Living Abroad in Mexico
Making the Move
© Ken Luboff, from Living Abroad in Mexico, 1st Edition.
Used by permission of Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
"Obviously, living in Mexico is not for everyone. As a foreign country, it can take some getting used to. For those who are stuck in their ways or not ready to experience some inconveniences, Mexico can be a real challenge. But if you are up for that challenge, you can meet amazing people with unique ideas. You can make good Mexican friends. You can even learn a new language. If you are adventurous and have a good sense of humor and a great deal of patience, living in Mexico can seem like the next best thing to paradise."
"It is common for people living in Mexico to ask friends driving down from the States to fill their cars with goodies that are unavailable in Mexico or less expensive in the States. Although customs inspectors occasionally search cars, travelers are rarely questioned about items unless they are high-priced electronic equipment, like computers or TVs. I recommend unpacking these and most everything else so it all appears to be used. Carry the receipt along just in case an inspector insists on duty being paid."
Visas and Immigration
Having all your paperwork in order is a prerequisite for a smooth trip. If you are a non-Mexican entering Mexico either to travel or to live, you will need one of the following visas: FMT, FM3, or FM2. An FMT is the tourist visa most people receive when entering Mexico. You can get one at any Mexican consulate, at the immigration booth after you cross the border, or on any flight into the country. When you fly in, your visa will be good for 90 or 180 days and the visa entry fee is automatically added to the cost of your airline ticket. You can get a 90-day visa extended for an additional 90 days.
If you drive in, you'll usually receive a 180-day visa at the border. If border officials give you less, ask for the full 180 days if you think you will need them. If you drive your car into Mexico, it will be noted on your visa, and you must leave with the same car. To get an FMT when driving into Mexico, you need only fill out a simple form, have a credit card, and show your passport and car registration. An FMT visa costs $20 at the border, paid by credit card. When you leave the country, you must turn in your visa.
An FMT visa is typically given to tourists on short trips into the country, but we know people from the States who have been living in Mexico for more than 20 years on tourist visas. For one reason or another, they never got around to switching and just keep renewing their visas every six months. A tourist visa does not permit you to work in Mexico.
With a tourist visa, the number of personal and household items that you can bring into the country is limited—although the limit isn't really specified. It is common for people living in Mexico to ask friends driving down from the States to fill their cars with goodies that are unavailable in Mexico or less expensive in the States. Although customs inspectors occasionally search cars, travelers are rarely questioned about items unless they are high-priced electronic equipment, like computers or TVs. I recommend unpacking these and most everything else so it all appears to be used. Carry the receipt along just in case an inspector insists on duty being paid.
Non-immigrant Residency Visa
If you are going to be living in Mexico for six months, one year, or more, in my opinion an FM3 visa is the way to go. An FM3 is a non-immigrant residency visa that is renewed only once a year. With a valid FM3, you can leave and reenter the country as often as you like and by any means of transportation that you like. If you drove your car into Mexico with an FM3, and you want to fly back to the States for your high school reunion, no sweat! Just leave the car in Mexico and go.
With all types of FM3s (there are 10 types in all), you can work in Mexico. If you know in advance that you want to work, go to an immigration office (or consulate) and find out what documents you will need in order to apply for working papers.
Getting an FM3 is more complicated than getting a tourist visa. You will not be able to get an FM3 at a consulate in the States unless you have a Mexico address. In other words, you must already have a home or rental in Mexico.
In either country, you will need certain documents to apply for an FM3. These include proof, in the form of bank or investment-company statements, that you have an income equal to at least 250 times the minimum wage in Mexico City, which means about $1,000 per month if you are single, plus half that for each dependent. This amount is reduced by 50 percent if you own real estate (in which you claim to live) in Mexico. Along with proof of income, you will be asked to write a letter to the immigration office giving your name, address, and reason for wanting an FM3—something like, “I want an FM3 because I am planning to spend two years living and studying Spanish in Mexico.” You will also need your passport and your tourist visa if you have one. If you are married and your spouse wants an FM3, you will need your marriage certificate as well as a letter stating that you will be responsible for your spouse. You will then fill out a form, provide photos of yourself and your spouse, make copies of all the documents, and pay a fee of about $150.
