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.