Or learning a bit about Chile while getting shocked: all the surprising differences that took me a while to adjust!
42 minutes read,
Posted on January 21, 2024
On August 2014 I made one of the most difficult choices of my life: I left my home country, my family, my friends and everything I knew to move to the United States. I arrived in Florida, and while Florida still speaks a lot of Spanish for a US State (not in a bad way, I’m not complaining! It made my life easier) it still took a bit of me to get used to this new culture.
I still had to adapt to a lot of things, and I’m not talking about the language. I’m talking about the culture: little or big things that were difficult to either un-learn or re-learn.
Some of these differences also apply to Canada, and perhaps, to an extent, to Mexico.
Additionally, part of these cultural differences is greater for the southernmost countries in South America: northernmost countries actually have “acquired” some of the US and North American culture, and as such, follow a closer set of rules and customs.
Number of zeroes in money, or the value of money
The first thing that came to a bit of a shock due to the situation I was in, was the difference in zeroes between currencies. You see, Chile uses the Chilean Peso, and the exchange rate is roughly 1 USD = 800 CLP. That means that for everyday purchases, things have a few more zeroes.
Going to the store and getting a 2.5 liter Coca-Cola would mean you would have to pay around CL$2,500 – oh, and by the way, we separate thousands with periods and decimals with commas. In the US, and based off what I can see at Walmart, a 2 liter Coca-Cola is around $2.50.
The effect of all of this is that you have to re-learn about what “expensive” or “cheap” means. And I don’t mean it just in the sense of doing the mental math to convert from US dollars to Chilean pesos and viceversa… No. There’s a difference too in pricing due to the “purchasing power”.
When I lived in the South part of Chile, I was renting a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house with a Garage that fit 3 cars, a front yard and a backyard, in a somewhat good part of the city (just a few minutes from my University, for example) for CL$250,000. That’s roughly $300 USD. When I arrived in the US, I was greeted with the harsh realization that a 1-bedroom 1-bathroom apartment in an okay area of Miami would cost me $2,350 USD. That’s almost 8 times more expensive than what I was used to!
Then it was the matter of groceries. Early thinking, I guess, without thinking much, made me fill a shopping cart with things and saying “well, it’s a small number, US$200!” then realizing that the Chilean equivalent would be around CL$160,000, or the equivalent to a 3-bedroom apartment in Downtown Temuco.
All of this to say is that quickly you’ll prefer to stop making the conversion to your home currency, and instead, start learning the flat value of a coin or bill and associating those things with whether things are “expensive” or “cheap”.
Lastly, Chilean “bills” are plastic, like Canadian bills! And of course, the numbers printed on them are different. Chilean bills are $1,000, $2,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000.
While I lived in Chile, the US to CLP conversion was around US$1 = CLP$600. We would often joke when buying US-made products like a PlayStation or a Macbook because, often, companies would price them on a ratio of US$1 = CLP$1,000 (which was not the appropriate conversion) giving it the colloquial name of “the dollar at a thousand”, as in, contrary to the appropriate calculation of 1:600, it became 1:1000.
A strange, but not so strange tipping culture
I should preface for any of the Chilean readers looking at this that yes, Chile also has a tipping culture. I would call it a culture that, in my own culture I guess, “makes sense”… Let me explain.
After a few months in Miami, I needed a haircut. In Chile, I would’ve searched for a “peluquero” (the professional that cuts your hair, the barber) and for around CL$1,000 (or US$1,10) I would get something like a “military haircut” although with a bit of more “love” I guess.
So I went to Google, searched for a “barber” after translating the word “peluquero” (which, first, it translated to “hairdresser” 😆) and decided to go there. I got a haircut, and the price shock was $20, which I paid after a short-but-expected surprise… The barber provided me with the check and, among the options there was an automatic tip of 18%.
Now, I’m not going to go into details whether it’s right or wrong. My expectation at least is that if I’m paying for a service, the service itself should contain the pricing that matches what the hair salon or the barbershop wants for those services rendered. I wasn’t expecting to see a “tip” option for a haircut, nor the 18% automatically applied to the check. In a restaurant, while there is a service being rendered, I am really paying for a product (the food) and the service is a “bonus” that I can choose to thank the person by tipping or not. Now this is, of course, not a bulletproof magic rule that applies everywhere, but during my childhood I never saw barbers adding a tip to the check.
After that haircut, I went into the rabbit hole of learning about tipping culture in the US, and I saw the amount change over time from 18% to 20% and as of more recently, I’ve seen a few places doing 22% as the minimum option.
