Money and banking can be such a source of anxiety when you are new to traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, I am surprised that I don’t see more on the subject. Maybe it's just embarrassment. Many travel writers understandably don't want to convey any lack of confidence they may feel from time to time. I certainly lacked confidence and feel you should know it's completely okay.
Others have had their banking processes wired down for so long that they don’t remember how it felt the first time a foreign ATM took their debit card.
I do, and I took copious, shaky notes during the panic attack to make sure I never forgot it. Maybe other people know enough not to get down to their last 500 peso note (it sounded like a lot more money at the time). Maybe they can divide any number by 18 without error in seconds.
In my blogs, I try to offer you the uncut version of what it was like at first as a single expat, taken from my archive of notebooks. Going it alone is very different from arriving to Mexico as part of a couple. You have no one to calm you down, and no one to offer solutions you’d quickly think of on your own if you weren’t so freaked out
You're off -balance
When it comes to access to money, even experienced expats have confessed to me of freezing up on pass codes, 800 numbers and the general process of banking that is second nature when they are at home.
Mistakes and a mindset a bit more prone to panic are common when you are alone and off-balance from navigating in a foreign environment for the first time. Everyone I know has had a mishap, like losing a credit card or leaving something out to get stolen.
Silly as I felt, I wore a money belt most of the time during my first "tour," not to protect me from pick-pockets but to protect me from myself. The alternative to digging around my pants in a dark corner of a retail store like a psychotic was fixing things in Spanish at a bank under pressure. I preferred the former. I always could feel right my house key, my passport, a debit card and 1,000 pesos on my skinny hip bone.
When I go for a night out, sometimes I still use the money belt, with a purse that contains nothing more than my make-up, the cash I'll need for the night, and a cheap Telcel phone that I use rather than carry my cell phone at times. Again, I want to stress it's not a matter of personal safety, but rather protecting me from myself in a country where carelessly losing a credit card or a cell phone is a ton more of a hassle and more expensive in the case of electronics, than if you lose these types of items at home.
Opening a bank account
How difficult it is to open a bank account in Mexico? I say it's fungible. They can make it easy or make it hard. In books and online you will run into instructions on the elaborate paperwork required. However once you can show a residence in Mexico with documents like a telephone or electric bill, you might still be able open one, even with your tourist visa...if they like you.
Like the U.S., checks aren't used much here (I've never seen anyone use a check). Not because debit cards have taken their place, but because cash is still king. Getting a credit card in Mexico is harder because credit isn't handed out with the same facility as an assault weapon in the United States. They aren't used nearly as much by Mexicans.
Learn some Spanish - you will likely need it in banks
Teaching myself Spanish was the last crucial element of feeling that I was in control of my money in Mexico because it gave me the ability march right in and argue convincingly if an error occurred. Yes, many bank employees speak English, but remember it's a second language for them. Misunderstandings are common. With decent Spanish, you can try it in both languages to re-confirm that you've understand what you've been told. Solving a problem over the phone without Spanish is more difficult too.
Until I'd achieved more proficiency, I took added precautions like using only bank ATM's and usually even the same branch ATM. You should take special precautions if using ATM's at places other than banks, including covering your hand when you punch in the pin number and checking around the machine for tampering. ATMs at places like malls, Sam Clubs, Walmarts, anywhere other than banks might also charge a higher ATM fee. Don't forget Mexico has more bank holidays too, ones you'd never dream of. Think in advance and always tuck away more cash than you would at home.
You will need more cash on hand than you're used to
Unlike the U.S., Mexico is still largely a cash country, a source of much of the fire drill of paying for things. You have to get used to anticipating your cash needs in advance the way you have to anticipate direct pronouns before the verb in Spanish.
Like the U.S., ATM’s in Mexico have a cash limit, about $400. The amount is determined by your bank, not the Mexican bank so it's good idea to check with your bank what your withdrawal limit will be before you go.
The best banks for expats are Banco Santander, HBSC, Banorte, BBVA Bancomer. If you are exchanging a large amount of money, you may want to compare exchange rates, as they can vary between banks.
