Moving to a foreign country is no easy feat, as there are lots of factors to consider, from specific lifestyle choices to the broader day-to-day conditions. While a move to any foreign country is going to be different, there are specific living in Mexico pros and cons to consider.
Mexico is a vibrant and exciting country that offers a unique cultural experience. It is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, breathtaking mountain landscapes, and a vibrant and lively culture. Mexico is a great place to live for those who want to experience the best of both worlds: modern amenities and traditional culture. This is no backwater, behind-the-times country when it comes to highways, shopping malls, and internet speed, but tradition and culture are imbued in everyday activities and festival times all year long.
With its warm climate, friendly people, and diverse attractions, Mexico is one of the best places to call home if you’re moving abroad. I’ve been calling it home permanently since 2018 and it was my home off and on for many years before that. My daughter went to school in Mexico for three years so she actually wrote the first draft of this article for me.
If you want a more personal rundown on what I spend, check out this post on my life in Guanajuato and what it costs me. In short, we live quite well but with a much lower cost of living than we ever had in the states.
The Pros of Living in Mexico:
I obviously think the pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin for living in Mexico. I was going back and forth between Florida and Guanajuato for a decade and I was never very thrilled about leaving Mexico to return to the land of my birth. It felt overpriced, overstressed, and overly work-obsessed in comparison.
Americans often ask me why I moved there, usually with a bit of a puzzled look on their face, and I don’t really expect them to understand. Or care if they do really. But I enjoy better weather, better prices, better food, and a more comfortable lifestyle for a fraction of the price. Since my work doesn’t miss a beat while I’m on the other side of the border, it’s very positive overall.
Proximity and Reasonable Flight Deals
This only applies to North Americans, but if you’re coming from the USA, Canada, or Central America, Mexico is one of the cheapest and easiest countries to reach from your local airport, whatever airport that may be. Mexico is just a hop over the border from California, Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona, plus it has more flights from the USA and Canada than to any other country.
Often the flights to Mexico are roughly the same as a long domestic flight if you’re just going to a resort area or Mexico City. Prices can top $500 if you’re headed to a less popular destination, but there are ways around this too by just grabbing the cheapest flight to Mexico and then hopping another cheap domestic one from there. Although we lost two Mexican budget airlines this decade, we’ve gained one and another is on the way, so there’s plenty of competition on most routes.
Seach flights from your airport here.
The affordability of living in Mexico varies depending on the region, but for most expats this is a huge benefit to moving here. In general, housing, food, and transportation are much more affordable in Mexico than in many other countries. The low cost of living in Mexico is drastically less than in the United States, although there are exceptions in places catering to wealthy foreigners who could live anywhere. These include the best neighborhoods of Mexico City, the center of San Miguel de Allende, and resort areas catering to millionaires such as Los Cabos and Punta Mita.
Beyond these exceptions, however, in most areas a person can move from a city in Canada or the USA and immediately cut their expenses in half, no matter what the current exchange rate might be. Eating and drinking out are bargains, cultural performances cost a few bucks, and there’s plenty you can get for a dollar or less in Mexico.
Your monthly housing price should drop quite a bit. The average cost of rent for most residents is somewhere between $300 and $1,000 per month. My property taxes are less than $200 per year.
There are huge savings in the cost of healthcare, fresh fruit and vegetables, public transportation, and domestic help like house cleaning, gardening, or childcare. Since the cost of labor is lower, everything from getting laundry done to getting clothing altered will cost far less than you’re used to. And they still fix things in Mexico, like TVs, furniture, blenders, and shoes.
If you want to get an idea of rental prices where I live, away from the beach resort crowds, check out this post on central Mexico rental costs, with real listings and prices. It’s easy to find a better life for half the price in this country.
Mexican culture is rich, vibrant, and diverse. It is a blend of Native American and Spanish aspects, with influences from other parts of the world—like the tubas and accordions showing up in “Mexican music.” Mexican culture has been shaped by its history, geography, and the presence of many different ethnic groups. The result is a lot of distinct music, literature, art, cuisine, and holidays.
Its traditional values emphasize family, religion, and respect for the elderly. Mexican culture has also been shaped by its political environment, with a strong sense of patriotism, national pride, and resilience. All of these factors contribute to be an incredibly unique country whose culture stands out from the others, even compared to other Latin American countries where the Spanish ruled for centuries.
