Colombian Currency, Avoiding Counterfeits and Exchanging Money

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Colombian Currency
Colombian Currency
Colombian Currency
Colombian Currency

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

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

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 recently 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 2,408 pesos per U.S. dollar. So a 10,000-peso taxi ride would be $4.15. 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 four years ago on concerns that expenses to print new bills, change accounting and switch prices would outweigh the benefits.

ATMs in Los Molinos mall
ATMs in Los Molinos mall

Avoiding 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 eight years I have been traveling to Colombia, including living over three 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. 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.

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 frequently.

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.

On a genuine 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 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.

On a genuine 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.

Colombian bills use a number of security features. A complete list of the security features of Colombian bills in circulation can be found on the Banco de la República website (in Spanish).

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.

Valores & Servicios Money Exchange in Los Molinos mall
Valores & Servicios Money Exchange in Los Molinos mall

Exchanging Money

You can use ATMs, banks or money exchange places (casas de cambio) to get Colombian currency.

With ATMs you will usually get the best 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 ATM machines on the level with the airline check-in desks.

For exchanging currency, casas de cambio sometimes offer slightly better rates than banks and have more flexible hours plus provide quicker service. You can find casas de cambio in many of the malls in Colombia.

You will need a passport or cédula (Colombian ID) to exchange money in a casa de cambio or bank in Colombia.

A few times in the past I have seen casas de cambio with exchange rates slightly better than the rate found on xe.com. But this hasn’t been the case recently with the strong dollar.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Great Article Jeff. I always use “casas de cambio” as my main source of dollar for pesos exchange whenever I’m in the country. The exchange rate can definitely be confusing for first timers so it be interesting to see if the government decides to shave off some zeros off the current currency. I personally use my debit/visa for bigger purchase items whenever I can and utilize cash if I purchase on the streets ( which is always likely you will ) Great article nonetheless by you fellas.. Always look forward to reading the new content.

    • Thanks. “Casas de cambios” are currently using an exchange rate that is quite a bit lower than the rate found on xe.com due the strength of the US dollar. Earlier this week I saw one that posted a rate about 195 pesos lower. The rate using an ATM will be better.

      • Ya the ATM exchange is certainly better from what I had been told. I usually travel to Bogota once a year. Last year for the holidays I believe the exchange was 1.950 or so.. The fact that its 2.400 right now makes me wish I was in Colombia. 🙂 The holiday seasons are quite fun this time of year which I’m sure you’d agree.. Cheers from Los Angeles

  2. Twice I got a two fake 10,000 pesos bills from taxi drivers. This happens more at night when it’s dark. My advise is to have the right amount available when exiting the ride.

  3. I’ve been trying to figuring out how to get the best exchange rate and lowest fees for months. The money exchange places in malls have terrible rates – almost 5% below the market rate on xe.com.

    Then I moved on to ATMs but there are fees. The BancoColombia ATM wouldn’t even tell me what the fee was!! Plus there are limits on the amount you can withdraw in a single transaction so if you want to withdraw say more than a few hundred dollars you’ll have to do it in multiple transactions and pay multiple ATM fees!

    The best ATM I found was ServiBanca. At least the ATM told me the fee was 6,500 COP which is not outrageous. And I believe they had a higher transaction limit than other banks. If I remember correctly I could withdraw 780,000 COP at a time – a wierd amount but I think that was the limit. The other thing about ServiBanca ATMs was that when I withdrew money I got it in 10,000 and 20,000 bills instead of the normal 50,000 bills.

    None of the ATMs told me the rate I was getting so I could see how close to the actual market rate I was getting. At least with ServiBanca I could calculate it myself since they told me how much the fee was. It’s been a month or so and I don’t remember the exact figure but I think the rate was pretty fair.

    Then I met a guy traveling through Medellin that told me about a Schwab Bank Investor Checking Account. And few days later I got an email talking about these accounts with a link so I opened one. It was quick and painless.

    You’ll get a debit card. And not only does Schwab not charge any fees, they will reimburse you for any fees charged by other banks. Here’s a link to an article on the Schwab account: http://www.internationalman.com/articles/how-to-avoid-atm-fees-when-traveling-abroad

    • Thanks. I have found ServiBanca is the best ATM near where I live and I use all the time. The limit is 780,000 pesos per withdrawal. The ServiBanca ATMs normally give out 50,000 peso bills but sometimes 20,000 peso bills if they are out of the 50,000.

      Schwab Bank debit card is good or TD Bank as well with no foreign transaction fees.

  4. Great article and thanks for writing it Jeff. Is there any good information here or online about the best way (and cheapest) of converting larger amounts of US dollars to COP for living in Medellin? I have been doing wire-transfers from my bank in the USA which does not charge me to do them as long as I keep $5000 or more in my account, but in Colombia I get hit with a conversion fee of 30 COP per dollar and then of course you have to pay tax when you withdraw it.There has to be a better way and I hope that some EXPATS have figured it out and are already doing it??? With the exchange rate at an all time high I am almost tempted to just keep withdrawing from ATM’s and stuffing it my mattress!!!! 🙂

  5. Dear Jeff. I’ve been in Colombia for a while and recently discovered that while the official exchange rate is currently around 2950 Pesos per Dollar, the “Casas de Cambio” sell the dollars at 2790 and buy it at 2700. I’ve been wondering why they have such different rates. This means that I can withdraw Pesos from the ATM machine, change it into Dollars and end up with more Dollars than I am charged on my bank account. Do you have an idea why this is so?

