Geography

Chile is divided into five natural regions: Norte Grande, Norte Chico, Zona Central, Zona Sur, Zona Austral (the extreme south). There are 16 administrative regions, each containing multiple administrative provinces that consist of communes. You will need to mention your administrative region and commune when giving your address for international deliveries.

It might not always be obvious but Chile is not a hot country: it's far from the equator, and the ocean water is rarely above 15ºC (60 ºF). You will often need an additional layer of clothing in the evenings and it can get close to zero in winter, even in the Mediterranean central regions. Nevertheless, it gets hot in summer, and the sun is too strong to stay outside without a wearing sunscreen. If you are coming from the Northern hemisphere, prepare to adjust your brain for the inverted seasons (summer in January), and warmer climates being located in the northern regions.

It's possible to travel through the entire country by bus — every city has a bus terminal and you can get tickets for long rides online. For long rides you can buy 1st class tickets with a full bed (cama premium). When you are traveling by car, keep some cash and coins nearby because most of the highways are private and have tolls. Buses, taxis, and shared taxis (colectivos) are also cash-only.

Language

In Chile, less than 10% speak English and this number depends almost entirely on the region. Learning Spanish is inevitable if you decide to stay. It would be useful to get some basic language skills through a short course like Memrise, and do some auditions like Hola Viajeros before arrival. Spanish grammar is consistent and the language shares many roots with English. The hardest part will be learning about the verb conjugations, but it's still easier than many other languages.

Chileans speak fast and like to use local slang, so even if you already speak Spanish, you will need some time to adapt. But they are willing to slow down and use more neutral language to help you understand. Keep in mind that everyday items are often called differently in each Spanish speaking country, so don't try to rely on a dictionary — just show people a picture on your phone when you need to find something.

Society

Chile has a unique mix of conservative and progressive attitudes — be careful until you acquire the intuition of what's acceptable and what's not. Same goes for politics — keep your distance from discussions about left or right ideologies and especially about the dictatorship times.

Don't get angry about being called a "gringo" — it's not an offense. Chileans are also not "politically correct" and they can tease you about appearance, weight, manners, or speech but in a friendly way.

The main source of expat complaints about Chilean culture is the relatively frequent dishonesty. It comes in multiple forms:

  • The large number of con artists who sometimes have high social status.
  • The tendency of some employees to rip off their employers or clients.
  • The unwillingness to respond with a definite "no" or "I don't know," which sometimes results in telling lies.

All of these situations are avoidable, but immigrants from richer and safer countries often let their guard down too soon because Chilean friendliness can be a bit overwhelming. You will need some time to start seeing if it's sincere or if you are being scammed.

Money

For price comparisons see Numbeo stats for Valdivia, Concepción, Viña del Mar, and Santiago.

Currency

  • The prices with "$" are in Chilean pesos (CLP), the rare price tags in US dollars look like "US$". The "dollar sign" originated from the Spanish Empire, so many Latin American countries still use it for their local currencies.
  • Sometimes on the Internet you can encounter prices in UF — a unit adjusted for inflation that is used for real estate and loans.
  • It's very rare to be allowed to pay in cash with a foreign currency — some hotels accept it but the exchange rate will be bad.

Payments

  • Most stores and cafés accept debit and credit cards, but it is still useful to carry around CL$30,000 in cash and coins, especially when paying for public transport or highway tolls.
  • You need at least the PIN number to pay with your card, some places will also ask you to sign the receipt and enter your ID (your passport number unless you have a Chilean ID).
  • "¿Boleta o factura?" — receipt or invoice, so it's "boleta" for everybody who is not running a company.
  • "¿Cómo quiere cancelar?" doesn't mean "cancel," it's asking for your method of payment, and you reply with "tarjeta" (card) or "efectivo" (cash).
  • "¿Crédito o débito?" — foreign cards are always "crédito" even if yours is a debit card.
  • "¿Incluye propina?" — do you want to leave a standard 10% tip.
  • "¿Con o sin cuotas?" — Chilean credit cards allow you to split the payment into multiple months, but for a foreign card it's always "sin cuotas".
  • People who are packing bags in supermarkets are working for tips. You can leave something between CL$200 and CL$1,000 depending on how much you purchased.

