In this post, I discuss getting cash in Colombia, how to send money here, and exchanging money here. I recommend a great bank for U.S. citizens and permanent residents traveling or living abroad, as well as banking options and alternatives for British citizens, Australians, Europeans, and Canadians living and traveling abroad. I am writing this guide, since questions related to how to get money here, exchanging money here, and sending money to Colombia frequently come up in the various Medellín Expats groups on Facebook. This post is meant to compliment my “Banking in Colombia” post. Finally, I provide some much needed information for people who may have debit cards which use the Chinese based UnionPay system, instead of the Plus ATM system or Cirrus ATM network, which we do not have in Colombia.
Exchanging money in Colombia
If you are coming from the United States, Europe, the UK, Canada or Australia, it might be worth it to bring some of your currency, but you should not be surprised if the exchange rate between the currency you are exchanging for Colombian Pesos (COP) is not great. If you are changing Dollars/Euros/Pounds/etc., for Colombian Pesos (COP) you might find that the exchange rate for buying whatever currency you are exchanging for COP is significantly lower than the exchange rate for (insert foreign currency) and COP published on XE.com. This discrepancy between the actual exchange rate and the exchange rate is true no matter where you go, whether you are at a bank or a Casa de Divisas (Currency Exchange). I have seen the exchange rate for changing USD for COP at the bank be at least $200 COP or $300 COP less than the exchange rate posted on XE.com. XE has a mobile app, which I use all of the time and recommend downloading and installing on your phone before you come to Colombia.
Moreover, if you are not a Colombian citizen, you will have to bring your passport to change currencies, do paperwork and answer questions about your profession and other things that you would not do other places, this makes changing money in Colombia a headache. This surveillance of people bringing in international currencies and participating in the Colombian banking system is a part of anti-money laundering measures here in Colombia.
My recommendation for when you arrive if you are flying into Colombia, go to an ATM with your debit card and get pesos. Getting cash straight from the ATM will save you time and money while helping ensure that you will get a decent exchange rate since the exchange rate here for buying pesos with foreign currency is not great. There are ATMs at the airport at the Medellín airport so my best recommendation would be for you head to an ATM once you are finished passing through Migración and Customs (La DIAN) and skip visiting the currency exchange counter unless you have a lot of cash you want to exchange over for COP.
Using ATMs in Colombia
As I mentioned in my Parque Arví post, Bancolombia’s ATMs are temperamental with international debit cards. A number of times during 2018, I tried to make withdraws from my Schwab account using my Schwab debit card using Bancolombia ATMs to have Schwab take the money out of my account and have Bancolombia not dispense the money that I was withdrawing from my account. What this meant is that Schwab would take the money out of my account and it would appear on my account summaries that I withdrew (insert _____ USD here), and I would walk away after trying to use the Bancolombia ATM, without the cash I had attempted to withdraw in my hands or in my Schwab account. It was incredibly frustrating, and I eventually got my money back after some calls to Schwab, waiting a few weeks while Schwab to resolved this, and a lot of frustration. The same thing has also happened to another friend of mine who also has a Charles Schwab debit card when she tried to use her Schwab debit card with some Bancolombia ATMs. For this reason, among others, I am tired of Bancolombia.
I recommend exercising caution when using an international debit card at Bancolombia’s ATMs since their ATMs do not seem to consistently accept or dispense cash to people using international debit cards. However, this is made even worse by the fact that Bancolombia is the bank with the greatest number of ATMs throughout Medellín and Colombia as a whole.
Furthermore, while it is becoming increasingly common for merchants and others to accept debit and credits here, Colombia is a very cash-based society. The most common credit cards accepted here appear to be Visa and Mastercard, while some merchants may accept American Express. However, there are still many places that do not accept credit or debit cards, and there are some places will make you pay extra if you use a credit or debit card to cover the fees charged by your credit card company, to incentivize people to pay in cash. I highly recommend when you are going out to bring a debit or credit card with you and always carry some cash with you at least $25.000 COP. Use your common sense when withdrawing money from an ATM, when you can go inside, do not go to an ATM alone at night, etc.
I would recommend using the Scotiabank Colpatria/Citibank, Davivienda, BBVA, Banco Caja Social, Banco de Occidente, Banco Popular, Banco de Bogotá, Banco Pichincha, or Servibanca ATMs since they always seem to work with international debit cards. However, the exchange rate offered at each bank for foreign currencies may differ and even if the ATM may be capable of giving you between one and two million COP per transaction, this may not always be possible on Fridays when people are paid here, especially Fridays at the end of the month, with people taking withdrawing cash.
