Getting Legal With a Mexican Residency Visa in 2021

What’s the process to get a Mexican residency visa and how much will it cost you? Well, as with nearly any answer related to immigration, “it’s complicated.”

Mexican residency visa curp card

If you go look up what you have to do and what it will cost you to become a legal resident of Mexico, you will find the great pros and cons of the ole World Wide Web on display. You will find plenty of information, yes. Enough to fill a whole day of reading if you’d like. If you read Spanish, two days. You’ll soon learn too that most of what you read will contradict what  you just read before.

There are official Mexican residency rules and not-so-official ones. Each embassy or consulate apparently has wide latitude in how they interpret and implement the Mexican immigration laws. So take all this as an anecdotal rundown of what a family of three had to go through in 2013, then my more recent experience with my wife when we did it again in 2021.

All this was far easier than it would have been for someone coming the other direction, of course, but any time in a government bureaucracy office is going to involve a few surprises and a bit of frustration. Know that going in and keep your cool. The rules aren’t really black and white, so be ready to adapt and accept a few surprises along the way.

First Step: You Must Apply for Mexican Residency in Your Own Country

For close to 10 years now, it’s been next to impossible to apply for Mexican residency within Mexico. Sure, dig around long enough online and you’ll find someone who pulled it off, especially during Covid-19 lockdowns when special concessions were made, but it’s rare. Assume that you must apply for residency before you get to Mexico. You have to go to an embassy or consulate with stacks of papers, come back again if they thought of something you should have brought but didn’t, and pay $44 per person to get a visa that fills up a page in your passport.

That visa is conditional, however. You are only halfway to getting your permanent or temporary resident visa for Mexico. It is giving you permission to apply within 30 days of arriving in Mexico, and in that time you cannot leave the country. You then complete the process at an immigration office.

What did we have to show to get this visa stamp? Well that’s the part that generates a thousand discussions on message boards and Facebook groups. Back in 2012, our family came in armed with IRA statements, college fund statements, closing papers for two houses we own, and even my books to show I was a real working writer. They barely glanced at all that though because what the office we went to (in Orlando) really cared about was how much money was flowing through my checking account.

Mexican consulate to apply for residency visas

The Mexican consulate in Orlando

Mexican Visa Income Requirements – Old and New

The way the old laws were written before 2020, you were supposed to show a level of income based on a large multiplier of the Mexican minimum wage. Depending on the current exchange rate, it worked out to about $2,000 a month in income for yourself, $500 for each dependent for a temporary non-working residency visa for Mexico. The amount started at around $2,500 for one person to become a permanent resident.

But then the local consulate or embassy person can, on a whim, raise (or in theory, lower) those limits on a case-by-case basis. When I did this the first time in 2013, they said since we weren’t retired, we had to show at least $4,000 a month in income for our family of 3 and at a later point he said, “more than $5,000 a month.” Either way that’s an insane amount of income for someone living in central Mexico, especially since we own a house free and clear, but that’s what he wanted to see from me. Fortunately I still qualified, but if my income had been lower I would have needed to “consulate shop” to find one more accustomed to dealing with foreigners, like in Miami instead of Orlando.

We had to return a second time with documents that were not listed as required anywhere: a copy of our marriage certificate and an original birth certificate for my daughter. We had to bring 12 months of checking account statements, notarized by my bank (that part was not listed in the requirements), showing that I was making an average of that amount. Thankfully I qualified, but it’s a good thing the other consulate offices are not so strict because that amount probably put me in the top 5% of Mexicans by income, maybe higher. A Canadian friend had a much easier time in Vancouver. He showed his pension check amount, his government retirement account amount, and that was it. People on message boards have also had a much easier time in Chicago and in Texas, from what I’ve seen.

In 2020 the rules changed and you can see the details on the new income requirements at that link. The bottom line is, thanks to a change in how they calculate everything, you’re supposed to only need to show income of around $1,400 to $1,500 for one person, depending on the day’s exchange rate, and around $400 more for each dependent. Since that gets a lot closer to what a couple living off social security checks will have coming in, this is a big deal. In reality, you can already live well in Mexico for that lower amount. $2,500 for a couple makes you a free spender in this country unless you’re in a high-rent beach tourist zone or Mexico City.

There’s just one problem though: some consulate directors either haven’t gotten the memo or they have chosen to ignore the change. Unfortunately, one of those was the head honcho in Orlando.

Officially, here’s what the Mexican consulate said we had to bring:

  1. Valid passport and a photocopy of it
  2. One passport photo
  3. Documents that prove “economic solvency.” That can mean checking account statements, employment verification letter with income, or savings/brokerage account statements that prove sufficient income and/or sufficient savings. They don’t say these need to be notarized, but both times I visited they demanded that.
  4. Payment of $44 per person.

Unofficially, I’d say you should bring a copy of your marriage certificate and if you have children, copies and originals of their birth certificates. It probably doesn’t hurt to bring your driver’s license, pay stubs, real estate deeds, or anything else that proves your status and solvency. Better to bring things they don’t ask for than have to make a second trip like we did the first time we applied, especially if that’s not your home city.

