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.