21 Things to Know Before Moving to Mexico
If you’re planning on moving to Mexico, ¡bien hecho! (congratulations!)
Populated for more than 13,000 years, Mexico has cultivated an incredibly rich, diverse culture. If you enjoy gorgeous jungles, beaches, and deserts, a variety of delectable food and alcohol, and welcoming, charming people, you’ll love it here.
1.5 million Americans have already made the move (US State Department, 2022), so you’ll have a ready-made community of expats in this glorious nation. But there are still some things you should be aware of before you arrive – and we’ve got you covered.
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The glorious Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City
1. Mexico bridges continents – but it’s a world of its own
The third-largest Latin American country connects South and North America – but it’s so much more than that.
With 5,800 miles of coastline, Mexico boasts countless beautiful beaches (especially on its Caribbean and Pacific shores), sweeping deserts, mountains and volcanoes climbing thousands of metres, and verdant jungles full of fantastical animals.
The country is equally multifaceted when it comes to its people, with different cultures, various ethnicities, and 60 languages thriving across its 10 main traditional regions.
This will feel familiar to most Americans, but the sheer amount of diversity in a country five times smaller than the US is still striking.
2. The past is present
Another attribute that Mexico shares with the US is a painful history that continues to impact people today.
While the US has never fully processed its history of slavery, Mexico has a complicated relationship with colonialism.
500 years ago, Spanish forces defeated disparate Aztec groups, took over the country, and renamed it – along with various other territories on the American continent – ‘New Spain’.
When Mexico won its independence 300 years later, it wasn’t like the US cutting its cord with London – this was the removal of an occupying, enslaving force that had nevertheless shaped much of Mexico’s culture.
As Mexican poet Octavio Paz said: “Past epochs never vanish completely, and blood still drips from all their wounds, even the most ancient.”
3. This is a deeply Catholic country
There’s no official religion here, but 83% of Mexicans are Catholic, and most take their religion extremely seriously.
You don’t have to be Catholic to live here, but certainly make sure you don’t offend the locals by joking about their faith. For instance, don’t say anything negative about Our Lady of Guadalupe.
This is the Mexican Catholic name for Jesus’s mother, Mary, who is said to have appeared to a peasant in 1531 – 10 years after the Spanish invasion – as a dark-skinned woman who spoke Nahuatl, an indigenous language.
She became the Patroness of Mexico, a symbol of the nation’s identity that brought people together – and she has represented a host of other causes, including feminism, motherhood, and social justice.
4. The healthcare system is mediocre
Mexico’s universal healthcare system is not bad, but it’s far below the standard you’d expect from the 15th-wealthiest country in the world.
The Lancet ranked Mexico’s health service 91st in the world – three places lower than Syria, and 62 places below the US.
This shortfall is largely due to a deficit of funding from the government – it takes care of just 51% of the country’s healthcare expenditure, far below the OECD average of 71%.
The rest of the spending mostly falls directly on residents, who pay 41% of the costs out of their pocket, according to the World Bank.
In reference to Mexico’s healthcare system, the OECD has noted that “high out-of-pocket spending on healthcare signals a failure of the health system to provide effective insurance, high-quality services, or both.”
If you’re an employee when you move to Mexico, your company should sign you up for public healthcare. But if you’re retired, self-employed, or unemployed, you’ll have to arrange everything yourself – in Spanish.
Check out our guide to healthcare in Mexico, and if you’re thinking of moving to this fascinating country, remember to consider medical cover for when you’re out there.
5. You should learn Spanish
Speaking of speaking Spanish – you should.
While most high-profile business figures in the country will be fluent in English, very few other people will be.
Only around 12.9% of Mexicans speak English, so if you have any hopes of making friends, feeling settled, or even just going shopping, it’s a good idea to learn Spanish as quickly as possible.
6. Mexican independence is not celebrated on Cinco de Mayo
It’s easy to make this rookie error, but you’ll gain a lot more respect if you’re aware that Mexico marks its independence on 16 September each year.
On this day in 1810, inspired by the American and French revolutions, Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang his Dolores church’s bells to signal the start of the 11-year-long Mexican War of Independence, which split the nation from Spain.
Each year this act, known as Grito de Dolores (‘Cry of Dolores’), is carried out by the current Mexican president – and is often the cause of protest, in this same revolutionary spirit.
Festivities start on the eve of 15 September, and continue into the next day with music, dancing, fireworks, and food including the delicious pozole stew and chiles en nogada, which presents the colours of the Mexican flag with stuffed chiles, beef, and cream sauce.
Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, takes place on 5 May and honours Mexico's military triumph over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. It’s marked with parades, historical re-enactments, and a day off work and school in two states.
This stunning sight is a real-life beach in Quintana Roo
7. Here comes the sun
Mexico has plenty of sunshine for you to enjoy – for example, Mexico City experiences around the same amount of sunlight per year as Houston, Texas: 2,500 hours.