Things have changed though: now Chile does take some of the experiences from North America. For example, since most points-of-sale or payment devices (those where you tap or enter your PIN) are manufactured first for a North American market, the software is built with the option of tipping almost on by default. When brought to Chile, the business owners probably saw an opportunity and either the machine wouldn’t allow to change those settings or, well, the business owners didn’t complain 😅
Social Security Numbers and Identity
Once I started to settle in my professional life – and mind you, the professional life was me: I was working for my own company, I had to register as an “alien” and get a Social Security Number (SSN) to be able to work in the US. I had to go to the Social Security Administration and get a number using my Chilean passport.
“Oh!” I thought, “this is like the Chilean RUT!” Boy I was wrong 😆
In Chile, all Chilean residents have a “Rol Único Nacional” (literal: Unique National Role, or an Unique ID) known as RUN, while companies have a “Rol Único Tributario” (literal: Unique Tributary Role, or Unique Tax Role) known as RUT. Most of the people though mix these two (I don’t blame them, they look the same, so there’s no way to know if it’s a RUN or a RUT) and call it simply RUT.
The RUT is a self-validating code, it consist of a number and a verification value. The number, initially, was tied to your age (for example, my mother’s RUT is around the 6,000,000 mark, while mine is in the 18,000,000 mark) but then changes happened and some companies started receiving RUTs around the 99 million number. For non-naturalized, Chilean born citizens, the RUT will, more often than not though, follow that rule (the bigger the number the younger you are).
What’s cool about it is that it’s one of the first algorithms you learn often in Computer Science class, since the verification value is calculated using a simple algorithm that can be implemented in any programming language. For example, to get the verification value of the fictitional RUT number 27.962.409, you would first reverse the number and remove the dots:
Then, you would multiply each number against the sequence starting at 2 and ending at 7, repeating the sequence if you run out of numbers:
The number you get, you get the modulo of 11 (I’ll use the longer version but if you know what you’re doing, feel free to go ahead):
# We divide the number by 11163 / 11= 14.81818181818182
# Then we multiply the integer part by 1114 * 11=154# Now we substract the result from the original number163 - 154=9
Finally, we substract the result of the previous calculation from 11:
11 - 9=2
This final result is now checked against a well established rule:
If the result is 11, the verification value is 0
If the result is 10, the verification value is K
Otherwise, the verification value is the result
In this case, the value is 2 so the full RUT is 27.962.409-2.
The thing you might not know, is that in Chile, we use this number… A lot. And no, I know the US uses the Social Security Number a lot too, and Canada follows along with their SIN number, both in use when having to check for identity…
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I’m talking about, and please don’t freak out when reading them:
In Chile, you use your RUT to “collect points” in loyalty programs: if you go to a supermarket, the cashier will ask: “can I get your RUT for the points?” and you will give it to them, right there, in front of other customers (and yes, there is no expectation of privacy in such an environment like a supermarket)…
We don’t use a loyalty card number or your own phone number which is common in North America as a “fair alternative”, with the added benefit that the spam is arguably less since you don’t have to willingly give your phone number (although unfortunately, loyalty companies will ask for it when signing up).
The State bank, “BancoEstado” has a service called “CuentaRUT” or “RUT Account”, which is a bank account that you open just with your RUT. The account number tied to the account is literally your RUT so if someone wants to send you money, they don’t need to double-check the account belongs to you, because the RUT already proves that.
(We’ll also talk about banking later, but this is just to give you an idea of how much we use the RUT)
Your voter registration card is, well, your RUT: you’re registered in a platform where the RUT ties to your voter’s registration. In Chile, when voting, people can be chosen to be paid volunteers to help with the voting process, and they are chosen randomly from the voter’s registration.
To verify whether you have this “civic duty” or not, it’s quite common that the entity that maintains the voter’s registration, called “Servel” (Servicio Electoral, or Electoral Service) will ask you to enter your RUT in a website to check whether you have to go or not.
It was so interesting to see this behavior, that a few years ago, the entire database of voters leaked, with RUTs, then people grabbed all the RUTs and requested the additional information to the Servel website and made a full database consisting of: RUT, full name, gender, age, city where you were residing (if you kept the voter’s registration up-to-date) and more.
Now technically, this information isn’t strictly private since anyone who knows your RUT can request this information via the website, without needing to log-in or anything, but the “data dump” just made it easier to get all the information in one place.
Among all the good and bad things, I think due to how Chilean society works, performing identity theft just with the RUTis far far more complicated than using the SSN in the US.
For example, if you want to open a bank account, you need to provide your RUT, but it’s likely the bank will request other information. In my life living in Chile, I never heard any story that someone was able to open accounts just with the RUT, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case.
After I received my SSN in the US, I was told “keep it safer than your life” because, well, technically it is your life tied to a number. If it were to be stolen, recovering from an identity theft situation is a long, long process… While in Chile, you can just Google someone’s RUT.