Sound easy? Could be, but we know people who have had to return to an immigration office in Mexico five times to complete some detail before getting their FM3s. Because of the frustrations some foreigners feel in dealing with migración, private immigration services have opened to guide people through the process. Using such a service, you may have to pay up to $200 for each FM3 but it can be well worth it. By the way, if you obtain your FM3 in the States, you must register at the nearest immigration office to your home in Mexico within 30 days of entering the country.
Several FM3 business-visa designations have been created since the passage of NAFTA. These do not affect most people moving to Mexico or long-term visitors. These special designations include a 30-day business visitor visa, a one-year professional visa (in certain fields), and visas for intra-company transferees in managerial or executive capacities or investor/traders.
The U.S. State Department suggests that all U.S. citizens register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate after arriving at their permanent residence in Mexico. They say that registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case of an emergency.
FM2 immigration status is for those who know they want to reside permanently in Mexico and eventually apply for Mexican citizenship. (By the way, you can now apply for citizenship after a minimum of five years with an FM3.) Years ago, FM2s were the only visas available to foreigners who wanted to work in the country. These days, the FM3 replaces the FM2 as a working visa.
The FM2 must be renewed every year for five years, after which you can apply for immigrant status and need not renew again. During those first five years, you cannot leave the country for more than 18 months or you will lose your status and need to start over again. Once you achieve imigrante status, you will have a Mexican passport and all of the rights of a Mexican citizen, except you cannot join the Mexican army, vote, or run for office.
The application process for an FM2 is about the same as that for an FM3, but you have to show a higher monthly income-about $1,500 if you are single and half that for each dependent. Applying also costs a bit more—about $100. As with an FM3, the monthly income requirement is reduced by 50 percent if you own Mexican real estate. Neither an FM3 nor an FM2 changes your U.S. citizenship, only your country of residence.
Moving with Children
"Mexicans have a much more traditional take on families than we do in the States. It is not unusual for three, and even four, generations of a family to be living together in a single-family home or compound."
Parents entering Mexico with their child (or children) must have a passport for the child or the child's birth certificate. A child entering (or leaving) Mexico with only one parent must have notarized consent from the absent parent. Similar consent is required if the child is traveling alone or with a non-parent. A notarized letter written by the absent parent is sufficient for Mexican immigration officials. A U.S. court order authorizing the travel will work if one parent refuses consent or cannot be located. A custody document will work in the event a minor is in the custody of one parent. Show a death certificate if one parent is deceased.
Mexico is a wonderful place for kids. Mexicans have a much more traditional take on families than we do in the States. It is not unusual for three, and even four, generations of a family to be living together in a single-family home or compound. Children are ubiquitous, with older children looking after their younger siblings. Mexican kids are curious about and accepting of foreigners.
Children from the United States living in Mexico have the opportunity to learn another language, and more importantly, to broaden their understanding of the world by experiencing a different culture firsthand. Parents of younger children will find a plethora of very well-trained and affordable baby-sitters and nannies. Older kids can be enrolled in Mexican public school anywhere in the country, or in a private bilingual school in certain cities.
Moving with Pets
"In Mexico, it is more difficult to find a veterinarian experienced in avian medicine then one used to caring for domestic animals, though in the larger cities, there probably is at least one vet who specializes in exotics including parrots."
Cats and Dogs
There is no quarantine and absolutely no problem crossing the border in either direction with a cat or a dog. Whether driving into Mexico or the States, cats and dogs are required to have a veterinary health certificate, dated within five days of crossing the border, that shows a current rabies vaccination. These are the rules, but the reality is that when you cross the border, you will most likely be waved through. At most, you will be asked to show a rabies vaccination certificate. Nevertheless, it would be prudent to have the required documents if possible.
In the case of young animals under four months of age, the veterinary certificate should note that the animal is “age exempt” from the rabies requirement. If someone is flying their pet into Mexico, the airlines also will require the veterinary certificate at check-in. The paperwork will be requested when you arrive at the Mexican airport with your pet.
Good-quality veterinary care for dogs and cats is available in many parts of Mexico, but it is advisable to get recommendations from people who have used a particular vet. In San Miguel de Allende, the Lake Chapala area, and most of the other cities mentioned in this book, there are a large number of veterinarians and clinics with modern facilities and lab equipment. All vaccines, heartworm medication, flea and tick treatments, and medicines are available. Spaying and neutering, as well as other surgeries, are routinely performed.