It’s warm, too, with a tropical climate producing temperatures which rarely drop below 50°F, and regularly climb above 90°F.
That doesn’t mean it’s always dry, though. Carry an umbrella with you during the rainy season, which runs from June through mid-October.
8. Living costs are lower
Mexico offers a considerably lower cost of living than the US – and that’s without even taking into account the savings made from not paying exorbitant amounts for healthcare.
You’ll pay about half the price for more or less every expense in Mexico, from food and clothes to bus tickets.
And when it comes to rent and house prices, you’ll typically save at least two-thirds by moving south of the border.
If you manage to attain a salary anywhere close to what you received in the US, you’ll be in financial dreamland. And even if you don’t, you’ll probably still do very well for yourself.
9. Know your US-Mexico history
Mexico and the US have a close, complex relationship. We’re not saying you have to be a professor in the subject, but you should have some awareness of it if you’re moving there.
For instance, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 saw the US invade Mexico to annex Texas. This conflict – the first fought by the US on foreign soil – left psychological scars in its wake.
The US also had a large influence on the decade-long Mexican Revolution of 1910, which shaped modern politics in the country by creating a strong central government and ensuring civilian politicians controlled the army – putting a decisive end to military coups.
Nowadays, the US and Mexico are tightly connected economically and socially, with millions of people in both countries choosing to live in the other nation.
The good news is that 66% of Mexicans have a favorable view of the US, according to a national poll from November 2021 that showed this number had rebounded from 30% since Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump as US President.
So as long as you don’t bring up the war, you should be fine.
10. The people are welcoming…
Mexico is consistently voted as one of the most welcoming countries in the world, and for good reason.
Mexican hospitality is reliably generous and charming, so make sure you thank everyone for opening their doors to you, accept a large proportion of the food they provide, and offer to help with tasks like clearing the table after a meal.
This kindness will be returned to you tenfold.
11. …so if you’re called a gringo, it’s probably a good sign
In some contexts, gringo can be used as a slur against foreigners, but if the speaker seems like they’re being affectionate, they probably are – they’re just making fun of you.
Remember too that they’re punching up, so don’t return comedic fire by relying on tired Mexican stereotypes.
Instead, laugh at yourself and join in the animated, overlapping conversations with plenty of eye contact and physical jostling. People don’t usually take themselves or personal space too seriously here.
12. Mexican humor is dark, sarcastic, and full of double entendres
You probably know about Día de Muertos, the festival that joyfully celebrates the dead, but what you may not know is that Mexico’s close relationship with death extends to its humor.
So don’t be afraid to go dark with your jokes, as long as they’re not insulting.
Speaking of which, be aware of albures, or double entendres, which Mexicans often use to make sexual jokes or remarks.
For instance, you might be asked as a foreigner whether you like Mexican chilies, which may well be an effort to trick you into saying you enjoy having sex with Mexican men – or it may just be an innocent question.
Try to pick up on these abures, but also be prepared to trip over one and be (lovingly) laughed at, as there are countless thousands.
It’s so widespread that there’s an annual competition to find the best albureros (wordplay expert) in the country.
Throw in the rampant sarcasm, and this can all come as a surprise to Americans who are used to broad comedy, observational humor, and slapstick – but if you embrace it, you’ll end up loving it.
The delicious dish of beef pozole, traditionally eaten on Mexican Independence Day
13. Food is different – and delicious – in every region
If you grew up in the US, you’ll probably have eaten plenty of Mexican food, but you also don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t compare to the real deal.
There are many excellent reasons to travel around Mexico while you’re there – more about that later – but food would be a fantastic reason all on its own.
The country contains seven distinct food regions, and you should sample them all: from sumptuous burritos, grilled beef, and fresh cheese in the North to the South’s delectable pit-oven-cooked pork (cochinita pibil) and moreish coconut shrimp.
You should also make sure to try chilaquiles as soon as possible, so you can have this glorious concoction of lightly fried tortilla slices with salsa, pulled chicken, fried or scrambled eggs, cheese, and cream every morning for the rest of your life.
You can also add onion, avocado, and refried beans to the mix, just in case you wanted to make this dish even more mouthwatering.
There are countless versions of every Mexican dish you can think of, from tamales to tacos. Let people try to prove how much better their version is, and your taste buds will thank you.
14. Soccer is huge here…
Whether or not you love soccer already, your best chance of adoring the sport is to experience fútbol in Mexico.
The fans are passionate, the standard is high, and the atmosphere is incredible.
Go to an international match, by all means – the men’s team is ranked 14th globally – but don’t miss out on Liga MX. Once you’ve seen a match or two, you’ll be hooked on the best league in the Americas, which is thankfully organised like sport seasons in the US.
It has a fall league (Apertura) from July to December, and an identical spring league (Clausura) from January until May, so you get two champions per year.
15. …but don’t miss out on other sports
If baseball’s more your speed than soccer, then you’ll find plenty of like-minded people, as it’s extremely popular in the northwest and southeast – but make sure you also step outside of your comfort zone.
