I want to start this post by saying my experiences as an expat are unique to me.
I moved to Mexico in 2010 and never looked back. I have returned to the United States only twice in the last decade, and while my life experiences are probably unique from most foreigners who move to Mexico, most of us face similar challenges as expats around the world.
My personal life and experiences probably benefited my transition to living in a foreign country.
I am from the United States, but I never felt like it was my home. I had a nice childhood, good parents, upper-middle-class, never wanted for anything. In my late teen years, my parents divorced and the family shortly dissolved thereafter, so I didn’t have any strong family connections to keep me in the United States. As a 38-year-old gay man, and without children, there wasn’t anything that I felt I would miss by leaving my birth country and starting a new chapter. So, in 2009, I took the plunge and moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Here are the lessons I have learned (for myself and my life circumstances) …
Choose the right location in Mexico to live
I never visited Mexico before moving to the country. I chose Puerto Vallarta based on internet research and two very important criteria for me. First, it needed to be a gay-friendly location. I grew up in a small town, I didn’t want to be uncomfortable with my sexuality again at the age of 38. Second, I wanted a location that was popular with expats because I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Somewhere that English was widely used was important at the time, but now I know that criteria was a huge mistake (more on that later).
I spent six years in Puerto Vallarta and loved every moment. I loved Puerto Vallarta so much, I launched this website, VallartaDaily.Com (PVDN). I only left Puerto Vallarta because of a personal relationship that became toxic and I needed to separate myself from the situation.
However, every dark cloud has a silver lining. By being forced to leave Puerto Vallarta, I was given the opportunity to explore other parts of Mexico that I might not have if life circumstances didn’t motivate me. Since leaving Puerto Vallarta, I have lived in Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Queretaro, Meridia, and Playa del Carmen. If you are keeping track, that is a year in each location. But because of the geography of each location, I was also able to explore other surrounding areas on many weekend trips. Since arriving in Mexico, I have visited all 32 States of this amazing country.
Starting with my internet searches and finally arriving in Puerto Vallarta, I thought that was the only place for me, but opening myself to other places gave me so many other options and perspectives on living in Mexico. I recently purchased an apartment in Mexico City’s trendy neighborhood of Condesa and rent a second apartment in Puerto Vallarta where I split my time in the best of both worlds. One of the world’s largest cities, and the tranquility of the Bay of Banderas. The two places where after 39 years of searching I finally feel like I am home.
Moral of the story: Get to know several places in Mexico before settling on your decision. If Puerto Vallarta is the only place you have visited, I encourage you to expand your adventure of being an expat, maybe dabble in the nomadic lifestyle for a year. Puerto Vallarta might still top the rankings for you, but at least you had an adventure while settling on your new home.
Learn Spanish. Live Spanish.
When I arrived in Mexico I didn’t speak any Spanish. My lack of Spanish was one of the most driving factors for me to choose Puerto Vallarta as my new home in Mexico. I arrived with all good intentions and a stack of Spanish lesson books from Amazon. I was ready to immerse myself in the language and culture. I met many expats in Puerto Vallarta who spoke Spanish, but I also met my share of expats who had lived in Mexico for a decade but still didn’t know enough Spanish to form a complete sentence. I wasn’t going to be one of those, so I thought.
Weeks turned into months, months turned into years. Before I knew it, I had lived in Mexico for five years and couldn’t form a complete sentence in Spanish either. At first, I tried. I would open dialog with ‘Hola. ¿Cómo estás?, but inevitably the reply would be, ‘don’t worry, I speak English’. Speaking English is a source of pride for Mexicans. It opens many more opportunities in Mexico if you speak English. And, of course, Mexicans are the friendliest people on earth, so they want to welcome you and make you feel as comfortable as possible. English was so common in Puerto Vallarta that I didn’t find myself in a situation where Spanish conversations were taking place. I became lazy. I blamed only myself.
It wasn’t until I moved to Oaxaca that I really began learning Spanish, beyond the basic 101 Spanish phrases you need to know. When you get out of the expat communities, your Spanish skills are really put to the test, and speaking Spanish every day is a requirement to survive.