The irony here is that… I lost the paper that holds the Social Security Number and, for years, never knew where it was 😆 It was when I left the US that I finally found it in a folder full of old memories. Not once in years I needed the actual paper, knowing the number was always enough!
Wrapping it up, there’s also the fact that Chilean online services love to use the RUT as the default username for anything identity related. There are, of course, reasons why you might not want a username tied to a known number such as the RUT, but I guess we’ve learned to use stronger passwords instead.
In Chile, we have three important identity documents. One is mainstream: everyone has one, and it’s the “Cédula de Identidad” (Identity Card) or colloquially called “Carnet”. Then there’s the Passport and Birth Certificate.
Getting a copy of your birth certificate as long as you know your RUT is dead easy: get some signing going, and some fingerprinting… Same goes for the Passport. They still take time to process and all but, compared to the first time I had to get a North American passport, I had to “get a guarantoor” that proved that I am, well, me. In Chile, you need these kind of people just when you’re about to get married to let the judge confirm there’s love.
The reason around it is that the government bodies share a single database (and no, I’m not talking about RDBMS, I’m talking in the figure of speech way of talking about information). One branch of the government (voting, for example) can ask another branch of the government (housing) for your information.
There are still guardrails and other things around misuse of information but, in general, this makes it for a simpler process to prove that you are who you say you are.
There’s another factor at play: in the US and Canada, states or provinces have their own laws and regulations, and as such, they have their own databases. The federal government is yet another database. In Chile, on the other hand, while “regions” (our states or provinces) can create local laws, they are still bound to the centralized government database and as such, the information can be shared.
For some people, this is quite a big-brother situation out of an Orwellian novel, but again, I can’t recall a single situation where this information was misused. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen… It’s rare, though.
Wrapping up this topic, a personal situation I am not a fan of: our ID card isn’t our driver’s license. In fact, in Chile, I doubt places that need an ID will think first of a Driver’s License instead of just the “Carnet”.
The ID card has gone throgh a few modifications over time and, in fact, the last update is the one I’m not a fan of. You see, the Government thought it was a good idea to include your profession in the back of the ID Card. Those are often the ones “recorded” by the Department of Education. As such, those are almost always your University degrees. For a while when this change happened, people would joke by asking for your ID (which again, we’ve established above it’s perfectly safe to show to friends and family), turning it around and pointing out at your education. Even more, I heard once or twice that people would be denied of entering a bar because they didn’t have a University degree.
The back of our ID cards have a coding system similar to what you find in passports from other countries, which is often characters printed that call out your name, country, RUT, and more.
Lastly, we don’t handle identity documents via the Department of Motorized Vehicles like in the US or “Service Ontario” or “Service BC” like in Canada. We have a separate entity called “Registro Civil” (Civil Registry) which is the one that handles the centralized registration of all Chileans, no matter the region they live in.
And to finish the thought around identity, another thing that I found mindblowing was that there are people in the US that never had a Social Security Number. Granted, it’s often elderly people that haven’t gone through the hoops of getting one from the Social Security Administration either because they never needed it or just because they can do day-to-day things without it. This “thing” of not having an identity ID tied to you as a person is super interesting and potentially the reason why people get pulled over when their names happen to match the name of a known convict/felon… There is no way to prove in an easy way that you’re not, well, the convict! In Chile, I would just have to whip out my Carnet, have the cop or individual see the RUT and then, well, they can check the database and see that I’m not the person they’re looking for. Neat! 😂
Banking, both online or in-person
Banking was another one of those interesting things, and I’ll have a funny story to tell you related to the next topic. There are good things and bad things about banking in Chile.
To start, Chile has an organization called “Transbank”. Transbank is what all banks and financial institutions use to move and track money coming and going. This is partly nice because it allows for instant money transfers between banks since all banks have to do is report the transaction to Transbank and Transbank will take care of the rest.
The most similar thing to this is Canada’s “Interac”. It feels though like Interac is less “orthogonal” to banking operations in Canada and it’s just a service well placed whenever customers want to send money.
Transbank on the other end is rooted in all Chilean banking institutions. I feel (although I’m not a banking expert, not even close) that you cannot have a bank if you don’t have interconnectivity with Transbank.
When I landed in the US, it was such an ordeal sending money to a person in another bank! In Chile, I just needed the Account Number, the RUT, the type of account (we have checking and saving accounts, as well as “cuenta vista” or literally “sight account”, which is a special kind of account that allows for banking but can’t use debit or credit cards nor checks), and the amount of money I wanted to send, and right after pressing “Enter” the money would be credited to the other person’s account.