    • Hi Marco, the Casas de Cambio places in Colombia these days with the official exchange rate at record highs normally have rates lower than the official rate. They are out to make a profit.

      Also don’t forget your ATM fees. And you will need to bring those dollars back to the U.S. as you could only exchange them for even fewer pesos here. Also don’t forget if you have $10,000 or more in your possession when you travel to the U.S. a “Report of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments” form FinCEN 105 must be submitted upon your entry into the U.S.

      I’m not sure if I would want to carry so much cash to/from a Casas de Cambio to make less than a 6% profit. And then have to carry the cash back to the U.S.

  6. Great informative article. Thank you Jeff for this information and your recommendations. I’m definitely going to be using it when I fly to Medellin soon. It’s good to get the real hands on perspective since back home I hear horror stories on using ATMs in Colombia but I guess a little common sense and following these instructions should be fine. I’m definitely not taking money out in the street. Just use ATM in banks or airport and/or exchange money in casa de cambio.

  7. Hi, I am going back to the US soon. I wondering if it’s better to have my COP changed to USD here, or is will the exchange be better in the US?

  8. Great information. I will be traveling to Cartagena next month. Any recommendations on places to exchange money there and where to avoid?

    Thanks!

    • There’s lots of exchange places in downtown. Best way- check daily exchange rates and visit few of them to compare.

  9. Hi Jeff,
    I need to exchange some 500 EUR bills and in one of the casas de cambio they quote me a different (lower) exchange rate. Are you familiar with this?
    Also what banks were you able to change? I’ve asked on 3 different ones and none of them does it.
    Am I just so unlucky or what haha??
    Regards from Cali!:)

    • I was able to exchange USD for pesos in a Bancolombia branch several years ago. I haven’t done this recently as I now have a bank account in Colombia and I can do wire transfers from my bank in the US.

  10. If I am exchanging USD cash for pesos, is there a variable rate depending on the denomination of bill I am exchanging. I know that in some country’s banks, a $100 US bill will have a more favorable exchange rate than 5 $20 US bills. Thank you for your help.

    • To my knowledge there is not a different exchange rate for different bills. In the past I have exchanged $100 USD bills and $20 USD and received the same exchange rate.

      • Hi Jeff,

        Thank you so much for your input. Your blog has really helped me and my friend figure out what we’re doing before we go. Really appreciate it!

    • I am not aware of any ATMs in Medellín or anywhere else I have traveled in Colombia over the past 6+ years that give out USD. They only disperse Colombian pesos.

      Why would you want USD in Colombia? Use an ATM machine in the U.S. if you want USD.

      • I’m flying to Chile from Medellin for an Antarctic cruise. Payments on that cruise will be in USD.

        Many airport banks (and sometimes city banks) offer multiple currencies. Given most of Central America operates on USD I would have hoped an ATM it Colombia would offer it, especially at the international airports.

        • Colombia doesn’t operate on USD so no ATMs in the country disperse USD in my experience. You can get USD by exchanging COP at the money exchange at the airport (with typically a bad exchange rate) or somewhat better exchange rate at casas de cambio found in many malls in Medellín.

          Also ATMs in Chile don’t disperse USD in my experience – only Chilean pesos.

          • Thanks. I live in Medellin so I’m well aware Colombia does not operate on USD. FYI – many airport ATMs in the UK, Germany, Turkey, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. offer multiple currencies including local, USD, EUR, GBP so it’s not unheard of to have this service available.

  11. I read on the Banco Colombia link above that the new currencies are now available just recently. I’m curious as to how often have you seen the new notes being used and when will stores stop accepting the old currency.

    Thanks

    • Hi Ted,

      Yes, new currency has been issued so I plan to do an update to this article in the next month or two. There are new 2k, 5k, 10k, 20k, 50k, and 100k notes. You will see the new 2k, 5k and 20k notes now in use the most frequently. I have started receiving them in change. I haven’t seen a new 10k, 50k or 100k note yet.

      I’m not sure when they will phase out the old currency – I’ll see if I can find out.

      • We’ve received new 50k notes from a Davivienda ATM.

        Usually, when currencies are switched out, it is up to the banks to send in old currencies and the banks get new notes as replacements. Therefore, it depends on how often notes are circulated through the banks.

        Given the cash culture in a lot of Colombia, I expect it will take some time for all of the old notes to be switched out. Given how many fresh versions of the old notes I’ve received in the last few months, I also wonder if they intend to swap out old bills in good condition or just those that require replacement anyways.

        As a follow-up to the discussion above about obtaining USD – I ended up flying via Panama so it was easy to obtain USD at the airport there. USD were also widely accepted in Argentina and usually accepted in Chile – moreso than here in Colombia.