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How to Work Legally in Mexico

The Insider's Guide to Obtaining a Visitor Visa for Work

Zocalo in Mexico City with Flag
Zocalo in Mexico City with Flag.

The call from Mexican immigration came in the late afternoon. My visa was ready. I could pick it up the next morning.

I called my future director at the university that had hired me. Classes were beginning that week, and although they had already been assigned, it was important to bring the visa right away in case something came up.

Three weeks earlier the university had provided me with a letter so I could apply for the proper permission at the Instituto Nacional de Migracion — the National Institute of Migration, or INM. I applied right away. True to their word, once I had finally fulfilled all the requirements, the visa application process took three weeks. 

The job interview process had been time-consuming and stressful. I translated my resume to Spanish and hit the streets, getting lost on bus trips and sweating in my cheap suit. My money was running out. You can read about how to find a teaching job in Mexico in this article I wrote for Transitions Abroad.

The small, well-restored INM building was familiar to me now. I had made many trips over the last few weeks — first to find out the requirements, then to bring proof of payment, later to bring the things I had gotten wrong the first time, later to bring even more. Now I entered with confidence — despite my poor Spanish ability, I figured I would just hand over the final payment receipt and walk away with my work visa. So I signed in, took a number, and took a seat.

I didn’t understand what the smiling officer said when she finally called me up, but evidently it wasn’t good. The visa wasn’t ready. Why? Had I forgotten yet another document? Had I misunderstood the phone call?

Eventually I figured out what she was trying to tell me. The power was out, so they couldn't run the copy machine or laminator. Come back tomorrow.

The Visitor Visa

Formerly known as the FM3, the Mexican work visa is officially known as the Visitor Visa with Permission to Engage in Lucrative Activities (visitante con actividades lucrativas). There are several long-term visas in Mexico, including various Visitor, Temporary Resident and Permanent Resident Visas. If you want to stay in Mexico for longer than what you were automatically given upon entering, you should look into these visas and their specific requirements, which include your reason for staying and available funds.

The Visitor Visa is laminated card, and it comes with an official-looking letter. The letter explains which field you have permission to work in. As a teacher my field is education. This means you can have as many jobs as you want as long as they are in your field, and anywhere in the country, not only in the state where you applied.

The First Requirement

The process begins outside the National Immigration Institute. You need to get a job offer before you can apply for permission to work. This is standard for many countries.

Getting a job in Mexico (and later for the application) requires a lot of documents. Before you leave home, get and bring originals of your birth certificate and anything that is relevant to your profession, like degrees, titles and transcripts. One school even asked me for elementary, middle and high school transcripts, which of course I didn't have.

Make sure you keep copies at home, or better yet take digital photos, in case something gets lost.

Once a company wants to hire you, they will provide you with a letter stating their intention and relevant details, such as your activities, the duration of the job and how much you will be paid. Make a copy and include it with your application. The company must also provide a “proof of registry,” permission from the government to hire foreign workers. Unless you will be their first foreign worker, they should know exactly what to give you.

Other Requirements

Requirements change with little or no notice, and not only in Mexico. In the summer of 2009 Canada began requiring travel visas from Mexicans (and Czechs, incidentally) for the first time. People with plane tickets, hotel reservations, and/or tours already booked formed massive lines at the Canadian embassy in Mexico City.

Keep in mind that any information you find online may be either out of date or confusing. You will have to go to the INM a few times anyway, so on your first visit ask for a list of requirements.

Remember to bring originals of all the items below. Once in Mexico you might be asked to have official copies (apostilles) made, for the visa application or even for your job. This can be expensive, so talk your way out of it if you can. Having an original document at hand can be helpful.