In the US, I was told so many different options, and more kept showing up while I lived there: CashApp, Apple Pay, Venmo, Zelle, PayPal, and more… I was so confused that such a basic operation was so tremendously complicated and required me to go open accounts in other services just to send money to a friend.
Now don’t take me the wrong way: Transbank is a monopoly, and there’s a lot of criticism around it. In Chile, online payments is a core monopoly of Transbank and it irks me… For example, in Chile, paying with a “credit card” will always yield the question: how many installments you would like to have for this payment? The bank will handle the total cost, the division of how much per month, as well as the interest rate… Transbank’s online division, WebPay, handles all of this on VISA or MasterCard cards in Chile… But try using a non-Chilean card to pay for a product or service and you’ll be greeted with the harsh reality that the “modifier” for number of installments doesn’t play well with non-Chilean cards!
The other parts are not only Transbank’s fault but all other bank’s faults too: online, remote banking is nearly impossible if you don’t reside in mainland Chile. Before leaving Chile, I went to my bank to get everything in check so I could do remote banking from the US. A year into my stay in the US, my “web account” got locked, and I received an e-mail to unlock it by providing a phone number, which I had to validate by calling a 600-number (a number that is only reachable from Chile, it’s dedicated to services and companies) which I successfully did but what the representative forgot to tell me is that I can add a foreign phone number, but the text message with the code will never arrive. Only +56 numbers (Chile country code) will receive it, while any other number would silently fail.
I registered a local Skype number from my home city, provided it to the bank and lo and behold, those Skype numbers can’t receive text messages from Banks either! Since then, I have been unable to access my bank account online (fortunately, I don’t need it) and whenever I go in person, I “unlock” the account for a few more months in.
On the positive end, the experience of a centralized service like Transbank makes everyday banking for people in Chile quite easy, nice, simple to use, and potentially safe, considering they hold all the records. On the other end, it’s a monopoly that I hope some day, the Chilean government won’t be afraid to break. One can dream.
Around all the craziest things, the coolest one is what I talked about already in the Social Security Number section: CuentaRUT. It’s a special kind of account that the government-owned bank will give you tied to your RUT (SSN) and you use for social programs, normal banking or buying groceries. BancoEstado sells it as “the account that every Chilean has” since every Chilean has a RUT, but technically you still have to request it 😆
Another cool trick Chileans have to make banking more accessible, basic banking can be done in your close-to-home Convenience Store: the government-owned bank, BancoEstado, has a partnership called “Caja Vecina” (understood as “Neighbor Teller Window”) where Convenience Stores can access very basic Transbank services like paying bills, depositing money or withdrawing money. Super useful to avoid going to the bank!
Service attitude and orientation
This topic was a bit more positively surprising and I have a pair of stories to go with it.
A few weeks after I landed in Florida, I went to Chase bank to open a bank account. I was told the bank closes at 5 pm, which was super surprising so, like a good Chilean (if you know what I mean), I arrived at 4:59 pm (let’s say Miami traffic wasn’t very nice and I was learning it the hard way). I did have an appointment with a person (let’s call her “Ana”) that fortunately spoke Spanish, but the appointment was for 4:50 pm and I was told it was the last appointment of the day, and I knew she was busy after with a commitment outside the bank. So I tried my luck hoping that miraculously she would still be there and potentially just send me to another agent.
Upon arrival, I am greeted at the door by another lady, she spoke Spanish too, and asked me in a very, very polite way, how could she help. I told her I was a recently landed individual and I was looking to open a bank account, and not trying to try my luck I said I had an appointment with Ana and that I knew I blew it for arriving late.
Upon hearing Ana’s name, this lady gestured to one of the guards, and probably said something along the lines of “go and see if Ana is still near the parking lot”. He moved quite fast, found Ana, which in a very, very amicable way decided to come back in to work with this sorry ass. “Fwew! We got her!” said the other lady who greeted me at the door. About half an hour later, and way past the bank closing time, I was walking out with a Chase bank account and a bunch of paperwork out of that branch.
Now the story in itself might not be much for the average American, but there are lots of things you might not know here from a Chilean perspective. To start, banks in Chile only work 9 am to 2 pm. If you’re arriving 10 or so minutes before closing, you can bet your ass the Guard at the entrance (and not a friendly lady) will scold you for a few minutes then tell you the bank is already closed and you’re better off coming back tomorrow morning. If you’re lucky enough to be allowed to come in, the line will be probably long enough that you won’t be leaving that bank before 3 pm, 1 hour past its closing time.
