It’s the most important document you own when living in Colombia, that plastic card you carry around in your wallet, which grants you access to buildings, opens bank accounts and identifies you to the state that you are either a temporary resident or a permanent one: the cédula.

If you have entered this country and used up your 90 day visitor’s visa, you may ask for an extension of another 90 days after leaving the country first or paying for a new tourist visa. For many visitors with their sights set on applying for a cédula in Colombia for at least two years, this means at least one trip across a border; many choose Panama and Ecuador over Venezuela.

Getting off to a good start and a new life in Colombia requires all potential applicants to head over to the Cancilleria’s (Foreign Ministry) office for Extranjería (Ave 19 No.98 -03) to request a Visa Temporal (Temporary Visa). Once you have handed over the necessary paperwork to an immigration representative and paid the appropriate processing fee, chances are you are almost here to stay, and ready for your first cédula – that essential ID issued by the country’s migration entity, Migración Colombia.

The glass Titanium building on the Calle 100 home to Migración Colombia’s Extranjería department is a second home to many who have chosen to live in Colombia. Getting your visa will involve several trips there, so budget cab money and bus fare. Recommendation: get an early start, as lines get longer as the day progresses.

Once on the Calle 100, you need to pick up the personal information papers at a “ventanilla” booth on the ground floor. Have cash ready to pay for your new cedula at the nearby Banco de Occidente. As of February, the Cédula de Extranjería costs $153.300 pesos. If you need to extend your visitor’s permit, the Prórroga de Permanencia costs $76.850 pesos. For those renewing a temporary or permanent cédula, you will need to get a migration certificate or Certificacion de Movimiento Migratorio ($46.200 pesos). This sealed envelope must be handed over to the Cancilleria (Ave.19 No.98-03). It is important to remind foreigners that any change to one’s address, civil status and employment must be registered always at Migración Colombia. Like other security-aware countries, Colombia’s immigration department is very up to date on who is doing what and where.

There can be delays in getting the cédula as unlike the Cancilleria, Migración Colombia requires 4 pictures taken against a blue background rather than a white one. Identify a photo lab near you before heading to the Calle 100. The process at Migración requires digital finger printing, the handing over of the bank’s consignment slip as well as the personal information form. Then you will be told to return on a specific date to pick up a contraseña: the “temporary” permit of your Temporary/Resident cédula. The contraseña is a white paper laminated card. This is where the tribulations start. Even though Migración’s officers will give you a specific date on which to pick up the card doesn’t guarantee that the contraseña has been processed. Be flexible with the dates. Give youself that extra week.

In order to boost the security of the new cédula against forgery, Migración Colombia will issue the new documents to all who are already in possession of a contraseña. This measure was announced last December by the Foreign Ministry and should take effect mid-March. According to the subdirector of Extranjería, Antonio Hernández Llamas, the new cédulas will have 20 security points such as bar codes, micro text and holographic images. “The cédula will have the highest standards of security meeting international standards,” claims Hernández.

Migracion Colombia is also emphatic that the contraseña is a legally binding document with all the same guarantees as your soon-to-be plastic. Yet many foreigners are struggling with banks and other entities in accepting this paper document. On the street, realities of the contraseña have generated anger among some foreigners. “Even though Migración wrote a letter to my bank explaining that the contraseña has the same effects as my expired cedula, it wasn’t accepted by the bank’s manager,” claims one disgruntled teacher who asked not be identified as to not interfere with his legal status. Colombia’s financial entities, Asociación Bancaria and the Superintendencia Financiera have reaffirmed the validity of the contraseña in official press statements.

Due to delays with the new and improved cédula, Migración Colombia posted an apology to all foreigners on their website. Next month there should be progress with the official entity regarding the status of the cards. The best advice right now is to be patient. It’s a valuable first lesson for a new life in this country.

  • Richard Emblin

    You may check here to see if your cédula is ready to be claimed at Migración Colombia.

    • Mike

      Thank you for the article and the link to the list. And I thought I was special! Do you know how often the list is updated? My number is not shown but they have a typo on the list and show a number that is only two digits away from mine twice on the list. One can hope right.

