Applying for a teaching job in Colombia (post-pandemic)

Even though Colombia has reopened its borders, I don’t recommend looking for a job here this year. Many teachers have lost their positions or had their teaching hours reduced because of the health emergency. Classes take place online, which presents numerous challenges. This articles describes a situation before the pandemic. I decided to publish this post because I believe we will eventually return back to normal at some point during next year, so some readers may find the information useful in the future.

Latin American countries are considered to be traditional when it comes to applying for jobs. Don’t expect to be hired from abroad. If you contact potential employers while being outside Colombia, they won’t get back to you in most cases. There are some exceptions, though. One is having an excellent academic profile with relevant qualifications and experience. The other is applying for a programme that is based on bringing foreigners to Colombia. Most people simply travel to Colombia as tourists and start looking for a job after their arrival. This is perfectly legal and the good news is that you don’t need to leave the country to get your employee visa.

Please note that when you travel to Colombia as a tourist, some airlines may ask you for proof of onward travel. You can book a refundable ticket and cancel it after arriving, or there are some online services that can help you overcome this issue.

When you finally make it to the country, you should get a Colombian phone number because nobody is going to call your foreign number. What is important to know is that when you use a Colombian SIM card in a phone imported from abroad, the mobile phone provider will probably ask you to register the phone. You might even have to produce a receipt to demonstrate that the phone is yours. This anti-theft policy is quite annoying, but you have to go through the process, otherwise your phone will be blocked.

When it comes to applying for a job, you may use websites like CompuTrabajo. However, most of the offers there aren’t great and the whole process takes a lot of time. The fastest way of getting an interview is simply dropping off your CV in person. Just look for schools, institutes and universities in the city and leave your CV there. If you are lucky, you may even get an interview immediately. I also recommend getting a nice photo taken for your CV. It may seem unimportant, but in some cases your appearance can improve your chances of landing a job, especially if you look like an obvious foreigner. It shouldn’t really be that way, but that is how it works with some employers.

As I mentioned before, you should be flexible in terms of locations. Putting your eggs in one basket may not be the best strategy. It could be a good idea to contact potential employers in various cities so that you can compare their offers and choose the best option.

The problem is that most places don’t believe that having a ‘Work with Us’ section on their website could be beneficial. Sending your CV to e-mails like info@[schoolname] is completely futile and your message will most likely never be read. What you have to do is to get contact details of a relevant person. They are not called Director of Studies here, but their title is something like Academic Director, Academic Coordinator or Director of Language Department. You need to ask the potential employer to pass you the person’s details. If your Spanish isn’t good enough to make a call, try to contact the place through social media.

Once you have the person’s e-mail, you can send them your CV that way. Apparently, sending cover letters is not a thing in Colombia. Most people just submit their CV and wait for a call. That seems like a missed opportunity to me, and I believe that adding a personal message can’t hurt. Try to indicate why you would be interested in moving to that city. If you have some references, you should attach them as well. I highly recommend mentioning that you will need visa assistance to set correct expectations. Someone might go through the hiring process with you and then tell you that they can’t help you obtain an employee visa, making the whole thing a colossal waste of time.

Don’t be disheartened if most people never respond to your e-mail. Receiving a polite rejection message is not common and in many cases your application will simply be ignored. Applying in person or getting recommended by someone else is still preferred.

If you are a qualified teacher, you should receive some responses. You will probably be invited to teach a short demo lesson in addition to an interview. Many employers are worried that a foreign teacher may leave after a few months, so coming across as someone who is serious about the profession is a huge advantage. Being well-dressed definitely helps. Don’t be surprised if you get asked to undergo an intrusive psychological evaluation and a perfunctory medical exam (both completely in Spanish).

I would also recommend that you take your time and talk to more employers. Accepting the first offer that comes your way may not be the best decision you can make. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan. I will always remember the time I was offered a job at a private institute and everything looked fine. Well, instead of preparing all necessary documents for my visa application, the employer stopped communicating with me without any explanation. By the time they got back to me with the papers a month later, I had already found a better position.

