While Mexico does not market a full-blown program designed to entice foreign retirees to its shores, this country is nevertheless a friendly haven for retirees and others from the U.S., Canada, and beyond.
As an expat on one of two types of visa, you can bring your household goods in duty-free, and, as long as you can prove you have a steady non-Mexican-generated income, the proper visa will allow you to come in and out of the country as many times as you like.
If you plan to spend just a small part of the year in Mexico and rent a furnished place, you may not even want to bother getting a visa. Your tourist card, the FM-T, is good for six months.
However, if you do plan to live in Mexico full time or even for six months a year, you may want to investigate your other options. We’ll outline them for you here. Please consider the material in this chapter a guideline. As we go to press, all these facts and figures are correct, but regulations and fees regarding visas change fairly regularly.
The National Immigration Institute of Mexico
The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is the governmental body that issues visas and immigration papers within Mexico. It is also the organization that sets the rules for the consulates (though, as we’ve noted elsewhere in this chapter, the consulates seem to run little domains of their own, each one with slightly different visa requirements).
Immigration—what kind of visa do you need?
FMT Tourist Permit: The first time you come to Mexico, you will no doubt do so on a Tourist Permit...an FMT. You will be given one on your flight into the country or at the border when you cross by car or truck. FMTs can also be obtained at any Mexican consulate, although there is really no reason to do this in advance.
The cost of an FMT is automatically added to the cost of your airline ticket. If you are traveling by car, you will pay for it (currently a $27 fee) when you cross the border. Your FMT tourist card (a piece of paper, really) allows you to remain in Mexico up to six months (180 days) without working. You can easily renew your FMT by leaving Mexico within the allotted 180-day period, and then re-entering the country. For this reason, some people never bother getting any other type of visa. However, if you are going to make Mexico your permanent home, and purchase property there, we suggest you get a more permanent visa.
On an FMT, you can bring in a reasonable amount of personal effects. This varies according to the Customs inspector. Yes, there is an official list but it is seldom followed. You can bring in personal communications equipment...cameras and a laptop computer, for instance. If you don’t have a lot of stuff, don’t worry about it. You may have to pay a duty (15% to 20% on a desktop PC, for instance) but if the items are used, you can likely convince the Customs inspector that they are for personal use and not for resale and you will be waved through without any duty owed.
FM-3 Non-Immigrant Visa: There are nearly a dozen different types of FM-3 (officially known as no inmigrante visitante) visas, including business designations that have been created since the passing of NAFTA. Most do not affect retirees or others who plan to spend extended time in Mexico. Don’t let the process intimidate you; obtaining the proper visa is easier than it sounds.
Basically, the FM-3 is designed for those who wish to live at least part-time in Mexico, but do not necessarily intend to make it their permanent home. The specifics change from time to time, so be sure to check with your nearest Mexican consulate for the most up-to-date information.
The most common type of FM-3 is the FM-3 rentista. It is often called the “retiree visa,” though anyone can obtain it. The rentista designation simply means that you are living in Mexico on funds received from abroad.
To be granted an FM-3 rentista, you will need to obtain and complete the proper form from the consulate and provide a passport, five passport-sized photos (three front view and two right profile), a letter (in Spanish) stating why you want to establish residency in Mexico, and statements from your bank, investment company or social security saying that you are financially independent.
You must show that you have a monthly income of approximately $1,000 minimum, plus $500 for each dependent. This required amount can be reduced by 50% if you own property in Mexico. You will also need to provide your marriage certificate (if your spouse also wants an FM-3) and/or a divorce decree if you are divorced. You may also be asked to provide a document from your local police stating that you are not a criminal. The last time we checked, the fee for this type of visa was $140 for most nationalities. Check with your local consulate for the exact fee you will be charged. Don’t forget to save all your receipts and papers related to converting dollars to pesos each month; when you renew your visa, you’ll have to show that you converted dollars to pesos equal to the monthly income requirements for your type of visa.
Note: Getting an FM-3 should be an easy process, although we know of people who have had difficulties. It can be frustrating to make multiple trips to the consulate only to be told you are missing one critical piece of paper. For this reason, companies providing turnkey immigration services have become popular. Ask your realtor to recommend one in the area of Mexico where you decide to live.
Other sources for assistance (often free) may be found through local American Legion and VFW posts located throughout Mexico.
FM-3 Business Visas: Several FM-3 business designations have been created since the passing of NAFTA. For short business trips, a 30-day visitante representative comercial visa can be obtained for free at the border or airport. If you will be in Mexico longer than 30 days, or repeatedly, get the visitante hombre de negocios FM-3 business visa from any Mexican Consulate. You will need a letter from your company outlining your business in Mexico. Present this in person, along with your passport, five passport-size photos (three front view and two right profile) and your company’s articles of incorporation. This visa is good for one year and entitles you to conduct business but not work or earn wages in Mexico.
