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An Insider's Guide to Moving, Working, and Living Abroad in Mexico

Playa del Carmen beach from 'An Insider's Guide to Moving, Working, and Living Abroad in Mexico'
Playa del Carmen.

As a foreigner living in Toluca, a Mexican city without many foreigners, I often get asked the same questions, and naturally I have my standard responses.

Cómo llegaste a México?” is a common one, which literally translates as “How did you come to Mexico?” My answer, “in an airplane,” usually gets a big laugh.

Of course they mean why did I come here, and what did I do to be able to live here. But besides getting the laugh, my answer is the quickest way of giving the truth. I didn’t make much of a plan before I moved to Mexico six years ago, just bought a one-way ticket and packed my bags.

I didn’t know about immigration requirements, I barely spoke Spanish, and I didn’t have a job lined up, although I already had experience living and teaching English in other countries. But for the most part, I winged it, made many mistakes, and learned as I went.

Toluca Square, in the home town where the author lives and works
Toluca’s center square, in the town where the author now lives.

Despite romantic notions of moving to a foreign country with warm people, countless beaches, colorful cuisine, and mountain towns of brightly-painted homes on winding cobblestone streets, many practicalities must be considered before you make the move to Mexico. What will you do for work? Where will you live? How long can you stay, and what’s your legal status in the country?

The good news is that compared to the U.S., Canada, and Europe, you can live well in Mexico on a small income. A big meal at a modest restaurant costs between $2 and $3 U.S. dollars. You can get a liter of freshly-squeezed orange juice on the street for about $1 USD. You can fly across the country for $50, and get a hotel on the beach for less than $10.

So the first piece of advice I can offer is to save as much money back home as you can before you come. But what’s more important is that you come with an open mind. In Mexico, opportunities present themselves to curious, tolerant people. Things are a little different here; after all, this is the country that Dali said was even more surreal than his paintings.

The “magic town” of Metepec in the State of Mexico
The “magic town” of Metepec in the State of Mexico.

So along with your patience, curiosity, and savings, here some things to consider if you want to live in Mexico.

Your Immigration Status

Most travelers to Mexico get permission to stay as a tourist for six months upon arrival. Save the stamped part of the form with the amount of time written on it that you filled out at the airport or on the border, because you’ll need it to leave the country.

Besides staying in Mexico as a tourist, your other option is to stay as a temporary resident. There are several kinds of residency, but two important ones are the temporary residency with permission to work, and the temporary residency without permission to work. Each must be applied for at a consulate outside of Mexico, and each must be renewed yearly.

Before you can get permission to work, you must have a job offer. With that job offer and all the corresponding paperwork, you can then apply for the visa. The process is a little complicated, but you don’t need a lawyer, just someone to help if you don’t speak Spanish.

If you don’t know what you’ll be doing for work, and you’re not sure how long you want to stay in Mexico, I recommend that you simply come and stay as a tourist while you figure everything out. Once your six months are up, take a trip across the border, stay a few days, and come back for another six months. You may feel like a resident, but until you start working, you really are just a tourist.

Unless you’re going to fly or take a long-distance bus ride, for safety’s sake don’t carry your passport and stamped tourist form with you everywhere you go, but make a photocopy of both to keep in your purse or wallet.

An immigration officer gave me this advice once while she was asking me about my status in the country. I had no ID with me, but I was calm and polite with the officer, who eventually let me go. The same wasn’t true for an angry American they had stopped outside the same bus station — the officers told me that even though he had his passport, they were going to take him to immigration jail because he’d been rude. (See the Dealing with Authorities section below.)

Getting a Job in Mexico

The best way to get a job in Mexico is the same as anywhere in the world — search online or on the street for places to work, and then pay them a visit to ask for a job interview.

If you already have a profession, such as engineering or finance, search company websites for employees with foreign-sounding names. Because your future employer will need to provide you with a sponsorship letter to take to immigration, they need prior permission from the government to hire foreign workers. If the company already has foreign workers, the process should be much smoother, as they’ve done it before.