Hiring in Colombia works in a slightly different way to other parts of the world, but if you are qualified, professional and persistent, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find a job once the pandemic is over. Good luck in your search!

The importance of teaching qualifications

As I mentioned in the article about an employee visa, I was never asked to prove that I held teaching qualifications in order to work legally in Colombia. All I needed was a valid passport and an employer willing to provide a few documents. Is such a lenient approach a good idea? You be the judge of that. Anyway, there are signs that this policy is coming to an end because some visa applicants are asked to produce degrees or other documents.

Let’s get something important out of the way right at the beginning. Backpacker teachers have a bad reputation in Colombia. This refers to unqualified people delivering low-quality lessons for a while and then moving somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with travelling and volunteering; however, asking for money from your students is frowned upon in that situation.

Even if you have no qualifications whatsoever, you may be able to find someone who would like to employ you. Please, don’t be that person. Put yourself in your students’ shoes: Colombian public education system is not renowned for effective English classes, so many people pay extra money to learn the language. It is really important for your students’ careers; many of them wish to study or work abroad. They deserve to be taught by someone who knows what they are doing. Some employers don’t care about their students and they will hire anyone whose only qualification is being able to speak English. That doesn’t mean it is okay to participate in that terrible practice. Try to be a good teacher. You owe it to your students.

Do you need a degree? In theory, you don’t need one to get a visa, but it is highly recommended to have at least a Bachelor’s. I understand that you can be a good teacher without a degree. I also don’t think that everybody with a Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages automatically knows how to teach. It has more to do with your status. You may teach English to someone who has already finished their Master’s and is now working on their PhD. If you teach children and teenagers, their parents may ask you for your qualifications. Having no degree could lead to some awkward conversations in those situations.

Again, I suggest that you look at it from another point of view. If you wanted to learn Spanish, would you pay for classes with a random Colombian whose only qualifications are being a native speaker and finishing a high school? I guess not. That is why having a degree is important. If it is related to education and includes teaching practice, you are ready to apply for a job.

Even if your degree is unrelated, there are options to get qualified as a teacher. Many people opt for online courses. You can find some ridiculously cheap ones on Groupon and apparently they are good enough to get a visa in many Asian countries. Since you don’t really need that in Colombia, I don’t see why you should take that kind of course. How can clicking through some online content prepare you for teaching real students in a classroom?

Some online courses are quite expensive and they will undoubtedly teach you something. However, I still don’t think that a course without assessed teaching practice represents a good investment. I would recommend buying Jeremy Harmer’s book The Practice of English Language Teaching instead. Another point to consider is that the best-paying employers won’t even call you for an interview if your only qualification is an online certificate.

If you are serious about teaching, you should take a course that includes teaching real students and getting feedback from a qualified tutor. The most recognised ones are CELTA and CertTESOL. Basically, they are four-week boot camps for teachers in which you give classes and receive constant feedback on your performance. Obviously, such a short course can’t transform you into an amazing teacher. What it can do, though, is equip you with practical techniques to survive your first job. When I observe other teachers, I can instantly tell if they have taken a CELTA course; and I mean that as a compliment.

There are CELTA courses in Colombia provided by International House and the British Council. Most of them take place in Bogotá, but there are usually one or two in Medellín every year. Both CELTA and CertTESOL are standardised and externally assessed, which means that it doesn’t matter where you take them. You can find a course close to your location here: CELTA, CertTESOL.

The good news is that Colombian employers recognise both certificates. Even if you have no teaching experience, having a CELTA or CertTESOL can help you avoid the pitfalls of being offered only terrible positions (and there are plenty of them in Colombia!). Your students will appreciate that as well because both courses produce teachers who try to make their lessons as learner-centred as possible.

A word of warning at the end. There are some in-class courses, some of them taking place in Latin America, which claim to be a CELTA equivalent. Those courses may actually be really useful, but the problem is that they aren’t externally assessed, so nobody really knows how good or bad they are. You may then end up having to explain what the course was about during a job interview and that is not a position you want to be in. The British Council and International House won’t accept that kind of certificate. It may seem unfair, but that is the way the ELT industry works. Taking those courses is a risky decision, especially considering the fact that some of them are even more expensive than CELTA.