After becoming more comfortable with my Spanish speaking, more opportunities were opened to me. I was able to make new friends without avoiding people because of a communication barrier. I was able to function better in daily life, like going to the market. If you appear to be uncomfortable with speaking Spanish, or simply don’t speak Spanish, you are going to pay more for items. Entering the market with your head held high, and a grasp on the Spanish language lets people know you aren’t just a tourist, you live here, and you know what things should cost.
You can live in Mexico very comfortably without learning Spanish, you might be surprised how many Mexicans speak English. But, if you want to do more than just live in Mexico, and you want to experience Mexico, learning Spanish is the key.
Have a plan for a medical emergency
In February I will turn 50 years old, a big milestone. I have been healthy my entire life. Never admitted into a hospital, never even broken a bone. But approaching 50 has me starting to think long-term and my health as I age.
Mexico does allow foreigners to buy into their social medicine system (IMSS) for a very low yearly cost. I have been buying into their system for about three years now. I haven’t had to use it yet, knock on wood. However, my mother moved to Mexico and it opened my eyes to the difficulty of foreigners living in Mexico and accessing healthcare.
IMSS will not accept any foreigner with preexisting conditions. My mother at over 70 years old is a walking billboard for preexisting conditions. She didn’t take care of herself, and well into her adult life, she became obese and diabetic. While she has lost weight and her health has improved, her years of unhealthy living made it impossible for her to join Mexico’s health system. My mother is a bit of a hypochondriac and depends on Dr. Google a lot, but her experience in Mexico is what motivated me to buy into IMSS before any of the common illnesses that come with age would prevent me from having healthcare in Mexico.
Many expats are in a financial situation where they don’t need to worry about the financial burdens of a health emergency, I am not one of those expats. My mother returned to the USA after living in Mexico for three years because she isn’t one of those expats either. Although, I warned her to consider healthcare before she moved to Mexico.
If you don’t have any preexisting conditions, you can apply for IMSS. It’s affordable and a safety net for an emergency. I wouldn’t use IMSS for the stomach flu or common cold, a private doctor will see you for $5 – $30 USD. If I feel like I need to see a doctor, I pay the premium of $25 USD per visit to a specialist, which is the same as my co-pay in the USA, so private doctors are affordable in Mexico. But it’s nice to know you have a backup plan when it comes to healthcare and the possibility of a serious emergency.
Private insurance is also available in Mexico, but if you are moving to Mexico for retirement, you might be at that age when private health insurance is not affordable. More and more expats are retiring in Mexico to stretch their social security checks a bit further, it’s not just wealthy retirees anymore, so private insurance might not be affordable to some. An insurance plan that I would be comfortable with at the age of 50 would cost me between $800-$1000 dollars per month, with a cheaper plan and less coverage at $300 dollars a month. I haven’t spent more than $200 in the last decade on healthcare costs out of pocket.
If you plan on snowbirding in Mexico and returning to your home country a few months out of the year, perhaps travel insurance can help in emergency situations. You can obtain travel health insurance for six-month trips or less.
Many expats living in Mexico visit their home country on a regular basis and deal with their regular healthcare while visiting home, it’s a good idea, but you need to consider a backup plan for any emergency that can’t wait for you to return to your place of origin to see your doctor.
Healthcare is the second reason expats decide to leave Mexico and return to their home country. So before you move, have a long-term plan on how you will deal with healthcare costs.
Consider family ties
As I alluded to in the opening of this post, I didn’t have strong family bonds. My mother left the family and my father moved 1,000 miles away from anyone in the family. All these events took place after I was 18 years old and my family grew apart, so my experience of moving to a different country was unique in this way. I have spoken to dozens of expats in Mexico, and the number one reason why expats move back to their country of origin is missing their family. Most of them thought returning for holidays and the occasional visits would be enough, turns out it wasn’t. Some had grandchildren or great-grandchildren being born, a family member in need of help, or other family issues that drove them back to their home country.
As I mentioned before, my mother lived in Mexico for three years. She loved Mexico and her plan was to spend the rest of her retirement and life here, but not only did health issues drive her decision to move, so did family issues. Her great-granddaughter was born dangerously premature and my brother was diagnoses with Parkinson’s. Both of these family issues were also a factor in her choice to return home, and she isn’t even close to them.
