Mexico Visa and Residency Information

As you go through the process of country shopping, perhaps the most important criteria (above cost of living, climate, and medical care) is understanding the visa/immigration options for that country and what it takes to qualify as well as what benefits, restrictions, and exclusions are on the table. And as important as it is, too many folks pay scarce attention to it in the beginning.

For our purposes, we will concentrate on the two types of visas sought by the vast majority of expats; Temporary Residency and Permanent Residency. To be completely legal, hopeful expats will need to apply for one of these two types of residency visas. The process is not difficult but does require a bit of paperwork (often beginning online and the forms will be in Spanish), participating in an interview with a consulate officer, and the ability to prove economic solvency that meets the requirement for the visa you seek.

This is probably a good time to acknowledge that a fairly large number of expats are living in Mexico on the frayed edge of legality. They entered as millions do each year as legal visitors/tourists with only a passport and no visa.

Tourists/visitors can legally remain in Mexico, holding only a valid passport, for 180 days and must then leave. This generous policy allows large numbers of Snow Birds to seek asylum from frigid winters north of the border and spend months in the warmth of Mexico. But some take advantage of the intent of this policy and the Mexican government has taken note. Perhaps the government recognizes the positive economic impact generated by these folks and have been slow on enforcement…until now.

A number of tourists/visitors have avoided the visa application process by simply moving their lives to Mexico with no residency visa. They enter as tourists and then exit the country right before their 180 days expire, quickly reentering for another 180 days. They must repeat these border runs every six months. Although this process has worked for a large number of tourists over the years, Mexico is now moving toward stronger enforcement and some who have built lives in Mexico are now being denied reentry without proper documentation. This is a gamble that may result in the inability to return to Mexico. Further, the current state of U.S. and Mexico relations (at the time of this writing) could see the situation at ports of entries change on a moment’s notice.

Begin your Visa process by visiting the website for the nearest Mexican Consulate in your state. Find the section regarding immigration and complete the application. The form will be in Spanish so utilize an interpreter if necessary. Once your basic form has been processed, you should receive an email assigning an appointment date and time. The website should also provide you with a list of the required documents to bring to your appointment which will include a passport photo.

A Consular Officer will review your documents, verify your economic solvency, and ask a few questions regarding your current status and why you want to live in Mexico. Decisions can be made on the spot and your visa could be processed that very day or maybe a day or two later, if all is in order.

Once your visa has been granted and placed inside your passport, you have completed the first step in Mexico´s three step immigration process. Your visa is good for 180 days which means you must arrive at a Mexican Port-of-Entry before it expires. Your entry into Mexico completes the second step in the process and starts the clock ticking. Your new visa is only a temporary document that permits a one-time entry into Mexico as a resident.

The third and final step must be completed within 30 days of arriving in Mexico by visiting a local immigration office and applying for your official residency card through the canje process. It is the issuance of this residency card that makes your residency legal, not the possession of your visa.  If you fail to meet this deadline, your visa will become invalid and you may be directed to leave the country and begin again.

Temporary Residency Visas

Temporary Resident Visas are granted to those who want to stay longer than six months but less than four years. After four years of temporary residency, you can apply to convert to Permanent Residency status, which is normally quite painless. One of the primary reasons that folks initially apply for temporary residency is that the income requirements are significantly less than what is needed for permanent residency. At today´s exchange rate, the income requirement for temporary residency is about $1,620 per month. Add an additional $540 for a spouse.

Temporary Residents can:

  • Purchase and register a Mexican-plated car
  • Open a bank account
  • Import household goods without duty
  • Temporarily bring your U.S. plated vehicle into Mexico
  • Have unrestricted/unlimited entry and exit at borders
  • Obtain permanent residency after 4 Years
  • Prove income of at least $1620 per month plus $540 for spouse or savings of $27,000.

Temporary Residents cannot:

  • Vote
  • Cannot directly own land close to border or beach (Must be placed in trust)
  • Must inform immigration of local employment who will then grant permission
  • Initial issue for one year with renewals available for 1,2, or 3 years
  • No renewals after 4 years. Become a Permanent Resident or leave.

Permanent Residency

Mexican Consulates will collect a $36 fee per visa, upon issuance. When obtaining your residency card, you will pay a fee equivalent to about $265.

Permanent Residents have:

  • All rights of Mexican Citizens except voting
  • No need to renew residency. This is a permanent status
  • Unlimited border crossings…come and go as you wish.
  • Maintain legal employment or self-employment without consent
  • Must prove income of $2,700 per month plus $540 for spouse or show savings of $108,000.

