This article is from the October 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
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The Nitty-Gritty on
Moving to Mexico

by jennifer j. rose

jennifer j. rose, a regular contributor to The Mexico File, is an attorney who practices in Shenandoah, Iowa, and a foreign legal consultant in Morelia, Michoacan. She is also editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer, a publication of the American Bar Association. She wrote the lead article of the March 1996 issue of The Mexico File on Morelia, as well as an article which appeared in the May 1996 issue on buying property in Mexico. The first part of this article appeared in the July 1996 issue under the title, "Moving to Mexico is a Breeze...Compared to Heading West in a Conestoga Wagon." You can communicate with her via e-mail at 

The nontourist immigration law is laden with restrictions and inconsistencies that would make Kafka blush. Statutes, administrative regulations and internal policy, which is not always in written form, is determined by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretaria de Gobernacion), General Bureau of Population (Direccion General de Poblacion), and the Department of Immigration (Departamiento de Migracion). And, like anything designed and regulated by committee, the result is often inconsistent and in flux.

Many long-term foreign residents do nothing to formalize their residency, merely obtaining a new tourist card every six months. Certainly, that's the cheapest and most hassle-free method, especially for someone who wants to visit the border twice a year and isn't concerned about bringing in household goods. Warning signs are spotted at the aduana stating that only one six-month car permit will be issued in a year's time. Ignoring the warning, I've brought my car in and out on this basis a number of times without problem. Asking for the official interpretation., I was told that the restriction had been the law for a long time but was only recently being enforced. The intent was that foreigners who plan to remain in Mexico for more than six months with an automobile are expected to obtain FM-3 status.

Allowing the holder to remain in Mexico for an extended period of time as a no-inmigrante, the FM-3 is a one-year residency permit, renewable annually. While it may be applied for at any Mexican immigration office within Mexico, commonly it's applied for at the Mexican Consulate assigned to your region in the States. This procedure is fairly easy and straightforward, and it is one that doesn't require legal counsel.

Contact the Mexican Consulate in your region to determine its requirements. Each office has its own idiosyncrasies and style. What might pass muster in New York might be quickly rejected in San Jose. This process can be completed by mail. In general, you will need:

a) a letter in Spanish (in Chicago, English only was accepted) addressed to the proper immigration authority, stating the applicant's full name, current address, a request to obtain the FM-3, and a statement to the effect that all pertinent paperwork is attached,

b) your passport,

c) proof of income,

d) a certificate of moral solvency from the local police attesting to your criminal record (or lack thereof),

e) a doctor's certificate stating that you have no communicable diseases, including HIV,

f) photographs,

g) cash or a money order for $53.

h) If you're divorced, you'll need a certified copy of your divorce decree; and if you're married, you'll need a certified copy of your marriage license.

It may be necessary that these documents be translated into Spanish and authorized by the Mexican Consulate. Now, make four copies of all of this, sending in the originals and three copies. To ensure a speedier return, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope, too.

Upon approval, the Mexican Consulate will return your passport to you, along with a small passport-like book, which is the FM-3. Pay attention: here's the part the Mexican Consulate won't tell you. Even though you've paid the fees and had it stamped at the aduana on your way into Mexico, the FM-3 isn't valid until you've had it officially registered with Gobernacion within 30 days of your entry into the country. If you don't do this, you'll have to pay a penalty when you obtain your renewal.

The FM-3 inmigrante rentista status, which does not permit employment within Mexico, is intended for those who plan to live in Mexico permanently and be domiciled there and who are sustained by resources and unearned income brought from outside Mexico or earned from Mexican-based investments. The FM-3 permits the holder to import a reasonable amount of household goods and one automobile. Once you've validated your FM-3, you may begin the process of converting it to the higher-quality "E-ticket" FM-2 or continue to renew it on an annual basis.

The renewal process for the FM-3 as well as the FM-2 must be handled within Mexico at the Gobernacion office. Once again, you'll need to provide

a) your U.S. passport,

b) your FM-3,

c) proof of your residency in Mexico (which can consist of a phone or utility bill),

d) form SHCP-5 provided by immigration,

e) proof of income,

f) more photos, and

g) about $75.

Some claim that a letter signed by the FM-3 holder and two Mexican witnesses stating that the applicant's been an upstanding citizen living harmoniously in the community, as well as a photocopy of the witnesses' photo ID, is also required. The renewal process will seldom be completed on the day you bring in all of the paperwork...expect at least a 48-hour wait and be prepared for a month's delay. Start on the renewal process six weeks before the FM-3 expires just to be on the safe side. The office in San Miguel de Allende was the most helpful of any government office, in any country, in providing a patient, untiring explanation. I suspect that it's really staffed by English agents working undercover! The renewal process can also be handled by mail.

After the fifth FM-2 annual renewal, the FM-2 inmigrante is eligible to apply to become inmigrado, or a permanent resident alien. Conversion from inmigrante to inmigrado status is not automatic. Kinship with a Mexican citizen, by blood or marriage, positively influences the grant of a favored status. Once inmigrado status is reached, no more annual renewals are necessary. This "green card" status, the highest category for a permanent foreign resident, permits the holder to work in any lawful activity in Mexico. Your only limitation is that more than 36 consecutive months' absence, or accumulated absences of five years over a ten- year period, from Mexico results in its forfeiture. You may no longer be able to obtain an import permit for your U.S.-registered automobile, although by that time, you'll likely have decided to "buy Mexican." Legalization of your U.S.-registered car is another option if you're willing to pay the tax. In most aspects of your life, you have the most of the same privileges as a Mexican citizen...except for voting, tending bar, operating a brothel and running for public office.