I would imagine that people with a strong family connection and adults with children would struggle with leaving the family to live in a foreign country, that struggle becomes worse when there is a family emergency that reminds you how difficult it is to be needed when you are so far away.
I cannot speak personally to this because I don’t have those family connections and each family is different. However, each person should consider how they will deal with missing family or friends, and what if a family member falls ill and needs your care? Have a plan. It depends greatly on your financial resources so it’s different for everyone.
Mexico is a unique place, and so is how some things are done. If change is difficult for you, being an expat anywhere isn’t the lifestyle for you. You will be adapting your butt off living in Mexico, and you need to learn how to keep the phrase ‘that’s not how we do it where I am from’, from ever crossing your lips.
The quirky things about Mexico will become the things you love the most once you let go and accept change in your life. Sure, some things seem absurd at first, but over time, with acceptance, the things that used to make you cringe are the things that you couldn’t image being any other way.
The secret to enjoying Mexico is learning adaptability. Sure, you can spend the next few years complaining that things are different, hoping that complaining will actually change something. Or, you can take a deep breath, imagine going through a rebirth, and learn how to live in a new way. I choose the latter.
Keep a U.S. mailing address while living in Mexico
You will be surprised how much you will use a U.S. address, even while living in Mexico. Most banks won’t usually mail bank cards internationally. Some services you may use will require a U.S. address for shipping items or receiving important documents for business, dealing with social security, or other government agencies, and many others that will need a U.S. mailing address.
When I first moved, I didn’t think I would need a U.S. address, I haven’t written a cheque in 20 years and I haven’t accepted a cheque in 15 years. I am 100% digital. In the U.S. it seemed like my post box was primarily a junk mailbox. After I moved, I realized just how much I did accept mail and how many people won’t mail internationally.
Having a mail forwarding service is well worth the low monthly rate to maintain a mailing address in your country of origin. If you don’t have a forwarding service, see if https://www.postscanmail.com/ works for your needs.
Banking in Mexico for expats
I have been in Mexico for over a decade, since then the immigration process has changed dramatically. When I moved to Mexico, I was able to make the move with only my passport and then apply for immigration status when I arrived (FM2 and FM3 at the time). Now you must apply for a visa to live in Mexico at your local Mexican consulate office in your country of origin.
Now you begin as a ‘temporary resident’ and can become a permanent resident after 4 years of living in Mexico. I opened a bank account shortly after arriving in Mexico with HSBC using my then FM3 visa, however, when my mom arrived in Mexico after the immigration laws changed, we couldn’t find any bank that would allow her to open an account with a ‘temporary resident’ status, the only option for a newcomer to Mexico. We never were successful at getting her a bank account in Mexico.
Although I opened an HSBC account in Mexico, it was the worst experience I have had with a bank. After about 12-months with the bank, they ‘lost’ over $3,000 USD from my account, claiming I had withdrawn all the money within 24-hours at multiple ATM machines around the city, although the bank has a 24-hour limit of ATM withdraws set at $400 USD. After HSBC refused to replace the funds or to explain how anyone can withdraw $3,000 USD from ATM machines in a 24-hour period, I closed my account. I was never able to recover the money that was stolen by HSBC.
I have given up the idea of any traditional banking anywhere in the world, and I highly recommend not using banks in Mexico if it can be avoided. I do have a brokerage account with Schwab, but the majority of my banking is done via digital currency.
There are some downfalls. Some online stores (like Amazon) or streaming services (like HBO Max) won’t allow you to pay for products or services using a card that isn’t issued in Mexico (no international cards). I solved this by setting up a Wise account and received a debit card. Wise is like a prepaid Visa card but also has a US bank attached to it for wire transfers so you can transfer money to your Wise account. You can set your address anywhere in the world so you can use it to purchase in Mexico where only national cards are accepted. (Wise.com) I also use my Wise account as my digital money stash because I don’t carry the card with me when I go out. It’s my hideaway account and for online shopping in Mexico.
Ask a question about living in Mexico, or tell me your experience
Do you have a question about living in Mexico that you would like my option about? Ask below and I might include it in How to Live in Mexico Part #2. If you have a personal story about living in Mexico, send it to me, I might choose to share your experience in an upcoming post.