2017 Update: Exchanging Money and Avoiding Counterfeits in Colombia

Citibank ATM machine

You can use ATMs, banks or money exchange places (casas de cambio) to get Colombian currency when in Colombia.  These are the most common methods used for exchanging money by expats visiting Colombia.

With ATMs you will usually get the best exchange rate that is close to the official exchange rate. ATMs are plentiful in Colombia with several normally found in each mall. They are also found in many locations on the streets.

However, be careful of using ATMs located on the street; it is safer to use ATMs inside a mall. At Medellín’s José María Córdova International Airport you will find one ATM machine on the lower arrival level.

There are many more ATM machines on the upper level with the airline check-in desks.  The above photo is a Citibank ATM machine at Medellín’s international airport on the upper level with the check-in desks.

ATMs will typically have a limit of how much you can withdraw per transaction.  For example, ServiBanca’s limit is normally 780,000 pesos and Bancolombia’s limit is normally 600,000 pesos.

Also make sure to provide a travel notification to your bank before traveling to Colombia.  If not, your ATM card will likely not work in Colombia.  In addition, look for banks that don’t charge foreign transaction fees and some don’t charge ATM fees.

For exchanging money, you can use casas de cambio (money exchange houses) or banks.  The banks will sometimes have a somewhat better exchange rate. You can find money exchange places in many of the malls in Colombia and they typically are open more hours than the banks.

I personally wouldn’t recommend using a money exchange place or a bank as you’ll normally receive a worse exchange rate compared to an ATM.  For example, at the Medellín airport yesterday I saw a money exchange with an exchange rate of 2,775 pesos per U.S. dollar.  At the same time the exchange rate on xe.com was 2,912 pesos per USD.  So, this was nearly a 5 percent charge.

Charges at money exchange places in Colombia tend to range from 4 to 10 percent.  You will also need a passport or cédula (Colombian ID) for exchanging money in a casa de cambio or bank in Colombia.

Euroservices Money Exchange at Medellín Airport

Euroservices Money Exchange at Medellín Airport

Other Exchanging Money Options

A new mobile app is another option for exchanging money. Zeepod is a new app, which enables exchanging money directly with other people in person. This permits you to avoid the currency exchange places (casa de cambios) with their typically poor exchange rates.

A friend exchanged $700 USD to pesos using this Zeepod app recently and he got an exchange rate of 2,900 COP when the rate listed on xe.com was 2,913 COP.  He met the person at Oviedo mall in El Poblado.

Once you are established in Colombia with a bank account you also have the option for doing wire transfers to your bank account in Colombia.  I have a bank account with Colpatria and have done several wire transfers with exchange rates very near to the official rate.

Colombian Currency

Colombian Currency

Currency in Colombia

Colombia’s currency system uses the Colombia peso (COP). It now comes in seven different note denominations:

  • 100,000-peso note
  • 50,000-peso note
  • 20,000-peso note
  • 10,000-peso note
  • 5,000-peso note
  • 2,000-peso note
  • 1,000-peso note

In 2016, Colombia introduced new notes.  The 100,000-peoso note is new and didn’t exist before.  You will also find two versions of 50,000-peso, 20,000-peso, 10,000-peso, 5,000-peso and 2,000-peso notes in circulation.

Colombia also uses five different coins: 1,000 pesos, 500 pesos, 200 pesos, 100 pesos and 50 pesos. There are two versions of the coins currently in circulation.

Photos of the Colombian currency notes and coins in circulation can be found on the Banco de la República website.

A proposal was submitted by Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas to cut three zeros from Colombia’s currency system. This would make currency conversions easier. Also with so many zeros currently it is more likely errors are being made.

When figures go beyond 1 billion pesos it can get confusing for people unfamiliar with Spanish. Billions are expressed as thousands of millions and trillions are called “billones.”

The exchange rate fluctuates daily but the dollar has been strong recently. A recent exchange rate was 2,912 pesos per U.S. dollar. So a 10,000-peso taxi ride would be $3.43. Under the proposed change this would become a 10-peso taxi ride.

However, a government initiative to rebase the Colombian currency with fewer zeros failed over five years ago on concerns that expenses to print new bills, change accounting and switch prices would outweigh the benefits.  But the newest notes in Colombia are without the last three zeros.  For example, the new 50,000-peso note says 50 mil pesos.

Counterfeits

Don’t ever change your money on the street in Colombia, as counterfeit money is common. The best way to get the local currency is through an ATM.

I have received three counterfeit bills over the ten years I have been traveling to Colombia, including living over six years in Medellín.

Two of the counterfeits I received were 20,000 peso notes given in change, which I luckily caught both times, as the counterfeits weren’t that good. So I exchanged the fakes for real bills. This happened once in a bar in Cartagena and once in a small shop in Medellín.