Have you taken any of the courses mentioned in this post? You are welcome to tell us about your experience in the comments section.

How to obtain an employee visa

If you wish to work as a teacher in Colombia, you need to have a valid work visa. If someone wants to hire you without appropriate documents, walk away. An employer who is willing to break the rules and hire you illegally would probably make your life miserable in other ways. Seriously, it’s not worth it.

Disclaimer: This article is based on my own experience. The requirements and processes may change in the future. Make sure to check Cancillería’s website before starting the process. You can also contact the visa office directly and ask for more details.

Fortunately, Colombia has probably the easiest visa process in Latin America. If someone is telling you that you need to use a visa agency, they just want your money. You can enter the country as a tourist and talk to potential employers. When you find a job, you will have to apply for an employee visa (M – trabajador) using your and your employer’s documents. The electronic application, which is available both in Spanish and English, can be found here.

I recommend that you click through the application to see what is required. At first, you fill in the form with your personal data. Then you are asked to upload a photo. It doesn’t need to be professional; one taken at home with a cell phone is fine. After that you have to upload two pages from your passport: the data page and the one with an entry stamp. And that, my friends, is all that is needed from your side. A valid passport and a current photo. No apostilled diplomas, certificates, criminal records or any other stuff that is common in other countries.

That said, Cancillería has the right to ask you additional documents. Just because I managed to get my employee visa without uploading my degree doesn’t mean that you won’t be asked to produce it. I have heard from various sources that asking for additional documents is becoming more and more common, so I believe it is a good idea to get your degree and criminal record apostilled in your home country. Your employer may want to see them as well. It is also important to add that if you get asked for extra documents by the visa office, you will need to have them translated into Spanish by a certified translator based in Colombia.

Let’s continue and see what your employer has to do. At first, they have to fill in this form, which you have to sign. It contains personal data and information about the job. Then they have to write a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining why they decided to hire you. A good employer will have a template for that. Sometimes you may be asked for your contract, but that is not necessary in the first stage. And the last thing is bank statements from the previous six months to prove that the company is legit. You can check the list of requirements here.

Again, nothing difficult at all. If an employer is telling you that the visa process is very lengthy and complicated, they are talking nonsense. Some job ads even go as far as stating that only candidates with a valid visa will be considered; that means only foreign residents or those with a Colombian partner can apply. I really don’t understand that because as you can see, the requirements are simple. You just need your photo and passport, and three documents from the employer that could easily be issued in thirty minutes. If that represents a huge obstacle for a potential employer, they aren’t someone you want to work for and I recommend that you look for a job somewhere else.

When you get the documents, you have to upload them to the form and pay an application fee. Various payment options are available. Click here for current prices and information about payment methods. You will then receive a reply to your e-mail within five working days. In my experience the reply usually arrives much faster. If your application is approved, you’ll pay for the visa and pick it up in person in Bogotá (UPDATE: The visa office is currently closed because of the health emergency. You will receive a digital visa to your e-mail.). The whole process of obtaining a work visa is really straightforward. I have had only good experiences with Cancillería’s employees, who have always been polite and helpful.

In addition, I think you should complete the application by yourself. I made the mistake of allowing an employer to do so on my behalf, which resulted in a botched application and I had to spend an extra week in Bogotá. If your details are given to an incompetent HR employee or a work experience kid and they mess up the application, you are the one who pays the price. For example, I have seen my name misspelled in several different ways by people who had a copy of my passport. You don’t want someone like that to be in charge of applying for a crucial document. If your future employer insists on filling in the application, you should be in the same room to double check that it is done correctly. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Remember that you can start working only after your visa has been issued. Your employer’s name will be stated on the document and you can’t work for anyone else with that visa. It will be valid for the duration of your contract, but only up to the period of three years. When it expires, you will have to ask for a new visa again. That is also true for your ID (cédula de extranjería), which you need to apply for within 15 days of getting your visa.

