cambio’) may be your best choice, as they provide reasonable exchange rates and are safe to use without fear of receiving counterfeit bills. Although exchange rates are changing constantly, so current rates cannot possibly be given in this article, the rates below were quoted at the same time as the Chase bank rate above, and clearly demonstrate that bringing your vacation money in dollars and purchasing pesos upon arrival offers much better value for money.

In the airport, the exchange rate was around 1,730 COP to $1, while city counters were offering an even better 1,730 COP to $1, so it is recommended you exchange some of your money at the airport and the rest after checking into your hotel, as you will receive a better rate in the city.

Summary
The best way to change your money depends on the length of your Colombia vacation. For a short trip, you should take your spending money in dollars and change a small part at the airport and the larger portion upon arrival in the city centre. If extra cash is needed during your trip you can make an ATM withdrawal with your debit card. You should avoid purchasing currency from your bank before leaving the country, as this is a very expensive option. On longer vacations, the ATM fees and transaction costs associated with withdrawals will start to stack up, so the best option is to sign up with Capital One for free use of ATMs and no foreign transaction fees.

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