We look at how to be an Expat in Colombia. The rewards of moving abroad can be huge but with unexpected challenges to overcome. We provide 11 tips to be a successful Expat in Colombia.
People leave their home countries for myriad reasons: some are looking for adventure, some may be flying the nest and learning to stand on your own two feet and others may be looking for a lower cost retirement location.
More and more Americans and Europeans of all ages and stations are leaving their countries for a multitude of reasons, be they political, economic, professional, romantic or for retirement.
Medellín in Colombia has been touted for many years as a top foreign retirement location by the foreign retirement publications. And Medellín is a beautiful city in a valley surrounded by mountains.
But, when you actually arrive in Colombia, transforming into your new identity, that of a dweller in a foreign country, also known as an expat, you will find this can be complicated.
Every expat in Colombia, who’s been there, done that and survived will tell you it’s hardly a piece of cake.
The rewards of moving abroad can huge, but also come complete with their own set of unexpected challenges.
In this article we look at how to be an expat in Colombia with 11 tips to be a successful expat.
What’s an Expat?
An obvious question, what is an expat, anyway? An expat or expatriate, is considered to be any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country other than their country of citizenship.
If you taking two to three months to backpack across South America? Yes, you’re an expat. Haven’t returned to your home country in five to six years? You are definitely an expat.
Always dreamt of living in foreign country such as Colombia where the cost of living is lower? You’re a would-be expat in the making. On the Medellin Guru website we would love to help you figure out your next steps in how to be an expat in Colombia.
What’s it Really Like to Be an Expat?
We have a definition of expat. However, keep in mind that no two expat experiences are the same.
But there some universal things you will encounter, as you become an expat in Colombia.
Getting Confused by Colombian Culture
Living in a foreign country is always interesting. Learning the language is one thing, but learning about the culture is completely different. We previously looked at 12 things Colombians do that foreigners may find weird.
One of the first experiences of being an expat in Colombia is recognizing how little you know or understand about your new country of residence and the subtleties of Colombian culture that you must learn to comprehend if ever want to feel that you belong.
In many ways, this is culture shock. You will learn how the local metro and bus system works. You’re able to identify the most appropriate greeting for every social situation, which is an important aspect of social etiquette.
Although you might feel confused to begin with, this is the test that all new expats must face and one that decides whether your time abroad is short-term or whether your new country slowly becomes your home country.
If you want to know how to be an expat in Colombia, don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Expect to feel uncomfortable in getting a few things wrong. But you will learn from these mistakes.
Continually Learning as an Expat
Becoming an expat in Colombia means that most people speak a different language (unless you already speak some Spanish). Your first battle will be with the language.
Expect to spend some time baffled in many situations due to the language barrier. Ordinary exchanges with shopkeepers, in restaurants, in taxis and getting your hair cut may take a few weeks to get up to speed with enough of the language.
Use translators like Google Translate on your phone if needed. And you will feel triumphant when you find you speak enough Spanish and someone understands what you say.
I have lived in Colombia for over eight years and I am still learning. When I first arrived it was a challenge, as I didn’t speak much Spanish. Also, over eight years ago there was little available in English on the Internet to help. But I muddled through and figured things out.
Feelings of Loneliness
Being an expat does have its downsides: living far away from your friends and family can be difficult. Also, it can take longer than you originally think to feel settled in your new country/
Friendships that you thought were rock solid can wither. In addition, keep in mind you will be missing important life events with your family or friends, which can leave you feeling beyond guilty about your choice of becoming an expat.
The bottom line is becoming an expat is no easy task and requires a huge amount of courage.
In my many discussions with expats living in Colombia, three of the most common things I have heard include:
- Difficulties settling in — particularly how long it can take
- Missing family and friends
- Loneliness and the challenges of finding and making new friends in Colombia
11 Tips How to Be an Expat in Colombia
So, how to be an expat in Colombia? Good news, it’s actually much easier now to be a successful expat than when I first came over eight years ago.
There is an entire support structure of people that can help, particularly in the largest cities. And there are resources like Medellin Guru chock full of up-to-date information for expats.
The biggest hurdle to jump over is making the decision to become an expat in Colombia. After that, it’s not really that difficult.
The following 11 tips will help you become a successful expat in Colombia.
1. Do your Research
Make sure you know what you want and what you’re looking for before you move abroad. For example, there is no point to moving to Medellín in the mountains in Colombia if you are are beach bum.
The foreign retirement publications have named Medellín one of the top foreign retirement locations, which is how many foreigners find out about Medellín.
However, be careful. We have looked at issues with the foreign retirement publications due to biases and they tend to primarily cover the positives. So, make sure to do additional research.
2. Try Before You Buy – Take One or More Trial Visits
We recommend visiting Colombia first before making a big move. It is a good idea to visit a new country like Colombia ahead of a move, especially if you are moving with children.