Teaching English is always a possibility, as schools both private and public are all over the country. Your chances of getting a teaching job are much higher if you have a TESOL/TESL/TEFL certificate, which are all basically the same thing. It’s easy to do a course online, though you could also do one in Mexico, which means that once you finish the course, the school where you did the training may want to hire you. Many common EFL (English as a Foreign Language) franchises offer teacher training in Mexico.

Some schools (and companies) will offer to do the immigration paperwork for you if you sign a contract. This may be a good option, saving the time and money you’d spend doing it yourself, but make sure that you actually want to work there for the entire length of your contract. And read it carefully — do you have to work weekends? Attend frequent unpaid meetings?

As a foreigner, especially in a tourist destination, you should be able to find an under-the-table job, like bartending, waitressing, or teaching in a small, conversational English school. The pay will be low, and with these jobs you can’t get legal permission to work. In this case, simply stay as a tourist and make border runs every six months.

In order to get a legit job, you’ll need originals of official documents like your birth certificate and all degrees and transcripts from higher education, and possibly even high school. While back home, get official certifications called apostilles. They’re typically easy and inexpensive to get — if you’re from the U.S., look at the website for the Secretary of State where you live. In Michigan, where I’m from, the apostille for my birth certificate cost one dollar.

Apostille
Example of an apostille.

Then print a few copies of your resume in Spanish and put them in a manila folder. Dress nice — Mexicans can be quite formal, especially in serious situations.

Although you can look for jobs online, it’s unusual for Mexicans to hire anyone by email. Before I came to Mexico, I must have sent 20 emails to universities and other schools, and I got no responses. In most cases, you’ll need to visit the place where you want to work and go through several interviews before you’re hired.

Getting an Apartment

Like for getting a job, the best way to find a place to stay is to walk around a neighborhood you like. You’ll see signs with phone numbers for places to rent, though if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll need someone to call for you.

This can vary from region to region, but in most places you’ll pay a security deposit equal to one month’s rent at the beginning. You’ll sign a contract, usually for one year, and get a receipt every month you pay. If you don’t, be suspicious.

You don’t need to be a Mexican resident to rent an apartment, and you probably won’t have to show bank statements or a proof of income or anything like that. It is common, however, to be asked for an aval, who is a person who will guarantee to pay if you don’t. It could be anyone, but he or she will have to sign the contract with you.

Don’t rent an apartment above a restaurant, where cockroaches and other bugs are more possible, and strong cooking smells are guaranteed.

Once you move in, to hook up any new services, like Internet, you need another bill that shows your address. This is called a comprobante de domicilio, which is also necessary for opening a bank account. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be in your name, but only show your address, so ask your landlord or a neighbor (in an apartment) for a recent electric bill.

Electic bill in Mexico
Sample electric bill from Mexico.

Another consideration is whether to get a furnished or unfurnished apartment. Obviously, unfurnished apartments are much cheaper. Furniture is easy enough to buy (the cheapest coming from the carpenters you’ll see walking around on the street with unvarnished tables, chairs, and bed frames), but most unfurnished apartments also don’t have refrigerators or stoves, which are definitely more expensive.

So if you aren’t sure how long you’ll stay, look for furnished apartments, which are more common in downtown areas where people come to work temporarily, or near universities where there are lots of students.

On the other hand, hostels and small hotels are inexpensive everywhere, and you can usually bargain for a much lower price if you stay longer, like for a month or more. So don’t be in a hurry to find an apartment when you first move to Mexico — get a good hotel first.

Dealing with Authorities

In Mexico, 90% of officials are reasonable, polite, and willing to do anything to help. But give these well-meaning and hard-working people a hard time, and expect the worst.

In the U.S., when confronted with unreasonable situations (being told “no” with no explanation, having to wait for long periods of unexplainable time), a common reaction is to throw your weight around. “You can’t do this to me! I know my rights! Let me see your supervisor.”

