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Doing Business in Colombia

Market Overview

The Republic of Colombia is the fourth largest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, and has the third largest population with approximately 46 million inhabitants. It is the only country in South America with two seacoasts (Pacific and Caribbean), which provides tactical shipping advantages in today’s global market. Aided by major security improvements, steady economic growth, and moderate inflation, Colombia has become a free market economy with major commercial and investment ties to the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. With the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement on May 15, 2012, Colombia is the third largest market for U.S. exports in Latin America.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many U.S. exporters, Colombia still more suffers from the perceptions of the past than the realities of the present. The reality is that the past 10 years have brought extraordinary change to the country in terms of economic development due to improvements in the security situation. Strong political stability, a growing middle class (35.3% of the population), and improved security has created an economic boom in Colombia that, coupled with the government’s conservative fiscal policies, lessened the impact of the global economic crisis. Key economic indicators demonstrating the positive long-term effect of Colombia’s political and economic policies include: GDP growth of 5.5 percent in 2011 and 4 percent in 2012; foreign direct investment of USD 15.8 billion in 2012, a record for Colombia, which is an increase over the previous record of USD 14.8 billion in 2011, and inflation of 4 percent in 2012 and 4.3 percent in 2011. These are all signs of a strong and growing economy.

Due to Colombia’s close ties to the United States and Colombians’ appreciation for the quality and reliability of U.S products, consumers in Colombia often favor U.S. products and services over those of our foreign competitors. The United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner and Colombia is the 22nd largest market for U.S. exports in 2012. U.S. exports to Colombia in 2012 topped USD 16 billion, an increase of more than 14 percent over 2011.

Colombia is unique in that there are five bona fide commercial hubs in the country: Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cali, and Cartagena. As opposed to the majority of Latin American countries that have one or two major cities, Colombia offers U.S exporters access through multiple commercial hubs, each of which has its own American Chamber of Commerce. While these cities, and many other secondary cities, offer unique market opportunities, they are close enough via air routes that is common to have one partner (agent, distributer, or representative) to cover the whole country.

Regarding foreign direct investment by U.S. companies, coal mining and oil and gas exploration/production are the principal areas of U.S. investment, followed by the consumer goods, high-tech and tourism/franchising sectors. A sample of the major U.S. companies in Colombia include: 3M , Citibank, ChevronTexaco, Chicago Bridge and Iron , Drummond, ExxonMobil, Goodyear, General Electric, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, Kimberly Clark, Kraft, Microsoft, Marriott, Marriott International, Occidental Petroleum, Sonesta Collection Hotels and Unisys.

2013 will bring greater investment in infrastructure projects ranging from roads (USD 26 billion allocated over the next 4 years), airport modernizations, port construction, and railway projects. New FDI will begin to be reflected in major hotel (Hilton and Hyatt) and infrastructure (highway, mass transportation, ports and airport) projects.

The Colombian government has implemented bilateral or multilateral trade agreements with most countries in North and South America, including the United States and Canada. The European Union ratified a Free Trade Agreement with Colombian in December 2012, but must be passed by each member country before being implemented. Colombia has an ambitious trade agenda and has initiated FTA negotiations with South Korea, Panama, Japan, and Turkey.

Regarding the U.S.-Colombia FTA, on May 15, 2012, the agreement went into force, immediately eliminating import tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products to Colombia, with remaining tariffs phased out over one to ten years. Other provisions include strong protection for U.S. investors (legal stability), expanded access to service markets, greater intellectual property rights protection, market access for remanufactured goods, increased transparency and improved dispute settlement mechanisms (arbitration).

