The ‘two-tier’ foreigners

Many foreigners teach English to get by in Colombia.

Fellow countrymen in strange lands have always tended to find one another, and the fact that you are reading The City Paper is proof that Bogotá is no different.  There is a thriving gringo community in this sprawling metropolis, yet our shared love of NFL Sundays does not mean we all belong to the same group. Expats in Colombia can be broadly separated into two loosely defined, yet important subsets: those who find stable employment, and those who don’t.

While the metric is relative (what constitutes a stable job is in the eye of the employee), the general results still stand. Many of us here travelled along something like the following path: come in on a Tourist Visa in order to see the country, decide to settle down in Bogotá, find a room in Chapinero through, find that teaching job and… stall!

Many of my compatriots get stuck in the English-teaching routine. The hours are no fun, students cancel constantly, and we find that we are woefully unprepared by the simple fact that we speak English to actually teach it. The doors we thought a job in Latin America would bring us, never open. This community is huge and constantly shifting. One night at Armando’s bar can introduce you to 40 such individuals, most of whom won’t last for more than a few months in the capital.

There is, however, another “gringo” world, more shut-off and more in- grained into Bogotá society. They are concentrated in the Rosales and Chicó neighbourhoods, frequent Masa and Little Indian Superstar, shun Bogotá on most weekends and only travel to Andrés D.C by private van. These are the embassy-types, some Fulbrighters, the start-up crowd or those with work visas employed by local Colombian businesses. For the majority of us who did not come down here with help from the U.S government (or have no idea how to code) the only option is to find a local Colombian business willing to hire you as a full-time employee.

Here is where the process gets tricky. First tip: it is extremely difficult – if not nearly impossible – to find a job in Bogotá if you do not reside in Bogotá. So you must stop surfing the couch and turn the webpage on After you have a Tourist Visa stamped in your passport, and have settled into a hostel, get yourself registered with the local tax office, DIAN, and get yourself that ever so critical tax document, the RUT (Registro Unico Tributario).

Now, that’s the easy part. Getting a full-time work contract is difficult, even if you are Colombian. Many Colombians themselves work through temporary contracts, colloquially referred to, as “Prestación de servicios.” While this contract came about as an attempt by the Colombian government to increase formal levels of employment, the end result was that many businesses do hire out specific jobs to workers under this contractually-binding agreement; and can offer full-time official work contracts as a type of bonus for a number of years of work (or as a sort of promotion). In order to get that sought-after work visa you need to first find an organized company that it is willing to offer you this service-based contract.

If such a business can be found, the next response often heard is that they do not want to go through the headaches of contracting a foreigner. For many companies in Colombia – including the one currently employing me – it could be their first time hiring a foreigner. The responsibility for figuring out this process will depend on you and not the Human Re- source department. In essence, your potential employer will expect you to call your embassy, compile the right paper- work and go to the Ministry of External Affair’s visa office on Avenida 19 with Calle 98.

Many Americans associate obtaining a foreign visa with the process in our own country, which may entail years of waiting, a 99 percent rejection rate, and topping it all off, massive bureaucratic headaches. Colombia puts the U.S process to shame. Here, the process is straightforward, low in cost and one can do it all from Bogotá.

The key always is finding a company willing to sponsor you and (if they are worried about the process) being insistent that it is in fact quite easy to get that work visa. As a tested rule, if you get early enough to the Minstry’s office on the Ave 19, you could be out in time to go to the Migracion’s office on Calle 100 and register for your cédula de extranjería that very same day.

The hardest battle about setting up a new life in Bogotá is that first job. But once you secure your work visa, your life here will change drastically. Becoming an official worker allows you to settle down, live in a decent place and start to make the connections needed to find that all-important second job. Why second job? Because the first job you take is likely going to be one that you did not envision or even want. And I can guarantee, that teaching private lessons for $25,000 pesos an hour, somewhere in Salitre, and at the crack of dawn, does take a toll.


  1. As a Colombian English and Spanish Teacher I can say that it is easy to find a job here in Bogota if you have the right connections, and by that I mean to be affiliated with the right people, not necessarily having “palanca” (not saying is doesn’t exist, I have actually given good used of it at some points of my life). In my experience, the teaching jobs for english speakers are just there, waiting to be taken, the difficult part is to be able to teach, I have seen many foreigners just come and go at work, they can speak but they can’t teach (or just don’t know they need to have a lot of patience with students). So if you have the skills, and you’re willing to accept the working conditions and the regular salary, the rest of really easy (talking about the paperwork and the visa issues).

    Oh, and one more thing, it is easier if you can speak in spanish, or at least if you have the vocabulary enough to explain grammar topics to people with cero english level.

  2. The bigger divide I have seen here is: those expats who were sent here to work by a reputable multi-national company, NGO, or foreign government, and those who came here with nothing much more than the desire to hang out and see what happens. If you are the latter, finding employment, visas, trustworthy people, stability, etc. takes some time, and it can all vanish without warning. It’s part of the adventure but also a source of dread.

    There are also tiers to the English-teaching jobs here. There is a huge difference between teaching at an institute, the British Council, a bilingual school, a university, or on your own for private lessons. Getting paid a salary, as opposed to by the hour, makes a big difference; making that transition is when you know you have moved up a tier!

  3. Nice Post Eric, you make some interesting points – though you’ve probably realised how simplistic your view is/was.
    I’m actually an example of some of what you said, having lived here the past 5 years scraping together working visas, whenever and wherever I could. I now find myself on the outside, and about to become an illegal alien (It’s no fun, according to Sting)…sounds like another Post coming on.
    Anyone know a good immigration Lawyer? @kiwiprofesor

  4. Yeah, I don’t recognize anything in this article about my life in Bogota, nor (what I know of) the lives of my friends. I’ve never had an NFL Sunday in my life – is that a fancy ice-cream? I think when you say that foreigners in Bogota can be divided into two sub-sets, what you meant to say was “my friends in Bogota…”

  5. A good article and an interesting topic. It does however appear to overly simplify reality to the extend its not really accurate – there are many many many people that fit into none of the above and everywhere in-between and that for me is the beauty of Bogota. With regard to English teaching, I agree with Anne and have noticed the demands are increasing as more foreigners arrive. Some universities even asking for masters degrees.

  6. It is not easy to get a job in English Language Teaching without holding the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, Cambridge). Once you have that, you can get good, well-paid jobs in teaching at private and public universities throughout the country and specifically in Bogota. I employ foreign teachers, the VISA has become a lot easier to get, however it is expensive. The Ministry of Education is very strict these days with ELT qualifications, not every Tom, Dick or Harry can just “teach” as they are native speakers – academic requirements usually need a first degree in whatever, followed by the CELTA. I would advise any foreigner wanting to come here to do the CELTA first or, at least, on arrival. You can take this intensive course at International House Bogota or at the British Council in Bogota.

    • Interesting post Anne. I have a CELTA and a PhD and would love to be working in a University but despite there being 109 in Bogota, I have no idea how to find a job in one!

      • Profe, it’s good to have strong qualifications, just as it’s great to have previous experience, but there’s something much more important…it’s called “Palanca” (not sure about the spelling). It’s about knowing someone in the right place. Palanca overrides all other concerns, and means that you find totally incompetent people in many important jobs, they got there because they new someone on the inside (first, family, then close friends, and on it goes).
        You need to find a way to get your foot in the door through Palanca…do you know anyone, who knows anyone, whose cousin knows anyone?….that’s the way it works, well up here on the coast anyway. I imagine it’s not too different for the ‘Cachacos’ (people from the interior).
        Good luck, you’ve got to be very, very persistent, like a mongrel dog.


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