Do this in Mexico, and you’ll get nowhere, or worse: Your application will be rejected, your documents will be “lost,” or you’ll get arrested.

No matter what, stay calm and pleasant in official situations, such as at the immigration office, at the bank, or with the police. Dress nice, smile at the person, and give the proper greeting depending on the time of day: Buenos días, buenas tardes, or buenas noches (good morning, good afternoon, or good night).

You may be given the wrong information or told to come back another time with more documents. Because of one tiny error on an application form, you might have to start all over again. They may compare your signature on the form with the signature on your ID, making sure it’s exactly the same. Don’t show anger or impatience, which will only slow you down. Be persistent, but be patient and polite at all costs.

And bring a book — it may take a while.

Traveling Around Mexico

What’s the fun of living in Mexico if you don’t travel? Though it’s a big country, wherever you live you’ll be near a nice beach, a charming colonial town, or an ancient archaeological site.

Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Moon
Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Moon.

The bus is an easy option, but for any bus ride to a major city that’s 10 hours or longer, you should be able to find a flight that’s the same price or cheaper, especially if you start looking a few months in advance. For example, there’s no reason to take a bus from Mexico City all the way to Cancun. For this trip, a typical bus ride takes 24 hours and may cost twice as much as a 40-minute flight.

Mexico has four national airlines: Aeromexico, Interjet, Aerobus, and Volaris. They regularly offer big discounts, so sign up for their mailing lists or follow them on Facebook or Twitter to receive notifications.

Regarding bus travel, like elsewhere in Latin America, Mexico has many bus companies that go all over the country. Mexico City, for example, has four bus stations, and each contain 10 or 20 bus lines with big variations in price and quality.

Besides the price, there may be little difference between the expensive bus and the cheap bus, or there may be big differences: no bathroom, a much longer travel time, and a higher chance of a breakdown.

First-class buses have wide reclining seats and are safe for traveling at any time of day, but you’ll pay for it. Like I said, always compare with the price of flights before buying a first-class bus ticket.

To really save money, look for independent bus companies that leave from somewhere other than “official” bus stations. You’ll need to ask around to find them, especially other travelers, as locals may not know about them.

From Mexico City to the southern state of Chiapas, for example, several bus companies such as Viajes Aury leave from the sprawling La Merced market near downtown. A first-class bus is at least $100 USD; Viajes Aury is about $20. For Oaxaca, you can take the FYPSA bus, which leaves from near the Blvd. Pto. Aereo metro stop.

A bus station
A bus station.

Learning Spanish in Mexico

Sure, in Mexico you can get by on a “gracias” and a smile, thanks to a generally friendly and polite people. This is especially true if you live in a well-traveled spot where many people speak English, like the Yucatan Peninsula or Puerto Vallarta, or if you live in a place with a large expat community, like Lake Chapala (near Guadalajara), San Miguel Allende, or any beach town on the beaten path.

But for places less visited by foreigners, a little Spanish goes a long way, and fluent Spanish even more — to find a better job, travel far and wide, and get into fascinating cultural situations. And there’s no shortage of those in Mexico: the Day of the Dead, when people stay up all night in a cemetery visiting their dead relatives; a serenata (serenade), when a 10-piece mariachi band sings outside a girl’s window late at night; or a charro (cowboy) show, often performed on important Mexican holidays.

Signing up for a Spanish class is no guarantee that you’ll learn anything, though if you have the time, it can’t hurt. Look for Spanish classes at big public universities, which often have language centers for international students.

Class or no class, you need to study on your own. Simply living in Mexico and chatting with your neighbors isn’t enough either, although, of course, there’s an enormous advantage to being immersed in the language. But it is most important to spend a little time actively studying every day.

A party in Mexico City
A party in Mexico is one great place to practice your Spanish.