When I moved to Colombia, I did this gradually. First, I went on several short vacation trips, then for a month, then for three months, renting furnished apartments each time. These were trials of living in Colombia. Finally, I decided to rent an unfurnished place.
I previously wrote about my story, discovering Colombia and moving to Medellín.
3. Find Housing
You’re in a new country like Colombia. You’re essentially homeless. That local hostel, hotel, furnished apartment on Airbnd or friendly couch will only work for so long before you need a (somewhat) more permanent place to stay.
If you think it will be easy to find a fantastic apartment in Colombia, close to shopping and things to do with a really cheap rent, re-think this, as it isn’t realistic.
Such places are more expensive, and you may have to be flexible on where you live to find a place if you have a lower budget.
On the Medellin Guru website, we have a comprehensive set of articles about housing, inlcluding:
4. Get a Phone
No matter where you are in Colombia, you’ll probably need a phone number so people can communicate with you.
Whether they are friends, family, or possible job contacts, you’ll need a phone number for them to get in touch with you.
Besides this, any place that you’ll have to “register” yourself (work, bank, gym, etc.), you’ll be asked for a phone number.
Cell phone services are relatively easy to establish in Colombia for foreigners. The three largest cell phone providers in Colombia are Claro, Movistar and Tigo-UNE. These three providers have a combined mobile market share of about 89 percent in Colombia.
All of the mobile providers offer prepaid plans (prepago) where you pay for minutes and data up front and postpaid plans (postpago), which are monthly plans.
Also, it’s very easy to get prepaid (prepago) mobile services established in Colombia. And you can recharge cellphones in so many places. Postpaid plans require a cedula. So, unless you have a visa, you can’t get a postpaid plan.
In addition, we have a comprehensive guide to buying and using cell phones in Colombia.
5. Learn Some Spanish
Most Colombians generally don’t speak much English. Also, most of the people that you will interact with on a typical day in Colombia, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will tend to speak little to no English.
In addition, Education First ranks the English proficiency in Colombia as low at 48.90 on a 100-point scale.
So, in my opinion, it is important to learn some basic Spanish before coming to Colombia. You should be able to give simple directions, how to order food and how to buy things from a store.
If you brush up on your Spanish before arriving in Colombia, you will find it much easier to get around. Try to learn as much Spanish as possible. So, your time will be more fun, rewarding and interesting.
Some people find learning a language easy, others struggle. Some prefer to learn in a formal class while others would rather work at it in private.
To start out, we recommend focusing on the basic phrases you need to get through day to day life: greetings, numbers, food and directions. Then, you can eat and get home if you get lost.
6. Get a Colombian Visa
Colombia offers many different categories of visas, which enable you to stay in the country for a year or more.
Citizens of several countries including the Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and many other countries do not need a visa to enter Colombia as a tourist for up to 90 days.
A Colombian “tourist” visa isn’t a formal visa. It’s just a stamp in your passport. Furthermore, a “tourist” visa can be extended by 90 days at any Migración Colombia office in the country or online.
We previously covered how to extend a tourist visa in Colombia.However, with a tourist visa/permit and out a formal Colombian visa, your stay in Colombia is limited to a maximum of 180 days per calendar year. So, if you want to stay longer than 180 days you will need a Colombian visa.
Colombia’s visa scheme has a total of over 30 categories of Colombian visas under its visa rules.
Researching exactly what visa you need is a must. There’s nothing worse than arriving in Colombia and realizing you need to get a document certified in your home country.
Furthermore, we partnered with a visa agency to offer Colombia visa services to foreigners at a competitive price, which has helped 282 clients in 18 months.
While it is possible to apply for a visa yourself in Colombia, we highly recommend using a visa service over doing a Colombia visa application yourself.
The bottom line is with a visa service from a visa agency you are less likely to run into problems and you can avoid a trip to Bogotá, which can save you both time and money.
7. Learn About the Expat Community
To really enjoy the experience of becoming an expat, it’s important to know how easy is it to get to know people? Are there groups for locals to meet expats or for expats to meet other expats?
The answer is “yes” in the biggest cities in Colombia. There are normally language exchanges and expat meetups and other events but these have been on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
We have a separate article about 13 of the best ways for making friends in Medellín, which include
- Join Facebook groups like the Medellin Guru Events & Discussion Forum
- Medellín hiking group
- Join a gym
- Get a dog
- Take group Spanish lessons
- Attend language exchanges
- Salsa dancing
- Join a coworking space
- Meet Instagram friends
- Create your own meetups
Research the local expat communities — Facebook is a good place to start. Most of the cities in Colombia have expat groups on Facebook.