Like the cuisine (see below), there’s also a lot of variation in culture in this large country. You’ll find different dress and customs in the Yucatan Peninsula than you’ll find in Oaxaca and it will be very different again in Jalisco.
It would be easy to argue that Mexican food is the most original and distinctive in all of the Americas. It’s easier to point to something and call it “Mexican food” and then have someone from another country halfway around the world recognize that than you could for anything from the United States, Canada, Colombia, or Chile. It is a blend of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European, especially Spanish, elements added after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century.
Naturally it has been influenced by the cuisines of other countries, including the United States, in recent decades, but it’s interesting that many of its core elements have been in place for 1,000 years or more, such as corn tortillas, tamales, refried beans, and the fermented drink known as pulque. Traditional Mexican cuisine is known for its intense and varied flavors, colorful decoration, and variety of spices and chilies. You can get amazing street food for a few bucks or have the gourmet meal of a lifetime and both will be memorable.
Dishes vary by region, but some of the most common ingredients include corn, beans, chilies, tomatoes, meat, and avocados. You have probably tried most of the popular Mexican dishes including tacos, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, tamales, and mole. With the basis of Mexican cuisine centering around similar ingredients combined in different ways, it is a great food culture to grow with and get used to and has customizable options for those with specific diets or food restrictions.
Visas in Mexico
Mexico is a place with a fairly relaxed visa policy and has various visa and “permission to stay” options to accommodate slow-traveling visitors, snowbirds, and long-term permanent residents. There are short-term, multiple-month options that require leaving after six months and maybe venturing to your home country for a period of time. These are great if maybe you just want to dip your feet in for a few months and they’re ideal for digital nomads. After a period where they were cracking down on this during the pandemic, people now seem to be getting 180 days upon arrival automatically again for the asking.
This 180-day one is typically called a tourist visa though it’s technically not a visa at all since you get this permission to stay automatically upon arrival unless you’re from a restricted country. It’s called an FMV and thankfully is electronic now at most airports, with no need to hold onto that little piece of paper to return it later.
If you want to put down roots, there are two basic options for Mexican residency visas. Most people get a temporary residency visa, which is good for one year and can be renewed for three more years, either annually or all at once (pre-paid for three years). This costs a bit of money when applying in the USA and then more when getting it finalized in Mexico, but then you can come and go as you please.
Sometimes if you’re old enough and have high enough income or assets, you can go straight to permanent residency, which I was able to do when I applied back in 2021. Oddly enough though, they gave my wife temporary residency even though she was classified as a dependent. You can’t always depend on logic when dealing with immigration—in any country. Here’s our story on getting Mexican residency visas. Note that the income requirements have gone up quite a bit though; you can’t move here if you’re broke. You’ll probably need to show a monthly income level of $3,200 or more or assets of $55K or more to qualify as of 2023.
There are other options such as a work visa, study abroad visa, and the like, so look into those if one applies to your situation. If you have some kind of residency visa, you can open a local bank account and there are a few other advantages like tapping into public health care (most don’t) or getting resident discounts at attractions or museums.
Transportation in Mexico, Including Your Feet
Something to note if you’re looking to explore all over the country is that Mexico has great transportation systems in place, most notably the buses, which are comfortable and frequent for wherever you want to go in Mexico. They’re nice, more spacious than planes and quite affordable for what you get. They can be $8 to $11 per hour of travel though, so they work better for slow travelers and residents than on-the-move travelers trying to check lots of things off their list.
There is also an extensive airline network with lots of competition. Aeromexico is joined by Volaris, Viva Aerobus, Tar, and more that can get you where you need to go, often for not much more than the bus. I frequently fly to beach areas from my inland location for $100 or less one way, even when I check a bag. Check prices at Kayak or the individual airline site.
Unlike in most of the United States, you don’t need a car in most places in Mexico where foreigners have settled apart from a few spread-out exceptions like Lake Chapala and Los Cabos. Colonial-era cities prioritize pedestrian areas and in my home city of Guanajuato, pedestrian streets outnumber ones with cars on them at least 10 to 1. There are far more people walking than in vehicles in these compact cities built hundreds of years ago and in cases where you can’t walk, taxis and rideshare rides will only set you back a few dollars.