Davivienda’s ATMs apparently will now dispense up to $2.000.000 (two million COP) at a time. However, the exchange rate at Davivienda for USD and Euros is not always the best. I have heard that if you are using a Davivienda ATM with a foreign debit card when they ask you to confirm the exchange rate they are offering, it is a good idea to decline the exchange rate they offer at the ATM, click the no option. By declining the exchange rate offered by Davivienda at the ATM, this supposed to give you a more favorable exchange rate between international currency and COP. I have heard this from other expats here in Medellín, but I have never tried declining the exchange rate a Davivienda ATM has provided me
If you are using Scotiabank Colpatria’s ATMs, you can withdraw with any debit card up to $1.000.000 COP (one million Colombian pesos) per transaction. If you are using an international debit card, you can take out up to $1.000 (one thousand) USD per day, with an exchange rate of $3,329 COP to $1 USD; this means you can withdraw up to $3,239,426 COP per day at Scotiabank Colpatria’s ATMs. If you are trying to withdraw more than one million COP, you will need to do this in multiple transactions.
While Servibanca’s ATMs will only dispense $780.000 COP at a time and Banco Caja Social will only dispense $700.000 COP per transaction.
BBVA’s ATMS will apparently dispense up to $600.000 COP per transaction and you should be able to withdraw up to $2,100,000 COP per day using BBVA’s ATMs, but you will need to do this in multiple transactions.
Finally, Banco Pichincha’s ATMs apparently will allow you to withdraw up to $1.000.000 COP per transaction with zero fees, I have never tried this so I cannot confirm this. However, Banco Pichincha is an Ecuadorian bank not a Colombian bank, so there are only a few Banco Pichincha ATMs in Medellín, a location in Poblado, a location in Laureles, and maybe another location near Los Colores, a location in Envigado and a location in Itagüí.
Using ATMs if you have a debit card which only uses the UnionPay system
If you are coming from China or Hong Kong or your bank card only functions using the Chinese based UnionPay system, it is important to remember that all of the ATMs in Colombia are on the same system that ATMs in the U.S. use, the Plus ATM system. This means that Colombian ATMS do not use the UnionPay system. This means that you if you only have a debit card through a bank which uses the UnionPay system for ATMs you will not be able to use your debit card at Colombian ATMs to withdraw cash. In this case, my recommendation would be if you can get a debit card with a bank who uses the Plus system, such as Citibank which is supposedly the only bank in Hong Kong which has debit card which utilize the Plus and UnionPay system. The Citibank Debit Mastercard from Citibank Hong Kong, appears to allow you to use the UnionPay system ATMs and Mastercard network ATMs. Although since I have no residency in Hong Kong, I cannot confirm this personally. My best recommendation is get an ATM card that works on the Visa/MasterCard network ATM systems. Or you can use a service such as WorldRemit to send yourself money here. Or you can also bring large amounts of Euros, U.S. Dollars or another currency which you can more easily exchange here for Colombian Pesos, but it is important to remember that the exchange rate here for buying Colombian Pesos with another currency such as U.S. Dollars or Euros is not great.
Other options for sending and receiving money from overseas in Colombia
I have a Colombian bank account and accounts with Charles Schwab Bank, which reimburses all of my ATM fees at the end of each month and does not have any foreign transaction fees, I get cash from the ATM with my Schwab debit card and deposit into my Colombian bank account and use a Colombian account or cash to pay my bills. However, there are other ways to send and receive money in Colombia which are less costly than doing an international wire transfer.
Other people I know living here in Medellín transfer money to themselves or others here in Colombia using Xoom, TransferWise or WorldRemit in order to avoid paying costly ATM or bank transfer fees. I have not used any of these services so I cannot speak to how well they work, but they seem pretty popular for foreigners or people living between Medellín and other countries.
Western Union is another option for sending and receiving money, but it can be pretty expensive with fees and currency exchange rates. It is important to remember that if you are sending money via Western Union to someone in overseas who is not a citizen of the country they are in, they will need to bring their passport to pick up the money they have received at Western Union.