Permanent Residents cannot:

  • Personally own land close to borders or beach (Must form trust)
  • Cannot import foreign plated vehicles.

Do You Need a Visa to Go to Mexico?

How I Got My Mexican Visa

By Melissa Heisler

Los Cabos sits on a peninsula with the mighty Pacific Ocean on one side and the beautifully calm Sea of Cortez on the other. ©Jason Holland/International Living

When I moved to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico in 2015, I had no idea if I would be there one month, one year, or longer. Thankfully, United States and Canadian visitors generally receive a 180-day tourist visa when they enter Mexico, so I had time to figure out how long I was staying and how the visa process worked.

Once my heart told me I was destined to stay, I looked into my options for permanent residence. I decided to apply for temporary residence (Residente Temporal) first. After that, I would be able to apply to become a permanent resident (Residente Permanente—similar to a permanent green card in the U.S.).

The immigration authorities now use a “points system,” with points added based on certain factors. The relevant ones are financial background, ownership of property in Mexico, and a strong relationship between the applicant and Mexico.

As I did not have a job to go to in Mexico, I chose to apply with retirement status. Although I was not even 50 yet, I could use this status if I could show the required retirement funds. This status allows people to come to Mexico who are not intending to work here nor receive any of their social services (with the exception of public healthcare, which is available to all residents).

One important point: The documentation process does not start in Mexico. Coming from the U.S., I needed to go to a Mexican consulate in the U.S. If I were from Canada or elsewhere, it would be at the nearest Mexican consulate in that country.

I decided to travel to Chicago to get things started. Unfortunately, because I had to gather all the documentation I needed, I wasn’t able to complete the process on that first trip and returned to Mexico without it done. Be warned that some consulates will expect to see hard copies of your last 12 bank statements (others will accept six—it varies with location). While the Mexican immigration department has its own requirements, consulates have some leeway to set their own guidelines, too. If I can give one piece of advice, it would be to talk to only one consulate for the entire process and make sure you know their specific requirements.

I returned to the U.S. a few months later, with all my preparations made. I booked a one-way ticket from Cabo to Chicago, as I needed to leave my passport at the consulate and they did not specify when the process would be complete. In the event, it took less than one week. The staff were amazing, the process was smooth, and the cost was minimal (around $40).

Once the consulate finished their process, my passport had a special sticker in it regarding my visa application. It is very important to show this to the immigration desk upon arriving in Mexico, and you must travel to Mexico within 60 days. When you arrive, there is a different immigration process for applicants versus normal tourists, and it needs to be completed at the point-of-entry immigration desk. The officer must give you an entry visa showing “Canje” and not “Tourist.” (If the immigration officer marks you as a “Tourist,” this invalidates the whole process, and you have to start over.)

Finally, you need to go to your local immigration office in Mexico within 30 days of arriving to complete the process and actually get your residence card.

Many people choose to hire a “fixer” or attorney.

I decided to hire help to complete the process in Mexico. Many people choose to hire a “fixer” or immigration attorney, since the paperwork can be complex and the process is in Spanish. It costs between $600 and $1,500, depending on your circumstances and the attorney used. Martha Sandoval, whose office is conveniently next to the immigration building in Cabo, helped me with mine. It took a few weeks, in which time I could not leave Mexico (you must stay in-country for at least a month). But at the end I received my Residente Temporal card.

Temporary resident status needs to be renewed each year, but you can apply to renew multiple years in advance. I renewed after my first year and then paid for the other years upfront, so that I didn’t have to remember to renew. Next January, I will be able to apply for permanent residence.

After one year as a permanent resident, and depending on my score on the points system mentioned above, I can apply to become a citizen of Mexico. Unlike the resident status, there is a time-in-Mexico requirement for the citizen application. In the two years preceding application for citizenship, I cannot be outside of Mexico for more than 180 days total.

To prepare for citizenship, I am also studying hard, as there is an exam on Spanish language, as well as in Mexican history and culture. If I want to bypass the history test, I can just wait until I am 60, when it is no longer required, although I’ll still need to demonstrate knowledge of the Spanish language.

For now, I am proud to be a Residente Temporal and loving the added benefit of bypassing the always-crowded tourist immigration kiosks at the airport.

International Living’s suggested immigration attorneys in Mexico are Ernesto Arrañaga in Playa del Carmen and Mérida (see: Interlexmexico.com) and Diana Cuevas in San Miguel de Allende (contact: [email protected]). Both speak excellent English.