Several U.S. pet food brands are available in Mexico depending on location. These include Eukanuba, Diamond, Science Diet, and Nutro. Pedigree, Purina, and other less expensive brands also are available.
Barbara and I have found that when we are touring around Mexico in our car, it is easier to travel with our dog than without her. Jane, our Rhodesian Ridgeback, is big and expressionless, so when we pass through checkpoints in Mexico, officials usually take one look at her and ask if she bites. We kind of shrug noncommittally, and they wave us on. If our car is loaded down with valuables, which it usually is, especially coming back from the States, we know we don't have to worry about break-ins while Jane is in the car. At the hotels or motels where she isn't welcome, she simply sleeps in the car all night after we take her for a walk. The only time Jane presents a problem is when we want to explore a city on foot. Because we can't take her into cathedrals and markets, we must leave her in the car with the windows open. In this case, we find a parking lot with an attendant who we pay to watch the car. We have never been ripped off.
Bringing birds to Mexico is not easy, but it's much easier than entering the United States with a bird or two. The United States requires a good deal of paperwork, plus one-month quarantine in either Los Angeles, Miami, or New York (all at the airports). The fee is about $20 per day, so that makes a minimum of $600 per bird just to get through the quarantine. In addition, the birds must be flown in, another expense. Coming from the United States to Mexico requires a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permit (almost all parrots are endangered species) and a U.S. Fish & Wildlife “Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife,” plus a vet health certificate.
Birds are more stringently controlled than cats and dogs for two reasons. First, they are wild, not domesticated, species that are endangered in their native habitats. Since 1992 or 1993, the United States and many other countries have banned the importation of wild-caught parrots. Only domestically raised parrots may be sold in the States. And secondly, there is the fear of bird diseases that can decimate the poultry industry. Mexico, which also subscribes to CITES regulations, continues to have a thriving black market in wild-caught and illegally bred parrots.
Some people take their chances that the bird might be seized and drive their pet birds across the border into Mexico. People have crossed successfully without papers, but it is risky.
In Mexico, it is more difficult to find a veterinarian experienced in avian medicine then one used to caring for domestic animals, though in the larger cities, there probably is at least one vet who specializes in exotics including parrots.
Horses can be brought from the United States to Mexico and vice versa. Crossing the border with horses requires permits, veterinary health verifications, and brief quarantines. Most horse people advise hiring an import broker who specializes in horses to make the crossing.
Mexico is home to a thriving horse culture. In the Spanish tradition, since the time of the conquistadores, horses have played major roles in the lives of Mexicans at all levels of society. Horses, burros, and mules are essential to the farming communities in rural Mexico. They are beasts of burden and primary modes of transportation. As in Spain and other parts of Europe, national and international competitions in dressage and stadium jumping are of great importance to horse aficionados of the Mexican upper and middle classes. The art of the rehoneo, referring to the highly trained horses and riders who participate in bullfights, is a greatly valued, albeit esoteric, practice in Mexico.
The greatest tradition among the common people is the charreada, the Mexican version of the American rodeo. Like the American counterpart, the events of the charreada are based on the skills and tasks performed by vaqueros (cowboys) on the ranchos. Single cattle charge out of a chute at a full run, and the mounted charro's task is to catch him by the tail and make him drop to the ground, a nerve-shattering event for the spectators.
Elaborate events showcasing advanced horsemanship are embellished with mariachi music and fanciful embroidered costumes and sombreros. The most remote areas of Mexico manage to stage charreadas with relative frequency. The charreada is a team sport, with each town or region having its own team, supported with an enthusiasm equal to that for soccer and other team sports.
Opportunities abound for those interested in riding in Mexico. There are excellent equestrian facilities for boarding and training at all levels outside most major towns and cities. Rental stables exist in most tourist areas. For Western riders, the purchase or rental of horses for trail riding will get you away from the crowds and afford you glimpses of startlingly beautiful country visible only on foot or on horseback.
What to Take
"There are some people who, when they move to Mexico, bring everything from their old homes—from the accumulated stuff in the catch-all kitchen drawer (used birthday candles, ballpoint pen tops, twist ties, spice jar lids . . . which they throw into a box) to grand pianos! The decision on what to bring has much to do with how attached you are to your possessions and also where you are relocating."