Moreover, if you’re a “nobody”, unless you’re dealing with the Government-owned bank, BancoEstado, the other banks will feel in no obligation to serve you, unless you have connections or you look well off. The later is so important, that lots of people from humble origins try to dress the best they can just so they can get a fair treatment at a bank!
Asking for a loan of any kind would mean that after proving that you are who you say you are (as I described in the previous sections) you will have to lay your life in front of the banking agent and you better bring your last Tax reports, other bank accounts you might have and statuses, whether you have other assets, and more. Basically, bring a profile that sells off that you’re a good person to lend money to.
Chile doesn’t have a credit score system like the US, but it does have a “DICOM” system (that we’ll explore later) which is a database of people who have defaulted on their loans. While this system does use an underlying score, it’s not as widely known by Chilean banking individuals as the US credit score system is known by Americans. But more about this later.
A few years ago, about 5 years in during my stay in the US, the bank I did banking for most of my educational and professional career in Chile, where I managed the good amount of money I made thanks to technology, called Banco Santander, sent me an e-mail saying I needed to stop by and pick up a check because they were closing my account. Now, I had not use actively this account for multiple reasons (text message or being blocked included) but it was in no way in “bad standing”. The process to get the check was such a nuisance and basically I was told to f__k off and that I was a nobody because I no longer had a presence in Chile.
I then decided to try and see if I could open a bank account at the now defunct BBVA (“Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria”, although the Chilean branch) in the same city… Walked in, only to be told that since the likelihood of me doing business with them if I were to open the account was so low, that even if that business was millions, they would simply prefer not to open the account.
With all that, I still keep my account in the Government-owned bank, but the experience of banking (and not just in banking, but other services too) in the US was a breath of fresh air. There, people could show up in pajamas and still have a somewhat pleasant banking experience. At the end of the day you never know if the next person that walks in in their pajamas is a millionaire or not.
To continue in the vein of banking… Another thing that’s super different is this concept of a Credit Score.
I would say though, not even the average American understands how the credit score works. While the general stance is that it shows how “trustworthy” you are, it’s not really that simple, and part of the number “value” is also related to how much profit the bank can make out of you if you were to be given a loan. This is often proven when people finish paying mortgages or car loans and their credit score goes down.
Chile doesn’t really have that. Well, it does, there is a credit score number but it’s not as actively used as US’ credit score. Perhaps banks internally use it as one of many factors to determine whether to give you a loan or not, compared to the US where it’s the first thing they look at.
Chile has something different. The infamous DICOM or “Directory of Commercial Information”. DICOM is a database of people who have defaulted on their loans. It’s not a credit score, but it’s a database that banks and other financial institutions use to determine whether you’re a good person to lend money to or not.
The behavior of DICOM is somewhat similar to the things that affect the US Credit Score: it separates and marks different kind of debts, like active debt, debts not paid within 30 to 60 days, debts not paid within 60 to 90 days, and “punished” debt, as in, those not paid in over 90 days. The difference is that DICOM doesn’t have a “score” but rather records all of these individual “statuses” almost like a Facebook profile with your “life events”.
Now, to show you that they’re somewhat similar, just look at who maintains DICOM in Chile: Equifax got DICOM after the acquisition of it in the 90s. Since then, TransUnion has also entered the Chilean market and they also have a DICOM-like database called “Titanium”.
DICOM, for some Chileans, is such a nightmare because there’s intention and interest (since it’s the core business) to quickly update records when people default on their loans, but the same intention or interest doesn’t happen when people do finish paying their dues. It’s not uncommon to see people who have finished paying their loans still have a DICOM status of “punished” because the records are yet to be updated.
To wrap it up, part of the issues with DICOM arise by the fact Chile doesn’t have a personal bankruptcy law, so when people fall behind or default, they face the prospect of being listed as a debtors or high-risk consumers in DICOM. DICOM is private and unregulated. A bad DICOM credit score usually means being blacklisted for jobs, mortgages or political office. You can read some of the nuisances from a 2011 article from the NYTimes.
The Cost of Internet or Mobile services
Here’s another one that was a shocker for me: quality of Internet and Mobile services or what I called early on as super predatory pricing: It was hard for me to believe how bad Internet and Mobile services pricing is in the US and even worse in Canada.
When I left Chile, I had pretty good internet speeds. Friends of mine used to run game servers off their houses and mostly, the worst issue wasn’t internet speed, it was peering: not all North American or European Internet providers can provide fast Internet speeds to Chile due to poor peering agreements. Since then though, things have changed.
For comparison, a 900 Mbps Internet connection in where I used to live in Chile today costs CL$29,990 (roughly US$40) with Telefónica del Sur Chile (Southern Telephony Chile), while a 1 Gbps Internet connection at one of my old addresses in Miami costs US$85 with Xfinity. Both are mainstream providers. In the US version, the connection might or might not be symmetric (so you might get optic fiber) while in Chile it’s guaranteed to have optic fiber.