In addition, the larger cities in Colombia like Bogotá and Medellín are active expat communities with plenty of meetups. Also, there are language exchanges where you can swap words and make new friends. Smaller cities in Colombia won’t have much of an expat community.
8. Get a Transportation Card
The larger cities in Colombia have transportation systems with transportation cards.
The Medellín Metro is a comprehensive and inexpensive system. It integrates two rail lines, five Metrocable cable-car lines, two Metroplús elongated bus lines, a Tranvía tramcar line and even feeder Metro buses.
Several other cities in Colombia have elongated bus transportation systems including Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Bogotá, Cali and Pereira.
Getting a transportation card and knowing how to use it to take advantage of its discounts will make your life much easier. We have a guide to obtaining a Civica card for the Medellin Metro in our guide to the Medellín Metro.
If you are living in smaller city in Colombia, with a simpler transport system, try to figure out which buses go to your home and bring you to your most frequent destinations.
9. Get Health Insurance
Health insurance and healthcare are often an afterthought for those moving abroad. Even those with chronic conditions may fail to prepare: is the medication you take legal in your new home? Will you have access to public health? Is it of good quality?
The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks Colombia’s healthcare system as #22 out of 191 countries it ranked. Also, no other countries in Latin America were ranked higher than Colombia. So, according to WHO, Colombia has the best healthcare system in Latin America.
In addition, Colombia’s healthcare system is ranked higher than many wealthier countries like the United States (#37), Germany (#25), Canada (#30) and Australia (#32).
In Colombia, it is possible to have access to world-class healthcare at a fraction of the cost compared to the healthcare costs in the U.S. or Europe. Furthermore, the costs for healthcare in Colombia can be significantly lower than the costs found in the U.S.
Furthermore, Colombia has 24 of the best hospitals in Latin America, according to a study in late 2019 by América Economia that looked at the top 58 hospitals in Latin America.
Medellin Guru partnered with an insurance broker to offer insurance services to readers. Also, the Medellin Guru website has several popular articles about Colombian insurance and healthcare services:
- Travel Insurance: Meets the Heath Insurance Requirement for Colombia Visas
- Health Insurance in Colombia: How to Sign up with SURA Insurance
- Auto Insurance in Colombia: A Guide to Colombian Auto Insurance
- Homeowners Insurance in Colombia: A Guide to Colombian Homeowner Insurance
- Medellin Guru Insurance Service: Providing Colombian Insurance
- Colombia has 24 of the Best Hospitals in Latin America
- Emergency Surgery: Expat Experience in Clínica León XIII in Medellín
- Healthcare Colombia: Offering Services to U.S. Veterans in Colombia
10. Make Sure You are Safe
Many posts on the Internet say that the wealthy neighborhoods of El Poblado in Medellin, Chapinero in Bogotá and Bocagrande in Cartagena are safe neighborhoods.
But in reality, El Poblado has one of the highest robbery rates in Medellín, Chapinero has the highest robbery rate in Bogotá and Bocagrande has one of the highest robbery rates in Cartagena, as we discovered in our article about safety in Colombia.
The wealthiest neighborhoods in many of the cities in Colombia have some of the highest rates of robberies of persons. This is likely due to thieves targeting the wealthy areas of cities.
So, we recommend not letting your guard down in wealthy neighborhoods in Colombia. Also, take care particularly with cell phones, which are the most commonly stolen items in Colombia and are often stolen by pickpockets with no force involved.
We have an detailed article about security in Medellín with safety tips for Medellín and an entire series of articles about security and safety in Colombia in different cities and neighborhoods.
11. Don’t Let Your Guard Down in Colombia (“No Dar Papaya”)
This is related to staying safe. There is a popular expression in Colombia called No Dar Papaya – which translates to Don’t Give Papaya. This phrase essentially means leaving yourself exposed to be taken advantage of. This means letting the guard down, so to speak.
Don’t give people a reason to target or steal from you or take advantage of you. This expression is related not only safety but also things like dealing with contracts when renting. Also, this means don’t leave your drink unattended at a bar, as Scopolamine drugging is common.
This expression also means many other things, such as, not wearing expensive jewelry, having your phone out unnecessarily, using an ATM on the street or drinking too much and looking inebriated.
The Bottom Line: How to be an Expat in Colombia – 11 Tips to be a Successful Expat
The above tips are based on the most frequently asked questions on Medellin Guru and my experience living in Medellín for over eight years.
The rewards of moving abroad can be huge but there can be unexpected challenges to overcome.
Before you go to Colombia, do some research, understand the Colombian visa options, find a place to stay and have a game plan for when you arrive.
Make your plans, pare down your wardrobe, pack and get on that plane. International flights are planned to resume to Colombia in September.
Most of all, you should be excited about becoming an Expat in Colombia!
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