When you fly out of a country, you generally have to pay an "exit tax" for the privilege. (If you never knew this, it's because the US, the UK, and a number of other countries have arranged with the airlines to include it in with the cost of your ticket.)
The first time you come across it, it can feel a little confusing. You check in, get your boarding pass, and check your bags (if any). But then before you can get to your gate, you usually have to find this other little desk hidden off in a corner somewhere. You pay your exit tax there (you did remember to hang onto enough local currency to pay that tax, didn't you?) and get a little slip of paper or something. Slip of paper in hand, you are finally allowed through to your gate. Once you've done it a few times, it becomes second-nature.
But why on earth would you do it if you don't have to?
In the case of Colombia, it's probably because you don't know any better. Or even if you do know you don't have to pay it, you might not have any idea how to go about wrangling that mythic tax-free departure.
And all of it was either tantalizingly ambiguous or frustratingly contradictory.
We were told that the tax was $33 per person, or maybe $66 per person, or maybe that there was no tax if you had a receipt, but only if you stayed less than 60 days, not to mention the $5 tourist tax, which may have just doubled, but the other tax might be included in your ticket, or might not, and whatever happens save that receipt, and make sure you get your tax exemption before you leave the airport when you first arrive in Colombia, and did I mention that if you lose that receipt you're in the big big trouble?
It was all so confusing we vowed to figure it out when we got there, and then try to write it all up as clearly as possible, to try to save someone else the headache we gave ourselves.
And so here we are. Let's get to it.
(It should be noted that all things change over time, and in Colombia they can change rather quickly at that. This post comes with a big heaping helping of YMMV.)
After reading all those forums, we were quite paranoid about losing that all-important receipt. Imagine our concern, then, upon exiting immigration in Bogota and realizing we didn't have a receipt. All we had was the remaining page from the forms we filled out upon arrival (pictured to the right).
This clearly wasn't it – it was just a listing of rules and regulations, not signed or stamped or anything. It didn't have our names or passport numbers on it, or anything specific to us. It was just a generic little legal disclaimer.
But we hung onto it, just in case. We wanted to avoid the big big trouble.
We wandered about, and asked everyone we could for assistance, from the border guard who stamped us into the country to the exceptionally helpful (and friendly) gentleman behind the airport's "Information" desk. We got our intel.
There was nothing we needed to worry about before leaving the airport. And yes, as long as you'd been in the country less than 60 days, you didn't need to pay the exit tax. Everything would happen when we returned to catch our plane home. It all sounded pretty straightforward, actually.
Ok, this really isn't on-topic, but make damn sure to give yourself enough time at the airport. We got there at 6:30am, giving ourselves a full two and a half hours, and we barely made it.
The security at the Bogota airport is impressive. We went through five (count 'em – five) security checkpoints before getting on our plane, including several bag searches and one very thorough pat-down. I've never felt so safe sitting on a plane. No one was sneaking anything on board.
But all that security takes time. The lines were crazy, even at 6:30am. Give yourself three hours just to be safe. Really.
Once you arrive at the airport to depart from Colombia, the very first thing you need to do is find Window 19 (Tax Exemptions). All you need to have at this window is your passport. If there's two of you, one can go to the window with both passports while the other gets into the mammoth line to check in. (Really – that's what we did. It wasn't a problem.)
Window 19 is located next to Gate 4 (that's "gate" as in a door leading out of the airport, not one leading to a plane), as shown in this picture:
Here's a closer look at it:
Once you get to the window, they'll stamp your passports and then stamp a little piece of paper (called the exento impuesto timbre nacional) which they'll give to you. It looks like this:
Aha! Here it is! This is the receipt that can land you in the big big trouble if you lose it. (Or at least, you'll need to pay the tax if that happens.)
You're doing well. Go get into line to check in (or if you have a partner-in-crime saving you a place, go join them).
Before we get to checking in, I should note that we flew with Continental, and we bought our tickets through Expedia. That might make a difference for what happens next for you.
There are in fact three different exit taxes we're talking about here:
- The Tasas Aeroportuarias Internacionales – $33 USD. This is a tax that everyone pays. In most cases, it'll be included in the fare you paid for your ticket. My understanding is that it's especially likely to be included if you booked through Expedia (it was for us).
- The impuesto de timbre nacional – $23 USD. That's the thing you just got out of paying. (That's why your receipt says exento impuesto timbre nacional.)
- The "tourist" tax – either $5 or $10, depending on who you ask. We either didn't pay this one at all, or it was included in our ticket price.
So again, the next part is specific to how it worked for us flying with Continental.
Now you have two obstacles to overcome before you can get to the check-in counters. Let's call them the Gatekeeper and Inquisition.
The Gatekeeper was actually a pretty helpful dude. (And, like basically everyone we met in Colombia, he was really nice, too.)
He'll ask you your name, and then he'll take your precious little exento impuesto timbre nacional receipt, but only for a minute. He'll staple a new piece of paper to you and then give it back. Now it looks like this:
The highlighting there was done by the Gatekeeper, not by me. Note the highlighted item reading XT33.00. That probably refers to the $33 USD Tasas Aeroportuarias Internacionales that I paid along with my ticket.
(It could also refer to the $23 impuesto de timbre nacional plus the $10 "tourist" tax, meaning there's still a total of $33 USD to pay on top of the tax I paid with my ticket. If that's the case, then that means my little exemption receipt saved me from paying the tourist tax too. I wish I could say for sure which it is – if you know the answer, please comment to this post and let us know!)
After the Gatekeeper you move on to Inquisition. In the US, they just ask you the Big Three Questions – who packed your bags, did you ever leave them unattended, and did you accept any gifts. In Colombia, they dig deeper. What do you do for a living? What was your purpose in Colombia? Where did you go? Who purchased your ticket? How did you pay for it?
You can't go through as a couple – each of you must talk individually to your own inquisitor. But it really only takes a minute or so, so don't worry.
(If you're checking any luggage, they'll probably go through it very thoroughly at this point.)
Your inquisitor will then look over your receipt and the printout stapled to it, and staple on what looks kind of like a handwritten boarding pass. It looks like this:
You next stop is the check-in counter. They'll take your little packet of stapled-together goodies, and give you back your boarding pass. Stapled to the back of it will be that same little handwritten one:
We double-check with them that we didn't need our exento impuesto timbre nacional anymore, and they said we didn't. They were right.
From here you just need to get into the long line heading towards the security checks. And remember, there are a bunch of them.
First there's the usual "metal detectors and X-ray machines" variety. Note that there may be two lines here, one of which is only for the elderly and those traveling with children. If your line seems surprisingly short, make sure the sign next to it doesn't say anything about "niños" or you might be made to move to the end of the other (longer) line.
After you get through this security check, you're ready to move on to the next one. There will again be two long lines, but this time they're lines for men only and for women only. There's nothing to indicate this until all the way at the front of the line, so again, keep an eye on who you're in line with. If you're starting to notice a certain uniformity of gender in your line, make sure yours fits in.
At the front of these lines is the bag check. They'll probably go through pretty much every pocket in your backpack, so be ready to do a touch of repacking afterwards! From here you move on to the very thorough frisking (hence the "men only" and "women only" lines).
Next you're home free! Well, almost. There'll probably be one last X-ray and metal detector to go through once you get to your gate. Note that you can't take any liquids on the plane, even if you just bought that bottle of water from the kiosk next to the gate.
Have a safe flight!