A Guide to ATM's and Using Cash in Medellín - Medellin Advisors

A Guide to ATM’s and Using Cash in Medellín

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Medellín… You’d be hard stretched to find elsewhere that competes in terms of value-for-money. Did you know that on average, Medellín is 63% cheaper than London. Needless to say, if you’re earning in a strong currency, you can really make your money stretch.

Don’t believe me? Check out this article on the extremely low cost of living in Medellin.

But that doesn’t mean you should skip out on your due diligence. In fact, costs can quickly mount for those that aren’t savvy to the right information. In this article, we will introduce you to the Colombian currency that you’ll be using in the Aburra Valley. We’ll discuss the vital role of cash in Medellín’s society, and what that means for you!

It’s important to have cash in hand. This will of course entail the use of ATMs, which are very good at duping unsuspecting foreigners. Read on in order to ensure the maximum utility of your foreign currency when in Medellín. There are scams to be aware of.

Additionally, we will provide you our personal recommendations with regards to travel cards.

Money medellin
Medellín is still far from being a cashless society. You'll need it handy.

Takeaway Points About Colombia's Currency

Here’s what you need to know about Colombia’s national currency:

  • In Colombia, the currency is known as the Colombian Peso.
  • The Colombian Peso is abbreviated as COP.
  • Due to a stagnation of economic growth, rising inflation and political uncertainty, the COP has been subject to devaluation, making it attractive for those with USD/EUR/AUD/GBP/CAD.
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An image of different COP note denominations. Does not include 100,000 which is green
  • As of September 2022:
    • $1 USD = 4393 COP
    • £1 GBP = 5,167 COP
    • 1 EUR = 4,416 COP
  • Exchange rates are fairly volatile. It is worth checking historical rates to better gauge their movements over time.
  • COP notes come in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 & 100,000.
  • COP coins come in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500 & 1,000.
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Each COP coin denomination. From right to left: 50, 100, 200, 500 & 1,000

Medellín (Colombia) is a CASH Society

In a world where cash is declining in favour of card, Colombia stands defiant. In Medellín, much like the rest of the nation, cash remains king.

In fact, Colombia is one of the most cash-intensive nations on the planet, behind just Egypt & Nigeria.

Perversely, the use of cash actually increased during the COVID pandemic – which is at total odds with the response of other nations.

Why does Medellín depend so heavily on cash?

  • Card payments incur high commission rates
  • The role of the black/illegal economy.
  • In Colombia, it is estimated that nearly 50% of employment is informal.
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Source: cemla.org

Regardless of Medellín’s dependency on cash, cards aren’t useless. Conversely, they are accepted in many places where you’d expect them to be.

This includes franchised stores, exotic restaurants, within shopping malls, etc.

Medellín is brimming with ‘mom & pop’ shops; they are the soul of Medellín’s trade. It’s in these places, which are ubiquitous, that cash is often your only bet.

In the higher estratos of Medellín, where tourists tend to reside, the acceptance of cards is at its peak. Even in these areas though, cash is very important.

Make Sure to Carry Cash (But Not Too Much)

In a city that prioritises cash, it is important to be equipped with it when out. 

Having said that, you don’t want to carry excessive amounts, for safety reasons.

Whilst that amount will vary person-to-person, I personally recommend that you carry between COP 100,000-300,000 COP. This is approximately $20-75 USD and is enough to cover you for food or transport in nearly any situation where cards aren’t accepted. 

What are The Implications of a Cash-Intensive Society for Foreigners?

Unfortunately, it means that as foreigners, we are compelled to interact with Medellín’s unscrupulous ATMs.

How are ATMs unscrupulous? We’ll cover that below but in a nutshell:

ATMs are the only ‘thieves’ that we’re pretty much guaranteed to run into during our time in Medellín. Over the years, I have observed banks grow brazen in their endeavour to exploit foreigners.

Unfortunately, ATMs tend to charge high, arbitrary fees before parting ways with their money. 