Learning a language is a lot more like going to the gym than going to a classroom and studying a typical grade-school subject such as history, math, or science. If you go to the gym once a week, and get no other exercise, nothing happens. If you go hard for three hours every day, you get sick of it, and nothing happens.

Learning a language is the same. I’m no personal trainer, but I am an English teacher, and I know that to learn a language, you need two things: commitment and patience.

Get a grammar book with exercises in the back, and do one or two pages a day. Go on YouTube and look for videos in Spanish with lyrics, and watch a new one every day. Read newspapers and watch the news in Spanish. And repeat.

Find someone who wants to practice English, and do a language exchange: a one-hour conversation in Spanish, and then an hour in English. (Tip: Do your Spanish part first, to establish the relationship in the language you want to practice, and force yourself to speak zero English during that time.)

Whatever you do, do it every day. 20 minutes a day is much better than a 4-hour cram session once a week. Like at the gym, you may not notice results right away — this is where patience comes in — but after six months, one year, or two years you’ll suddenly wake up fluent. Trust me, when that happens, everything gets a lot easier and a lot more interesting.

* * *

Part 2

Insider Tips for Living in Mexico: Beyond the Basics

Maybe it’s because I work in a university. When other foreigners in Mexico ask me about how I came to live here, they often ask which program I used, imagining some recruiting system for foreign teachers that provides not only a job and an apartment but timely answers to all your crucial questions.

It’s a fair assumption. Many people do become expats this way — in fact, my international teaching career began 16 years ago when I answered a classified ad about teaching in South Korea. The plane ticket and apartment were included with the job, which allowed me to move to the other side of the world with practically no money and certainly no knowledge about Korea. I wondered, where’s the sushi and sweet-and-sour chicken?

Dispelling Myths About Moving Abroad

The author and friend Froy in Mexico
The author and friend Froy in Mexico.

So although it’s a reasonable belief, it also reveals a common idea about moving abroad — that you need a program, that you need help, that doing it alone is inconceivable. This simply isn’t true, especially for a country like Mexico where hiring is rarely done over the Internet, and your best chance of getting a job is to interview in person.

In the first part of this article, I described how I moved here seven years ago: I packed a few bags and figured it out mostly on my own. I learned Spanish with language exchanges and grammar books, visited universities to ask for interviews with my slowly-developing Spanish skills, got the runaround with immigration, and almost went broke while waiting for legal permission to work.

Another common misconception about moving abroad is that it involves a complicated citizenship process. Many people believe that you must become a citizen to live in another country, or worse, that you must renounce your own citizenship.

Slow down — it’s not so dramatic. The first step when moving abroad is to save money. Don’t worry about confusing immigration legalities. Instead, first figure out how much time you can spend there as a tourist. (In Mexico it’s six months for most visitors.)

Stay for the maximum amount of time you can stay as a visitor, during which you’ll figure out:

1) What are the requirements for a longer stay (usually temporary or permanent residence)?

2) How can you work legally, for example?

3) Most importantly, do you actually want to live in that country?

It’s easy to take a vacation to a beautiful tropical paradise like Mexico and decide you want to live there; it’s a lot harder when you are faced with cultural differences, a language barrier, and day-to-day practicalities such as low wages, safety concerns, and options for health care.

So while the first part of this guide dealt with the most basic things you need to consider before moving to Mexico, in the second part of I’ll discuss what comes next — the essentials that you’ll have to take care of once you’re actually in the country.

Mexico is big, and although I live in the central area that could be considered average, “regular” Mexico, the country is quite diverse. So please take these ideas for what they are, suggestions, and expect some regional variation elsewhere.

Health Care in Mexico

Pharmacy in Mexico. Many have very competent doctors who can provide prescriptions on site.
One the fine pharmacies in Mexico where you can get any medicine you need, inexpensively, to handle most needs. There is often even a qualified on-site doctor to help you out!

