Retirement in Puerto Vallarta – How Are Gringos Treated in Mexico?

Not all tourists that visit Mexico are treated the same. As an example, those that come to traffic or use illegal drugs are treated rather harshly in Mexico, resulting in terrible vacations while south of the border! Another one that’s probably not anxious to return to Mexico is Dawg, The Bounty Hunter. He was not treated with a great deal of dignity and respect, however he too might not have closely followed the Mexican laws as he handcuffed his fugitive and hauled him out of the country! On the other hand, as normal law abiding folks, we have been treated like family, like friends, almost like royalty ever since we began making our semi-annual visits to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 1984, when we purchased a condo in Mismaloya, about six miles south of Vallarta. Back in the 80´s, it didn’t take much more than a photo identification in order to get a Mexican FMT or tourist visa. Today, a passport or certified copy of a birth certificate is required for an FMT visitor visa. These visas are good for staying up to 90 days in Mexico; however you can ask for and often receive a 180 day FMT visa. There is no charge for these tourist visas and they are easily obtained at the departure airport or at the Mexican customs office when arriving by vehicle. Upon entering Mexico, the immigration agents stamp your copy of the visa and record your entry into their computerized data base with information regarding the length of your stay and where you’ll be staying. Upon leaving the country, you return your copy of the visa and your departure time is entered into their system. In other words, visiting Vallarta for less than six months is about as simple as it could be.

Now, to put the above Mexican treatment of American and Canadian tourists requesting visas into perspective, let’s compare it to what Mexicans must do to legally visit the US. This can be best done by telling the following story which is based on personal experience and is typical of American immigration practice throughout Mexico.

For many years, we thoroughly enjoyed our vacations in PV, so much so, that in 1997 we bought a beautiful villa and decided to make Vallarta our permanent residence. We have had a lovely couple working in the villa for the past eight years. They are a kind, intelligent, clean, honest, and church going couple with two of their three children now attending the University of Guadalajara. As a bonus for their many years of hard work and loyalty, last year we offered the woman an all expenses paid one week vacation to visit us in the Lake Tahoe area where we spend the summers. She has never been to the States and needless to say, she was very excited and looked forward to the trip. We called the US Consulate in Guadalajara to determine the required procedure for Mexicans to visit the US. First, a current passport is required, so within a month, she had obtained her new passport. We were also informed that she needed a copy of her bank account statement in Mexico, a copy of her marriage license, a copy of her property deed, employment records, and a letter of invitation from us would be helpful. We wrote a half page typed letter of invitation, thanking her for the years of dedication and service, and then helped her assemble all of the required documents into a single file folder. Again we contacted the US Consulate, informed them that all of the required documentation was in order, and scheduled an appointment for her interview. On the day of her appointment, dressed in her Sunday best, she took the folder full of required documents and the cover letter of invitation to the US Consulate in Guadalajara which is a five hour drive from Vallarta. The US Consulate was packed with hundreds of Mexicans and they put her in a line with about 50 others, probably all having the same appointment time. She indicated that not a single person of the 50 Mexicans ahead of her was granted a visa. Finally, after an hour and a half, she made it to the front of the line. They interviewed her for less than two minutes, said her letter of invitation wasn’t notarized, and basically threw her out just like the previous fifty people. Of course, during our phone conversation, they never mentioned a requirement of notarization of the letter of invitation when they listed the requirements. In fact, the letter was not even a requirement, but only a helpful addition to her list of requirements. In all probability, the Consulate handed out very few, if any, visas for travel to the US that day. From what our friend witnessed during her two hours at the US Consulate, they granted zero visas that day. After getting her hopes so high and being so excited about the vacation, after spending her money on the passport, the money for the five hour journey to and from Guadalajara, the night spent in Guadalajara, the time to assemble all of the required documents, and the two hours in the Consulate, there was virtually no chance of getting a visa to the US for a Mexican citizen and the worst part of it was, the employees of the Consulate knew it.

Why in the world would the US Consulate treat the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Mexicans that way when they are trying to visit the US legally? It’s no wonder that millions of Mexicans are sneaking across the border undocumented. It’s got to be a lot easier, faster, and perhaps cheaper to sneak across the border, thus resulting in the US having no clue as to who has entered the country, where they are, how long they’re staying, or what they’re doing. The Mexicans that we’ve met, including the woman working in our villa, would be happy to have their pictures taken, fingerprints, etc. but the system virtually denies their legal entry into the States. As a side note of interest, upon returning to PV after our summer in Tahoe last year, we discussed the above story with our local US Consulate agent in Vallarta. She confirmed that visas to the US were just not being granted at this time because of all the immigration related problems in the States. In comparison, it’s a cake walk getting into Mexico for US and Canadian citizens!