The other surprise was that I arrived in the US and the dialing system still had the features around “long distance calls” even when those calls were almost seamlessly handled by the carrier. I say “almost” because on long distance calls you could hear a different tone while dialing compared to local calls, and in some cases a warning from the phone provider telling you it was a long distance call. Chile finished the process of getting rid of long distance calls in August 2014, but the preparation started very, very early on.
You see, in Chile, all “mobile” numbers don’t have a “location” associated to it. All mobile numbers start with +569 where the 9 provides you with a hint that it’s a mobile number. With that, there’s no concept of “long distance” on mobile calls, only landlines were still left with this concept until August 2014. In the US, I remember getting a +1-786 number, where the 786 would hint that it’s a Miami number, and if I were to call a +1-818 number, like several of my friends in California, it would be a long distance call.
That was another thing I had to learn: in quite a few places, they wouldn’t give you the full phone number. Say for example you are in Miami, and you see a number with 612-6683 printed somewhere, you have to assume the first 3 digits would be 786 or 305 (for the area where I was). Good luck being a foreigner! In all fairness, this has changed now where some places become too popular and need additional area code numbers.
Canada has similar situations where you can still see around taxi cabs with partial, incomplete numbers, which still make it difficult for non-locals to figure out what the full number is unless you’ve had or known someone with a phone number from that area. I mean, take a look at the picture above and tell me what number should I dial when I try and call a Beck Taxi in Toronto? (Answer: It’s 416-751-5555, with the 416 being the magic, missing number).
Now let’s compare mobile plans: a Chilean plan with a well-known provider with a 5G network, unlimited calls, SMS and data is today around CL$22,990. That’s a bit over US$30. In the US, quoting a similar plan with T-Mobile called Go5G Next is US$100. The same plan in Canada, surprisingly, with Bell Mobility, cannot be placed because Bell limits how much data you get at 5G speeds, but assuming you’re a heavy user, the biggest 5G plan is 150 GB worth of data at 5G speeds, and the cost is CAD$100. To be fair to Bell, they do bundle in Roaming in the US and Mexico with it, but one can argue that T-Mobile has a pretty sweet roaming support with over 200 countries and bundles Apple TV and Netflix for free.
All of that to say though, is that for people that can afford traveling to other countries, the plans are pretty good in the US and Canada. But for the person that’s a mobile user and wants good coverage and not breaking the bank, Chile is tremendously better and for people of humble origins, US and Canadian pricing is just too expensive.
To top it off, I remember in Florida I decided to rent in a particular place, and came to learn that the building had an “exclusivity agreement” with AT&T: you cannot buy Internet services from any other provider unless it was AT&T. The cheapest plan I could get was US$85 and only for 120 Mbps! This practice is, in fact, quite common across the US to the point that Internet companies have internal deals among them to prevent fighting for customers with each other, and as such, you have providers that won’t go into another market because there’s already a player there (see Cox, Charter, CenturyLink, Xfinity and others, for example). I think it’s something people want to see abolished, so I hope this changes soon. I found this document from the FCC, but it’s dated 2008, and I lived in the US in 2014 and this was still a thing.
I’ve talked to some more knowledgeable people than me during my stay in the US and Canada, and more often than not I hear that the excuse is, among many other things, that the terrain that needs to be covered in terms of servicing is far more complex than what Chile has, and of course, the sheer amount of customers or people living in specific areas also add to the challenge. While I can see the reasoning behind it, Chile is such a long and thin country, with mountains near the beach (the Coast mountains) and the Andes separating us from Argentina, and with cities and population near both, that I can’t help but think that the terrain argument might be a bit of a stretch, but feel free to convince me in the comments!
SERNAC, the Consumer Protection Agency
Here’s another cool one that yields from the previous notes in my memory: Chile has a Consumer Protection Agency called SERNAC (Servicio Nacional del Consumidor, or National Consumer Service). SERNAC is a government agency that, among other things, provides a platform for consumers to file complaints against companies that have provided a bad service or product.
This was in Chile suuuuuper, super useful and took it for granted. Signed up with a new Internet provider advertising 100 Mbps and only getting 10 Mbps? File a complaint with SERNAC. Bought a product that was advertised as “new” but it was actually refurbished? File a complaint with SERNAC. The list can keep going.
The coolest part of all is that it’s all online: you go to the SERNAC website at www.sernac.cl, fill in your complain, and a lawyer at the other side would read it and follow up with the company directly. You don’t have to be chasing answers yourself – although a gentle nudge every now and then is always useful. The process works through a Mediation, where the company and the consumer are brought together to try and solve the issue. If the issue is not solved, then the consumer can escalate the issue to a Trial, where a judge will decide whether the company is at fault or not.
