For foreigners who wish to establish residency and live or work in Mexico, jumping through the bureaucratic hoops at the Office of Immigration is a frustrating experience for nearly everyone. This article will attempt to provide some general advice and information about getting residency and a work permit. However, it should be clearly pointed out at the outset that providing complete and accurate information here is simply not possible, because immigration officials themselves have been known to provide contradictory information with respect to how details are addressed. This is not their fault; it is not a question of their competence as much as it is a reflection of Mexico’s corporate and government work culture, which rewards strict obedience and discourages empowering local authorities. And of course, the procedures are always being changed.
There are several options for getting residency as a foreigner. If you have sufficient savings or income from investments, you can apply to be a rentista, which allows you to live in Mexico but not work. You can also get a residency as an “investor” by transferring a substantial sum of money into the country. Check the website for necessary amounts of money, as these numbers may change with the peso. You can also be invited by a Mexican organization or work for a Mexican company, and you can start your own Mexican company as well. There are additional options for journalists, athletes, refugees, and others, and of course the best long term option for many people is ultimately to marry a Mexican or have a Mexican child.
For those seeking residency, the process typically starts by getting a migratory document called an FM3, which allows people to work and live with a few constraints. FM3 holders can leave the country at will with very little restrictions, and can be renewed forever, so many people live with an FM3 indefinitely. The status of an FM3 holder is referred to as “No Inmigrante”, which means that as far as the government is concerned you are not on track to immigrate. The disadvantage of having an FM3 is that you must renew your status with immigration every year, as well as every time you move or change jobs. Renewing your FM3 costs about 2000 pesos.
Foreigners who wish to become either Mexican citizens, or immigrants (like citizens but without the right to vote, and allowed to maintain external citizenship) need to request an FM2, which signifies to the government that the holder intends to immigrate. The status of an FM2 holder is “Inmigrante”, meaning that you are on track to immigrate. If you are seeking immigrant status or nationality because you have a Mexican family member, spouse, child, or if you are involved in work with particular value to Mexico, you must have 2 years with an FM2 before requesting citizenship; if you are simply immigrating, it is 5 years. It used to be the case that in order to get an FM2 you must already have had an FM3, but apparently now you should be able to request an FM2 at any time.
FM2 holders must comply with further restrictions, namely, that they are permitted a maximum of 18 months outside the country before becoming a citizen or immigrant; if you exceed this time period you have to start over with an FM3. Also, FM2 holders are not legally supposed to have foreign cars, while FM3 holders are allowed one car per person to be purchased abroad. FM2 holders cannot under any circumstances be out of the country when their FM2 needs to be renewed.
Getting information about the process
This year there is a new web-based format which is supposed to streamline the process and make it easier, and the requirements have also slackened a bit. The website has application forms for the various procedures and tells you what documents are required for a given procedure. Unfortunately the site forces you to select and walk through various options using a wizard approach that ultimately bring you to a page that (hopefully) has everything you need to know. This is helpful if your needs are straightforward, but also makes it difficult for you to evaluate different options, and their black-and-white choices may not contain the information you need. The website is also frame-based, which means if you have to go back, make sure you use the “regresar” link rather than the back button, which will make you have to start over.
The first step is to go to the Instituto Nacional de Migración website (http://www.inm.gob.mx/) and do the following:
1. Click on “TRAMITES MIGRATORIOS” on the left hand side.
2. Enter in your home country, as written in Spanish (i.e., Estados Unidos de America)
3. Click on number 2, “Vivir en Mexico”.
4. At this point there are four options, and you will need to choose the one that best applies to you. The first two options are for temporary or permanent residency. The third option “Regularización” is for people who are illegally in the country and need to become legal. The fourth option “Ciudadanía” is for people seeking information about becoming citizens; this is not handled by Immigration but by the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, and clicking on the link will simply refer you to their website. (The office of Immigration does offer an “Immigrant” status, which can be obtained after 5 years living in Mexico without leaving for more than 18 months, and which provides most of the benefits of citizenship. Information about seeking and obtaining citizenship will be handled in another post.)
Regardless of whether you select “temporal” or “permanente“, if you are already in Mexico, the site will end up sending you to the “Regularización” page to become legal, which probably isn’t helpful. This suggests that you should apply for your migratory status from your country of residence. However, to do that you will have to go to a consulate and start the process there, and submit the various documents, and then upon entry into Mexico you will have 30 days to go to an immigration office and probably present all the same documents and new ones to get your Tarjeta de Inmigrante. This is an additional, unnecessary step that places more constraints upon you, especially if you have to travel to get to a consulate. Alternatively, it is perfectly legal to arrive under a tourist visa and simply go to Immigration once you are here, as it says in other parts of the site. Just make sure you have brought all your documents with you. For most people and most organizations working in Mexico, this is probably preferable, at least at this time.
Selecting either “temporal” or “permanente” should lead you to a list of requisites for your residency, depending on how long you wish to stay, whether you were invited by a host, what you intend to do, and so on. People who intend to retire, winter, or live in Mexico but not work can select “Rentista” as a permanent residency option, and then will only have to demonstrate enough money to live on.