As far as local transportation goes, some of the larger cities have a metro system and in all of them, buses are still very common, reliable, and cheap. A local bus will usually be less than 50 cents and in the major cities they’re often electric or hybrid ones with their own dedicated lane. Public transportation in Mexico is provided by a variety of methods, including buses, minibuses, trains, subways, light rail, airport shuttles, and taxis. Mexico City and some others have a public share bike system.
If you do need a car where you move to, you can get from city to city easily on the major highways, which are much like U.S. interstate highways but without all the billboards and matching chain restaurant logos. (See the cons on the car ownership and tolls though…)
Climate and Weather
Unless you love snow, you’ll be able to find your ideal climate in Mexico. This is a large country with various climates to choose from thanks to the variety of altitudes, weather systems, and topographies. The country experiences a wide range of temperatures and weather patterns, ranging from a tropical climate in the Caribbean Coast beach areas and on the Pacific Coast to downright cold in January in the higher elevations.
Mexico’s climate can be classified as tropical, arid, semiarid, and temperate, depending on the region. The temperatures in Mexico vary drastically due to the different elevations and the influence of the ocean. The coastal areas tend to be more humid and have higher temperatures than the inland regions, while the mountainous regions have cooler temperatures.
There can be variance in the humidity too: while the Caribbean beaches are humid and temperatures can top 100F degrees for days on end on the Gulf coast, the Baja Peninsula is a desert and while still hot, is much drier.
Schooling in Mexico
If traveling with children, schooling could be considered a pro and a con. Private schools are notably excellent and affordable, and there is an array of bilingual or full Spanish options. However, public schools tend to not be rated very highly, and class sizes can be massive, so it can be pretty overwhelming and not as accommodating to foreigners.
Another thing to note is that the grades are separated by elementary, (primaria) middle school, (secundaria) and high school (prepatoria) but elementary goes up to 6th grade, and middle school to 9th, leaving only 3 years for high school, which varies from the most common American system.
Our daughter went to a Waldorf school for elementary and a top private middle school for two years later. We paid a tad less than $300 per month in both cases. This was Spanish-only though, the only option in our small city. If you want English instruction, you’ll need to be in a place with lots of foreigners or wealthy elite Mexicans and it will cost much more. (This is true in most countries where English is not the first language.)
The Cons of Living in Mexico
Moving to a foreign country will naturally mean making some sacrifices. Ideally you move to a place where the pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin, but it’s important to know—and sometimes embrace—the aspects that are unfamiliar or difficult. Otherwise you’ll be one of those expatriates that settles down in a place and then leaves a year later because you’re constantly frustrated, angry, or uncomfortable.
In my opinion, there are far more positives than negatives when living in Mexico, but I’m also a well-traveled person who is liberal and open-minded. If you’re set in your ways and not open to different cultures, new environments, and challenges, it might be a different story. You can just transplant yourself to a cheaper place and expect to find a “little America” or “a slice of Canada,” even if you’re surrounded by other expats from your country.
Unfortunately to some, Mexico, for the most part, is definitely a country where you need to know the language. Apart from a few expat enclaves like Ajijic and resort city bubbles like Playa del Carmen, you can’t expect to get by in English all the time, even in the most basic situations.
Of course there are exceptions such as cities with a large English population such as San Miguel de Allende, but communication is key, and Mexico locals don’t tend to know English aside from in more central tourist areas. You’ll have a hard time communicating what you want in a supermarket, convenience store, immigration office, or repair shop without at least a basic grasp of Spanish. Good luck finding a housekeeper, gardener, handyman, or nanny who is fluent in English.
In small towns where there are few foreigners, your chance of finding someone who speaks English drops to zero unless you luck out and find a migrant worker who lived abroad and has now returned.
Fortunately, there are more tools out there for learning Spanish than probably any other foreign language and thousands of movies and TV shows you can watch with subtitles on. Group classes and private lessons are both inexpensive on the ground in Mexico. Also, the Mexican people tend to be quite patient and gracious when you butcher their language. They’re generally happy that you’re at least making the effort.