It's time to talk about money. For an FM-3 or FM-2, you'll need to show that you have income from the states or Mexican investments of about $800 per month. The dollar amount, pegged to the Mexican minimum wage (with a multiplier), fluctuates with the exchange rate and the prevailing political climate. One-half of that amount is required for each dependent. At renewal only, the financial requirements are halved if you own your own Mexican dwelling. You'll need to provide a notarized copy of the deed (escritura) or trust (fideicomiso) document.

While the US-based Mexican Consulate may be somewhat more lenient in scrutiny of your proof of income (a bank president's letter has been known to suffice), you'll need more proof at the time of renewal. For some reason, immigration authorities are more concerned that you demonstrate monthly income instead of annual. Be prepared to show a year's worth of bank statements demonstrating that deposits of the requisite monthly amount have been made, even though they may only ask for the past three. Statements from Mexican banks and brokerages are accepted without question; but if your account is US-based, you'll need to have the statements authenticated by the U.S. Consul in Mexico. If your income is paid less frequently than monthly, or if you don't have regular income...there's a way to still show proof of income. Deposit $1000 in your bank account at the beginning of the statement period, withdraw it before the next statement period, and keep up the routine of deposits and withdrawals, recycling the same funds. You'll always need about eight photographs of a certain size, hue and dimension, profile and frontal. This is not the time to be concerned about glamour, because you must be portrayed without glasses, jewelry or other adornment, hair pulled back to reveal the hairline and ear shape. Don't argue that your mere visage might be enough to dissuade the kindest-hearted immigration official. (I suspect that these may be kept in a secrete hoard by national security forces to scare off invading aliens.)

Most people would rather have a root canal than deal with lawyers. Like dentists, lawyers can be extremely helpful, time-saving and cost-cutting. While the renewal process, conversion from FM-3 to FM-2 status, and application to become inmigrado can surely be accomplished without legal counsel, you may find yourself shunted from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, always lacking some document or failing to dot an "i." The law and process is not rocket science, but you'll need some savvy and familiarity with bureaucracy that's hard to develop during an annual foray to the immigration offices. Some freelance lay immigration entrepreneurs easily navigate these waters through experience and volume, and their fees may range for modest to more than the going rate for a Harvard lawyer. Because the main immigration office, and the only one which considers the application to become inmigrante, is located in Mexico City, consider using Mexico City counsel for the simple reason that you'll save portal-to-portal charges of local counsel, who while very competent, may not have a sufficiently large immigration practice to understand its day-to-day quirks.

Granting your Mexican lawyer a power of attorney (carta de poder) authorizing him to act in your stead can mean that nearly all of the legal work, after the fingerprinting's done, can be accomplished even long-distance. Time, travel, sanity, and even setting foot in a government office can take its toll upon the most-determined pro se, making a small investment in DHL, Mexipost and legal fees worthwhile. (I'm not shilling for the legal profession....even though I'm one. I've found it's cheaper in the long run to use Mexican immigration counsel.)

Planning to work while you're in Mexico? It can be done, but there are stringent rules. One variant of the FM-3, valid only for renewable six-month periods, sponsored by the employer, will enable a foreigner to work for that employer only...and only in the areas specified in the immigration document. The applicant must have needed skills that are not met in the workforce, and the FM-3 working status is contingent upon continued employment by the sponsoring employer. When the job ends, so too does the FM-3. In these situations, the employer generally assumes responsibility for handling the legal work.

A foreigner planning to reside permanently in Mexico, bringing capital for investment in an industry which contributes to the country's economic and social development, may qualify for an investor (inversionista) FM-2 status. Substantial requirements must be met, e.g. hiring a significant number of Mexican workers, before government approval will be granted, and the financial requirements can be hefty. This is not a route for the would-be immigrant planning to open an espresso bar or bookstore.

This article cannot address all of the categories available for immigration, e.g. the exceptional-case professional (profesionial), high level management (cargos de confianza) working in established Mexican businesses, research scientist (cientifico), technician (tecnico), or artist and athlete (artista y deportista), whose employers will nearly always manage the immigration and work permit process. Nor is it possible

within this article to address the situations of a foreign member of a boards of directors (consejero), an alien seeking political asylum (asilado politico), a student (estudiante), the refugee (refugiado), or distinguished visitor (visitante distinguido).

NAFTA created four new non-immigrant visa classifications: the 30-day business visitor paid from a source outside of Mexico, the one- year professional in certain fields, the intracompany transferee having managerial, executive or specialized skills, and the investor/trader. Each of these categories requires skilled immigration counsel.

Two very important rules always apply: always supply more documentation than you'll ever think you might need and plenty of photocopies of each. Expect to be photographed and fingerprinted...and don't fudge on the requested documentation. If immigration asks for bank statements, don't offer them tax returns as an alternative. If you're weary, ponder for a moment what the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service requires of its postulants.

While this is written without political overtone (the libertarian in me says that all peaceable folk should be able to cross borders at any time without government interference), immigration into Mexico is not a matter of right. There's a tremendous amount of discretion involved. The Mexican General Law of Population allows the Mexican government to deny entry, refuse renewals or changes in immigration status when 1) no reciprocity exists between Mexico and the applicant's country, 2) demographic interchange between Mexico and the applicant's country are not in equilibrium, 3) nationality, category and vocational activity quotas have been filled, 4) the permit has been deemed not to be in the national interest, 5) the applicant's conduct violates "morality and good customs," or 6) the applicant has broken Mexican laws or regulations. American xenophobia and its treatment towards Mexicans, even undocumented workers, can quickly sour the official Mexican stance towards foreigners, even those injecting capital back into the country.

Copyright 1996 by jennifer j. rose