Interested in moving to Colombia? Here’s what you need to know:
Colombia: Quick Facts
- The Republic of Colombia has a population of around 51.5 million, and has an area of ~1.14 million sq. km. It is divided into 32 departments (departamentos) and a District Capital.
- Overall, the country has a relatively small immigrant population that, for several decades, has hovered at just above 100,000. The latest official figures as reported by the United Nations shows Colombia in 2013 of having 129,000 immigrants, or less than 0.3% of the total population. Most immigrants are located either near the capital city, Bogota, or along the Caribbean coasts and islands.
- Colombia has a strong growing economy, supported by increased oil production, a rapidly expanding technological sector, and by its (world-renowned) coffee industry.
- Though Colombia has had a violent reputation in the past, its crime rate has decreased significantly in the past decade. Most offences are tied to narcotics trafficking, and are most common in outlying, dilapidated parts of large cities.
- It is considered to be one the world’s mega-diverse countries. This means that a majority of the Earth’s species can be found within its borders. Thousands of butterflies, birds, and fish are endemic to the country, which also boasts over 50,000 different types of plants. This is, in part, due to Colombia’s incredibly diverse landscape. Snow-capped mountains along the Andean range, the lush jungles of the Amazon rainforest, vast savannahs, and gorgeous sandy beaches can all be explored without leaving the country.
- Colombia is the only South American country that has direct access to both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans. Its coasts are popular destinations for vacationers from around the world. Each major port provides a strategic advantage to the import and export industry.
- Health insurance is a mixed public private system – over 97% of the population has coverage (according to the government). The average life expectancy has been rising rapidly, from 72.3 years in 2005 to 74.8 in 2012.
- Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
- Spoken languages: Spanish is the primary official language. However, there are 68 regional dialects and languages that are also officially recognized in parts of the country. In fact, English is an official language of the islands of Providencia, Santa Catalina, and San Andrés.
- Colombians are friendly people and are quick with a smile. They love to get to know foreigners. Even attempting to use some Spanish, however badly, gets high marks. The first time you are introduced a simple handshake is expected. However, once they are familiar with each other, women practice the beso (kiss) wherein they touch cheek-to-cheek and make a kissing noise. Men receive besos from women, and continue to shake hands with other men.
- Major religions: Roman Catholic (75%), Protestant (17.2%).
- Largest cities: Bogota, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, and Cartagena.
Why move to Colombia
- In a nutshell, the top reasons for moving to Colombia include: a growing economy, stable government, universal education, and near universal health care.
- Foreigners are accepted and welcomed – Colombians are extremely easy to get to know and you will soon feel like you’re part of their family.
- Colombians have virtually no accent, so their Spanish is arguably the easiest to understand. This is helpful for expats who have a limited Spanish vocabulary, or are attempting to learn Spanish while abroad.
- Benefits if you are working in Colombia include:
- Most workers get two additional (’13th month”) paycheques each year. One before Christmas, and one before Easter.
- There are a total of 18 holidays in Colombia (12 Catholic and 6 Civic holidays) plus Palm and Easter Sundays. There are also a variety of local holidays (e.g. two days just for Carnival in Barranquilla).
- All workers are entitled to 14 days paid vacation.
- Maternity leave is 12 weeks, while paternity leave ranges from 4-8 days.
- Retirement age is 62 for men and 57 for women. A public retirement system pays between 65% and 80% of your average ending salary.
- Workers who are fired or laid off without just cause must be paid a month’s full wage for every year they worked at the company.
- Colombia is full of astounding culture, from the hot clubs in Cali and Bogota – to the Latin beat along the shores of Cartagena.
- It is a beautiful place, with dazzling natural scenery, resplendent parks and gardens.
- The country has amazing biodiversity, with world-class beaches on both the Pacific and Caribe, stunning mountains, cloud forests, Amazon rain forest, mangrove swamps and highland plains.
- Its major cities are among the most modern and cosmopolitan in all of South America. In addition to its entertainment and cultural offerings, there are creature comforts to be found in the big cities.
- Colombian coffee is legendary, but you have never really had coffee until you’ve enjoyed the humble campesino: a rich, almost-espresso drink served with cream, sugar and cinnamon.