US and Canadian citizens are treated with respect, dignity, and welcomed as guests in Vallarta. Of course, the economy in PV depends solely on tourism and it is in the best interest of the locals to see that all tourists have a pleasant and safe visit while in Paradise. In the ten years that we’ve lived here, we’re not aware of a single robbery, burglary, picked pocket, or any other crime committed on a foreign resident or tourist. It is so tourist friendly in Vallarta that there are now approximately 50,000 North Americans living here during the “high season” of November through May. There are millions of tourists by plane or cruise boat that visit PV each season and unless they’re really looking for trouble, they’ll never find it. Furthermore, in 2001 the readers of Conde Nast Magazine voted Puerto Vallarta the eighth best vacation destination in the world and the very friendliest city in the world. That Conde Nast poll pretty well sums up the way tourists or retirees are treated in Vallarta.

For those of us that are retired and having so much fun in Paradise that we don’t want to leave in 180 days, we merely apply for an FM3 permit, a long term visitor permit which resembles a passport, costs about $100, and takes about a month to obtain. We must provide photos, fingerprints, proof of residency such as electric and water bills, and proof of self sufficiency such as any bank statement. The FM3 allows a North American to stay in Mexico for one year and can be renewed annually. This long term visitor status allows the foreigner to bring his car into Mexico and keep it here indefinitely, as long as the FM3 is kept current. Our Grand Cherokee Jeep still has the 1997 Texas plates and no taxes have been paid on the vehicle since 1997. Unlike the US where everything must be politically correct, the Mexicans have no qualms with profiling. If for any reason, a Mexican policeman gets the urge, he can pull over a foreign plated car and check the status of the driver’s FM3. For that reason, everyone keeps a copy of their current immigration papers in the glove box of their car.

After five years of FM3 renewals, i.e., five years of living more than 180 days per year in Mexico, you are then given the option to continue with a new FM3 or convert to an FM2. The FM2 requires the same documentation as the FM3 but costs a little more and still requires annual renewal. The main difference is that an FM2 designates the holder as an immigrant rather than a visitor. This is a critical difference as it pertains to the treatment of capital gains on the sale of real estate. Exemption from capital gains tax is granted only to those that can provide proof of primary residency in Mexico for at least five years, with primary residency being anything greater than 180 days per year. The FM2 document clearly proves primary residency for longer than five years. After the fifth year of holding an FM2, the holder becomes eligible for a permanent resident alien status and no longer is required to renew his FM2 on an annual basis. All of the aforementioned immigration documents can be obtained at the local Mexican immigration office, which for us living in Paradise, is right here in Vallarta. The FM3´s or FM2´s are stamped and recorded every time you leave or enter Mexico. Compared to the US, you’ve got to give the Mexicans credit; they have a much better handle on who’s in and who’s out of their country. In summarizing, due to the relative ease in obtaining the proper immigration papers in Mexico, there is virtually no reason for any American or Canadian to be here undocumented. If any problem were to ever occur, both American and Canadian Consulates are located in Vallarta to assist you.

For those really serious about living in Mexico, after establishing your primary residence in Mexico for five years and learning a fair amount of Spanish, for about $1,500 and with the assistance of a local immigration attorney, you can apply for Mexican citizenship. Once all of the applications have been submitted and an interview with the immigration agent is completed, the waiting period is approximately 18 more months. If and when granted, you will hold dual citizenships and have pretty much all the rights of a naturalized Mexican citizen. Although most of the natives in Vallarta speak some degree of English, unlike the US and Canada, Mexico has a primary language. It is Spanish and the immigration officials make it crystal clear when interviewing for Mexican citizenship. It’s not until the two hour interview in Spanish is completed that you learn that the interviewing attorney speaks fluent English! However, to their credit, they do accept Espanglish which is our hybrid between English and Spanish.

Of course money talks, but from what we’ve experienced for ten years, the Mexicans treat the Gringos substantially better than the Gringos treat the Mexicans.

Jim Scherrer is a retired entrepreneur from Houston, has owned property in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for 24 years, and has made Vallarta his permanent residence for the past ten years. He founded Puerto Vallarta Real Estate Buyers´ Agents (PVREBA), whose mission is to reveal all the recent changes that have occurred in Vallarta while dispelling the misconceptions about living in Mexico. PVREBA acts exclusively as buyers´ agents by introducing North Americans to Vallarta, showing them properties that meet their needs and budgets, and assisting them through the foreign buying process, with all payments made by the listing agents. For the full series of articles regarding Retirement in Puerto Vallarta as well as pertinent Puerto Vallarta links, please visit us at