If you get a cold or food poisoning, don’t worry, the solution is easy. Most pharmacies have a small doctor’s office attached where you can get a consultation for free or cheap, usually 20 or 30 pesos ($1.10-1.70 USD).

Sure, they make their money on prescriptions, but medicine in Mexico is typically inexpensive as well. Buying the medicine is optional, of course, and you may find that you only want to fill one of the three prescriptions the doctor writes for you.

This is the norm all over Latin America. I wish more countries were like this. If you get a bad stomach in Mexico, go to a pharmacy right away. Food poisoning can last weeks without treatment, while a few days of antibiotics will clear it up quickly. I’m always surprised when I meet travelers who say they’ve been sick for weeks — go to the pharmacy! Sure, it’s true that you shouldn’t overdo it with antibiotics, but if two weeks of diarrhea isn’t a reason to take them, then I don’t know what is.

For more serious ailments, there are two types of hospitals in Mexico: public and private.

Private hospitals may be immense, modern complexes, but are often more like small clinics with capabilities for surgery and other advanced procedures. Compared to public hospitals, they’re more expensive and generally offer better quality. But they’re still quite affordable, especially compared with those in the U.S., which is why you can find them in major tourist areas like Baja California and the Mayan Riviera.

Public hospitals are for people covered by IMSS, Mexico’s national health program; ISSSTE, the program for federal government workers; or another agency that works at the state level with an acronym like ISEM or ISSEMyM (both for the State of Mexico, where I live.) The Red Cross also operates many public clinics in Mexico that offer emergency assistance.

Public hospitals are crowded and have long lines for treatment, but may be your only option in an emergency. In that case, treatment could be free even for people (like foreigners) who aren’t a part of the program. For instance, after I was bitten by a street dog in Chiapas, I received rabies vaccinations at a public clinic for no charge.

But by no means should you count on getting free treatment at one of these public hospitals. Be sure to have heath coverage when in a foreign country — insurance for travelers at the very least. (More on this below.)

One of many fine clinics in Mexico
One of many clinics in Mexico that offer excellent health care.

Also, if you are like me and avoided going to the dentist for years, then do get your dental work done in Mexico. My dentist does an exceptional job in a spotless office with all the latest technology and charges less than $20 USD for a cleaning.

Health Insurance

Once you start working in Mexico, you will pay into IMSS or another social health care program and therefore have access to public hospitals. Talk to someone at your job about how to sign up for the program. In most cases, it isn’t automatic. You’ll need to go to a government office with your pay stubs to fill out paperwork and get your health card.

Although I mentioned above that in an emergency you could be treated for free at a public clinic, don’t rely on it. Fees for ambulances, emergency procedures, hospital stays, and medicine add up fast. Also, when using public health services, you might have to wait a long time for a non-emergency procedure. When I had a hernia, for example, the wait would have been six months, so instead I paid $2,000 USD to a private clinic and had it operated on immediately.

So, while you wait to get a job and get signed up for national health care, it’s a good idea to have travel insurance that covers health care expenses. Thankfully, travel insurance is cheap, typically much cheaper than regular health insurance in the United States. In fact, most health insurance plans for travelers won’t cover you in the U.S. because it’s one of the most expensive countries in the world for health care.

You can sign up for travel insurance and pay online, and renew as often as you want. I have bought from AIG several times, and there are many online companies who allow you to compare travel insurance policies.

Banks and Financial Matters in Mexico

A branch of Santander bank in Mexico
A branch of Santander bank.

You don’t need a bank account in Mexico until you start working. You don’t want one either. Most Mexican banks charge fees for all kinds of services that are typically free in other countries, like online banking. They might even charge a “membership fee” every month for certain accounts — yes, believe it or not, in Mexico many people have to pay to keep their money in the bank.

Additionally, the minimum monthly balance for your account might be quite high, like 4,000 pesos ($225 USD). When your balance is below this amount you’ll be charged a fee of around 200 pesos ($11 USD).