There is an important option that is not mentioned on the website, which is that of starting a Mexican company. For foreigners who are not working in Mexico with a host company or organization, and expect to have to generate income within the country while living here, this may be your best way of establishing residency. If you are interested in doing this, you should come to Mexico on a 3 month tourist visa and once here, hire a lawyer to help you set up the company. As a founder you need not be Mexican nor employ any Mexicans, and you can easily get residency as the Administrator of a Mexican company. More than one person can found a company together. Although this option is not discussed on the government website, the requisite documents are likely the same as if you were employed by a Mexican company, except that you do not have to show salary information or company income. In fact, your company does not even have to do anything or make any money for you to have legal residency, although if this situation continues indefinitely you may eventually have problems with the Hacienda, which collects taxes.
The documents you need will depend on your situation. If you intend to live in Mexico, it is to your benefit to prepare yourself for any eventuality. Someday you might work for a Mexican company, start a company, start an organization, go to school, get a license, or do any of the things people do all over the world. Here is a short list of documents that you should make sure you have before you leave the country:
- Any titles, certifications, licenses, or degrees. It is always best to have them apostilled and translated by a certified translator. Mexican organizations are notoriously suspicious of fake degrees.
- Official academic transcripts, may also need to be apostilled.
- Official document disclosing your criminal record or lack thereof, may also need to be apostilled.
- Birth and marriage certificates, especially if establishing residency on the basis of a Mexican child, wife or family member.
- Medical records, if you have a particular condition
- Letters of recommendation, if pursuing academic study
- Bank statements showing your financial position, to prove your ability to live in the country if you are not working.
- Documentation for any organization or company through which you may conduct activities in Mexico.
To apply for a residency or work permit, you will need to have a passport with photocopies (now just the front page, apparently), a copy of your current visa, the basic application for the procedure you request, and a written letter by you expressing your request. (For people flying in on a tourist visa, bring the form they give you on the plane, called an FMM. For people driving over the border, make sure you stop and get a visa!) You will also need to bring a bunch of infantil size photographs 2.5 X 3 cm, three from the front and two from the side with a white background. Get these done in Mexico because they know how to do them correctly. Its also a good idea to get a lot of these, because you need them all the time at Immigration.
Depending on what kind of residency you want, you may also need bank statements (translated and photocopied), proof of academic degrees or licenses (apostilled and translated), letter from a host organization, financial documentation from your host organization, proof of residence if living in Mexico, letter from your landlord if not a home owner, and/or other documents. To find out exactly what you need, consult the website. With respect to translations, it appears to be at the discretion of the official whether documents like bank statements are translated in their entirety or simply the relevant text indicating deposits and withdrawals. I have been told by immigration officials that from a government standpoint, translations need not be exhaustive nor certified, although a different official might say differently.
Going to immigration in Mexico
Once in Mexico, you will have to visit immigration within 30 days or within the period of your tourist visa which might be for 90 days. Obtaining a living and/or working permit (FM3) is relatively straightforward, but will require some Spanish speaking ability as in Oaxaca you may not find any English speakers at the Immigration office. You can hire a lawyer to help you, and it will almost certainly go more smoothly, but in most cases you can simply bring a Spanish speaker with you and take care of everything yourself.
Offices are typically open until 1:00, if possible arrive early and dress professionally. You will be amazed how differently you will be treated at 9:00 in the morning in an empty office than at 12:30, when there is typically a line of sweaty, annoyed people complaining in a multitude of languages as if the tired officials can’t understand what they are saying. Also, never ask if something is required, rather wait until they bring it up. Present yourself as someone who knows what they are doing and has everything in order, and always maintain a polite demeanor. Make sure your documents are neatly organized, and it helps if your letters are typed rather than handwritten. There can’t be any mistakes or anything scratched out or you will have to redo the form. All copies should be made in advance as there are no public copy machines or services at immigration offices in Mexico, although as of this year there are supposed to be computer terminals available for public use.
Unfortunately, it is very common to be told that you are missing something or that some form has been completed incorrectly, in which case you will be sent away and have to come back another time. Anticipating this makes it easier to deal with gracefully and politely.
When your paperwork is accepted, you will be given a bill which you will have to take to a bank and pay, and bring back the receipt to submit along with your documents. You will then be given a tracking number that you can check on the Internet to find out if your new identification card is ready to be picked up yet. The process generally takes 2-4 weeks.
Renewing or changing your FM3
The Mexican government requires that you renew your FM3 or FM2 every year, and also that you notify Immigration every time anything changes on your file. If you move houses, change jobs, take on a new position or responsibility at the same job, take on a second job or activity, or get married or divorced, you will have to file the change with Immigration. You may or may not be required to pay additional fees depending upon the procedure.
Work changes such as a Cambio de actividad (change in activity) or Ampliación de actividad (adding a new activity) will require submitting documentation that proves you are qualified to conduct the activity, as when you got your initial FM3.
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