Punctuality and “Mexican Time”
Mexico is notorious for nothing ever being on time, so if you’re used to the timeliness of the US or northern Europe, Mexico takes a bit of adjustment. People being late is incredibly common, as well as things starting late, so it’s best to plan ahead and set up some instances for earlier than you’d actually want people to be there.
If something is running late, whether it’s the bus, a concert start time, or a parade, Mexicans will shrug and patiently wait it out. There’s a saying that you hear in many countries like this that “the only time they’re in a hurry is when they’re behind the wheel.” Start times are fluid, including when that construction crew is going to show up on Monday. They said 9:00, but it could be 10:30. Or 12. Or maybe the next day because something came up and they forget to text you…
Get used to it and go with the flow. Otherwise the lack of punctuality could drive you crazy. Eventually you might even find it kind of liberating. If you’re running late to meet someone for coffee, no need to apologize. They’ll be happy to see you when you arrive.
Convenience and Accessibility
The USA, being a notoriously capitalistic country, prizes convenience, choice, and accessibility above all else. You can get pretty much whatever you want whenever you want if you’re willing to pay for it. In Mexico, you’re not going to necessarily be able to get good pizza or Indian food whenever you want, or maybe find your favorite snack at the grocery store, or you’ll have to travel to a larger nearby city in order to get certain tech or household objects.
You might find two brands competing for shelf space in the grocery story, not 40 brands (unless we’re talking about tequila). You don’t have the vast selection of cosmetics, craft beer, quality clothing, and electronic gadgets that you can find in your country of birth.
Lots of simple things we maybe don’t notice or take advantage of in the US can become a big factor of your day-to-day life in another country. While this probably isn’t one of the first things you think of, if you’re set in a lot of your current ways of living, from simple eating and shopping to access to books and movies in your native language, it’s ultimately one of the most important ones to consider.
This aspect has gotten a lot easier since I first moved to Mexico in 2011 for a year, however. First Mercado Libre came along and then more recently, Amazon launched in Mexico. So while a lot of things aren’t available in local stores, they may be available with a few mouse clicks these days.
It’s no secret that Mexico has more than its fair share of crime. Extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking are in the news all the time. While the Mexican government has taken a number of steps to reduce crime rates and improve security, it remains an issue of concern for both tourists and residents. The criminal cartels have a lot of power and influence and Mexico is in a similar situation as the USA was in during the prohibition era a century ago.
While I have never had a problem personally, nor has anyone in my family, it is something that requires awareness and a few precautions. It’s generally not a good idea to drive around at night, for instance, or to do something stupid like buy drugs on the street. Otherwise though, I feel far safer in Mexico than I have when living in the USA, for example, because there are far fewer guns on the street and there are almost no random shootings of innocent people like you see almost every week in “the land of the free.”
Another smaller factor you may not consider is mail, as there are so many places in Mexico where it’s nearly impossible to get it. There are plenty of cities where you can rent private mailboxes and in San Miguel you can actually get an address that’s in Texas but is delivered locally, but they tend to be pricey and international shipping fees are a pain.
Amazon Mexico is a fairly new endeavor, but it’s not as quick and easy as in the US depending on where you live. I’m on a pedestrian-only street up a bunch of steps on a hill, so even though that’s a common situation, I have trouble relying on Amazon.
I also almost never ship anything to or from the USA because it’s either unreliable through the postal service or super expensive via DHL. Many expats find that it’s cheaper to pay an airline for an extra bag than it is to ship to or from Mexico.
A Cash Society
While the number of places you can use a credit card increases each year, this is not a country where you want to go out without cash in your pocket. You can often use a credit card in a nice restaurant, at a hotel, in a mall store, and in chain supermarkets, but far more often you’ll need to pay in cash. This is especially true for taxis, market stalls, family restaurants, and basic bars. While some coffee shops in the USA no longer even take cash, it’s rare that you’ll find a non-corporate coffee shop in Mexico that even has a credit card machine.
Many large transactions are still done in cash, so keep that in mind when you’re having work done on your house or you need to pay the housekeeper’s annual bonus. If you don’t have a Mexican bank account this means a lot of trips to the ATM when you’ve got a big project going on, so ideally have a card that doesn’t ding you for a lot of fees. Mine from Fidelity actually reimburses the local ATM fees.
