How to Get Your FM-3 Residency Visa in Mexico

If you’re an American or other expat headed south of the border with plans to stay awhile, then you’ll be needing an FM-3 visa, also referred to as a temporary residents’ or residency visa.

As someone who has gone through the process of acquiring the FM-3 visa (and renewing it, which is a whole other hoop-jumping ordeal), I’ve got a few insider’s tips to share:

*Suck it up and hire a lawyer: I’m a big penny pincher and tend to do things the hard way rather than fork over the dough to pay for expert help. I did not, however, extend my spendthrift habits to the visa acquisition process and you shouldn’t either.

Although you can renew your visa on your own (more on that in a bit), you will save time, energy, and even money by hiring a lawyer to prepare and submit your initial FM-3 application. Immigration lawyers in Mexico City practically live in the immigration office, often know the agents personally, and have developed very useful networking relationships with the people who will review, approve, and expedite your application.

Without a lawyer, you are far more likely to see your application end up in a foot-tall stack of papers, not to be seen for months. Aren’t sure how to look for a lawyer? Feel free to e-mail me for some advice.

*Got a lawyer? Get a contract: You’ve got your lawyer. Now, you need to make a contract regarding the terms of service that he or she will be providing. Do NOT pay the full amount requested up front. Indicate your willingness to pay in installments as each step in the submission and approval process is fulfilled. Pay only when you receive confirmation (in the form of an official document from immigration, for example, that your application has been submitted) that the task has been fulfilled. Be certain to ask if the quoted price is fixed or whether additional charges are possible. If you are told that the price is fixed, be sure to write this on the contract and emphasize that you will not pay additional fees without prior authorization.

*Detail methods of contact: You’ve got your lawyer, you’ve got your contract. Now, make sure you have your lawyer’s contact information: phone, cell, e-mail, and fax. If you’ll be interfacing with your lawyer from another country, be sure you have a reliable means of communication to be in touch with him or her. Ask when you can expect to receive updates and follow up if you do not receive them.

*Smile and say cheese: For some reason I fail to understand, the world’s governments refuse to accept photographs for official documents that are of a uniform size. The photos you will need for the FM-3 visa have very strict specifications and you will save yourself time and money by having them done in Mexico. There are numerous businesses around Mexico City’s immigration office that offer photo service. And spring for an extra set. You never know when you’ll need them.

*Make copies of everything. When traveling or living abroad for an extended period of time, it is always a good idea to have at least two sets of copies of all of your important documents: passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate (if applicable), three months’ worth of bank statements, last year’s taxes, and proof of employment or economic solvency. You will also need copies of your rental contract or property deed and copies of a utility bill (though not the light bill; take several different utility bills, just in case). Always keep one set of these documents handy for your own reference, and have an extra set prepared to submit upon request to immigration.

Also, any time you submit a document, be sure to make at least one copy (two copies=better) for your records. And be sure to carry coins with you if you’ll be visiting immigration; copy shops are next door and despite your preparedness, you will inevitably need another copy of a document.

*Celebrate and notate: Once you’ve received your FM-3, kick back and have a cold Corona. But be sure to make a copy of your new residency visa and to note your residency number in a separate place.


The FM-3 must be renewed each year. You can do this without the aid of a lawyer, if you have observed the process carefully the first time, have maintained impeccably organized records, and are willing to negotiate the whims of bureaucracy independently. Do NOT wait until the last minute. Ask for information about the documents necessary for the renewal at the information desk inside immigration, and document each step (date, name of person to whom you submitted your documents, the number of your application) as it occurs. As of this writing, you’re likely to be quoted a 30 day turn-around time; however, due to corruption and a cleaning out of the agency, processing times are often much longer.

Photo: Lucy Nieto (creative commons)

A Few Books American Expats in Mexico Should Read

A few months back, an American friend who was thinking of moving to Mexico’s Baja California region recounted her experience of home-hunting with a real estate agent.

She’d explained to the agent in advance that she is the kind of person who really immerses herself in local culture, so she wasn’t looking for a luxury condo or a gated community.

Nonetheless, when she arrived in Baja, my friend was given a tour of condos where Mexican maids come in and fold towels in elaborate shapes– swans, flowers, and all manner of objects that appear impossible to my own fumbling fingers. The agent explained, with some degree of pride, that American expats had created these lovely gated communities where they could “be assured of water and electricity.”

The local Mexicans, meanwhile, had to haul buckets to a water truck a few times a week–if it came rolling through town at all–to source water, as the American expats had diverted the water to their own neighborhood.

My friend talked about her meeting with the expats, who complained about the loud music of locals, explained that their community policy prohibited Mexicans from living amongst them because “they have a ton of people in one home,” warned about going to the “Mexican” store for food rather than the “American” store, and who proudly flaunted the fact that they spoke little or no Spanish.

I’ve been thinking about these folks as I immerse myself in Mexico’s classical and contemporary literature, which has a rich, respectable, and long history. If I could recommend a few books American expats in Mexico should read, they’d include:

Instrucciones Para Vivir en Mexico: by Jorge Ibarguengoitia
Translated literally, the title means Instructions for Living in Mexico. Far from being a how-to book, the late Ibarguengoitia, a journalist, brought his astute and acerbic wit to the page in order to offer a close-up examination on Mexican life. Though many of the short essays (most no more than 2 pages) were written in the 1970s, they remain powerfully relevant today. My favorite essays are in the section about bureaucracy and an essay about Mexican car horns. This book is great for the American who really wants to get beneath the surface of Mexican social and political life; it’s historical without being overly didactic, and it’s often quite funny.

The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics (The Latin America Readers): This anthology, published by Duke University Press, is a sweeping yet comprehensive overview of some of the most important historical and literary documents from Mexico’s history. The book is great to pull off a shelf and open to any page; consider it your daily lesson in Mexican history and culture. It’s also in English, so you’ve got no language barrier excuses!

Africa en Mexico: by Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas
Not all Mexicans know about the Afro-Mexican populations that live in Mexico’s coastal areas, but Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas, a professor, specializes in the subject and has written several books about Afro-Mexicans. This one, in Spanish, is a great primer on the subject.

There are numerous other books I’d recommend, including cookbooks, art books, and memoirs, but these are a great start for the American who has recently arrived in Mexico. With the exception of The Mexico Reader, these books can be tough to find in the U.S. and online. In Mexico City, check the bookstore in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the bookstore at the Cineteca Nacional, both of which have an extensive and impressive collection.

Are you an American expat in Mexico? What books would you add to this list?
Photo: Texas to Mexico (creative commons)