The other was a counterfeit 50,000-peso note that I received from either an ATM or money exchange place in Medellín. I used both one day so I am not sure from which I received the counterfeit. I normally don’t check the bills received from an ATM machine or money exchange place, so I didn’t catch this until later.

The most common counterfeit notes in Colombia are the 20,000-peso and 50,000-peso notes plus the new 100,000-peso note. There have also been some counterfeit 1,000 peso coins – the new version of the coins. A guide to the new Colombian coins (in Spanish) is found here.

Until recently, Colombia was the top producer of counterfeit U.S. bills but that distinction now reportedly goes to Peru. So, also be sure to check any U.S. bills you receive while in Colombia.

Guide to Avoiding Counterfeits

One of the easiest ways to check to see if a Colombian bill is real is to rub it against a piece of paper. If some ink rubs off, it likely isn’t a counterfeit. I see clerks in stores do this sometimes.

You can also tell by the feel of the bills. Genuine bills have some texture to them and the three counterfeits I encountered didn’t have texture.  Colombian bills use a number of security features.

For example, on a genuine old 50,000-peso note, if you look at the large 50 on the front of the bill at angles it changes color. On the counterfeit I received it didn’t change color.  On a genuine old 50,000-peso note there is a “50 MIL” watermark under “COLOMBIA” on the front of the bill. On the counterfeit I received there was an attempt to copy the watermark but it didn’t look the same.

On a genuine new 50,000-peso note there is a flower on the front that changes color when looked at from different angles.  On the new 100,000-peso note there is also a flower on the front that changes color when looked at from different angles.

On a genuine old 20,000-peso note, if you look at the hexagon on the front of the bill at angles it changes color. On the two counterfeits I received the hexagon didn’t change color.

A complete list of the security features of the old Colombian notes in circulation can be found on the Banco de la República website (in Spanish).  In addition, this website also includes security features of the new notes here.

The Bottom Line: Exchanging Money

The best ways to exchange money and get a rate as close as possible to the official exchange rate are to use ATMs or the new Zeepod mobile app.  And if you have a Colombian bank account, you can use wire transfers.  If you use a casa de cambio (money exchange) or bank branch you’ll normally get a worse exchange rate than the other methods.

Also, be careful of the bills you receive as counterfeits can occasionally be found in Colombia, particularly the higher denomination notes. Not everyone is familiar with the security features of the new Colombian currency so reportedly they are starting to be counterfeited as well as the old notes.

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About Jeff

Jeff first discovered Colombia back in 2006 and has traveled to all the major cities in Colombia. He is fortunate to have a job in the U.S. with location flexibility, which has allowed him to spend over six years living in Medellín. He is also studying Spanish to become fluent.

Comments

  1. Good article.
    Another option is using an app like worldremit and either send money to a Bancolombia account or do an instant cash pick up with Bancolombia, Banco BBVA Colombia or Financiera Pagos Internationals.
    It offers a competitive exchange rate.

    At the time of this writing xe.com is 1 USD = 2,922.00 COP
    World remit offers 2857.18 COP per 1 USD.
    So if I send $1000 USD world remit will charge $3.99 and the recipient will get 2.857 Million COP for an instant cash pickup.

  2. Good Read. For some reason I could not use BancoColombia while there a few weeks ago. BBVA work fine

  3. Meant to add that app is an interesting option

  4. Thanks for another great article, Jeff.

    Regarding “ATMs will typically have a limit of how much you can withdraw per transaction” – I knew that and at first wrongly concluded that this was also the daily limit (this is the case back in Israel, my patría). However, one can keep on withdrawing if he needs more money in cash. I do not know what the daily limit is, though, if there is one.

    • Thanks. I have been able to do multiple transactions in one day, the most I have done is three. Many banks in the U.S. and other countries limit your daily ATM withdrawals to a particular amount, which my bank in the U.S. does. You’ll have to check with your bank to see what the limit is.

  5. On Zeepod it’s just another app in an increasingly crowded market for currency exchange tools. Two immediate obvious drawbacks 1. Finding someone at the time you need to change money with the opposite need to you 2. Security and counterfeit note issues when meeting people to make the exchange.

    The Cambios frequently get bad press about their cost but understanding their business helps explain why they need to charge so much. Most cambios who deal with tourists have a pretty one sided business. Tourists come looking to exchange foreign currencies and exchange it for the local (COP) currencies. The amount of currency brought in by tourists here far exceeds what locals want to buy for travel or other purposes. Therefore the cambios have processing charges themselves in changing the money back (foreign bank notes sitting in a vault or till have no economic value). So the market is very slanted against people selling foreign currency. I personally often get great deals from the cambios on buying the foreign currency that they have in the safe for travel (and selling COP) as it is cheaper for them to give me a good deal than process the notes themselves.

