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Using Credit/Debit Cards

Banking in a foreign country can be a little bit harrowing from time to time. Here are a few pointers for banking, using credit and debit cards, and generally handling the financial aspects of a trip to Colombia.

1. Inform Your Credit/Debit Card Companies of Your Travel Plans

Your credit and debit card issuers are constantly watching your cards for irregular or unusual transactions. If they see you've been in the UK or the US for four years and all of the sudden you're taking out $300 at an ATM in Colombia, they may suspend your card. This will create a big hassle for you. You'll have to find phone service, call them up, and explain the situation, then wait for them to reactivate the account.

Much easier to make a five minute call outlining the length and nature of your trip. And they will really appreciate it.

2. Avoid Huge ATM Fees

ATM Fees are costly when you're overseas, with most accounts. I, for example, have Bank of America, and I pay a $5 fee per foreign withdrawal, plus an ATM fee of between $6.000 and $9.000 (or $3 to $5). These fees can really ad up, so it's a good idea to take out as much cash as you can at a time.

Unfortunately, many banks have very low withdrawal maximums. I've seen as low as $400.000 ($220). Most ATMs will offer a maximum of somewhere between $500.000 and $800.000 pesos. I personally like BBVA, and the maximum withdrawal is almost always $780.000. Other good banks include Bancolombia, Banco de Bogota, and Davivienda.

3. Be Careful Leaving the ATM

It doesn't happen often in Colombia, but there are thiefs who target people leaving ATMs, particularly ones utilized by foreigners. Don't withdraw money at night, and don't do it in any remote place where there aren't a lot of people. If possible, choose an ATM within a shopping mall where you have mall security around.

Fortunately, banks are normally extremely well-guarded in Colombia, so you shouldn't have any problems. If possible, take a taxi back to your hostal/hotel/apartment to put your cash in a safe place.

4. Only Carry What You Need

This is a point I've made very strongly in my article on safety and security, but please, for the love of God, only walk around with what you need in Colombia. You don't need to carry more than $60.000 or $80.000 pesos cash most of the time. And PLEASE leave your iPhones, passports, debit cards, and expensive jewelry back in your hostel/hotel/apartment.

It's extremely rare that I hear of people getting things stolen out of hostels or hotels, but it is (sadly) common to hear of people getting pick-pocketed or robbed in Colombia. Be smart, leave your prized possessions at home, and by all means, don't resist if you do get robbed.

5. Use a Credit Card Judiciously

Credit cards will give you a daily exchange rate for foreign transactions, and they are usually pretty fair and judicious about it. However, always check your credit card statements promptly to make sure that your transactions line up. If you paid $11.700 for a chicken wrap at Kokoriko, you should see a charge of about $6 on your credit card bill, assuming an exchange rate of around $1.900 to one dollar.

Also, you will always be asked for your ID when you use a credit card in Colombia. It's a good idea to always carry some form of ID such as an expired or old driver's license, College ID, work ID, etc. They don't care what it is; they just want to see something with a picture ID that proves that you are the legitimate card holder. I would NOT carry around your driver's license, unless you're driving a car that day. 

Using a credit card in Colombia takes a little bit longer than in the United States. You will be asked "cuantas cuotas", or "how many cuotas"? We don't use a system like that in the US, so I always just say 1 cuota please, and I've never had any problems. They also must enter the last four digits of your card into the machine. You must then sign and include your ID # and your cell phone number. Don't waste your time doing this; they almost never check, and it's a useless bother in my opinion.

Also remember that not all cards are accepted everywhere. In general, you are best of with a Visa. I would put Mastercard in second place. Typically only large or high-end establishments will accept American Express.

6. Watch Out for Credit Card Fees

Not all credit cards are created equal overseas. My Capital One card, for example, does not charge any foreign transaction fee, while my American Express card charges a 2.7% foreign transaction fee. I think this is very unfair, and I've called up American Express and told them my thoughts several times.

7. Big Purchases: Go With a Card

Remember that it's going to be more expensive (3-5% more) to pay for things with cash than to use a card, normally. Thus, it makes sense to use a credit card for big purchases like grocery bills, higher end hotels, nice restaurants, car rentals, plane tickets, etc.

However, remember that Colombia is still largely a cash economy. Small restaurants and businesses, taxis, buses (both intracity and intercity), mom and pop shops, street vendors, and most hostels will not take credit cards. Plan accordingly.

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