ATMs

  • Nowadays most ATMs charge foreign cards for cash withdrawal, the only fee-free ones left are Scotiabank and Banco Security.
  • One time withdrawal limit in all ATMs is CL$200,000 except for BancoEstado ATMs where it's CL$400,000 — this is the most efficient way to withdraw cash from foreign cards if the free ATMs are out of reach.
  • Always use the "foreign card" menu option. Most cards will work with the "credit card" submenu, but some US cards need the "checking account" submenu instead.
  • RedCompra is a Chilean debit card brand which is not relevant to you until you open a local bank account.

You can't open a bank account as a foreigner, and dealing with banks is one of the worst possible experiences you can have while in Chile. Read more in our banking guide.

Food

This section covers the very basics to not spoil the fun of trying Chilean cuisine. Every natural region has its own unique features because of the different climates and indigenous influences.

  • Chileans eat lunch from 1:00 to 3:00 pm, and dinner from 7:00 to 9:00 pm, so many restaurants are closed between 3:00 and 7:00 pm.
  • The lunch menu is called "menú del día" or "colación", it has 2–4 courses and costs between CL$4,000 and CL$7,000 — depending on the region and restaurant.
  • Fries, white bread, and avocado (palta) are the fundamentals of everyday Chilean cuisine. Palta is everywhere, even global fast food chains add it into their recipes.
  • Hamburgers and hotdogs (completos) can be humongous, and you will need a fork and a knife to deal with them.
  • Salads are also huge as they are often a meal on their own. Every place has its own idea of what a "Caesar salad" is (don't be surprised to find olives, mushrooms, corn, or peanuts in your Ceasar salad).
  • "Manjar" is dulce de leche and it is the main ingredient in many Chilean desserts.
  • "Asado" is barbeque and it's traditionally the center of many social gatherings — even at Christmas. But "leche asado" is a milk flan.
  • Check Food Finds Chile on Facebook for food-related questions.

The availability of vegetarian and vegan foods depends on the city, but you can often find vegetarian options in medium to high priced places.

Communications

If you want to buy a local SIM, you need to register your phone at a certification company or it will not work. We recommend Virgin Mobile because they have nice prepaid "anti-plans" and use Movistar infrastructure with LTE (4G) frequencies that are suitable for most phones (see the frequencies for iPhones).

The country code is "+56" and you need to enter "9" before the mobile number, for example: "+56 9 8765 4321". Mobile network coverage is ubiquitous. You can top up your balance in small stores, kiosks and even pharmacies — look for a "Recarga aquí" poster.

Fixed broadband plans go as high as 200 Mbps and the average speed across the country is over 30 Mbps. But usually this is the speed to the servers in Chile, and the actual speed to the servers in North America or Europe could be 2-3 times lower at peak hours. Getting or modifying a broadband contract without a RUT number could be close to impossible, so check if the Internet connection suits your needs before renting.

Some sites on the Chilean Internet are done very poorly — you will often find that the sites of big local companies won't load without the "www." part of the address. The absolute majority of online stores don't accept foreign cards, but you can often pay with a walk-in bank deposit. See our online shopping guide.

Renting and buying property

For a foreigner, it's easier to rent a place in the cities with many tourists and students, such as Valdivia, Puerto Varas, Concepción, and Viña del Mar, because they are used to foreigners and short-term rentals. Santiago is a special case — landlords there are too suspicious of people squatting on their property (eviction is difficult in Chile), so they often require various documents like a work contract with a Chilean company, and they also ask for an advance payment for multiple months.