    On Banks the cost to a bank on performing a fx transaction on your account is for the most part a fixed amount. They need to reclaim the costs and therefore the bigger the transaction the finer the rate you will see. Ultimately there is less difference between what banks charge rather than the difference that the size of the transaction or how good (or large) a client you are with them.

    Transactions are also different between tourist needs and those who live here. What this article doesn’t get into is the restrictions that exist in Colombia for either transactions whether buying or selling pesos. There are restrictions on amounts, combined amounts over time and usage. ATM usage from a foreign account or foreign credit card usage are about the only two exceptions to the controls I know about. For example even sending checks drawn on a US bank account back to the US that exceed in total $10,000 will have them returned to you as the courier companies x-ray all of the envelopes to make sure that the restriction is not being broken.

    On counterfeit money like everywhere the issue exists (for example the number of fake U.K. Pound coins in circulation) and most shops will have cashiers carefully checking notes. For the visitor the risks increase based on the establishments you frequent. Badly lit ‘night clubs’ for example are more likely to provide the opportunity to pass fake notes rather than the big name supermarket. As for risks with large denomination notes you are unlikely to get those in change so it’s more a risk in receiving those in payment for something, not something a tourist is likely to encounter.

    On cutting three zeros from the currency it seems an obvious thing to do but as other countries gave find changing the monetary base generally leads to an unpleasant spike in inflation as every business takes the opportunity to ’round up’ prices. There may be proposals out there, but given the recent issues of new banknotes doing it now would seem rather perverse.

    Long term the cost of exchanging money is going to go down as there are increasing non-bank solutions and apps that will look to reduce costs. However for residents here the local regulations will likely make transactions less seamless than in many other places. As long as Colombia is growing drugs and governments have an interest in controlling money laundering from those businesses regulations are going to be tight on the transfer of other than small amounts of cash.

  6. I am moving to Medellin sometime this year to retire.

    When I lived in Barcelona, I used Barclay’s Bank to open an account and get a Visa debit card. It was easy to wire in money from the U.S. using xe.com.

    Barclays was a British bank and had many English speaking employees.

    As my Spanish is very weak, are there any good banks in Medellin that have English speakers available to help open an account? Helps if they have experience in opening accounts for expats and foreigners.

    Once the account was open and I picked up my debit card, I hardly ever had to visit the bank.

    Using the ATM and online bill payment in English on their website was all I needed. Just needed the recipient’s SWIFT number and account number to remit money online. Barclays charged no fees to receive the wire in Euros from xe.com. And ATM withdrawals were also free of fees. Essentially the account was pretty much free.

    How does it work there and what banks do you recommend? Any “gotchas”?

    • In my experience all banks in Colombia will require you to have a cedula (local ID) to open a bank account. You receive a cedula once you have a visa. English speaking staff at banks are not all that common but I have encountered a few staff speaking English at branches in El Poblado.

      • The cedula should get you the ability to open an account but the Banks here are hardly falling over themselves to open accounts for foreigners, if for no other reason than the reporting requirements for them (in particular for US customers) are fairly onerous. Bottom line checking accounts don’t make banks a lot of money and ones for foreigners even less. I have heard stories of increasing problems recently for foreigners trying to establish accounts but your experience may differ.

        If you do get an account and a debit card getting additional products like credit cards is far more difficult. There’s a fair amount of paperwork involved and you’ll need documents like Colombian tax returns. There’s not much marketing from the banks – its not like once you have an account they’ll come pressing you to get a credit card – you’ll need to go and ask.

        One thing that expats run into as an issue is that some payments can only be made with a local debit or credit card. So your gym may want your debit card to process payments but it isn’t going to recognize foreign issued cards. It will give you a list of the local institutions (and the Citibank there is the local subsidiary not the US entity) and you select that and then enter your card. On credit cards the cleaning service that I used to use for example only accepted locally issued credit cards.

        In terms of english speakers as Jeff says there aren’t many. At more senior levels you’ll find more english speakers but that generally means having contacts who can introduce you to them.

  7. Thanks for the tip. I didn’t know there was a Citibank ATM machine at Medellín’s international airport. Do you now, by any chance, if there is a Bank of America ATM machine?

  8. There are no Bank of America ATMs in Colombia. Even the Citibank ATMs in Colombia aren’t Citibank US, it’s their Colombian subsidiary so all the services that Citi customers can get in the US won’t likely be available from the ATM except withdrawing cash. Bank of America debit cards are widely accepted in other banks ATMs in Colombia. However BofA doesn’t have a ‘partner’ bank (like Barclay’s in the UK) which give reduced fees.

    There are few if any foreign banks left in Colombia as most of them left some years ago. There are some regional banks (Brazilian, Ecuadorian) but even those are again subsidiaries.