The current fee is about $100. There are several other types of FM-3 Business Visas, including those for technicians, investors, artists, athletes, students, etc. Check with your local consulate for more details.
FM-2 Immigrant Visa: The FM-2 (inmigrante rentista) visa is designed for those who intend to permanently reside in Mexico or seek Mexican citizenship. You must show a higher monthly income ($1,500 and half that for each dependent), although again, if you own property in Mexico, that amount can be halved.
Years ago, FM-2s were the only visas available to foreigners who wanted to work in Mexico. Today, thanks to NAFTA, the FM-3 replaces the FM-2 as a working visa. Essentially, the FM-2 is like a green card, or resident alien visa. It entitles you to many of the rights of a Mexican citizen (except voting) and entitles you to work. The FM-2 is now the visa for those who ultimately want to obtain Mexican citizenship. It strictly limits the amount of time you’re allowed outside Mexico while you have the FM-2, whereas the FM-3 allows multiple entries and exits.
The laws regarding time requirements to apply for FM-2 status are changing. For years you needed to have five consecutive years of FM-3 status to go to FM-2. Now FM- 2 status can be applied for immediately. However, we’ve heard from local authorities that this varies from state to state and immigration office to immigration office, so make sure you check with the local Mexican immigration office in the area you want to settle.
After five consecutive years of FM-2 status, you can apply for permanent inmigrado status. Inmigrado status does not require you to give up your native citizenship, but holders may freely work and remain in Mexico without renewing immigration papers annually. The drawback is that with this status, you are only able to drive a Mexican-plated vehicle and there is a limit on how much time you can be out of Mexico.
FMG Transmigrante Visa: The FMG visa is for people traveling through Mexico to Central America, particularly if you are taking a lot of stuff with you. This visa costs $150 or more, and you will most likely be required to produce a police letter stating that you are not a criminal as well as documentation that proves that your vehicle is not stolen.
Missionaries: To work as a missionary in Mexico, you must have a special visa that entitles you to preach or work at a specific church. To get this, apply at a Mexican consulate and present the same documentation as for other visas along with a letter from the church or location in Mexico where you will be working.
Don’t plan on bringing a lot of clothes, medicines, etc. with you unless you are willing to pay the Customs duty on them.
Working in Mexico
Yes, you can work in Mexico, but unless you own your own business there, it won’t be easy and probably not very lucrative. Remember, the average minimum wage in Mexico is half or less of what it is in the U.S. Many workers in Mexico earn much less than minimum wage. There is stiff competition for jobs, and you will not be allowed to do a job that will take work away from local employees.
Many people work off the books (illegally) in Mexico, keeping a low profile until they become legal. We do not recommend this because if you are caught, you can be deported and everything you own can
be confiscated. There are ways, however, to work legally in Mexico. The simplest way is to do so as a consultant...via the Internet...with money paid to you in the U.S. or your official country of residence.
Officially, to get working papers, you must have an FM-3 or FM-2 visa. You can apply for these papers at the same time you apply for an FM-2 inmigrante visa. If you don’t want to wait the five years it takes to qualify for an FM-2, you can either start your own business and set up a Mexican corporation, or you can try to prove that 1) your endeavor is unique and only you are capable of doing it (you’d be surprised at what qualifies) and/or 2) you will be creating employment for Mexicans.
FM-2s can now be applied for immediately upon entering Mexico. You cannot apply for an FM-2 outside of Mexico as you can for an FM-3. You also cannot obtain Inmigrado status from an FM-3—you must hold a valid FM-2 for five years.
Additionally, you’ll have to buy a Mexican-plated vehicle if you want to drive in Mexico on an FM-2 or as an Inmigrado. In your favor, Mexico welcomes foreign investment and offers countless opportunities for new businesses. A recent law change now allows foreigners to own 100% of a Mexican corporation. Talk to the immigration authorities in your Mexican residence about your options. We also recommend that you consult with a local Mexican attorney. NAFTA has made living and doing business in Mexico easier than ever before.
Starting May 1 2010, new immigration procedures are being brought into effect in Mexico.
In summary, procedures for tourists who carry a passport from a country on Mexico’s “no visa required” list are virtually unaffected by the new procedures. Business visitors from these countries are now allowed to remain in Mexico for a maximum of 180 days (it used to be 30 days), and a number of procedural changes have been introduced to make the issuance and renewal of FM3 and FM2 visas simpler.
If you plan to be in Mexico for more than 180 days in a calendar year, you should apply for a FM3 or FM2 visa to assure your resident status complies properly with the rules as published.
In addition to visa requirements, you also need to check your residency and tax status if plan to stay in Mexico for more than 180 days a year. Most countries (including Mexico) operate a rule that states if you are physically present in a country for more than 180 days in a calendar year you are deemed resident there and may be subject to local taxes on your income. You should seek professional advice from an immigration lawyer and tax accountant about matters relating to residency and tax in Mexico.