The worse part is that they wouldn’t be such an obstinate issue if Colombia wasn’t so cash-centric. However, for the reasons mentioned above, they are something that we all have to deal with; an unavoidable interaction.

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Whilst cards are widely used, you're likely to find yourself using more cash than anticipated.

Medellin's Many ATMs (cajeros)

ATMs, known in Spanish as cajeros, are ubiquitous in Medellín. You can find them throughout the streets and malls. Furthermore, they are very modern, with many located in concealed booths. Heck, some are even supplied with aircon. Hardly a justification for those inordinate fees!

Despite the air-conditioning, using an ATM in Medellín is a similar experience to what you might expect elsewhere.

Most ATMs will offer you a choice of languages upon entering your card. If not, you’ll typically be provided with English translations.

One quirk to be aware of is that in Colombia, ATMs cap the amount that you can withdraw for any given time. The withdrawal amount varies among each ATM provider.

Important advice that I would impart: always get a receipt & make sure to stow your money away from the public eye before leaving the booth.

SCAM ALERT! DO NOT ACCEPT THE CONVERSION RATE.

For many years now, ATMs in Medellín have followed the international trend of levying ‘conversion’ fees upon foreign bank cards.

Simply put – this is legal robbery.

Beware – you can avoid it completely, yet many are tricked into paying this unnecessary mark-up.

The conversion fee is presented slyly during the transaction process, with the ATM asking users to either ‘accept or decline’ the conversion. This conversion fee can incur anywhere between a 6-12% mark-up on your national currency.

Do not be fooled into thinking you have to accept. Simply decline the offer and your money will come regardless.

The reason that ATMs can get away with this is because of something called the dynamic currency exchange rate. Unlike the official interexchange rate, this rate is arbitrarily decided by the merchant or bank – meaning it can be whatever they want it to be.

By kindly declining the conversion (scam), you’re telling the ATM’s operator that you will use your own bank to complete the exchange rate.

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Avoid this unnecessary mark-up. In this case, the ATM operator wanted to charge 7.50%! At the time, $1 USD = $4,417 COP. Avoid

Beware That ATM Fees/Withdrawal Amounts Can Vary Depending on The Operator

As mentioned before, Colombian ATM operators place restrictions on how much money you can withdrawal at a given time or day. This will vary depending on the operator.

To complicate matters further, this will also be affected by the card/bank provider that you have. For this reason, online sources conflict on the amounts they say can personally withdraw. Have this in mind.

One thing is certain though: Davivienda provides the amongst the highest withdrawal amounts amongst all operators. We have personally been able to withdraw COP 2,000,000. But not all international debit cards will allow you to withdraw COP 2,000,000 at Davivienda. It depends on the type of card you have. 

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Any incidents can be (slowly) rectified via a trip or phone call to the bank.

Headaches Can Happen - Charging You For Money That Was Never Dispensed

A bit of a nightmare scenario and hopefully one that you’ll never have to endure. It can and does happen – anywhere for that matter. But it’s certainly more of a headache happening abroad, especially in Colombia. One of the team here at Medellín Advisors has endured the heart-sinking moment of an empty ATM transaction – three times!

Three times with the same bank, Davivienda. This ATM operator, without a doubt, offers amongst the highest withdrawal amounts, making it a go-to choice for those looking to withdrawal significant amounts of money. You should therefore be aware of the risk that could unfold.

Due to the prevalence of this incident – we do not recommend Davivienda as a reliable choice.

If you opt for Davivienda, remain calm in the case of any incident. In each case that we had this withdrawal problem, the money was eventually credited after an emotionally charged call to the bank. The bank at issue here (Charles Schwab) investigated and returned the money each time in about a week. However other users have reported that it can take up to 3 months for this amount to be credited back to the account. 

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'Sorry you did not choose the offer to convert' - of course you are.

Best ATMs to Use (Based on Withdrawal Amount Permitted & Exchange Rate)

We’ll begin by informing you that withdrawal amounts can vary largely depending on the card used. For this reason, some users may be able to withdraw more or less than others. It is not highly standardized.