One of the advantages to FM3 status is the one-time opportunity to import up to $5,000 worth of personal household items duty-free. This may seem like too low a value for all your beloved furniture and knick-knacks, but because all of your things are used, you can place a low value on the lot. No one will question your valuation, and you can easily stay under the five-grand limit.
For shipments into Mexico, the Mexican consulate requires that you make a list of everything you are shipping, including the serial numbers of all your electrical appliances. Number each cardboard box, listing the contents of each, and leave three copies of the list with the consulate. Then pay the required $100 fee. You will undoubtedly receive heart-stopping and outrageously high quotes from giant moving companies like Mayflower and United Van Lines. Check around and see if you can get a lower quote from one of the smaller shippers in your area. If not, you may want to look on the Internet or contact one of these shipping companies located in Mexico: Strom Moving (376/766-4049, firstname.lastname@example.org), Transportes Balderas (333/810-4859, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), Gou Shipping (333/666-1404, email@example.com).
There are some people who, when they move to Mexico, bring everything from their old homes—from the accumulated stuff in the catch-all kitchen drawer (used birthday candles, ballpoint pen tops, twist ties, spice jar lids . . . which they throw into a box) to grand pianos! The decision on what to bring has much to do with how attached you are to your possessions and also where you are relocating. For instance, if you live in a high, dry climate like Arizona and relocate to a palapa on the coast near Puerto Vallarta, where the humidity is high, you will not want or need your sink-into down-cushioned sofa, your woolen navajo rugs and the painting of Great Grandfather Jones in the ornate gold-leaf frame. Even if you are attached to them, it is better to give or lend them to a friend or relative and have “visitation rights.”
These days in Mexico, it is possible to buy and replace just about anything that you leave behind. It is true that some things, like appliances, are more expensive in Mexico, but if you take into account the hassle and cost of moving it all, you may as well replace many items with new ones. In the last few years, Sears, Sam's Club, Costco, Office Depot, and Home Depot have sprung up all over the country, and although not as well stocked, nor as inexpensive, as in the States, they will have most of what you need.
Additionally, if you buy a home in an area with many expatriates, most likely it will be completely furnished! This is the rule rather than the exception.
Although you can buy just about everything you have left behind, you will most likely bring your own computer as well as your books, CDs, DVDs, and video collection. Towns with expat communities usually have very well-stocked libraries and some offer DVD and video rentals, not to mention that there are video rental stores everywhere. CDs of every kind are available throughout Mexico; Mexicans love music and this is reflected in their music stores, except of course, in small towns. Do you like Tom Waits? No problem! Charlie Mingus? Opera? The Tokyo String Quartet? You will be blown away when you go into a music store. They often have a larger choice than in the United States!
Before bringing down your DVD player, make sure it is universal and plays in all regions. DVDs sold in the States are for Region 1; in Mexico, Region 4. If you search, you can find DVDs that will play in all players and occasionally in Sam's Club you will see DVDs that say “for Region 1 and 4 players.” Most people stock up when they visit the States or have friends bring them down.
Books in English, unless there is a library or you are in a large city, are harder to come by. Tourist areas usually have a book exchange store but oftentimes all you can get is “vacation” reading, like mysteries and romance novels. Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon (powells.com), will ship to Mexico free with orders of $50 or more. It usually takes about a month.
Clothing and shoes are fun to buy in Mexico but you must be in a tourist area and buy clothing manufactured for the tourist trade. In general, clothing in Mexico is very expensive, unstylish, and poorly made. This is changing with the new Mexican middle class and the brand-new shopping malls (with 21-screen cinema complexes) springing up in middle-size cities. These malls have some European chains that have beautifully made, high-style—but not inexpensive—clothing. Shoes and leather goods are everywhere and many towns have malls that sell shoes only. Can you imagine 230 shoe stores all under the same roof?
It is important to keep in mind that most of what you wear in the States won't be appropriate for your new, more relaxed life in Mexico. Mexicans, though, are considerably more formal. It was not until very recently that Mexican men might be seen in shorts outside of their homes. Even in a store like Wal-Mart, it is always easy to spot the Americans with their flip-flops and extremely casual dress. Most Mexicans, except in rural villages or for a day at the beach, wouldn't be caught dead outside of their homes without being “properly” dressed.