In 2006, after years of living paycheck to paycheck in Santa Cruz, California, I decided to move to Mexico. I was 50, and a prior vacation in the beautiful coastal town of Mazatlán had convinced me that an easier, happier and affordable lifestyle was possible.
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Right now, it seems like many people are fantasizing or seriously thinking about moving out of the U.S., but are unsure of where to start. I thought I was well-prepared, but it was still a bumpy ride for a couple of years until I really felt settled. Today, I'm retired and living on just $1,000 per month.
Here are some tips I wish I'd known in the beginning:
1. Visit more than once, in different seasons
Once you've decided on a place, make an exploratory trip — and stay as long as you're able to. I took a one-month leave of absence from my job and rented a furnished apartment in Mazatlán to see what it was like to live in a neighborhood instead of a hotel in the tourist zone.
Why different seasons? Because that beautiful beach town may become unbelievably hot and humid during the summer months; those cool mountain breezes might warrant space heaters and wool sweaters in January.
Listen to, but don't rely completely on, what other people say, no matter how reputable they seem. Only your experience can tell you exactly how you'll feel.
2. Look into different types of neighborhoods and housing
Maybe you're used to a sprawling ranch-style house, but discover you love being 12 floors up in an oceanfront condo. Or you might enjoy a big city with cafés and shops within walking distance. Or perhaps you prefer the noisy, culturally immersive experience of a small neighborhood.
After 10 years in the busy, bustling city of Mazatlán, I moved to a tiny, rural pueblo of 5,000 people north of Puerto Vallarta — and only lasted 18 months. Turns out I missed the big city and couldn't abide the torrential summer rains that made the area so lush and tropical.
3. Investigate available medical services and health care options
How many doctors, labs and dentists are there? Do they speak English or take insurance? Which local hospitals do they work with? Is there ambulance service? What are the prices?
Although there are some rare exceptions, Medicare doesn't cover health insurance outside of the U.S., so you may want to check out international insurance companies. I went with VIP Universal Medical Insurance Group — which in my case, was reasonably priced since I had no pre-existing conditions or medications.
In some Mexican cities with large expat populations, such as Puerto Vallarta, enterprising folks have set up medical referral services. These can be great for finding high-quality, professional medical services with English-speaking doctors.
4. Go shopping
Although you might not find everything you want, Mexico is a large, civilized country, with big-box retailers and its own chains, boutiques and local craftspeople that offer what you need for a comfortable life. Bigger cities, like Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Mexico City, will have better selections.
Shipping is always an option, too. In recent years, Amazon Mexico has been a game-changer, and in Mazatlán their delivery is dependable and quick. The first Ikea store is set to open in Mexico City sometime this year.
I have a small list of familiar comforts that I bring from the U.S. on my annual visits: Organic body lotion, toothpaste from Trader Joe's and certain packaged food items.
5. Study the expat community in your area
How many live there, full- and part-time? Who are they and where are they from? What age bracket? Are the expat events and activities things you're interested in? What parts of town do they live in, and why?
Lots of different people move to Mexico for lots of different reasons, and it can take a while to find your tribe, your new best friend and build a community. Just because you speak the same language doesn't mean you're going to relate to each other or get along. Be patient. Be open. It will happen.
6. Have a phone plan
Staying in touch with family and friends becomes even more important when you're in a new place and culture. Yes, you can use Skype, Vonage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — when and if you have internet.
If it's important to have a familiar-looking phone number for your aging parents, business associates, U.S. bank or accountant, then you may want to keep a U.S. number.
Be sure to confirm that the service will work dependably in Mexico without roaming charges. Telcel and Telmex, Mexico's biggest phone companies, offer low-cost cell and landline plans, and often have English-speaking customer service representatives.
7. Decide what kind of visa you need
Mexico is very welcoming to foreigners, and every visitor automatically gets a six-month tourist visa when they enter the country.
Having temporary or permanent residency status is a more formal process that requires certain levels of income or savings, lots of paperwork and several years of wait time. None of this affects your U.S. citizenship.
(The residency process has changed considerably since I did it more than 10 years ago; find current info here.)
8. Figure out how you'll do your banking
Mexico has more of a cash economy than the U.S., and you can't use your ATM or credit card in as many places as you're used to. But you can easily withdraw pesos from your U.S. bank account. Just be aware what the fees are.
Some U.S. and Canadian banks charge hefty international fees; others refund fees or don't charge at all. You can probably take care of your banking needs online and with your ATM card, just like you do in the U.S.
Thinking of opening a bank account in Mexico? Find out if that's even possible — or necessary — and what the requirements are.
9. Learn the language
Take classes before you move, or find a TV show with subtitles and watch it regularly to familiarize your ear to what Spanish sounds like. Once you're in Mexico, consider taking classes (some, like the Duolingo app, are free).
I used to think I'd quickly speak Spanish fluently. (Hah!) I've learned a lot, and can chat with friends and shopkeepers, order food or report an emergency, but there's still a limit to my skills that I'm painfully aware of.
While everyone has a different comfort level with learning Spanish, there's no denying that your experience will be different if you can speak even a little. Having some proficiency will help you — and those around you — feel more comfortable.
Janet Blaser is a writer, editor and storyteller. She lives in Mazatlán, Mexico and feels very fortunate to be able to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. "Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats" is her first book. Follow Janet on Facebook.
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