Water in Mexico
Google gets tens of thousands of searches each month with some variation of “Can you drink the water in Mexico?” For most parts of the country, the answer is no.
Water in Mexico is not drinkable in most cities and towns, so purified water is something that has to be purchased. This is a bit of a hassle, as it impacts menial tasks such as brushing your teeth, washing produce, or making pasta. It also creates tons of single-use plastic waste in a country that’s not very well-equipped to recycle it. (Neither is the USA either, but there’s better theater to convince you otherwise so you’ll feel less guilty.)
In most small towns and even big cities, water is not treated with chlorine or some other chemical to kill off what can make you sick. Also, Mexico has had plenty of mining communities for 500+ years, so in some areas there may be heavy metals in the ground or something else you don’t want to ingest.
How do expats deal with this? Well first of all everyone, including locals, uses those five-gallon bottles of purified water like you see in offices. Guys come around delivering them to homes, restaurants, and coffee shops. Some people install a full-house water filter or just put one in their kitchen sink.
Understand though that locals don’t drink the tap water either so you usually don’t have to worry about ice in your drinks, the agua fresca with fruit that you’re drinking, or the juice you order at a juice stand. Many restaurants have a purification system in place too, for the sink where they wash dishes. There are some places where the tap water is fine, such as in self-contained resorts and parts of Mexico City where the water is actually chlorinated, but this is still rare, unfortunately.
One other note on water: it’s not coming from a high-pressure pipe system into your home. Water is piped to roof tanks for individual homes and businesses, then gravity supplies the water pressure to get it to your nozzles. After years of weak showers, we finally installed a pump on the roof so we could get better water pressure.
Toilet Paper in the Bin
Like a lot of countries with infrastructure that dates back to centuries ago, you generally can’t flush the toilet paper in Mexico unless you’re in a big resort with its own water treatment system. The pipes and public treatment systems can’t handle the paper.
So after you wipe, the TP goes into a trash can and gets thrown out with the garbage. This takes some adjustment, but after a while you get used to it.
Trash on the Ground, Graffiti on the Walls
Mexicans are generally a clean and fastidious people, but all that goes away when they’re tossing their garbage it seems. It’s not unusual to see even grown adults throw a candy wrapper on the ground when they’re just steps away from a trash can. The need for bottled water (see above) creates even more problems because those throw-away containers are still going to be around thousands of years from now if they don’t wash into our oceans first.
It’s rare to find a stretch of Mexican sidewalk that doesn’t have any garbage on it unless you’re in a historic center where the government is paying people to clean up regularly and pick up after the slobs. Merchants sweep in front of their doors and so do many residents, but it’s a constant battle. Then on top of that you have the fact that many people don’t pick up after their dogs and outside of rainy season it can take months to wash away the poop.
There are a few programs in place, usually run by volunteers, to clean up riverbeds, clean up beaches, and collect trash beside highways, but unfortunately they are too few and too far between. The same goes for graffiti, which is a scourge in much of Europe and Latin America. There’s not much will to prevent it or clean it up.
No matter how long you live in Mexico, another con is you’ll always be seen as a foreigner, no matter what. Therefore, if community, perception, and ambiguity are something you’re concerned about, it may be a tough adjustment, or something you can’t settle with long-term. Being a foreigner isn’t necessarily a point of judgement or discrimination from locals, but it’s simply something that will never go away. No matter how fluent you get in Spanish, you’ll still be a gringo.
In my experience, however, this hasn’t been much of an issue. I have a little more trouble blending into the background and being anonymous than I do in my home country, but unless you’re in an area where they seldom see foreigners, you won’t draw undue attention. Vendors are not very aggressive in Mexico and it’s not a country that’s swarming with touts.
There’s also not much of a culture of overcharging foreigners except in vacation playgrounds like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Understand though, if you try to do everything in English, you will overpay more often than those who can communicate in the local language because you’re assumed to be a tourist, not a local resident.
There are more than a million foreigners living in Mexico, though the number could be more than two million if you count all the nomads and snowbirds hanging out on tourist visas. Most will agree that there are more pros than cons of living in Mexico, plus the close proximity to the USA and the affordable cost of living make up for whatever minor annoyances come up regularly.
Thursday 9th of March 2023
Such a great article, thank you for sharing this blog.