The closest I saw to something like this in the US, I was told early on, was the Better Business Bureau (BBB)… And then I learned that companies, besides bad publicity, had no obligation to follow up with the BBB. In Chile, companies are required by law to follow up with SERNAC, and if they don’t, they can be fined.
I was personally so used to this process that looking through my e-mail, I have at least 12 different cases where I filed a complaint with SERNAC thanks to Chile’s Net Neutrality Law, were some websites from well known corporations had bad performance (bandwidth throttling). In almost all of those cases, I got a refund or a discount on my next bill. In one situation, the Internet company agreed to move me, without an increase in price, to the next tier of Internet speed.
Public transportation and parking
One of the most hard hitting realizations I had was the difference between transport in the US vs Chile. In Chile, we have a public transportation system that’s not perfect, but it’s quite good… Let me tell you a bit about it.
For a long time I lived in Temuco, a city in the South part of Chile. I used to live in a smaller city around 40 minutes away from Temuco and commute to work and study. I knew every day there would be a bus every 15 to 30 minutes that would take me from my home to Temuco. Sleep in? Not much of a big deal if you can catch the follow up bus.
Within Temuco, which doesn’t have a Metro system like Santiago, you have a handful of options: the “bus”, which is often to reference a bus that goes between cities, but it has to travel within Temuco first, leave, then get to the next City (so you can take it as it’s going out and then just tell the driver to drop you off before they leave the city, for example). Then you have taxis, which is the typical, pay-by-the-mile (or Kilometer, I guess) trip, and then you have what we call “Collectives”: these are a special kind of taxi that has a set route, and you can hop in and hop out at any point in the route. The price is fixed, and it’s often cheaper than a regular taxi.
“Collectives” are super useful too: say you’re traveling with a party that happens to match the number of empty seats in the car, well, you can offer the driver to have everyone pay their fee and ask if the car can skew just a tiny bit away from the set route (perhaps the route happens to be a few blocks away from your destination and you don’t want to walk) and get you straight to your destination.
Then we have the “micro”, a colloquial term for a, sometimes, smaller bus that, like “collectives”, they have a set route. Cheap as hell (for American standards, at least) and you can hop on and off at any point in the route. They run so often that it is common to see two or more “micros” with the same route (denoted by a number and optionally a letter, like 6 or 7B, for example) picking up passengers in exactly the same place.
“Micros” and “Collectives” often do bring noise pollution or pollution overall but they do remove the amount of vehicles in the streets, which is a good thing. It’s also far more accessible for low income families to use these services than to own a car.
In Florida, after a few days in I decided to walk to Walmart, just to learn the harsh truth that some places of Doral didn’t even have sidewalks! I had to walk on the grass, or quickly try to make my way through the street. US cities are often not designed for pedestrians.
Some time after, I decided to go to a particular event in Downtown Brickell, and for someone like me, coming from Chile, I missed the bus that leaves from Doral to Brickell with just a few minutes of difference. I was told to wait for the next one, which would be in 30 minutes. The next bus wouldn’t leave for that particular route until about an hour and 20 minutes after. AN HOUR!
One of the good surprises was a specific Trolley that would travel, for free, around downtown Doral to the most common places (parks or shopping centers). It was awesome and a nice touch. The picture below is from one of my memories of the Doral Trolley.
Positively, too, the Trolley was well mapped, allowing me to plan routes ahead of time and making sure I could get to places on time. The Trolley was also a good way to get to the closest transport stations (metro, train) or connect to other ways of transportation.
To wrap this point too, there’s also the sheer amount of space buildings leave for parking areas in the US. That one was a nice surprise, mostly because in Chile once you have a car, you’ll have to find the best place to park it. Parking areas are often not available in the shopping place or government building you’re going to, but paid parking somewhere else might be possible.
I never had that issue almost anywhere in the US.
Bread, and supermarkets
Now this one might sound like a joke but hear me out. Chile consumes a lot of bread. I mean, a lot. And I’m sure some people will also point out at the fact we do consume a lot of Avocado and Mayo as well, but let’s leave that for a different time 😆
Bread consumption is so high, that while we do have bakeries that sell recently-baked bread, supermarkets also have had to adapt and have a section where they bake fresh bread, often every 15 to 20 minutes. This is so common, that it’s not uncommon to see people waiting for the bread to be ready, and then grabbing it right as it gets out of the oven.
Chileans eat so much bread that in 2019, CIEE put itat “a whopping 220 pounds, per person, per year.”