And on top of this, most banks pay zero interest on saving accounts. So, until you’re earning pesos, you’re much better off simply withdrawing money from your home account using ATMs. (Please see my tips for managing your money.)

Therefore, unless you have another reason for needing a bank account in Mexico, the first step to getting a bank account begins with your job. Many employers pay by direct deposit and have a specific bank they use, so they will provide you with details on what type of account to open and in which bank.

If they pay you with a physical check, however, you can choose for yourself. Common banks in Mexico are Bancomer, Banamex, Banorte, Santander, HSBC, and Scotiabank. The banks are all essentially the same in quality, but as Bancomer seems to be the most popular, it has the longest lines on payday. Banorte is the only Mexican-owned bank, so choose it if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

The best way to choose a bank is to find one close to your job because you’ll probably cash or deposit your paycheck on your lunch break or after work. Another tip: Mexicans usually get paid every two weeks (called a quincena) on the fifteenth and final day of each month. If possible, wait for a few days to visit the bank because most are insanely busy on those days.

To open a bank account, you’ll need your passport and immigration documents (temporary residence card, etc.) and a comprobante de domicilio, which is a phone or electric bill that shows your address. It doesn’t have to be in your name, so ask your landlord or a friendly neighbor in an apartment.

What this means is that you won’t be able to open a bank account if you are living in a hotel. In that case, cash your paychecks at the bank the check was drawn on. Whichever bank your employer uses (Bancomer, Banorte, etc.), bring your check and your passport to cash it, and then for safety’s sake hide the money in your socks until you can stash it away in your luggage or the hotel safe.

Cell Phones

Major cellphone providers in Mexico include Telcel, Movistar, and AT&T. Each has a variety of different plans, so check their websites to compare.

I’ve always used pay-as-you-go phone plans, which are super cheap. Every company has them. You buy a phone — the cheapest is about 200 pesos ($11 USD) — and the plan should already be set up. Even the ubiquitous convenience store OXXO sells them, or you can go to a provider's office.

You add minutes by paying at an OXXO or a supermarket. I always put on larger amounts like 200 pesos because then they give extra minutes. Also, most plans let you designate some numbers that you can call and text for free.

For international calls, don’t use your cellphone unless your plan includes it. Use Skype instead. If you’ve never tried Skype, download it for free. Along with email and Google Maps, it’s one of the essential tools for international living and travel.

Internet Service

Like for cell phone companies, Mexico has several Internet providers with various plans, but at the end of the day they are all quite similar. For about 500 pesos ($27 USD) a month you can get a package that includes high-speed Internet, TV, and a landline phone number.

Telmex is the most widespread, but there are other options like Totalplay and Megacable. You can compare their plans and prices online, and when you sign up for an account, they’ll come to your house to set it up.

I currently use Totalplay and have never had a problem. In my previous apartment, however, my landlady used Telmex and it failed constantly. I don’t attribute this to the company, but rather to the combination of the company and the neighborhood. Some providers work better in some places than others. So, before signing up for an account, ask your neighbors what they use and if the service is reliable.

Free WiFi is becoming more common in Mexico, especially at hotels and restaurants. Or you could always look for Internet cafés. Called cibers, they can be found in practically every small town or city block.

Driving in Mexico

Cars and motorcycles on a highway
Cars and motorcycles on a highway.

Your foreign license is legit for driving in Mexico, but if it expires, getting a Mexican license is easy. Of course, this varies from state to state, but when I got my license, I didn’t need to provide anything except my permanent residence card and a small fee — no foreign license, no driver’s test, nothing complicated.

To drive your vehicle into Mexico, you’ll need to buy a temporary import permit at the border that’s currently $15 USD (expect this to change). Also, it’s important to know that foreign-bought car insurance is not valid in Mexico, which goes for both private and rental cars. Most border towns have places where you can buy insurance that covers you in Mexico, or you can compare plans and prices at a Mexican insurance company.