- Artists like Shakira are just the tip of the iceberg, as every city has a thriving music scene. The range is impressive, from full philharmonic orchestras and ballet companies to techno grunge bands lighting it up in tiny clubs.
- Cost of living in Colombia is low. The minimum wage stands at COL$589,500 (US$333). Most expats can find they can live magnificently well, often in a large home with a housekeeper/cook, for less than US $1,500/month.
- Food is fresh, varied, wholesome, and if you go to the local open-air markets are extremely cheap.
- Rent is generally affordable (although some areas of the large cities can get pricey). Many landlords prefer renting to foreigners as they tend to be reliable tenants.
- Utilities (electricity, water, cable, telephone) are cheap, often amazingly cheap. The phone system can be iffy but the country has excellent cell phone coverage, at least around the larger towns and cities.
- Public transport is extensive, efficient, and very affordable. Buses seem to be a constant stream on the main roads (there are no actual bus stops – you simply eye the bus you need and wave, and a ride costs about $0.50). In the major cities, a taxi ride starts at $2 and typically doesn’t exceed $8 (for most urban journeys). Rural areas have busetas, and sometimes merely an old pickup or motorcycle taxis. For those who want to drive themselves, used cars are some of the cheapest in Latin America.
- Although there are relatively small numbers of expats, they are primarily concentrated in the capital, Bogota, and the popular getaway islands off the north (Caribbean) coast. In short, you can find expat groups to hang out with if you want.
- Colombia is receptive to foreign investment, with relatively open visa options.
- Since the implementation of the 2012 Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Colombia has risen to one of the highest importers of American goods. It also has strong ties to Europe and Asia. This means that more products are available, and at a lower cost, than in other South American countries.
- Colombia celebrates 18 national holidays, and is known for its colourful parades and festivals.
Reasons Not to Move to Colombia
Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.
- You need to speak at least a little bit of Spanish, especially if you are living in more rural areas. Because Colombia is not as popular a retirement haven as other destinations in Latin America, there is not as great a need for the native population to be bilingual.
- Colombia is practically the poster country of Latino machismo. Although women’s equality is enshrined in the constitution, there are practices that are sure to set visiting a woman’s teeth on edge. Solitary women will be subject to whistles, cat calls and suggestive prancing by men. A woman accompanied by a male will find all conversation by salespeople, doctors bankers and all others directed to him – with the lady completely ignored. Even other women tend to talk business solely with the man (and ignore the other woman).
- Colombians (like many Latinos) go by their own time. If a plumber says he will return Wednesday to finish the job, he might come back in two weeks.
- While plentiful and cheap, transportation is often dirty, loud, rusty and crowded. Roads are often poorly maintained. Roads are not typically marked with lanes, so it is not uncommon for 3-4 files of cars scooting around on a road designed for two lanes.
- Even though the drug wars and major battles between the government and rebel groups are a decade in the past, there still are areas in the interior mountains and near the Ecuador and Venezuelan borders where rebel groups operate (and where the risk of kidnapping for foreigners is high). Though Colombia is actively cracking down on the drug trade, some foreigners simply do not feel safe in Colombia, and opt to move back to more familiar locations.
- People are slow to pay their debts. Billing systems are haphazard – many newcomers find it tough to get used to this. It is not unusual to realize you have not received a water bill in three months until a crew comes to your door to shut service off.
- Deposits for rent and utilities are generally considered to be fees to pay for installation. It is possible to get a deposit back, but it will often take several months and several visits to collect the money.
- While health care is widely available, there is a marked difference between the quality of care given through private systems and public systems.
- Likewise, the education system has massive gaps between the free public system and the for pay private schools. In all ways, your opportunities are better if you have money.
- Government and private bureaucracy is astoundingly complicated. Even if you have a foreign or international driver’s license, you are required to get your own license within 6 months. This requires mandatory driving classes, a written rules and law exam, medical certification, eye exam, hearing exam, psychological exam and fingerprinting before you can take your actual driving exam.