For a particularly Mexico-friendly American bank, a Mexican friend of mine, an auditor with many years going back and forth between the two countries, swears by Citibank when it comes to reduced fees and transferring money through its Mexican partner, Banamex. If you bank with Bank of America, they have a relationship with Scotiabank of Mexico so you can avoid ATM fees by making withdrawals from that bank.
My business partner, who has many years here, and I often take on the frenzied aspect of drug dealers as we run around to banks to get the right amount of cash for business purposes, forming happy little piles of bills until we have enough for larger transactions. I loved my first year here, when having two 500-peso notes made me feel rich.
The good news is that you really notice what you spend when you pay in cash. Banks and commerce knows that, that's why they love our use of debit and credit cards at home.
Here is a link to some basic banking vocabulary put into context (which I prefer over list form).
Have two banks at home
Another key change since your college days is that U.S online banking makes keeping track of money so much easier. If you have two separate U.S. banks and the ability to transfer money between banks, you give yourself still more an added layer of protection, should you lose a debit card or have problems with a pin number.
Some might protest the fees or question the necessity of separate accounts, but having two banks that can connect and debit cards from both has saved my hide on multiple occasions. I wouldn't dream of having just one and I've been here five years.
It's natural to feel a little vulnerable in another country. Debit cards from two banks and at least one credit card that you can draw cash from can keep you sane.
Keep a point person in the U.S. who you can pay by direct deposit to do the unexpected task
With online banking, you can pay bills at home on schedule automatically. This can include people you might pay to take care of a piece of business at home.
For example I have an account set up for a friend who can get into my storage unit. I can pay into her account if she ships something for me. If I need a personal presence to meet with a renter, I pay another friend to handle it by making the transfer directly into her account. When I rented my first apartment in Mexico, I transferred money directly into the landlord's account in the U.S.
You probably know all the benefits of online banking when you're home. What you may never have thought about is its implications living in another country, how it makes doing banking so much easier and offers so much greater peace of mind.
I still have friends who'd rather mail their bills. That's fine at home. When you live abroad, obviously you can't do that. Even if you could, it's easy to lose track of time while you're away staring at the waves and roaming the streets of your chosen El Centro in Mexico. If you sublet your home or apartment back home but still want to pay the electric and internet bills yourself, you will need them automatically paid from your account.
Check your account frequently
How lovely it is that you can check your bank account every day if you want these days, and likely will at first. The transition period of leaving will be a hit on your cash flow. You will be paying for your first few months of rent in advance, storage units back home, possible security deposits on your rental, cash withdrawals once you arrive to Mexico and airline, bus tickets and hotel charges that might be initially charged in foreign currencies. All this requires close, even daily vigilance.
Don't forget to set up your credit card PIN number for cash withdrawals before y0u leave town.
Right now, you probably don't routinely take cash advances on your credit card so it's easy to forget to set up the PIN numbers for your credit cards before you leave that will enable you to make cash withdrawals.
Since I had never needed or used my credit card for cash, I assumed I could go into a Mexican bank, give them my passport and credit card and get cash off my credit card if I needed it. You cannot. No PIN, no plata.
Banking are a part of your life, no matter where you are. Revel in the knowledge that it's easier and safer moving money around than it's ever been.
Mexico Mike offers some more detail on ATMs, money orders and exchanging money. [post]
If you think you might be investing, getting a Mexican credit card and other services, Mexperience has some guidelines.
Most Recent: A reminder of how online tools have changed the whole prospect of living in another country full or part-time.
About the author
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico, which provides resources for those exploring part or full-time life in Mexico, and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online"a curation of the best free tools and features on line, organized into lesson plans.
More recently she released "If Only I Had a Place" a guide for the aspiring expat on renting in Mexico which includes a listing of rental concierges in the places most desired by expats.
"A phenomenal resource for adults who are trying to learn Spanish on their own" - Two Expats in Mexico (blog)