With that being said, based on our research, we have found the following to be a useful guideline:

Note 1: These fees are constantly changing and this is the most accurate information I could find, as of September 2022, by searching recent internet posts as well as trying these ATM’s myself. Users may experience fees that are different than this. Please contact us if you feel something needs to be adjusted and I’ll gladly do so. 

Note 2: It is very common for your own bank to charge an additional fee above what you see here – so even the ones without fees here – it’s only free money if your home bank charges nothing. 

Note 3 Due to ATM issues specific to Davivienda (failing to dispense money while debiting your account) – we do not recommend this ATM operator despite the higher withdrawal amounts permitted.

Note 4: Four different banks (Banco de Bogotá, Banco de Occidente, Banco Popular y Banco AV Villas) form part of the banking conglomerate Grupo AVAL and tend to have the same policies and fee structures. 

How to Make Payments With Foreign Debit and Credit Cards

Fortunately, the vast majority of franchises, hotels and major restaurants accept foreign cards without any issue. In the case of credit cards, you will likely be required to provide ID and sign a receipt.

When using a credit card, a very common Spanish question you’ll hear is, cuantas cuotas?

You’ll want to simply respond “una” as what they are asking you is in how many different monthly installment payments you’d like to pay the bill. Anything more than 1 = exorbitantly high interest rate during the span of the loan they are so kindly offering. 

Again, outside of these major establishments, when visiting one of the many Mom & Pop stores, you may find the use of cards to be limited. Likewise, street vendors will accept cash only.

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'Informal' vendors are the bread & butter of trade for much of Medellin. In these places cash is king.

Bringing Cash? This is How Much you Can Bring

Anybody entering or leaving Colombia can bring with them (in their wallet, luggage or pockets) up to $10,000 USD. This may be more or less depending on other currency equivalents.

You do not need to declare this amount of money. However:

Any amounts exceeding this must be declared and can potentially be confiscated otherwise.

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Travellers inbound or outbound can carry up to $10,000 USD or equivalent amounts in other currencies. Tax/declarable free

My Recommendations for International Spending (in Medellín): Revolut & Monzo

For anybody going to Medellín, I would recommend the use of an international currency card such as Revolut or Monzo.

Revolut is one of the best cards for international spending and is entirely app-based. Simply add funds to your account, either using GBP, EUR, or USD, and Revolut will take care of the rest when purchasing in Colombian Pesos. A Revolut card can save users significant money by offering interbank exchange rates (the same rates used by banks when exchanging currency). Furthermore, they avoid transactions fees associated incurred by most banks and credit card companies.

I’ve been using Revolut for 6 years now and enjoyed these benefits thoroughly.

However, Revolut have slowly introduced more restrictions, thus incentiving the use of ‘premium’ packages. For example, they now cap the amount of foreign spending you can do before they begin to charge you. This is currently £1,000. They also charge you for ATM withdrawals after your first £200. Withdrawals are charged at 2%. By upgrading your account this amount is either increased to £400 or £600.

Monzo is a similar concept which up until recently, allowed you to withdraw money without charges. They have since adopted Revolut’s strategy but charge 3% for all withdrawals over £200, as opposed to the 2% charged by Revolut.

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Revolut is a rapidly growing English banking company that works wonders for international spending. Recommended!

Conclusion

So there we have it. To succinctly summarize everything we’ve covered:

  • Colombian Pesos (COP) are the currency that you’ll be using in Medellín.
  • Medellín is a cash society – more so than most other cities.
  • This means that you’ll regularly be interacting with ATMs. These are ubiquitous.
  • ATMs are not only restrictive in the amount that you can withdrawal, but they are rife with hidden costs.
  • When using an ATM in Medellin – ALWAYS DECLINE THE CONVERSION. This is a scam.
  • Remember that you can only carry up to $10,000 USD. Anything more must be declared or potentially confiscated.
  • Consider the use of an international spending card such as Revolut or Monzo.

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