Everybody wants to live in Medellín

Many people say that Medellín is the best city in Colombia. The usual arguments are that its weather is perfect all year round, the locals are friendly, and they have the only metro system in the country. I completely agree with that. I would also add opportunities for nice trips in Antioquia and a very strong entrepreneurial spirit in the whole region. The truth is that I genuinely love the place. There’s just one problem with all of that. There are loads of other people who feel the same way!

Medellín has been receiving praise in mainstream media and on blogs for years. As a consequence, the capital of Antioquia receives a steady stream of starry-eyed English teachers who want to live in the city of their dreams. I know that very well because I was one of them. This influx has been interrupted by the pandemic, but I am pretty sure that is just a temporary blip.

Medellín: a view from Pueblito Paisa

What usually isn’t said is that the high number of foreigners living in Medellín has an inevitable effect on the job market. Simply said, you are easily replaceable. As a consequence, many employers will offer you a crap deal that involves working split shifts from Monday to Saturday for a very low salary. If you don’t like it, they will find someone else. Another effect of Medellín’s positive reputation is its rising cost of living. If you are an inexperienced teacher, you may end up working long hours and make only enough money to pay for a room in a shared flat. To be honest, I’d prefer to aim a bit higher than that.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to get a good job in Medellín. If you have found one, hold on to it and enjoy the experience! I would just like to suggest an idea that may actually make your time in Colombia more pleasant: Consider looking for a job in another city.

Colombia is a big country and there are numerous options in terms of locations. The most obvious ones are the other two big cities: Bogotá and Cali. I have a love-hate relationship with Bogotá. On one hand, there are tons of things to do. On the other hand, it gets really cold at night and the traffic is terrible. If you get a job that involves teaching off-site, you’ll waste a lot of time travelling around the city, and that could quickly make you feel miserable. Cali sounds like an interesting place, but I’ve never been there, so I can’t really comment on that.

What I want to suggest is looking at smaller cities. For example, if you love Medellin’s climate, you should check out Pereira and Armenia. Both of them are located at the same altitude as Medellín, which guarantees spring-like weather all year round. Pereira and Armenia are developing cities in the coffee region with some really nice areas. There are shopping centres where you’ll find everything you need. Both cities are close to Salento, a major tourist destination.

If you prefer a warmer place, you could try to look for a job in Ibagué and Bucaramanga. You can wear shorts day and night in those cities because of their climate. That said, I can’t imagine living on the coast due to the heat. Places like Cartagena and Santa Marta are great for vacations, but I’d find it difficult to stay there permanently. If you don’t mind very hot weather, you could consider those as well.

Manizales: a view from Los Yarumos

Probably the most livable city in Colombia is Manizales. The capital of Caldas is really developed and you can have a great time there. Just prepare yourself for cold nights and two rainy seasons; and rain in Manizales means torrential downpour. If you for some reason prefer a place even colder than Bogotá, go to Tunja (the capital of Boyacá) where you need a proper jacket to stay warm.

The point I am trying to make is that Colombia is more than just one city, and it’s worth checking out other options. Do you research, starting with capital cities of each department. They may not be as glamorous as Medellín, but there are nice and safe areas in each of them. A huge advantage of living in Colombia is that wherever you are, you are always close to some spectacular places, so moving to another region represents a good opportunity to explore them.

Going off the beaten path can be beneficial in terms of your job prospects. As one of few foreign teachers living in the city, you can negotiate better working conditions. Couple that with a lower cost of living and your odds of enjoying the whole experience will inevitably improve. You can have a really good time instead of just surviving in a big city. Many websites paint Colombia as a paradise for English teachers. Well, they don’t tell you about the people who leave the country disappointed. Working crazy hours, commuting, and living in a place where you can’t relax eventually takes its toll on everyone.

Yes, moving to a smaller city means leaving your comfort zone. If your Spanish is limited, it will have to improve fast. There is no option of staying in your bubble composed of foreigners or English-speaking locals like you can do in El Poblado. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Working away from big cities will broaden your horizons and provide you with a more authentic Colombian experience.

I would like to happy to hear from other teachers who work in lesser-known locations. How did you get there? What do you like about the place? Let me know in the comments section.