Finally, an additional option for those bringing in larger amounts of money into Colombia is Alianza Valores. From what I am told you can an open an account with Alianza Valores with just your passport, without needing a cédula. Alianza Valores is a good option for those who want to transfer over $10.000 USD to Colombia. I have never personally used Alianza, but since other expats have recommended it to me, I believe it is important that I include information on Alianza. This is a good option to consider if you are trying to bring in larger sums of money into Colombia so you can qualify for a business or investment visa.
Charles Schwab Bank, the ideal bank for U.S. Citizens and Residents traveling overseas
Since I have U.S. citizenship, I was able to get a bank account at Charles Schwab Bank in 2015, before I went to Uruguay and Chile. I love Charles Schwab since they have excellent customer service and I have saved so much money on fees banking with Schwab. If you have a Schwab debit card for Schwab’s High Yield Investor Checking Account, there are no ATM fees, they will rebate you all of your ATM fees at the end of the month, and even better, Schwab does not charge you any foreign transaction fees. I received almost $50 USD rebate in my account in ATM fees from Schwab at the end of September 2018.
If you have a bank where you prefer to keep your money and only use your Schwab account for when you are traveling overseas no problem, Schwab does not charge any low balance or account fees. When you get a high yield investor checking account, you will have to set up a brokerage account, but you will not be obligated to do anything with the brokerage account or maintain a balance for that account. However, if you are going to do an international wire transfer with Schwab, expect to pay $25 USD per wire transfer. If you live overseas, if you want a regular Schwab account, you will need to maintain a U.S. mailing address to keep your account at Schwab. While Schwab has branches and offices in the U.S., they do not have any ATMs in the United States. In order to deposit any checks you receive, you will either have to mail the check you want deposited to Schwab and have them deposit the funds into your account or use Schwab’s Mobile App and do Mobile Deposit for the check. If you want to deposit USD in cash into your Schwab account, you will need to either buy a Money Order with said cash or get a Cashier’s check and use the Mobile Deposit feature in the Schwab Mobile App to deposit the funds into your account. When I pay bills here, I put money into one of my Colombian accounts, or I pay bills in cash.
The beautiful thing about Charles Schwab is that when you open or maintain a High Yield Investor Checking Account with them, there is no minimum deposit needed to open the account. And unlike other banks, there is no specific minimum balance you need to meet to maintain the account. If you have Schwab and are living overseas, I recommend using your card at least semi-regularly, definitely when you are visiting the U.S. or use the card regularly for U.S. purchases online to avoid Schwab arguing that you are not eligible for this account because you live overseas.
Finally, Schwab offers a large variety of banking, lending, and investment products. Schwab primarily deals with investments and their rates for trades are pretty low. You can execute trades, view your portfolio and more using the Schwab Mobile App. Schwab’s Mobile App is one of the best mobile banking apps I have ever encountered or used. Banking in Colombia is frankly a letdown after having stellar customer service with Schwab, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in English. You can read more about Schwab’s services for U.S. expats here.
Non-U.S. citizens can get accounts at Charles Schwab; this would be a Schwab One International Account. Having a Schwab One International Account means that you will be eligible for a debit card from Schwab. However, the minimum deposit for non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents to get a Schwab One account is currently $25.000 USD (twenty-five thousand USD). However, not all of the investment, banking or lending products are available to those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents and/or those lacking a U.S. Social Security Number. You can learn more about Schwab’s services for international clients here.
To avoid the wire transfer fees here in Colombia, what I do is take cash out of the ATM using my Schwab debit card and then deposit that money into my Colombian accounts so I can pay bills here and then I receive the ATM fees as rebates at the end of the month. I do this to avoid wire transfer fees, and since Schwab refunds all of my ATM fees at the end of the month, in the end, it costs me nothing to do this. I also pay bills in cash to avoid ATM and wire transfer fees.
I am told that ING Everyday Orange in Australia offers an account similar to what Charles Schwab offers, but their requirements are different. When I was researching and writing this blog post, I spent a while looking for other accounts similar to Schwab, and there are not any other banks which offer Schwab’s benefits for people who are not able to maintain a large balance. I have concluded that no other bank is as good as Schwab for as many people, hence me mainly recommending Schwab. However, BBVA’s Online Go account and Revolut are also great options for Europeans.
