Permission to Come Aboard?
While down on our initial visit, we met with an immigration lawyer at a local expat cultural center called the Lake Chapala Society. She outlined the relevant types of visas and the requirements to obtain each. Before we left to return to Canada, we arranged for her to assist us with the process. It was not expensive and, as it turned out, we probably could not have done it ourselves at the time due to pandemic restrictions which were subsequently put in place.
When we first came down in 2019, we needed to get a Tourist Visa, good for up to 180 days. It is called an FMM (Multiple Migratory Form) and can be obtained at the border crossing or from the airline. It is all one needs to come down for the winter.
In order to bring a foreign plated car into Mexico, we needed to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) when we crossed the border. The cost is based on the year of the car and is $400 US for all vehicles 2007 or newer. The fee is refunded at the time the car leaves Mexican national territory, provided the permit is surrendered prior to leaving. Failure to do this leaves the permit open, which precludes re-entry with the same vehicle, among other problems.
Canadian car insurance is not valid in Mexico; we had to get a Mexican policy. This was pretty straightforward and cost about half as much as our Canadian policy for the same coverage.
In order to live here more than 6 months, we needed to get Residency Visas. Since we are retired, we weren’t going to be earning money in Mexico. There are other visas available which permit one to work. There are two types of Residency Visas; Temporary and Permanent. As the name suggests, Temporary visas are normally granted for one year and can be renewed for up to four years, whereas Permanent visas are just that, permanent. In both cases, initial application had to be made in Canada at a Mexican consulate (or other country, although requirements can differ by country).
There are a number of bases on which Residency Visas are granted, the most common being economic solvency. In order to qualify, there are thresholds for investment assets or monthly income which must be met to ensure the visa-holder doesn’t become a drain on the system. The thresholds are different for Temporary and Permanent visas. Investment records need to show an average monthly balance above the threshold for the preceding 12 months. Income records must show after-tax pension income above the required level for six months.
Both Temporary and Permanent visa-holders can own property and import their household goods duty free. (Actually, holders of the old Tourist Visas could also own property, but could not import their household goods. This is not a problem because many houses are sold partly or fully furnished and household items, both new and used, are readily available at good prices.) However, Permanent visa-holders can’t own a foreign plated vehicle, only Temporary Residents.
We decided that we wanted to drive down and keep our car. The cost of nationalizing a late model, foreign plated vehicle is prohibitive and the logistics of moving down with the dogs without having a car to do so were also problematic. Therefore, we sold the older of our two vehicles in Canada and brought the other one. Since things were shut down during the early stages of the pandemic, we were forced to wholesale it through the dealer.
Keeping the car meant that one of us would need to get a Temporary Resident Visa while the other could get a Permanent one. After due consideration, we decided my wife would apply for the Temporary visa. However, the car we wanted to bring down was in my name, which meant we had to transfer title to her. Nothing is ever easy! Nevertheless, this was accomplished with less difficulty than you might imagine during a lockdown at the Ministry office in Bracebridge.
The qualification thresholds for a Temporary visa are proof of investment assets in excess of $45,334 for a period of 12 months or after-tax pension income of at least $2720 for 6 months. The figures for a Permanent visa are $181,338 and $4533 respectively. The thresholds have increased dramatically in recent years such that the current income levels are way above what you would actually need to live well in Mexico.
One can also qualify for a Residency Visa solely by purchasing property above a minimum value of $380,000. We thought about this briefly but, being Canadian, we wanted to put the house in both our names. This would have required both of us to meet the property investment threshold individually and, while the house cost more than the $380,000, it wasn’t twice that amount. Back to the drawing board!
We kept in contact with the lawyer in Mexico and started accumulating the required financial records. The house was up for sale and, after a slow start while the real estate board figured out how to do socially-distanced showings, things were moving more quickly. It sold mid-May with a closing mid-June and we started packing and selling off the things we weren’t planning to bring.
When we first arrived back in March, most of the Mexican consulates in Canada were closed due to the lockdowns and the embassy in Ottawa wasn’t processing visa applications. As time went on, this situation persisted with no end in sight and our lawyer was unable to get us an appointment in Canada. With the house closing deadline approaching, she was finally able to get us an appointment in Detroit, however the border was closed to ‘non-essential’ travel and we didn’t know what that meant.
The lawyer converted all our financial records to US dollars and wrote us an introductory letter for the border officials (in both English and Spanish) to facilitate our entry into the US. On June 22nd, 2020, we arrived at the US border in Port Huron, Michigan in the early afternoon and there wasn’t a single other vehicle in any of the car lanes. There was a line of trucks stretching back several miles over the bridge, but no cars. The border agents were very pleasant, if surprised that someone would be moving to Mexico at that particular time.
They looked at our letter, looked in the car, looked at the dogs and went back and forth on the phone with their supervisor a few times (“Yes, they say they’re moving to Mexico; They have an appointment at the consulate tomorrow and a vet appointment in Laredo on Friday; The car is pretty full!”) After about 15 minutes we were let in and the hard part was over.
The following day we showed up at the consulate expecting that, if everything went well, we would need to come back the following day to pick up the visas. We were staying in what turned out to be a rather sketchy motel in Detroit. After a bit of a rough start for reasons that I don’t remember, everything worked out great and we actually got the visas on the spot. Praise be to the lawyer!
The rest of the trip down was uneventful. The US was pretty well open as far as travellers were concerned. We made it through into Mexico with no problem other than ‘the big cigar seizure’, which I will now relate for your amusement and at my expense!
I like to smoke cigars. At the Canada/US border in Sarnia I bought 4 boxes of cigars for about $500. Duty free allowances in both countries allow for the importation of 2 boxes per person. I was rich, I had never had 4 boxes at the same time in my life! All the way down I smoked crummy, el-cheapo cigars saving the good ones for when I got to Mexico.
I have repeatedly told my poor, long-suffering wife that, when at the border, only answer the questions you are asked without additional detail. Standing behind the car at the Mexican border just finishing up and the agent says, “Are you bringing in any cigarettes?” At this point, I should channel my inner Nancy Reagan and ‘Just Say No’, right? Not ‘village idiot’ me; I say, “No, just some cigars”. “How many?”, asks he. Turns out you can only import one box each into Mexico. The duty on the excess boxes would have been more than the total cost at the duty free in Sarnia. To add insult to injury, it took an extra hour to fill out the forfeiture paperwork. It was to weep!
Once we arrived here, we met with the lawyer several times at the immigration office in Chapala to complete the visas and the TIP for the car. In June of this year, we went through that process again to renew my wife’s visa and the TIP for another 3 years. At that point, she will be able to get a Permanent Resident Visa without having to re-qualify, but we will need to either nationalize the car or take it out of the country and sell it. We haven’t decided what to do in that regard yet. We are only driving about 10,000 kms a year here, so the car will still be quite serviceable. It will all depend on the cost of nationalizing versus how much we would lose selling it in Texas. I’m not making that long drive back to Canada if it can at all be avoided!
For more information on visa requirements go to https://embamex.sre.gob.mx/canada . Alvaro Becerra Sanchez ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the Principal of the law firm that we used. Nohemi Toscano Martinez is his Associate and the lawyer who worked primarily on our application.