In our last visit to Chile between me and my significant other, she wanted to put it to the test by truly checking if supermarkets do indeed bake bread that often by walking to this small, not-so-known supermarket, not even part of a bigger chain, and sure enough, we got there just as the bread was being taken out of the oven for her to pick it up, walk to the aisle with the butter, and then walk out to the car to make herself a bread-and-butter combo. Delicious!
Now you can see where I’m going but, in the US, this is highly, highly uncommon. The first US supermarket chain I met was Publix, and after walking in and walking around the place for a while I could not find a location where they would serve fresh bread. After asking, I was hit with the realization that their freshest bread was the kind that they put in paper bags, the long ones, and the most common option is the typical squared bread in bread bags 🤷
The picture above shows the “hallulla” (the rounded bread) in a container that keeps getting poured with fresh bread every half an hour or so in a well known supermarket chain of Chile. The back of that “container” is right next to the ovens where the bread is baked tens of times a day.
Greetings, kissing on the cheek and European influence
Chile is heavily influenced by European culture. In fact, you can probably tell that my name doesn’t sound much like a “Chilean name” by any standard. My father side of the family has roots coming from Italy and as such, “D’appollonio” has always been a strange last name for Chileans, with almost anyone not being able to pronounce it correctly at the first try.
But strange-to-Chile last names are not uncommon. In fact, it’s quite common to find German, Italian, French or even Nordic last names. One good acquaintance of mine had a last name “Knopke”, of German origin. I also had a different acquaintance with a last name “Lindemann”, also of German origin. European cuisine is also quite prevalent in Chilean households and culture. In fact, some people feel awkwardly surprised when I tell them I’m not too fond of “tacos”.
But going to this particular point, in Chile, it’s quite common to greet the opposite sex with a kiss on the cheek. Just one, compared to our European friends that go with 2 or even 3.
Remember the story around the bank account opening I told before? One thing I ommitted from the story was that, as Ana was coming back to work with me and opening a bank account, I naively thought North America would greet similarly. She extended her hand, and stupid me decided to grab it, then pull her towards me so I could go for a kiss on the cheek as I would do in Chile. Boy I was wrong. After learning and profusely apologizing for such an impromptu move, I learned that in North America, you don’t greet with a kiss on the cheek. A handshake is good enough but in some cases, a nudge with your head is also acceptable.
Prices without tax included
This will be a short one, so let’s just get it over with: in Chile, all prices you see in the aisles for all different products include tax already.
During my stay in the US and Canada this was a big surprise considering you have to pull up the calculator and do a bit of math to make sure you have enough cash with you to cover the full pricing.
I guess we’re more lazy but we know if the product is marked as CL$990, and we have a CL$1,000 bill, we know we’re good to go.
Finally, Chile has strong consumer protections and one of those things is that, by law, if the price shows in the aisle is different than the price scanned at the register, the place has to honor the price in the aisle. For online purchases, you can always loop in the SERNAC to help you out.
Firefighting and volunteer services
Here’s one thing you might not know about Chile: firefighters are volunteers. They are not paid, and they are not government employees. They are volunteers that, in their free time, decide to help out the community.
I joined on my early 16s as a Cadet of the Fire Department of my home city, and when I was 18, I had received appropriate training to be able to go out and help out with the community.
Yes, Chilean firefighters have their challenges and some of them are not pretty, for example: being requested to pay for the amount of water we use off the fire hydrants, or having people that do time-based work (like the people that are holding off the Firefighter headquarters, attending calls, and calling out firefighters to action) be told that after 9 hours of work, even if the world is on fire, they cannot do anything or risk being fined (personal experience, don’t ask for details LOL).
In North America, being a firefighter is a profession like being an Engineer. It’s arguably well paid, with good benefits. Chile does have a special kind of insurance for firefighters but Chile also has public healthcare, so it’s not much of going “out of their way” to provide a more comprehensive coverage.
While I like the volunteer aspect of firefighting in Chile, I do think that providing appropriate guardrails to those volunteers should be something governments should aim for. I would give a point to each side 😆
Ok, here’s another point for North America: Chile almost doesn’t have drive-thrus! I knew from movies and TV shows about these before coming to North America and I do see the appeal especially on cities made to be driven around, but Chile is not one of those.
While some places in Santiago have tried the model of a drive-thru, I think overall in Chile people just prefer to walk in and walk out. I think it’s a good thing, but I can see how it can be a bad thing for people with disabilities.
This list, while long, is by no means exhaustive. I’m calling out some of the most memorable things I experienced during my stay in the US and Canada, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of things. Perhaps for a part 2! 😆
Have things changed since then in Chile? Or in the US, or Canada? I’m sure it has. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below!