BBVA’s Online Go Account as an alternative for Charles Schwab for Europeans
BBVA’s Online Go Account, which is available for new customers 18 years of age or older who do not have already have an account with the Spanish bank, BBVA, offers many of the benefits of banking with Charles Schwab. If you are approved for a BBVA Online Go account, you will receive a BBVA Ahora Debit Card, and you will pay no fees at bbva.es, the BBVA app and ATMs on your transfers in Euros, Swedish Krona or Romanian Leu within the European Economic Area (members of the European Union + Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). People who have this account, pay no account maintenance or administration fees, pay no debit card issue or maintenance fee, and pay €0, with no fees for withdrawing cash at a BBVA ATM using your BBVA debit card. If you're looking for an online account for almost everything you need, this account is for you. It has no fees if you satisfy one of the requirements: three (3) uses of your card monthly (any type of use will do: payments in shops, your purchases online, cash withdrawal in ATMs, etc.) or maintain a minimum monthly account balance of €800. Upon opening the account you have 12 months free from the time the account is opened to satisfy any of the options to keep it free. After that, you will have to satisfy any of the previously mentioned options to keep the account fee-free.
Revolut, an alternative international banking solution for British and U.S. citizens and Europeans
Revolut is a good option to consider for those with EU, UK, and U.S. passports or legal residents in the European Economic Area (EEA). Revolut will allow you to spend abroad in over 150 currencies with the interbank exchange rate, with a small 0.5% fee for anything above £5,000 each month. A flat mark-up on weekends and on certain currencies may apply. Revolut will give you $200 a month in international ATM withdrawals for free. Anything over $200 attracts a small 2% fee to help Revolut cover their costs.From your health to your phone, Revolut makes sure you and the things you love are protected worldwide from as little as £1.00 per day, insurance is provided by Revolut Travel Ltd.
I am told that BBVA’s ATMS in Colombia will allow you to withdraw up to $300.000 COP per transaction without any fees using your Revolut card, so if you need more than $300.000 COP it is recommended that you do two or more transactions at these ATMs. If you are given the chance, reject the exchange rate offered for the local currency by the ATM in favor of a more favorable MasterCard or Visa exchange rate, and always try withdraw in the local currency since Dynamic Currency Conversion rate is not as favorable as the Visa or MasterCard exchange rate.
Monzo Current Account in the United Kingdom for U.K. Residents
Monzo is a rapidly growing London based neobank established during 2017 to compete with larger more traditional high street banks in the U.K. such as Lloyd’s, Barclays and HSBC. Monzo is similar to Bancolombia’s neobank, Nequi, in that it’s all online and on your smartphone, and that the app allows you to set budgets, track your spending in real time, and pay using your phone. Any time you make a payment using Monzo, you will receive a notification on your phone in real time. You can make payments using your Monzo ATM card or by connecting your Monzo account through the Monzo app to Apple Pay or Google Pay.
Monzo is similar to Revolut, with their fee structure and costs to use it abroad. There is no minimum balance you need to maintain, no account maintenance fees and no day-to-day fees for Monzo users. Additionally, payments in the UK using Monzo, cash withdrawals in the UK and payments abroad are all free, with no added fees. If you're withdrawing cash abroad, you can withdraw up to £200/month for free, after which you'll be charged a 3% fee. You can still make payments in shops, restaurants and online for free using Monzo, even when abroad. Since Monzo is supposed to work all over the globe, you should be able to use your account without any issues, without needing to alert about overseas travel.
Monzo’s “Travel reports” feature is really fascinating, since if you have just arrived in a new country, they will let you know what the current exchange rate is, provide tips for traveling with your Monzo card in said country and allow you to automatically categorize transactions as holiday or expenses when you’re abroad. And when you arrive back home to the U.K., you will find out exactly how much you spend in £.
Moreover, when you are using your Monzo card abroad (or online in a foreign currency), they will pass onto you the Mastercard exchange rate, without adding any extra fees. When checking the Mastercard exchange rate on the Mastercard website, just insert 0% in the “bank fee” box. This means you can use Monzo to spend money in any foreign currency without worrying about wasting money on asinine banking fees or sketchy exchange rates. You can use your Monzo card anywhere that accepts Mastercard.
Furthermore, Monzo makes it easy to send money and manage direct debits using the Monzo app on your smartphone. The app allows you to send bank transfers to any other U.K. bank account that arrive instantaneously and pay nearby friends over Bluetooth without needing to know their private banking information. The app allows you to set up and manage Direct Debits and standing orders for recurring payments. Even better, you can send money abroad from your Monzo app for up to 8x less than what you pay to send money abroad using a traditional high street bank, using TransferWise.
