Navigating the Mexican Immigration Rules
How to Gain Legal Non-working Residency in Mexico
|The temporary residential visa received by the author to live in Mexico.
Editor's note: If you seek to work in Mexico, you may wish to also read How to Work Legally in Mexico: The Insider's Guide to Obtaining a Visitor Visa for Work.
While much of the political attention in the USA has focused on the flow of immigrants from Mexico, the data from both countries shows more people moved to Mexico than from Mexico across the U.S. border between 2009 and 2012. The New York Times reported in September of 2013 that “Americans now make up more than three-quarters of Mexico’s roughly one million documented foreigners, up from around two-thirds in 2000.” No one knows how many more are living in the country on a tourist visa, which can last nearly six months.
Whether six-month snowbirds or year-round residents, plenty of people from the north have found a life they like better across the border. While many Mexicans head to the United States or Canada for higher pay or better education, many go the other direction to cut down their expenses. Living in Mexico can cost 40-50% less than a comparable life in the United States and for those paying for their own medical insurance and co-pays in the U.S., the reduction can be even larger. For those tired of braving northern winters or the rainy northwest, sunny beaches and “eternal spring” mountain areas can exert a strong pull.
Becoming a legal Mexpat is not as simple as it used to be, however. Although the process was pitched by the Mexican government as “streamlining” when new laws went into effect in November of 2012, the kinks are still being worked out. There are two kinds of temporary visas (“Visas de Residente Temporal”) to consider and both underwent a radical change. The first is a temporary work visa, whereby your time in the country is tied to having a local job. See the Working Legally in Mexico story in Transitions Abroad for on that track. As in most countries, this visa is usually reserved for those doing something a local can’t so easily do: teach English with a native speaker’s accent, for example, or play in the symphony orchestra with a music degree from a top American university. Others get these visas when they go to work for the local office of a multi-national company such as Oracle, Scotiabank, or Unilever.
New Residency Income Requirements
Most people who move to the country for the weather, culture, or lower expenses are coming on a non-working visa, which means they must show the means to support themselves. For most retirees, that’s relatively straightforward. Technically the requirement is an income of $2,000 per month for one person or $2,500 for a couple. This normally equates to some kind of pension or IRA/401K regular withdrawal in addition to Social Security, but I’ve heard many cases where the income requirements were softened for retirees who could also show some assets in terms of savings or real estate.
In case you’re wondering, that monthly amount is calculated to be roughly 400 times the daily minimum wage for Mexico, which is about 88 pesos ($4.70).
For those who are not retired, requirements are the same on paper but consulate or embassy personnel seem to be requiring a higher income level. This often comes out to $2,500 per month for a single person, then $500 for each dependent. The local consulate or embassy apparently has the latitude to demand more, however, as the one where I started my process (in Orlando, Florida) wanted to see a bare minimum of $4,000 a month flowing through my checking account for myself, my wife, and my daughter and mentioned at one point that we were okay since my income was “more than $5,000 per month.” Whether this was the result of inexperience with the new laws in a little-visited consulate or a liberal interpretation of the rules, I don’t know. As the laws are written, showing assets of more than $126,000 is supposed to suffice in lieu of a steady income, but in my case neither retirement savings accounts nor real estate owned outright in Mexico seemed to factor at all into the decision.
Apply at Home, Not in Mexico
The other major change in the new requirements is that you absolutely must start the process in your own country, not after arriving in Mexico. Prior to late 2012, it was possible to enter the country on a 180-day tourist visa and then take your sweet time applying for residency. Now, if you haven’t planned ahead, you must return to the U.S. before applying.
You must apply in person after filling out forms, which means driving or flying to a Mexican consulate or embassy. The previous link displays a list of consulates embassies, arranged alphabetically by city (Albuquerque to New York). Some of them have a list of documents you must bring and others will email it. Then bring anything else you can think of that might not be on there. You should probably plan on staying for several weekdays in case another document or two is requested—more common than not. We ended up having to come back because they wanted a copy of our marriage license as well as an original birth certificate for our daughter. They also wanted 12 months of bank statements, notarized by the bank. If you’re doing all your banking electronically now, they may not even store that many months where you log in, so you have to visit the bank and get printouts or plan ahead and start printing them yourself.
Obviously, it behooves you to have as much money flowing through there as possible if you’re self-employed. If you receive a salary from a company and you’ll continue to receive that salary, you will need to print out or copy months of pay stubs. Oddly, tax returns don’t seem to matter.
This is only the first step. It may take several days to be processed and approved, then you pay $35 per person and get a visa covering a page in your passport. The visa looks official, with your photo and everything, but in reality, this is only giving you permission to now go to Mexico and apply for your residency, which must be done within 30 days of arriving in the country.
Welcome to Mexico — Don’t Go Anywhere
While that process is in motion, you cannot leave Mexico, so don’t plan any international jaunts after arrival. Step one in Mexico is filling out this online form (in Spanish), printing it, and bringing passport photos and a payment receipt to the consulate or embassy. You will find one of these in major cities as well as where many foreigners live. Most of them have an office next door that will get all this sorted out for you for a reasonable fee of the equivalent of $40 to $60. The actual visa fee is not so reasonable though: 3,130 pesos, which at current exchange rates is about $240. This must be paid again every year while you’re a resident who plans to stay, though in year two you can pay for the next two at once and get a discount. New applicants rarely are approved for more than one year the first time applying.
The next step is to come back to the consulate or embassy office a week to ten days later after you are approved. (Which you should be unless they find something they don’t like in your application.) In this visit you are returning for just one reason: to give them your fingerprints. That starts the final part of the process: generating your residency card. For this visit and the one following, you can track the visa process online to see when it’s time to return to the immigration office.
Approval and Your ID Card
The last step is the best one: picking up your residency card, known as a CURP card. This is the same kind of national identity card that the locals carry and you show it when leaving and entering the country. Children enrolled in school are supposed to have this card to be registered in the system, though if your child is in a private school they may let you enroll on a tourist visa.
With this legal status you can get a few discounts here and there, open a bank account, and tap into the national health system after another round of paperwork and a physical. After four years, you can become a permanent legal resident, with no need to reapply or continue paying fees. While there are income requirements for this, so far they have not been enforced much: four years of paying the bills seems to be sufficient evidence of solvency.
When you leave and enter the country, you show this card and your visa. You even enter the Mexican Residents line at the airport customs room instead of the (usually longer) foreigner's one.
As with any dealings with government bureaucracy anywhere, getting a Mexican residency visa can feel like a drawn-out, inefficient process meant to try your patience. However, if you can support yourself through a virtual job or have funds to draw from at home, becoming a legal resident of Mexico is much more straightforward than it is for those coming the other direction.
If you have no way of coming close to the stated income requirements—which after all are far higher than you really need to live here, especially in the interior—then just come on a tourist visa and figure it out from there. Stay less than 180 days or leave the country and return. Just understand that you won’t be able to do this indefinitely without arousing suspicion.
For more detailed information, track down a message board for the area where you’re planning to live and ask questions of new arrivals or visit the section on Mexican residency from Mexperience.com.
TIM LEFFEL is living in Mexico with his family for the second time and owns a home in Guananjuato. He is the author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.