When the idea was introduced in the United States for people in the USA to have them many newspaper articles and people on social media sites blasted the thought. But expats in Colombia must have a cédula. We are not being picked on. Everyone in the country is required to carry the document with them at all times. It is a regular, “don’t leave home without it,” type thing.
No, you do not need a cedula if you are visiting Colombia for three months or less. But if you plan on living in the country then it is a must have.
What is a Cédula:
A cédula is a national identity card. Almost all U.S citizens have and use their state’s drivers license as identification. In contrast almost 50% of Colombians live below the poverty level. Vehicles are often more expensive than in many other countries. Loan interest rates for cars are many times what Americans pay. The country, especially in the cities, has mass transportation systems. Then consider that close to 20% of the entire population of the country lives in just Bogotá. Therefore something other than a driver’s license must be used for identification.
What is a cédula used for?
On more than one occasion the police have stopped me on the street and asked to see my cedula. Even as a passenger in a car they have asked for my identification at a checkpoint. A couple times when riding a bus the military has taken the cedulas of all the passengers and checked them. This last one is often humorous as to return the document they read the person’s name and my name is different than what they are use to.
But to do almost any business in Colombia you need a cédula. Banks require that the card be presented in order to open an account. You cannot rent an apartment without showing your cédula. Basically every business contract requires one. Even after visiting another country, when you go through immigrations at the airport not only do you show your visa but also that national ID card.
Getting your cédula
Things have changed some since I first went through the process over ten years ago. For that reason be aware. An Internet search revealed much information that does not match my last experience.
Until recently the Departamento Administravivo de Sequridad or D.A.S. as it was called handled the cedula for expats. Their system seemed to make the process more difficult than it had to be. Only the person applying could enter the dark ominous feeling building in Bogotá. The workers generally did not speak English. You had to go to a bank beforehand to pay the money. Then the applicant was required to bring photos of the correct size. For my first cedula I also had to have a Colombian medical service certify my blood type. Initially expiration dates were one year to match the length of my visa. When I received my permanent resident visa they lengthened it to five years.
Things have changed some. D.A.S is no more. That is a story that can, and I believe has, taken a book to cover. Foreign cédulas are now handled by the Immigrations department.
Important: This is written in the beginning of July 2015. Even if you have a cedula issued by the D.A.S. you must go to the new department and obtain the new style card before July 24, 2015. There is no charge to change for the more secure documentation. After that date you may incur a fine, that as of this writing has not been determined.
Since my cédula was to expire in a couple months I renewed it instead of just making the change. With the new immigration crew handling the process the procedure has improved some. But some parts have also remained the same.
Let’s take a look at what I needed to do. First is the documents to bring. The passport is a must. However also necessary are copies of the main page and the Colombia visa page.
I went to the Bogotá office located at Calle 100 #11B-27. Though information showed immigration has 26 other locations in major cities around the country. The white building is the same one used by the D.A.S. However the new interior decoration gives it a more open feel. There are no markings on the outside to indicate its purpose. But you will see a blue uniformed guard at the door and most likely people sitting on a bench outside.
The rule of only the applicant entering the building continues. My wife had to remain outside. I was given a form to fill out which I did at a very small table crowded by others. In addition to answering normal expected questions they also wanted to know blood type, parents names and names of any children.
Outside my wife encountered another person from my home state. He had limited Spanish skills so she helped him out in getting information he needed and translating it to him. The guard at the door spoke only Spanish.
Next for me came standing in line to check the filled out form. My information checked out earning me the words said in a curt manner, “second floor,” from the lady.
There I found no signs just a row of cubicles. Seeing my bewilderment an employee coming up the stairs pointed me to waiting area with about 25 other people.
Eventually I heard my name called. But because of the way the cubicles and waiting chairs are placed the sound of the voice seemed to come from possibly three different locations. And I could not see anyone looking up. With the help of another applicant I located the one who called. The employee took my paper and indicated I should return to my seat. Soon another lady called my name. It took awhile for them and me to figure out that two employees thought they were to process my papers. I saw the same thing happen to another person as well.
Within ten minutes the first lady called my name again. This time she smiled. Amazing to me the employees do not do it more often. The smile, in my opinion, make the experience better and demonstrates the friendliness that Colombians are known for. I am also reminded of my experience at Singapore immigration. The computer monitors had a mirror attached. When I asked the attendant why that was there she said, “They are to remind us to smile.”
The immigration employee showed me that she had entered the information from the page to a computer program. I double-checked her entries for accuracy. She pointed out the expiration date would be five years away.
Now came one of the major improvements in the system. You can pay via credit card right there. However they still do not accept cash at the immigration office. Anyone wishing to pay in that manner still must go to the proper bank first.
With everything looking good I thanked her for her help and she sent me to another room next to them. Three employees sat at computers with cameras and fingerprint machines attached. My fingerprints were contributed to the system then a photo taken. The man even asked me to approve the photo.
Back at the first floor exiting the building I asked the young man at the door when I could pick up my finished cedula. In English he told me four business days.
Of course when I did pick up my new identification days later my wife looked at it and said, “Why didn’t you smile?”
There is more information available about the expat cedula on the department’s website.
Getting the cédula is somewhat of a pain and can be confusing. Colombia is working to make the process easier. And I am sure they will continue to improve it. If I was to make any suggestion it would be to also put their webpage in English and have more fluent English speaking guards at the door and initial people to provide information.