Money in Colombia: Banks, ATMs, cards & currency exchange

28.02.17
6 minute read

If you’re going to Colombia, you may have questions about money. You should find the essentials covered in this financial guide. Learn the basics on spending, currency, and exchanging cash in Colombia.

Currency in Colombia

The peso is the currency of Colombia. Unlike several other South American countries, Colombia will not accept U.S. dollars as payment. Plan to use only pesos throughout your stay.

Characteristics of the Colombian Peso (COP)

Names & Symbols Peso, COP, COL$, $
COP coins Frequently used coins include the 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 peso coins. The 20 peso coin is in circulation, but is rarely used due to its tiny value. Coins lower than 20 pesos are no longer produced.
COP banknotes Bank notes are printed in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, and 100,000 pesos.

Tips to Exchanging Currency in Colombia

1. Get familiar with the mid-market exchange rate

Get to know the ‘interbank or mid-market exchange rate.’ It’s the midpoint between the buy rate and the sell rate in global currency markets and is the one, true exchange rate. Many exchange bureaus advertise low or fee-free transfers, but give you a poor exchange rate and hide their fees in that way. Knowing what your currency is worth by using an online currency converter will help you avoid getting ripped off this way.

2. Use an ATM for one of the best deals

The best place to exchange currency in Colombia is generally at an ATM. ATMs, as long as you are charged in the local currency, normally use the ‘true’ exchange rate.

Unusually, most banks in Colombia don’t actually exchange money, so other than an ATM, your options are to exchange money at the airport, your hotel, or an exchange bureau. You’ll find money exchangers in the streets of major cities, but don’t expect honest nor safe transactions in the street. Counterfeit bills are a problem, and unsuspecting tourists an easy target.

Note that the Pound Sterling is not widely accepted for exchange in Colombian banks or shops. Even if a merchant will exchange them, they won’t give you a good rate. British travellers are better off sticking to an ATM.

3. Avoid exchanging money in hotels & airports

You may face challenges if you choose not to use an ATM for exchange. Airport exchanges might only exchange the U.S. Dollar or the Euro, even if they offer fair rates. Hotels in Cartagena and Bogota will exchange foreign cash, but charge a large fee for the privilege. If you dp bring cash, make sure your bills aren’t damaged or torn, as they may not be accepted by merchants.

4. Plan ahead and exchange before you go on your trip

Colombian pesos are widely available overseas. If you want to plan ahead, you can exchange before your trip. Retailers like the post office or foreign exchange bureaus stock Colombian pesos. You might even receive better rates at home, since you won’t be paying a withdrawal fee or a foreign transaction fee.

5. Pay your hotel and other travel bills before you leave your home country

Consignaciones (bank transfers) are commonly used to pay for hotel reservations, tour packages, or national park entry. Making a direct deposit into a hotel bank account will diminish your need to carry cash. To make a deposit, you’ll need the recipient’s bank account and you’ll need to show ID. Make sure to keep your receipt.

One of the simplest ways to do that, if you plan a week or two prior, is to use TransferWise.

If you have a bank account in Colombia, or know someone who does (or have to pay your hotel bill via bank transfer), you can make a local bank transfer in your home currency, and then TransferWise will send the money to Colombia via the local bank system using the real mid-market exchange rate. As with many transfers, you’ll have to fill out a few forms in advance, but it’s often a more convenient way to get your cash, with no hidden fees.

Traveller’s checks in Colombia

Historically, traveller’s checks were a prevalent and safe way to carry currency abroad. Today, there are more efficient ways of getting cash. Traveller’s checks require a manual verification process, and they generally offer poor exchange rates these days.

In Colombia, a bank might only process traveller’s checks from U.S. dollars, but not other currencies. With so many unknowns and variables, it’s not worth the hassle of exchanging your money using this method.

Using credit and debit cards in Colombia

Credit cards are accepted in all major shops, hotels, and restaurants in Cartagena and Bogota. Foreign visitors should be prepared to provide ID to verify a credit card transaction. As with many South American countries, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are the most commonly accepted credit cards in Colombia.

Online credit card transactions are still not very common in Colombia. If you use your card in a restaurant, you’ll be asked if it’s credito (credit) or debito (debit). If you’re using a tarjeta de credito (credit card), you might be asked how many installments you want to pay in. Be sure to select ‘una, por favor’ (one, please) - although you can reportedly even have your dinner bill paid in up to 24 installments. If using a tarjeta de debito (debit card), you’ll be asked if its a checking or savings account.

To minimise inconvenience, tell your bank or card issuer that you’re going to be travelling abroad. This will stop them from freezing your card for potential fraud when you’re using it in Colombia.  

ATMs in Colombia

ATMs in Colombia are widely available and have an English option; however, be sure to use them in the day, and be aware of your surroundings. When possible, use an ATM inside a branch of a bank. Safety is always a concern for foreigners in Colombia, and tourists tend to be targets for petty theft. So use bank ATMs when you can and don’t carry large amounts of cash on you. Carry what you plan to spend, and keep the rest securely stored.

To find your best ATM options, you can use global ATM locators:

Withdrawal fees will vary, but they are expensive and common. As such, it makes sense to withdraw the maximum amount of cash per day. Touristy areas are more likely to let you withdraw a significant amount.

In the worst-case scenario, you will be charged an ATM fee, an international withdrawal fee, and a currency exchange fee at an ATM. Some ATMs might charge an exchange fee, and waive the withdrawal fee. But expect a lot of variation in your fees and charges.

Decline ATM offers to be charged in your home currency

Always select “withdraw in pesos” (the local currency) as opposed to withdrawing or being charged in your home currency. Otherwise, the ATM may mark up the exchange rate you’re getting. This is known as ‘Dynamic Currency Conversion’, and it usually means extra charges placed on you.

Banks in Colombia

There is one central bank in Colombia, the Banco de la Republica. It is run by the state, and functions as a promoter of financial inclusion policy, and an issuer of Colombian currency.

Colombia also maintains many commercial banks and foreign bank branches within its borders. Your home bank may partner with banks abroad to waive fees. Other banks may build in a charge, or take a cut of your withdrawal. Do the research before you leave, and then be on the lookout for partner banks during your trip.

Major Retail Banks in Colombia

International Banks operating in Colombia

But beyond worrying about money, make sure you enjoy your trip. And whenever you’re done, rather than exchanging those pesos back into your home currency and losing money again, treat yourself to something nice.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more