If you are worried about security, if you lose your Monzo card, you can freeze the card in the app and receive a new card the next day, or if you find your card, you can unfreeze it using the app. If you have lost your Monzo card and your smartphone, you can log in here to freeze and unfreeze your card, see your list of transactions, view account balance(s), and list of accounts. Monzo has a valid banking license in the U.K. and is also a part of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) so your money is safe no matter what and you are protected, up to £85,000.
Monzo offers both individual and joint accounts (between two people), and they make it easy to sign up and switch to a Monzo Current Account. Using The Current Account Switch Service means that it is easy to switch and move your main bank accounts to Monzo, without having to visit the bank.
Requirements to open a Current Account with Monzo
16 years of age or older
U.K. Resident (Although they are trying to expand to Europe and the United States)
Valid form of identification
Must have an iPhone or Android that supports the Monzo mobile app
At the time that I was researching this article during early April 2019, Monzo during October 2018 was valued at over £1 billion or ($1.3 billion USD), but Monzo’s valuation could grow if financial analysts’ predictions are correct. If Monzo’s valuation increases, this could mean that Monzo is poised to become the second largest Financial Tech startup in the U.K. even though they have yet to turn a profit. And they are allegedly quietly working on a U.S. launch, so stay tuned for that.
Tangerine Thrive Chequing for Canadians
Tangerine Thrive Chequing account appears the is the closest thing to having a Charles Schwab account for Canadians. Tangerine is owned by Scotiabank but is operated independently from Scotiabank. There are no account maintenance fees for this account, and you can enjoy free 3,500 Scotiabank ABMs nationwide, and you will only pay $1CAD at 44,000 ABMs worldwide through Scotiabank’s Global ATM Alliance, this link will help you to locate your nearest ABM. And you will only pay $2 CAD at any international ATMs not part of Scotiabank’s Global ATM Alliance. There is no set minimum balance needed to open this account, and there is no minimum balance to maintain this account.
Here is what you will need to have handy for you to open a bank account with Tangerine:
Your contact information: street address, phone number, and email address.
Your Social Insurance Number
An Orange Key, if you have one from a referrer or a promotion.
They'll be asking you to provide other details (such as employment information) that they’re required by law to ask you for.
Citibank Australia’s Citibank Plus Transaction Account
Citibank Australia’s Citibank Plus Debit Card is a good option for people with Australian residency who are traveling and/or living overseas. If you can get the Plus Transaction account, you will not pay any ATM fees abroad, although you may be responsible for 3rd party ATM fees and no foreign transaction fees. If you are using ATMs overseas, Penny advises people to decline their exchange rate since Citibank allegedly will provide a better exchange rate, keep in mind that since I have no ties to Australia, I cannot confirm the validity or veracity of this information regarding ATM exchange rates. Here is a link for more information about the Plus ATM card and the link to the site where you can apply for this card
In order to be eligible for Citibank Australia’s Plus debit card, you must meet the following requirements:
You must be over 18 years old,
You must have a valid email, mobile number, and Australian residential address.
The account can only be used as a personal account (not as a business or joint account).
A Tax File Number (TFN), or valid exemption. You don't have to provide a TFN, but without it, they will be required to deduct tax at the top marginal rate.
Either an Australian drivers license or passport, so they can verify your identity online.
A special thanks is in order to the members of the various Medellín expats groups on Facebook, who gave me useful feedback about information I should add to this post about Schwab, Alianza Valores, BBVA, and Revolut. A special thanks is in order to my friend Flossie, who taught me about China’s UnionPay system for ATMs, and why this is significant. Flossie, I have now included information about UnionPay and what non-UnionPay ATMs mean for people visiting Colombia whose debit cards only function on the UnionPay system to my post. Special thanks to Penny Magoulas for letting me know about this Citibank Australia option for my Australian readers.
If you still have questions, want to learn about how you can get you can get a Colombian bank account, or want to learn more about my experiences with the Colombian banking system, I recommend reading my “Banking in Colombia” blog post. If there anything you believe that I should add to this post, do not hesitate to tell me in the comments or send me an email. If there is something that you believe that I should cover, that I have not already covered on the blog, please let me know.
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