- Most international airports in Colombia charge a hefty exit tax when you are leaving the country. This must be paid in cash and varies from airport to airport.
- As many of its biggest cities are located in the Andes Mountains, many expats complain about the weather. For instance, Bogotá has a long rainy season that many internationals find discouraging. The high instance of rain gives way to frequent floods and mudslides throughout the country, which can become a serious problem.
- Some expats complain that Colombian food is exceedingly bland. Most meals consist of rice or beans, fried corn bread (arepa), and a mild white cheese.
Getting a Visa and Finding Work
- Colombian visas are divided into two types: the N series for permanent visas and the T series for temporary. They have relatively few restrictions – with no vaccination requirements or currency restrictions, unlike in some other Latin American countries.
- Work visa: if you are looking to obtain a work visa (also known as an entrepreneur’s visa), you must meet a number of requirements. These types of visas are usually reserved for professionals, so you must provide proof of your credentials (such as an apostilled copy of a college degree or field certification). It’s best to find a job before applying for a work visa, because you will most likely have to produce your business contract. The company you plan on working for will probably have to sponsor your application as well. Even if you are looking to work as a private contractor, you will still need to apply for this visa. The duration of a work visa is usually a year. After holding this type of visa for 5 consecutive years, you can apply for permanent residency.
- Tourist visas are simple to obtain for most visitors and are valid for 90 days, although they can be extended up to 180 days. Most simply require a passport valid for at least 180 days from entry. Visitors from the US and EU countries can simply arrive in Colombia with a valid passport and receive the visa.
- Student visas are available for those who will be staying longer than 90 days and have already been accepted to a school in Colombia. Note: student visas can only be issued in the capital, Bogota.
- Asylum seekers can request either to receive refugee status, eligibility to asylum or the recognition of the refugee attribute. People accepted into Colombia due to humanitarian or political reasons (according to international law) receive a residence permit. This visa is typically good for three years.
- Travelers who can document that they are employees of a business (or investors) can potentially receive a Business Visa. This is good for three years and can be used for multiple entries into Colombia. Note: the visa holder must not stay in Colombia for more than six months at a time.
- Investment visa: in Colombia, an investment visa is a type of permanent visa. It can be obtained in one of three ways: (1) Through the purchase of at least $100,000 USD in stocks, bonds, or certified deposits, (2) by purchasing at least $100,000 USD worth of stocks or shares in a private company, or (3) by purchasing a minimum of $200,000 USD in real estate. This visa does not have to be renewed, and you can apply for permanent residency after holding it for 3 years. (If you are applying for residency from a Resident Investor visa, you will be required to provide proof of your continued investment in Colombia.)
- Business owner or associate visa: the Socio Propietario visa is for those who are owners or partners of an established commercial business in Colombia. A minimum investment of $57,000,000 COP in shares (or if you own a company, an accountant’s estimate that your company is valued at $57,000,000 COP or more) is necessary to apply for this visa. You can apply for permanent residency after you have held this type of visa for 4 years.
- Rentista visa: for individuals who are not retired, but receive a monthly income of at least $5,667,00 COP (nearly $3,000 USD). You must prove that you are regularly issued this income, and that it is transferred into Colombia. It is valid for one year at a time.
- Retirement (pension) visa: to qualify for this visa, you must be a retired individual who receives a monthly stipend equal to $1,700,100 pesos (roughly $880 USD) from a foreign financial institution (for instance, out of a trust fund or from Social Security). The duration of this visa is one year. It must be renewed every year with all original documents. After 5 years, those residing in Colombian on a pension visa can apply for permanent residency.
- Those seeking medical care in Colombia can receive a special visa (duration: 90 days to three years).
- A foreigner who wishes to stay in Colombia for longer than 90 days (and wants to work or study) requires a permanent visa. Visas must be requested at a local Colombian embassy or consulate, several months prior to the intended day of entry into Colombia. It is possible to first travel to Colombia on a temporary visa and apply for a permanent visa. However you would still have to leave Colombia and do the paperwork outside the country at a Colombian embassy.
