Banking in Mexico as an Expat or Traveler
Updated July, 2017
Money and banking can be such a source of anxiety when you are traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, I am surprised that I don’t see more on the subject. Maybe everyone else has had it wired down for so long that they don’t remember how it felt the first time a foreign ATM took their debit card.
I do, and I took copious, shaky notes during the panic attack to make sure I never forgot. Maybe other people know enough not to get down to their last 500 peso note (it sounded like a lot more money at the time). Maybe they can divide any number by 18 without error.
In my blogs, I try to offer you the uncut version of what it is like at first as a single expat, taken from my notes. Going it alone is very different from arriving as part of a couple. You have no one to calm you down, and no one to offer solutions you’d quickly think of on your own if you weren’t so freaked out
You're off -balance
When it comes to access to money, even experienced expats have confessed to me of freezing up on pass codes, 800 numbers and the general process of banking that is second nature when they are at home.
Mistakes and a mindset a bit more prone to panic are common when you are alone and off-balance from navigating in a foreign environment. Everyone I know has had a mishap, like losing a credit card or leaving a something out to get stolen.
Silly as I felt, I wore a money belt most of the time during my first "tour," not to protect me from pick pockets but to protect me from myself. The alternative to digging around my pants in a dark corner of a retail store like a psychotic was fixing things in Spanish at a bank under pressure. I preferred the former.
Learn some Spanish
Teaching myself Spanish was the last crucial element of feeling that I was in control of my money in Mexico, because it gave me the ability march right in and argue convincingly if an error occurred. But until then, I took added precautions.
You will probably need to have more cash on hand
Like the U.S., ATM’s in Mexico have a cash limit, about $400. Unlike the U.S., Mexico is still largely a cash country, a source of much of the fire drill. You have to get used to anticipating your cash needs the way you have to anticipate direct pronouns before the verb in Spanish.
My business partner, who has many years here, and I sometimes take on the frenzied aspect of drug dealers as we run around to banks to get the right amount of cash for a given transaction. The good news is that you really notice what you spend when you are working with piles of cash.
Have two banks at home
Another key change since your college days is that U.S online banking makes keeping track of money so much easier. If you have two separate banks and the ability to transfer money between banks, you give yourself still more an added layer of protection, should you lose a debit card or have problems with a pin number.
Some might protest the fees or question the necessity of separate accounts, but having two banks that can connect and debit cards from both has saved my hide on multiple occasions. I wouldn't dream of having just one and I've been here four years.
It's natural to feel a little vulnerable in another country. Debit cards from two banks and at least one credit card that I can draw cash from keeps me sane.
Keep a point person at your home base you can pay to do the unexpected
With online banking, you can pay bills at home on schedule automatically. You can transfer funds directly into someone's account if you need that person to do a favor for you at home.
For example I have an account set up for a friend who can get into my storage unit if I want to ship my ski gear directly to West Virginia before I go there for ski season rather than flying into Denver to do it myself.
It's easy to transfer what I pay her directly into her account. When I rented my first apartment in Mexico, I transferred money directly into the landlord's account in the U.S. It's all glorious.
I know that you probably know all the benefits of online banking. What you may never have thought about is it's implications to make living in another country so much easier and with much greater peace of mind.
Don't forget to set up your Credit Card PIN number for cash withdrawals before y0u leave town.
Right now, you probably don't routinely take cash advances on your credit card so it's easy to forget to set up the PIN numbers for your credit cards before you leave.
Since I had never needed or used my credit card for cash, I assumed I could go into a Mexican bank, give them my passport and credit card and get cash off my credit card if I needed it. You cannot. No PIN, no "plata."
A Mexican friend of mine, an auditor with many years going back and forth between the two countries, swears by Citibank when it comes to reduced fees and transferring money through its Mexican partner, Banamex.
Like the U.S. checks aren't used much here (I've never seen anyone use one) but not because debit cards have taken their place, but because cash is used more. Getting a credit card in Mexico is harder and people limit their use more.
How difficult it is to open a bank account in Mexico is fungible. They can make it easy or make it hard. In books and online you will run into instructions on the elaborate paperwork required, but once you can show a residence in Mexico with documents like a telephone or electric bill, you might still be able open one...if they like you.
Banks are a part of your life, no matter where you are.
Mexico Mike offers some more detail on ATMs, money orders and exchanging money. [post]
If you think you might be investing, getting a Mexican credit card and other services, Mexperience has some guidelines.
Most Recent: A reminder of how online tools have changed the whole prospect of living in another country full or part-time.
Hola - I am a partner with Ventanas Mexico, which provides resources for those exploring part or full-time life in Mexico, and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online" a curation of the best free tools and features on line, organized into lesson plans.
More recently I releassed "If Only I Had a Place" a guide for the aspiring expat on renting in Mexico, which includes a listing of rental concierges.
"A phenomenal resource for adults who are trying to learn Spanish on their own" - Two Expats in Mexico (blog)