Our 2021 Mexican Consulate Visa Application

Right off the bat we got a negative surprise when the young man at the consulate window told us we needed an income level that matched the old rules, not the post-2020 ones. That meant a minimum of nearly $2,500 per month for the two of us. (The written amount listed for one person was “300 days of minimum wage in Mexico City, or $1,946 dollars.”) Despite the travel slump of the past year, I wasn’t worried because I had at least $4,000 flowing through my checking account every prior month and after learning my lesson last time, I had 12 months of bank statements printed out and notarized.

The window guy’s boss was in a ball-breaking mood that day though and we were informed that it wasn’t the income that mattered, but what the balance in my checking account was each month. In a twist of logic that’s a stretch even by immigration office standards, he wanted to see more than $2,500 left in my account each month after I paid all my bills. Why anyone would leave that much money sitting around in their checking account each month for a year is a mystery that defies all financial common sense, but government bureaucracy offices are where logic goes to die.

Fortunately, I have two retirement IRA accounts with a hefty amount in them at different brokerages. After looking at the latest statements I had brought, our liaison told us that his boss would accept other statements that showed a balance equivalent to 5,000 days of minimum wage in Mexico City – $32,426 – monthly over the entire year.

I only had the latest statement from my brokerage accounts though and he needed 12 months worth. Thankfully we all have a computer in our pocket now and thankfully I had just installed LastPass on my phone to generate my password for any site. So I logged into both Fidelity and Schwab and downloaded 22 more PDFs to Dropbox, shared the Dropbox link with the consulate, and they printed them all out to add to the two latest ones I gave them already. Our mountain of paperwork was ready.

They told us we could go to lunch and come back while they processed everything, so we did. When we returned in the afternoon, our guy said, “the director is very busy today” (we were the only foreigners there the entire day), but he hoped they could finish up today. We pleaded our case that we drove all the way from Tampa and would have to spend an additional four hours of time and gas if we had to return the next day. Eventually, 5.5 hours after we arrived, after the consulate closed and was empty, we finally got our visas in our passport and were all set.

Whew!

Halfway to being a Mexican resident

Can You Go Straight to Permanent Residency in Mexico?

We were happy to have our visas in hand, but there was another head-scratching aspect to them. They didn’t match. I was granted permanent residency right away, but my legal spouse and dependent only got temporary residency. When we asked why, the answer was, “Her income is not high enough.”

Well…that’s why she’s a dependent, right?

We both said, “Whatever” at the same time though, wanting to get this done any way we could.

It used to be next to impossible for anyone to go straight to permanent residency anyway, so I was looking at it as a bonus. The former process was that you got temporary Mexican residency, renewed it every year, then after four years could go permanent.

A few years ago they started allowing people to go straight to permanent residency, though not at every consulate and not with consistent requirements. It is usually only an option if you are of retirement age with a pension or sufficient retirement income of some other kind. I’ve heard of many younger people asking for it and not getting it, no matter how high their income was because they were not “retired.” Others have gotten it in their 50s like me. Your mileage may vary…

The lesson from all this is, bring all the documents you can—they actually asked for and took the copy of the deed to the house I own in Mexico, even though they didn’t even glance at it when we did this the first time. Get a year’s worth of financial statements notarized, any that you have money in. And if you are going to apply in Orlando a year from now, park a few grand in your checking account and leave it so your balance will be high.

Guanjuato house view

View from our house in Guanajuato, Mexico

The Residency Visa Process in Mexico

Once we were back in Mexico in 2013, we all took a trip to San Miguel de Allende down the road to get official. Once there we had to pay a notary in an office next door to generate photos, forms, photocopies, and other bureaucracy. Some $50 later after the forms help, we went to a bank to pay gobs of money that goes to the government. We went back to the office, took a number, and eventually turned all that in with a receipt from the bank showing we had paid the current equivalent of $260 each in pesos (3,130 each at the time). First step done, but we needed to return again to give them our fingerprints. No, they couldn’t just take them at the same time because technically we weren’t approved to get our visas. Or at least that was the reason given.

We came back eight days later when they told us to during our first visit but it was a wasted trip. Apparently we should have checked our status online. We did actually, but read it wrong. They weren’t ready for us. So we went shopping instead.

A few days later, we returned again, an hour and 15 minutes each way. We took a number, two hours later gave our fingerprints, and went back home to Guanajuato.

A week after that, I went by myself and picked up all three CURP cards: their equivalent of our green card but more of a national ID card. Technically my daughter couldn’t go to school in Mexico without a CURP number, though we managed to do so for a year before no problem.

All in all we spent more than $1,100 and loads of time to get legal. A year later we had to do the local part of this all this over again and yes, pay that $260 each again.

I’m happy to say that the process has gotten much faster in 2021, at least in San Miguel de Allende. Everything is computerized and, I dare say, efficient! At first my wife wanted to pay someone to shepherd the process through, but from what I was reading online it seemed like a breeze to do ourselves since we’re reasonably competent in Spanish.