  • Birth Certificate
  • All degrees/titles/certifications and transcripts from universities or other relevant schools.
  • Your passport — they may want copies of every page or just the photo page. Remember to ask.
  • The little immigration paper you filled out when you entered Mexico. It will say how many days you are allowed to stay. When you get the visa, they won’t return it, but if for some reason you are denied, make sure you get it back. Without it you will pay a fine when leaving Mexico.
  • The application printed only a day or two before. Go here for the Instituto Nacional de Migracion (National Immigration Institute) website. At the time of writing, only the home page is in English. To start the application, go to this page and select Obtener permiso para trabajar from the first menu. If you don’t know Spanish, you’ll need some help.
  • Infantil size photos — the size of most drivers license photos. Immigration should have a spec sheet. Many immigration offices have a photo shop nearby.
  • Two payments – one when you apply and one when you pick up the visa. Get the forms from the office. You can pay at any bank – bring cash and your passport. When I applied it was 500 pesos with the application and 2,000 when it was ready, but like everything else, expect this to change.

More documents may be necessary or useful, such as your resume, bank statements and/or a rent receipt or something that shows you have a residence, such as a phone or electricity bill. And don’t forget the letter from the company that wants to hire you.

And finally, an essential thing to bring to the National Institute of Migration office is plenty of patience.

The Strategy

Be patient, calm, and reasonable at all costs. You may have to go more times than you want. You may be given different information each time. Just smile, write it down, and do what you can. If you can’t provide something, just come back without it and don’t mention it. In the friendliest way possible keep mentioning the letter from your future company. If you get angry and show it, you will get nowhere.

The Mexican government has simplified the application process with several recent reforms. The last big overhaul to the law came in November of 2012 with some big changes. For example, now some other categories of visa must be applied for outside of Mexico. You can download an official explanation of the law (in Spanish) from the INM website here.

Before the FM3 was a little book full of stamps, like a passport. You could only work at the job that provided the letter and only in that state. The application process could take months.

Now there is a reasonably straightforward website, a much shorter wait time and simplified requirements. In the INM office I visited there was a big sign in Spanish stating that it isn’t necessary to hire a lawyer to apply for visas. The staff was always polite and patient, even when the place was packed or the power was out.

Nevertheless, Mexico is full of bureaucracy and red tape. The need for calm doesn’t only apply to immigration, but to any dealings with official people, especially government. This goes for work, banks, border crossings, police, and any other government agency. Watch how Mexicans deal with unreasonable situations — they don’t get mad and loudly complain. They shrug and say ni modo — it can’t be helped.

And this doesn’t only apply to Mexico, but to any country with a different language and/or culture from yours. A misunderstanding is always the foreigner’s fault — even when it isn’t.

Life With The Visitor Visa

With the Visitor Visa (with lucrative activities) you will receive social insurance, including health care, and you need to go to another office to get the number. Also, you don’t have to pay Mexico’s entry fee anymore, which at the time of writing is 295 pesos, around 25 dollars. This is automatically added to plane tickets, so when purchasing make sure they know you have the Visitor Visa.

Starting Work

I had been frustrated so many times during the visa application process that I wasn’t surprised when the officer told me the power was out. I just shrugged and thanked her. There was no reason to ask why they had called to tell me it was ready, even though it wasn’t really ready. I found out the answer the next day — I had to sign the card before they could laminate it.

The next morning the office was quiet and they attended to me right away. The copier and laminator worked. They took my fingerprints and payment receipt and gave me the card and letter. I walked out and immediately called the university.

“You have the visa now?”

“Yes.”

“In your hand?”

“Yes, I just got it.”

“Can you be here in 30 minutes? I think I have a class for you.”

I flagged a taxi and got to the school in 27 minutes, planning a class in the backseat, scribbling notes on the backs of unused copies of my passport. How many students? What’s the schedule? And what level of English?

The school was full of activity, the first week of the summer session. Teachers bustled about with stacks of books in their arms, while students searched for the correct classroom and greeted friends. I walked upstairs to the offices and talked to the head of the languages department.

A teacher had not shown up and I was getting his class. I handed over the Visitor Visa card and the official letter. We hurried to human resources. Yes, everything seemed to be in order.

Only about 15 minutes late, I found the right class and entered a big, noisy room of 30 university students, thus beginning my teaching career in Mexico.