      FYI for those having issues. I was able to use my US passport, cedula extranjeria and proof of employment documents to open an account with Bancolombia. The whole process was a nightmare and their customer service was absolutely terrible but I finally got it done in June 2012. I have not been able to do much else financially with the cedula extranjeria even with copies of letters from Migracion Colombia showing that it should be a valid form of ID plus I have a permanent resident Visa.

  • barrumundi

    I was issued a plastic-laminated ”CONTRASENA” (underneath the word contrasena it also says ”Cedula de Extranjeria”) in Nov 2012. It has my mug shot and finger print and it expires in Nov 2017. I haven’t bothered to go back to pick up the real cedula because I hear from the various Colombia forums that they haven’t been issued yet. I still use my expired cedula for i.d. purposes and haven’t had any problems so far.

  • Frits

    Yeah, don’t get me start talking. I was robbed at gunpoint of my wallet (including my contraseña and expired cedula) in August 2012…still waiting. What a mess….

    I’m living in Cartagena and the Director of DAS (still can’t remember the new name of this organization) at my specific request did give me a letter stating that my cedula is in process. Almost all governmental bodies accept this letter, except for my bank. So, with my bank I’m using my goold old pasport again.

    Well, maybe next month i will go to the DAS again asking for a status update.

    • Nico

      If you do not mind me asking Frits, Where in Cartagena were you robbed at gunpoint? Cheers

      • Frits

        Avenida Bosque across from the Coca Cola at 3 pm in full daylight without any hesitation by the perp.
        Why? Are you living here as well?

  • Announced last December? Do you mean December 2011? I’ve been waiting 10 months for a proper cédula and I’ve been hearing excuses about the new system for that whole time. I’m still literally hiding money under my mattress because I can’t get a bank account. Some grocery stores won’t even sell me a bottle of wine and that’s even when I show them an American passport. I agree that it’s best to be polite to the migration officers, they’re not the ones to blame, but it’s gotten to the point where they just laugh when I stop in every six weeks to see if my real cédula is available. Every time they tell me that surely it will be ready by the end of next month. I’m resigned to the fact that I paid for a cédula that will be expired by the time I finally get it.

    • Richard Emblin

      Thank you Seth. If you feel this article and your situation with the banks highlights a real problem, use the social networks at our disposition. The Ministry must respond to our issues, soon. Thanks for reading us.

    • martaabadal

      Hi Seth,
      I am a foreigner also waiting for my new cédula, I hope I´ll get it soon 🙂
      I heard that in Citibank they open accounts to foreigners if you bring your passport with the visa and your contraseña. I´m not sure if it works, but it could be worth to ask directly on the bank.
      Good luck.

  • Stu

    I was also there today after duly waiting my allotted 10 days for my contraseña,
    Have been told to return in another 3 days as it “might” be ready then,
    Everyone in the queue was being told the same, the lady on the desk didn’t seem to know what the situation was
    I may give it another week before trying again,
    If we were told 3 or 4 weeks then fair enough but it’s a waste of everyone’s time and it would make their lives easier (something I will have together used to I suppose)
    Thanks very much for the heads up on the situation
    At least we’re going to get a new style Cedula and not have to exchange it later

  • You’re right, the Migración building does seem like my second home; I visit them more often than some of my friends! I hope to be among those who finally gets a cedula next month. Thanks for addressing this issue!

  • Lachlan

    Funny reading this article after being there today to get my 4th work visa! You can use photos with a white background for your cedula now (same as the visa) and I was able to pay in the actual migracion office (although not sure if this was because Banco Occidente’s system was down…). Bring a book to read and try to be as nice and friendly as possible to those attending. It could be the difference between you ‘needing’ extra documents or getting a few extra months on your visa!

    • Richard Emblin

      Being polite gets you that extra milage! The other day I saw a foreigner insult the Migracion officer because his contrasena wasn’t ready. Not a good way to start off in Colombia..