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Market Challenges

As with any market, there are numerous challenges to doing business in Colombia (some of which were eliminated with implementation of the Free Trade Agreement):

  • While working to improve the issue, Colombia has struggled with the requirements of the existing government procurement framework, which calls for open bidding in public tenders. As such there can be a lack of transparency, fairness, and truly competitive bidding conditions in many tenders.
  • Only firms licensed under Colombian law may provide legal services. Foreign law firms can operate in Colombia by forming a joint venture with a Colombian law firm and operating under the licenses of the Colombian lawyers in the firm.
  • Economic needs tests are required when foreign providers of professional services operate temporarily; and residency requirements restrict transborder trade of certain professional services, such as accounting, bookkeeping, auditing, architecture, engineering, urban planning, and medical and dental services.
  • A commercial presence is required to provide information processing services or to bid on Colombian government contracts.
  • Telecommunications barriers to entry include cross subsidies, the requirement for a commercial presence in Colombia, and an economic needs tests.
  • For firms with more than ten employees, no more than 10 percent of the general workforce and 20 percent of specialists may be foreign nationals.
  • International banking institutions are required to maintain a commercial presence in Colombia through subsidiary offices.
  • Insurance companies are restricted from offering policies to underwrite risk on government sponsored infrastructure projects due to Colombian regulations that do not recognize insurance policies as equivalent to bank guarantees.
  • Colombia has been on the Special 301 “Watch List” every year since 1991, reflecting on-going challenges in the enforcement of intellectual property rights.
  • Customs duties have been consolidated into four tariff levels: 0 to 5 percent on capital goods, industrial goods and raw materials not produced in Colombia, 10 percent on manufactured goods with some exemptions, and 15 to 20 percent on consumer and “sensitive” goods. Exceptions include automobiles, which are subject to a 35 percent duty (except Sports Utility Vehicles). A group of agricultural products is protected by a price band mechanism that offers variable duties as high as 100 percent, but will eventually decrease to zero over the next xx to 19 years.

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Market Opportunities

Despite these market challenges, Colombia provides significant opportunities for U.S. exporters:

  • Colombia's extensive planned infrastructure projects will require: project financing, public works subcontracting, logistics, construction equipment for public roads and airports; water treatment, water supply, electric power generation, oil and gas exploration and pollution control equipment, air navigational and port security aids, railway construction, transportation equipment, security and defense items and services, and mass transit systems.
  • Awarded to the OPAIN company in 2006, Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport still requires massive upgrades. The Medellin/Rio Negro airport upgrade is underway and the Northeast airports concession has been awarded. All concessionaires are seeking equipment to modernize their facilities.
  • The United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and EXIM Bank support U.S. companies as they craft solutions to development challenges and make inroads in key sectors such as oil and gas, petrochemicals, renewable energy, telecommunications, and ports. USTDA grants have resulted in big U.S. company wins at the country’s two newest refineries. EXIM’s preliminary commitment of USD 1 billion to Colombia’s major oil company Ecopetrol and USD 2.8 billion to the Reficar refinery project will provide a myriad of export opportunities for U.S. exporters of oil and gas equipment and services. USTDA grants for customs security and operational enhancements at the ports in Cartagena, Buenaventura, and Puerto Salgar should also increase prospects for U.S. exporters.
  • Significant U.S. export opportunities not already mentioned include: cotton, wheat, corn soy products, automotive parts and accessories, tourism, computer hardware and software services, IT equipment and services, plastics materials and resins, electrical power systems, safety and security equipment, food and beverage processing and packaging equipment and medical equipment.

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Market Entry Strategies

Market entry strategies are as follows:

  • Secure an agent, representative, or distributor in Colombia, which requires a contract that meets the provisions of the Colombian Commercial Code.
  • Focus on formality, personal relationships, and trust when negotiating agreements and contracts.
  • Communicate with the U.S. Commercial Service and the Economic sections of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá regarding specific concerns.
  • Offer excellent after-sales service arrangements and maintain the sales relationship. Warranties or guarantees on imports are critical for supporting after sales service in Colombia.
  • Provide high quality products and/or services, affordable financing and competitive pricing.
  • Support your local partner’s marketing efforts with advertising campaigns or by participating in trade shows. Do not be hands off; visit often.
  • Spanish-language sales collateral and service manuals are essential, and may be required in certain sectors, like medical products. U.S.-based staff with a strong knowledge of Spanish is certainly helpful.

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