Sites to look for rentals in the classifieds:

WhatsApp is the most popular messenger in Chile, so you can reach out to many landlords there if you're not ready for calls in Spanish. In small cities, it's useful to walk around the neighborhood you like and look for the "Arriendo" signs. If you have some basic language skills, asking locals could also help to find a good property.

Some things to consider before renting a place:

  • Thermal insulation: Winter temperatures in most parts of Chile can go down to the freezing point, but buildings are often poorly insulated. Many Chileans are comfortable with 17-19ºC (62–66ºF) at home.
  • Heating: Electricity costs are high, so electric heating combined with poor insulation can be very expensive. Kerosene heaters and wood stoves are still the main kind of heating for houses. Central heating in apartment buildings isn't cheap either.
  • Internet: It's troublesome to change Internet companies, and many landlords won't even change the plan — test if the connection suits your needs in advance.
  • Noise: Chileans have high noise tolerance, but living next to university students may be not a good choice for you. Also, check for dogs — Chile is a "dog country."
  • Security: If houses and apartments have bars on windows and look defensive overall — theft is probably a problem in this neighborhood.

The Chilean real estate market follows trends, so fashionable neighborhoods are often overpriced. It's better to live in the country for 2-3 years before buying property in order to understand these trends and find hidden gems in your commune. For the process itself, see the guide to buying real estate from Spencer Global (we are not affiliated with them but we do recommend them as their happy ex-clients).

Safety

In case of an emergency call 131 for ambulance, 132 for firefighters (Bomberos), and 133 for the police (Carabineros). Both the Carabineros (preventive police) and PDI (investigative police) are not corrupt and are well trained, so don't ever attempt to bribe them — it will end with an arrest.

Big cities like Santiago and Valparaíso have much higher crime rates than the rest of the country. Watch your belongings — sitting in an expensive restaurant doesn't mean you are safe from pickpocketing or snatching. The average level of safety significantly depends on the income level of the neighborhood (barrio), so it’s better to not roam the sketchy parts of any city. It's also not recommended to wear expensive jewelry or watches, to keep valuable things like electronics in backpacks, and to expose your wallet or phone in the streets. But if you are going to settle down in smaller cities, it will be much more relaxed and safe.

In case of a strong earthquake — drop, cover, and hold on (see the guide). Don't run out of a building and don't stay near windows or anything that can fall on you. Chilean construction codes are incredibly robust and the buildings can withstand even the highest magnitudes. The real danger is tsunamis. If you are on the coast — run as soon as you hear the alert towards the "Tsunami evacuation" directions.

You may also be shocked by the amount of street dogs, but they are rarely aggressive towards people. As a safety precaution, avoid large packs of dogs especially if walking alone. Usually dogs only fight with each other or try to catch cars. Though some of them are hostile to cyclists — take care when you are riding a bicycle.

See more tips in the article about safety in Chile.

Health

Being a relatively cold place, Chile doesn't have any of the diseases that you would encounter in tropical and subtropical climates. Tap water is generally drinkable but can be unpleasant because of the high mineralization in most regions.

Healthcare insurance is divided into FONASA provided by government and ISAPRE provided by private companies. The quality of public healthcare depends on the commune, and it usually has long waiting times. You also can't use FONASA before obtaining at least a temporary residency (except for emergency care). FONASA contributions are 7% of the monthly salary.

ISAPRE costs depend on age. For a couple under 30 years without kids it's about CL$120,000 monthly. Private insurance companies provide a list of doctors and hospitals where you have 80-90% coverage. If you prefer to go with an option that is not on their list, the coverage will be limited to some amount. They also provide discounts for pharmacies, optical stores, and dental works. ISAPRE is available to non-residents without a RUT number, but you will need to pay in person at their office because of the lack of a local bank account.

When you need a visit to a doctor, you can either pay for a voucher (bono) in advance or get reimbursement (reembolso) after a visit. For some procedures like exams you can only get a reimbursement. We recommend Banmedica as one of the best health insurance companies.

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