  9. Look on the back of your ATM card. You’ll find logos of worldwide ATM networks that many of the ATM machines in Colombia are members of. For example, if you have a PLUS logo and look for an ATM machine with the same PLUS logo — your ATM card will work if you have provided a travel notification to your bank. My ATM card from the U.S. works in most Colombian ATM machines except for Bancolombia’s ATM machines.

    PLUS is a huge ATM network owned by VISA that is used with all VISA credit and debit cards and is found in a huge network of over 1.8 million ATM machines in over 200 countries. Cirrus is another huge ATM network owned by MasterCard and used by MasterCard credit and debit cards with a similar number of ATM machines worldwide.

  10. My ATM card, from BOfA, works just fine in Bancolombia machines.

    One problem in Colombia is that the error messages that ATM machines give in the English language mode is sometimes a little simplistic. So, even if the only issue is that the machine is out of cash, you’ll get a message telling you to ‘contact’ your bank.

    As Jeff says make sure you set a travel notification (which at many banks you can do online) but some banks may also suggest that you may have issues if your PIN number is longer than four digits. That isn’t something I have experimented with but it is certainly true that Bancolombia for example has its own PIN codes limited to four digits.

  11. The PLUS & Cirrus logo information that Jeff gives is incorrect at least for many debit cards issued these days. For example many debit cards just have the Visa (and or MasterCard) logo on and you’ll see those signs on the ATMs as well. Note the MasterCard system has the same logo but says Maestro on it in Colombia.

    I haven’t seen a PLUS logo on any of my cards for a long time now.

    • My experience is different. I have three new cards with me that have the Cirrus or PLUS logos on the back. The two largest ATM interbank networks worldwide are named Cirrus and PLUS. See this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cirrus_(interbank_network) and this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plus_(interbank_network).

      I have Cirrus on the back of a new MasterCard card received in January and it also works in Maestro labeled ATM machines. MasterCard uses three brands on ATM machines on the Cirrus network: Cirrus, Maestro and MasterCard (you may see one or more of these logos on an ATM in this network). I have PLUS on the back of two Visa debit cards I received in December and February. Visa uses two primary brands on ATMs in it’s network – PLUS and Visa.

      So some cards have the Cirrus, Maestro or PLUS logos on the back and some don’t.

  12. Well Jeff I promise you many cards no longer include that information and not on any of the US cards I have received in the past couple of years. It’s also true of cards issued in Colombia – my Bancolombia card only had a Maestro sign on it.

    One reason for not including it is that it is confusing to consumers. If they have a Visa card (which people are familiar with) do they need to know that technically the visa payment system is called Plus or that the MasterCard one is called Cirrus? As for the ‘brands’ there are the two networks the use of all the logos is to make sure that all the different logos on cards are covered.

    So I am not incorrect, MANY cards no longer include the Plus and Cirrus logos. Remember how on US cards there used to be a ‘Star’ logo that have been removed as it was redundant?

    • I have seven cards and they all have Plus or Cirrus logos so I have a different experience. I have four from the U.S. all issued this year or last year and I just looked and they all have Cirrus or PLUS logos. Plus I have a Colpatria Visa debit card and a Colpatria Visa credit card from Colombia and both have a PLUS logo on the back.

      I also have an older ATM card that isn’t a debit card (it doesn’t have a MasterCard or Visa logo), it’s a proprietary PLUS card and it won’t work in an ATM without a PLUS logo (or Pulse, Interlink or Star logos). Reportedly there are 144 million proprietary PLUS ATM cards out there that aren’t VISA cards.

      Bottom line is not every card will have logos on the back. If you have a Visa card it will usually work in ATMs with PLUS or Visa logos and a MasterCard will usually work in ATMs with Cirrus, Maestro or MasterCard logos.

      But this isn’t always the case. For example, Bancolombia ATMs are labeled with Cirrus, MasterCard and Maestro logos as well as having Visa and American Express logos. See: http://backdoorpath.com/wp-content/uploads/201505301450291.jpg. But my Visa debit cards from the U.S. and Colombia with PLUS logos on the backs have never worked in Bancolombia ATMs. So just because an ATM machine has a Visa logo doesn’t mean all Visa cards will work in it. So the Visa logo on Bancolombia ATMs is misleading. I also ran into this last week in Buenos Aires where an ATM machine with a Visa logo (but not a PLUS logo) didn’t work with my Visa debit card from the U.S. with a PLUS logo. I had to find an HSCB ATM machine with a PLUS logo.

      Servibanca ATM machines in Colombia have Cirrus, PLUS, Visa and MasterCard logos on them so will work with most ATM cards. See: http://www.ccunicentropasto.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/139-cajero-servibanca.jpg.

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