Go watch the national sport of charrería, a Mexican style of rodeo originally created to help herders to keep control of their horses.
There are many different equestrian contests in any given charrería event, meaning you could see riders lassoing their horse, desperately trying to stay on a bucking horse, or attempting to switch horses mid-ride.
If you can stomach it, bull fights are also culturally rich – if bloody – spectacles.
16. Now doesn’t always mean now
Asking for timings can be tricky in Mexico.
Ahora means ‘now’, but unlike in most Spanish-speaking countries, adding ‘ita’ to create ahorita doesn’t change the meaning to ‘right now’ – it makes it mean the opposite.
If you ask when your package will arrive and hear ‘ahorita,’ you could be waiting a few hours, a day, or forever. If the speaker lengthens the word to ‘ahoriiiiita,’ this indicates that you’ll be waiting even longer.
If you want to say that you need something right away, say ‘ahorititita.’ And yes, this is just as confusing when it’s happening to you.
17. The landscape for LGBT people is complicated
Mexico has a relatively progressive approach to LGBT people, which is pretty unusual for such a deeply Catholic country.
You can marry someone of the same gender in Mexico City and 21 of the nation’s 31 states, anti-discrimination legislation covers LGBT folks, and transgender people can legally change their gender at 18 without getting surgery.
Same-sex couples can also adopt or create a child through scientific methods like in vitro fertilisation (IVF) in three states, though it’s technically unconstitutional to deny this right in the other states.
Culturally, the best LGBT spaces are characteristically found in the capital city, in the Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), which boasts dozens of LGBT bars and clubs. Hundreds of thousands of people also attend the Pride parade in Mexico City each year.
Tolerance is not universal, but 69% of Mexicans think homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to Pew Research – which is only just below the US’s 72% figure.
However, like in the US, there is still violence against anyone who’s not straight and cisgender. In 2019, 117 LGBT people were killed in Mexico, according to Reuters, and the LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index places Mexico 33rd – 13 places below the US.
Let’s not throw stones in glass houses, though. 51 trans people were murdered in the US in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign, so progress is clearly needed in both nations.
The imposing, ancient Teotihuacan Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun
18. You must explore this incredible country
Mexico is full of wonders.
Just ask UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which has designated 35 world heritage sites in Mexico – the seventh-most of any country, and 11 more than the much larger US.
Take advantage, and explore thousands of years of incredible creations made by people and nature.
Go see Teotihuacan and Palenque, two cities built around 1,500 years ago that are home to incredible buildings. Teotihuacan (‘the city of the gods’) is particularly striking, with its imposing Temple of Quetzalcoatl overlooking the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.
Then dive into nature on Espiritu Santo Island, where you can swim with angelfish, dolphins, parrotfish, rays, turtles, and whales, and by visiting the Magic Falls in Huatulco, which completely live up to their name.
19. The alcohol is tasty – but be careful
Like the majority of countries, the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18. You can even drink on the street – just don’t get drunk and make a public spectacle of yourself.
If you’re moving to either Mexico City or Guadalajara – both popular expat destinations – beware the effect that living at high altitude can have on your body’s reaction to alcohol.
Chances are, you’ll get drunk much more quickly than you expect – so take it slow at first.
Once you’re acclimatised, there are plenty of national drinks to enjoy, including lots of wonderful tequila. Always try the local delicacy, and again, let people try to convince you which one is best.
Make sure you also enjoy some mezcal made by independent artisans, who will cook agave in earthen pits alongside charcoal and lava rocks before distilling it in clay pots, giving the drink its delicious, smoky flavour.
Remember: el mezcal no te emborracha, te pone mágico (‘mezcal doesn’t make you drunk, it makes you magical’).
And while drinking alcohol can always be potentially dangerous, it’s not as reliably bad for you as the nation’s tap water. Don’t drink the tap water in Mexico.
20. Expect people to be late
Mexicans have a different relationship with time.
While we’ve had the phrase ‘time is money’ hammered into our brains, time is viewed here as more of an uncontrollable phenomenon, like a river.
If an event overruns, it’s seen as a gift, rather than a waste of time. If someone shows up late to an appointment, it’s rarely an issue.
And as is common in Latin America, people won’t start turning up for an 8pm party until 10:30pm – at the earliest.
This can stress out Americans at first, but soon enough, you’ll start to appreciate the more relaxed attitude towards time, and the ways in which it allows you to be more spontaneous and flexible.
21. Small words make life easier
Like many Latin American populations, Mexicans often add diminutives to the end of words.
In literal terms, these suffixes – ito and ita – add ‘small’ to the word you’re using. For instance, if you offer to make someone a cafecito, you’re asking if they want a small coffee.
But its main use is to soften the impact or seriousness of a sentence, show a lack of aggression, and convey affection or respect.
So whether you’re asking someone out on a date, telling your friend that their new shirt is horrendous, or asking your colleague to pass a file, diminutives can make the interaction easier.