Driving in Mexico isn’t as complicated or dangerous as you might imagine, although there are some major differences that you can read in what you need to know to drive in Mexico. You should be especially careful about where you park and when taking free highways.

Toll highways are generally safe and collision insurance is included in the toll. Free highways, on the other hand, can be confusing or dangerous. There are areas in the country you should never drive in, such as parts of the north or the state of Michoacan. The best thing to do before driving a long distance is to ask locals about road conditions and safety.

Before your trip, take a look at a government website which calculates the price of tolls and gasoline. It’s in Spanish and may go offline from time to time, but it’s an excellent resource.

Safety in Mexico: Basic Precautions

Safety is a big issue in Mexico requiring that you read an in-depth article with background information to fully grasp the total picture — myths and realities. The short version is that, no, Mexico is generally not very safe. But major tourist areas are safe for those who take the usual precautions like keeping your wallet in your front pocket, never leaving your purse hanging from a chair in a restaurant, not carrying your camera around your neck, not looking at a map in public, not walking down empty streets at night, and not accepting drinks from strangers.

But if you live off the path beaten by most tourists, you’ll have to make adjustments to your lifestyle. You may not be able to walk outside after dark. You’ll have to avoid certain neighborhoods. You probably can’t wave down any taxi on the street. And, wherever you are, you should never walk with your face buried in a cellphone.

For both tourists and residents, the best thing to do is to talk to locals — and listen to what they say. Many places that appear safe may not be safe at all, especially if you stand out (blonde hair, tall, wearing shorts and flip-flops).

Although getting kidnapped or caught in the crossfire of the drug war is quite rare, in many places getting mugged is possible even in the daytime. Never resist — the criminal isn’t alone. There’s always at least one more watching from a block away.

Besides the basics, the most important way to stay safe is to get away from the person who gives you a bad vibe. All over the world people get into bad situations because they don’t want to be rude to a stranger. Don’t worry about how he feels or what he thinks of you — just firmly say goodbye and walk away. When he gets weirder afterward, you’ll know you’ve made the right decision.

The final word is that Mexico is safe enough for those who don’t get too comfortable and let their guard down. Anything is possible, but it’s less possible for those who are aware of their surroundings and, what’s more important, listen to advice from neighbors, friends, and co-workers.

Water

When I was in elementary school, the first thing we learned about Mexico was “Don’t drink the water.” And even now, this is one of the first things Americans ask me about when they ask me about Mexico.

The truth is that you can’t drink tap water in most parts of the world. In some places, like China, people boil it, which may partially account for their extensive tea culture. In others, like Mexico, people buy it, although in some rural areas the tap water is drinkable. But the notion that Mexicans can drink the water because their digestive systems are used it, but foreigners can’t, is preposterous.

You can get a garrafón, a 20-liter bottle of water, for about 30 pesos ($1.70 USD) in most convenience stores. If this is too much for you to carry, look out for trucks full of these bottles driving around neighborhoods, with the guys in the truck calling out “agua!” You can buy the bottle there and the guy will carry it into your home.

Just like for “Don’t drink the water,” I also cringe when I hear tourists obsessing over ice in restaurant drinks. It’s pointless to ask the waitress if the ice is made from bottled water. It’s like asking if a particular menu item is good or not (and I still find myself doing this). If it wasn’t, do you think they would tell you?

It’s standard for restaurants to use bottled water for making ice and fixing drinks. If they didn’t do this, then local customers would get sick as well, and the place would go out of business. In my seven years of living in Mexico, I’ve gotten sick a few times, but never from ice.

Also, the water situation also means that restaurants don’t give everyone at the table a glass of water as they do in the U.S. and other countries with potable tap water. So if you want water, you’ll have to order it specifically. You’ll also have to pay for it, probably for the same price as a soda or beer. This, incidentally, is cited as one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic in Mexico — people in poor communities drink lots of soda because it’s the same price as a bottle of water of the same size.