As I’ve said many times, if you live in Mexico without learning Spanish, you’re going to pay a premium on a regular basis and this is one of those cases. If you need to hire someone to help you with the process, it will cost you $200, $300 or more depending on which person you hire and where.

Mexican immigration office

Saint Michael was watching over us in the immigration office.

The cost to the Mexican immigration office this time was 4,413 pesos for my wife to get temporary residency, 5,879 pesos for me to get permanent residency in Mexico. That works out to $221 and $294 at 20 to the dollar. We came with a driver this time to avoid the bus in Covid times and he took us to the bank where we had to pay those amounts to a specified account and return with the receipt.

We just had one little glitch where we found out we had submitted the wrong form online and needed to send a slightly different other one. No problem though because there’s an internet café across from the San Miguel de Allende immigration office. We went there, submitted it, printed it, and made a couple copies of something else they requested. That was it. We just waited a while, then individually went into an office to get our photos taken and leave fingerprints. They have a card printer right in that office, so we were in and out the same day, Curp cards in hand. After about four hours total in the office, we are now legal residents of Mexico!

Getting Mexican residency cards in San Miguel de AllendeIt pays to do this at an office where they are computerized and the staffers know what they’re doing. We avoided Leon, a city that is closer, because we heard they’re not very organized and we would have to come back another day to finish. From what I see online, it will be smooth sailing in any beach resort area where lots of foreigners live or in a big city like the capital or Guadalajara. In theory you could get it done anywhere: your address is not on the Mexican resident card anyway. It’s a national ID, not a state one.

Once you’re a permanent resident like I am now you get a few more rights, like being able to use the public health care system (most foreigners don’t) or open a Mexican bank account (ditto). The main advantage is that you don’t have to keep visiting an immigration office every year to renew.

If you are temporary and moving to permanent, in theory you’re still supposed to meet the income requirements, but since it’s all done within Mexico, people seem to get the benefit of the doubt. After you’ve been here four years, you’ve obviously found a way to keep supporting yourself, so you’re not considered a risky burden.

Residency Vs. Mexican Citizenship

When I posted on Facebook that I was now a legal resident, lots of people said something like, “Congratulations on your citizenship” or asked, “Are you a dual citizen now?”

Nope, a resident is not a citizen and the latter has a much higher bar to clear. Mexican permanent residency (or temporary) is like a U.S. green card—it grants me the right to stay in the country. I cannot vote or march in political demonstrations and the state has no obligation to support me in any way with a safety net program.

To obtain Mexican citizenship, you generally have to have a Mexican spouse, have Mexican heritage, or at least have been in the country for a very long time. You’ll need to be fluent in Spanish and know a lot about the country and its history (there’s a test). If you make it to the finish line, you get a Mexican passport, can own oceanfront property free and clear, and can vote. See more details here.

Should You Even Bother With These Mexican Visa Requirements?

When we first moved down to Mexico for a year starting in 2010, we decided to just take our chances and stay on tourist visas. You get 180 days upon arrival. We went away to Costa Rica once on vacation in the middle, then Donna and I both had to return to the U.S. once after that for something else. So our daughter was the only one who overstayed the 180 days the second time by a tad. They waved her through upon departure without even looking at her date stamp, no problem.

We were both on tourist visas this last run too, from late 2018 until now. Since I’m a travel writer, I’m normally out of the country every two or three months anyway, so I never had a problem renewing my tourist visa before six months was up. Sure, in theory they could refuse me entry upon return, but until I renewed my passport this year, it had about 40 Mexican stamps from 8 different Mexican airports and nobody ever batted an eye. In general, they’re glad to have your money, so I don’t personally know anyone who has had a problem living here on a tourist visa as long as they played by the rules. Some snowbirds have been doing it for six months at a time for a decade or more.

The pandemic outcome was worrisome though so we decided to get legal again. Mexico’s borders stayed open and we were able to fly back to the USA last year to start the 180 days over again, but what if Mexico had shut down like many other countries did? We would have been in trouble and potentially overstayed our tourist visa. Since we own a house here and it’s full of our accumulated stuff, that’s a worrisome potential outcome. Now if we get stuck here for more than six months, no problem.

If you’re only coming for 180 days or less though, or you can leave in the middle of the year once over the course of a year, you can get by on a tourist visa. You could cross the border from Tijuana to San Diego for the day or take a break in Guatemala if you live in Chiapas. Or do what many do and use it as an excuse for a vacation somewhere you fly to. You can just enter on a Mexican tourist visa and avoid all this trouble and expense. Just have sufficient funds to fly out and back twice a year if you’re not near a land border.

Everything in this post applies to people who are making money remotely or are living off savings, a pension, or investments. If you want to work in Mexico, it’s a different visa you will need and that involves a sponsor. I don’t recommend that approach unless you’re working for an international company that pays international wages, so I’m not covering that here. You’re better off earning dollars or euros elsewhere and spending pesos here.

Have you obtained a Mexican residency visa in 2021? How did it go for you?

 

16 Comments

  1. Elisabeth 04/26/2021
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