Mexico Life

Expat 101: moving to Mexico is best done with some preparation

A 13-year expat recalls it was a bumpy ride to begin with

When I moved to Mexico 13 years ago, I felt like I was well prepared. I’d done what I thought was a lot of research, talked to many people and immersed myself obsessively with expat groups online.

Yet it was still a bumpy (though often amusing) ride until I really felt comfortable in my new home.

I do believe that ultimately there’s a lot to be said for just following your heart, trusting that all the material concerns will somehow or other fall into place (which they usually do).

With that in mind, here are some suggestions that just might make the transition easier.

Visit more than once, in different seasons, for at least a month. That beautiful Mexican beach town may become your own personal spa-that-never-ends in August and September; those cool mountain breezes might warrant space heaters and wool sweaters in January.

life on a beach in mexico
Get to know a place before you settle down.

Don’t rely completely on what other people or publications say, no matter how reputable it seems; only your experience can tell you exactly what you personally need to know.

Explore the options. Once you’ve decided on a “where,” try to explore different neighborhoods and types of housing. You may be used to a sprawling ranch-style house but discover you love being 12 floors up in an oceanfront condo. Maybe you’ll like living in the middle of a city, with cafés, shops and theaters within walking distance, or prefer the noisy, culturally immersive experience of a small Mexican neighborhood.

That colonial house looks amazing, but the maintenance might just be too much to deal with. What you think you want may be very different than what you discover in this new phase of your life.

Healthcare. For most of us, this is a biggie. You’ll want to investigate thoroughly what medical service infrastructures exist in the town or area where you’re going. What kind and how many doctors, labs and dentists are there? Do they speak English, take insurance, work with which local hospital(s)?

Is there ambulance service, and how exactly does each company work? Try to take the time to visit hospitals or clinics, doctors and dentists, and check out prices and available services. In this case, asking on local forums and reading any local English publications can be really helpful to finding the answers to these important concerns. 

Do some shopping. It seems like every day more “things” are available through Amazon.com (both the U.S.-based site and the Mexican one), and I’ve found delivery to be dependable, quick and reliable. This is really a game-changer.

Explore the options once you've decided where to settle.
Explore the options once you’ve decided where to settle.

That said, not everything you’re used to, want or need is going to be available, either through Amazon or in local stores. You want to be able to be comfortable and not dependent on too many things from north of the border. So, do your research: can you find the shampoo, laundry soap and medicines you regularly use?

What about things like lamps, cotton sheets and towels, appliances and tools? Walk through the grocery stores and see what’s available. And don’t assume a big-box store in Mexico (think Costco, Home Depot, Walmart) has the same items it does in the U.S.A. or Canada.

Check out the expat community. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned living in Mexico is that just because expats speak the same language doesn’t mean we’re going to relate to each other or even get along. Another is that while my idea was to learn to speak Spanish fluently and make lots of local friends, that hasn’t happened.

Whatever your situation, chances are the expat community is going to play a big part in your new life in Mexico, so take some time to study it, online and in-person. (This may mean many hours of pleasant people-watching somewhere, but hey!)

Things to consider: how many expats live there, full- and part-time? Who are they and where are they from? What age bracket? Are the expat events and activities things you’re interested in? What parts of town do they live in – and why?

Figure out a phone plan. Staying in touch with your loved ones and friends becomes even more important when you’re in a totally new culture. Yes, there are services like Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger – when and if you have internet. Consider if it’s important to be able to give a familiar-looking number to your aging parents, business associates, the social security office, your bank or accountant, etc. And of course, whichever way you go, always read the fine print carefully.

Get your papers in order.
Get your papers in order.

Get your personal papers in order. When you’re a foreigner, birth, marriage and divorce certificates are required for many, many things. Update or renew your passport and driver’s licenses, then make copies to keep in a safe place, and also to leave with a relative or trusted friend in your home country.

Tell banks or financial institutions and credit card companies you’ll be out of the country indefinitely. Bringing a pet? Find out what they’ll need to cross the border and any useful vaccinations for the area you’re moving to.

Learn the language. Even the basics, like pronunciation of the alphabet, will help you settle into your new community. If you can, take some classes before you move, or find a TV show with subtitles and watch it regularly to familiarize your ear to what it sounds like.

Do consider taking classes or going to a weekly “conversation club” once you’ve arrived in Mexico. Many people enjoy (and learn!) with online classes – some of which are free, like Duolingo.

Money matters. Figure out how and where you’ll do your banking. Some banks charge hefty international fees; others refund fees or don’t charge at all. If you’re retired, you may be able to take care of your banking needs online and with your ATM card. Thinking of opening a bank account in Mexico? Find out if that’s even possible – or necessary — and what the requirements are.

Keep some sentimental items. When you’re thousands of miles away, these sort of things take on special meaning. That scarf your mother gave you, Junior’s refrigerator magnet from second grade, those handmade Mother’s Day cards from your kids – put ’em all in a box and take ’em with you. Allow yourself this small luxury — you’ll be happy you did.

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life, and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at whyweleftamerica.com.

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