Food

Moving to Mexico means moving to one of the greatest countries for food. Not only is the cuisine delicious and diverse, but excellent and affordable restaurants range from humble to high-class and everything in between.

But it’s more than restaurants — you can get inexpensive, high-quality produce everywhere. Instead of a supermarket, buy fruit, vegetables, meat, tortillas, or whatever you need from a small corner store. It may be slightly more expensive than Walmart or the Mexican equivalent, but the quality will be much better, and of course, you’ll also be supporting the local economy.

An outstanding option for fruit and vegetables are the trucks parked on the side of the road, which often have the freshest seasonal fruit.

Public markets in Mexico are also great places to shop for whatever you need and have a nice experience as well.

A public market so common in Mexico
A typical public market.

A note about markets — haggle with care. While haggling is the norm at touristy markets selling t-shirts and shot glasses, at small markets people usually don’t haggle. While they may raise prices a little because of your accent, it shouldn’t be unreasonable.

Please don’t drive a hard bargain over a few mangoes, which reflects badly on foreigners in general. What do you expect poor farmers to think of someone wearing new boots and carrying a fancy DSLR who’s trying to shave 50 cents off a bag of oranges? If you think you’re getting ripped off, just ask for prices at a few different stands to compare.

Finally, coffee addicts like me have come to the right place. But even though Mexico produces outstanding coffee, it can be difficult to get a good whole-bean bag to grind and brew at home. Unless you can find a secret local spot, such as Café Villarías in Mexico City, I recommend buying bulk coffee from the coffee shop Punta del Cielo, a franchise found throughout the country.

The author enjoying his life in Mexico
The author has embraced his new life with the great people and the colorful culture of Mexico, and has not looked back.

Moving to a new country is much more than a geographical move, but an entry into a whole new culture. Aspects of a new culture may be fascinating, charming, or delicious for some people, and frustrating or even offensive to others.

You can’t expect the country to change — you’re going to have to make the adjustment yourself. The more you learn, the better you’ll adjust. And a big part of this adjustment is being open-minded and empathetic.

Fortunately, Mexico is full of friendly and tolerant people. Learn Spanish, talk to them, and get to understand their point of view. Beyond all of the details and technicalities of moving abroad, I strongly believe that getting to know the locals is the most important thing you can do to successfully make a transition abroad and become a resident, not just a long-term visitor. Then you can truly enjoy living in Mexico, and you may find that you never want to leave.

Resources for Mexico
Newspapers
Mexico City’s English-language newspaper
The Yucatan Peninsula’s English-language newspaper
Recommended Books
Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of Mexicans
The Labyrinth of Solitude
True Tales from Another Mexico
Airlines
AeroMexico, Interjet, Aerobus, Volaris
Banks
Bancomer, Banamex, Banorte, Santander, HSBC, Scotiabank
Cell Phones
Telcel, Movistar, and AT&T. Telcel pay-as-you-go phone plan.
Internet Service Providers
Telmex, Totalplay, and Megacable

Related Articles on Mexico
10 Tips for Adjusting to Life in Mexico
Getting the Visa with Permission to Work in Mexico
Getting the Temporary Resident Visa Without Permission to Work in Mexico
Living in Mexico and Teaching English
How to Get Your First International Teaching Job
Places to Live in Mexico
Basic Spanish for Mexico
Crossing the Language Learning Barrier in Mexico
Eating Authentic Food in Mexico
Public Markets in Mexico
Enjoying the Exotic Fresh Fruit of Mexico
Related Mexico Resources
Living Abroad in Mexico: Key Resources and Articles

Ted Campbell is a freelance writer, Spanish-English translator, and university teacher living in Mexico. He has written two guidebooks about Mexico, one for Cancun and the Mayan Riviera and another for San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in Chiapas, both available at Amazon.com. For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.

For more of the many articles written for TransitionsAbroad.com, see his bio page.

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