- Family members arriving in Colombia must show documentation for their relationship with the primary visa holder. Spouses must show proof of legal marriage. Children must have proof that the visa holder is the parent or legal guardian of the child. These visas are generally good for up to three years, depending on the type of visa for the main visa holder.
Permanent Residency and Citizenship
People who want to live and work in Colombia must acquire a cedula extranjera. Among ways you can qualify for a work or residency visa are:
- Qualifying as a long-term holder of a temporary visa. Some temporary visas can turn into permanent visas if the holder has them for a continuous period of five years. Please note the following visas cannot be transferred to a permanent residence visa: preferred, courtesy, business, crew member, temporary student, temporary entrepreneurship, temporary for medical treatments, temporary for official business, temporary for adoption, temporary visitor, tourist.
- A Resident Investor visa is available for a person who is investing a minimum of $100,000 with the money registered with the Banc of the Republic.
- An Immigrant visa is available for up to three years. These are primarily for people with useful skills.
If you would like to become a naturalized citizen of Colombia, you will need to complete the following steps:
- Write a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores) formally requesting Colombian citizenship, and explaining the reasons you are applying. The letter should include your name, identification document, nationality, country of origin, current residence, and residence prior to living in Colombia.
- Authorize the DAS (Department of Security) to request a background check from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
- Provide a notarized copy of your passport, along with six passport-sized photos (4 x 5 cm), recently taken
- Submit a certificate of “good conduct” from the country you lived in prior to residing in Colombia
- Submit any certificates of military service from your homeland, unless over 50 years of age
- Provide authenticated copies of two income statements, or a certification of income by a public accountant. If you own a business, provide a certificate from the Chamber of Commerce about your business
- Pass an oral test at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The exam assesses the applicant’s knowledge of Spanish, the Colombian constitution, and basic information about the country.
Starting a Business in Colombia
The growing economy and stable political situation makes for numerous opportunities. Many expats have opened successful import/export businesses. Meanwhile, many others have enjoyed success with restaurants, clubs and hotel/resorts (lifestyle businesses). With that said, Colombia has a unique business culture and there are a number of points to keep in mind:
- Start by hiring an accountant and a lawyer. Colombia’s tax and employment laws can be baffling to the newcomer. Local experts can guide you through the early days and steer you away from expensive mistakes.
- Look to the foreign enclaves in Bogota and the Caribbean islands. You will find other expats who know the system and can provide you with important tips and contacts. Most of these areas also have local chambers of commerce dedicated to expat businesses.
- Be patient. Business and government in Colombia goes at its own pace. If you try to rush to get things done, chances are you’ll get frustrated. The successful realize things will take longer than they wish and plan accordingly.
There are currently two ways to get into the Colombian market: by purchasing a majority of shares in a company currently operating in Colombia, or by starting up a new business.
- Buying in: whether you purchase a business outright or buy enough shares to become a legal partner, the investment will have to equal at least $57,000,000 COP (or what it would cost to pay 100 monthly salaries).
- Creating a business: a sole proprietorship (Persona Natural) business does not require a cedula (Colombian ID), and can be set up on a tourist visa. Just like buying into an existing company, starting a sole proprietorship requires an investment of $57,000,000 COP. Individuals with visas tied to their business can apply for permanent residency after 4 years. This type of business can always be incorporated as an SAS company at a later date. If you are planning on creating an SAS or SA corporation, it will be necessary to obtain a legal representative who is either a Colombian national or a foreigner that has a current residency visa. In either case you will need to:
- Register with the Registry of Commerce and get a pre-taxpayer ID (known as a pre-RUT)
- Open a bank account with your pre-RUT and deposit the necessary funds
- Register your company with the Caja de Compensación Familiar (Family Compensation Fund), Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (Governmental Learning Service), Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (Colombian Family Institute), and Administrator of Professional Risks (ARL)
- Register your employees for public health coverage
- Register both the employer and the employees for Colpensiones pensions, and with private pension funds
- Register employees with a severance fund
Note: Colombia is a developing country, and the requirements for the creation of a business are subject to unexpected change. Make sure to consult with an experienced lawyer who is well informed and up-to-date on Colombian business and immigration law.
Links & Resources
- Colombia Migration Ministry – official government website
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