By: Ted Campbell | TransitionsAbroad.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 like 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.
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.
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. Then you can truly enjoy living in Mexico, and you may find that you never want to leave.