Mexico is home to about 700,000 U.S. and Canadian citizens who have decided to exchange hectic cities, frigid temperatures and high living costs for a more relaxed, warmer and inexpensive lifestyle. Some live in Mexico year-round, while many others come to Mexico to escape the harsh winters back home.
Common destinations include the colonial city of Guadalajara or along the nearby Lake Chapala; the beach towns of Acapulco, Colima, Cuernavaca, La Paz, Mazatlan, Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta; and the colonial cities of Guanajuato, Merida, Morelia, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro and San Miguel de Allende.
Deciding where to settle depends on many factors, including weather, budget, desired degree of immersion in the Mexican culture and potential for interaction and socialization with locals.
Weather is perhaps the major factor. Mexico is divided into three zones - tierra caliente, tierra templada and tierra fría.
Tierra caliente (hot land) ranges from sea level to about 3,000 feet. Destinations of this sort include Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, La Paz and other beach resorts. Hot, humid weather prevails during most of the year.
Tierra templada (temperate land) goes from 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level. Places such as Cuernavaca, Guadalajara and the nearby lakefront towns of Chapala and Ajijic fall in this category. Spring-like weather is common almost year-long.
Tierra fria (cold land) is anything above 6,000 feet. Winter snow and frost are rare but not unknown. Mexico City is an example of this type of land.
Depending on the retiree's plans for staying in Mexico, there are different visa procedures. For someone looking to stay in Mexico for a short period, a tourist visa (FM-T) is easily obtained. It is valid for up to six months and doesn't grant work status.
Rentista is a non-working visa available only to individuals aged 51 or older, retirees or veterans. The applications for rentista status must be accompanied by a letter from a bank, social security agency or financial institution, certifying that the applicant receives a certain minimum monthly income (about $1,200 USD), plus $600 USD for each dependent.
Foreigners who have resided in the country as immigrants for five years are eligible to become permanent residents and can acquire most of the rights and obligations of a Mexican national. The change to permanent resident status is not automatic and is subject to the guidelines of Gobernacion (Mexico's Immigration and Naturalization Service).
Owning or renting a home in Mexico is relatively easy. Foreigners buying in an area not near the coast or the border can own property directly. If the property is within 60 miles (100 km) of the border or 30 miles (50 km) of the coast, non-Mexicans are required to purchase through a fideicomiso (beneficial trust). This is set up through a Mexican bank for a period of up to 50 years and can be renewed. The process involves a notario publico (a public notary) who will certify the transaction and collect taxes. If buying a home from an agent, it should be from the AMPI, the Mexican Association of Professional Realtors.
In general, the quality of health care in Mexico is very good. Hospitals, both private and public, are usually easily accessible and well equipped. In the major cities such as Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, they often have leading-edge equipment and techniques that equal or exceed those available in the U.S. and Canada. Private hospitals usually have highly trained professionals and, in most cases, offer services in English. Private consultations vary from around US$20 in small towns to US$60 in large cities.
Retirees also have the option of signing up for the medical IMSS plan (Mexican Social Security). It costs approximately $200 USD a year and covers medical, dental and vision. Dental care in Mexico is one-third the price of similar care in the United States or Canada. IMSS hospitals are some of the best equipped in Mexico, although translation may be necessary both at appointment or hospitalization. To sign up for the plan, they require two passport-type photographs, a valid proof of permanent residence through a current electric or phone bill with the person's name (or a copy of a lease) and copies of passport and immigration documents. Married couples must provide a copy of the marriage certificate.
Another alternative to healthcare is buying a private insurance policy in Mexico that will insure against major medical expenses. Many of the insurance policies are supplied by North American providers. Major medical runs about US$500 to US$700 a year.
Mexico is a country that runs within and between cities by bus. There is no need to have a car, since public transportation is affordable and reliable. Mexico's new, modern toll highways make travel between cities easy and comfortable as well.
There are three classes of buses - luxury, first-class and second-class. Luxury buses are air-conditioned, with bathrooms, assigned seats, snacks, movies, reclining seats and even on-board attendants. The stops they make along the way are infrequent and service is excellent. First class busses are similar to luxury buses, but stops are more frequent and snacks or movies not provided. Second-class buses are very inexpensive but stops frequent, so traveling time is longer.