An international move can be completely overwhelming, but you just have to break the whole thing down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Once we decided to do it, here's the process we followed to achieve it.
Note: This list is for leaving the US and entering Mexico. Once you are in Mexico, you have a limited amount of time to complete the immigration process on the Mexican side. We'll address this in a separate blog post.
I. Set A Budget (And Follow It)!
As I mentioned before, Tim and I spent 9 weeks in a money-management course called Financial Peace University. Each Sunday for two hours, we watched a video and completed assignments. While much of the information in the course is pretty intuitive, I liked the accountability of a standing date with my mate and the joy of achieving something together.
Through proper budgeting, we took the baby steps necessary to increase our emergency fund, pay off debt, save for an international move, and make smart investments. Budgeting, while not a FUN activity in my book, is simply having a plan for your money. Whether you have a lot of money or very little, having a plan for your money means having a plan for your life.
II. Get Out Of Debt
We took the debt snowball approach and knocked out tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt in about two years. Once our debt was extinguished, we were free to continue paying ourselves those debt payments. We built up emergency reserves and started saving for our move.
Look for areas you can trim your budget to achieve your goals faster, and be realistic about your lifestyle post-move... Do you really need another pair of high heels for gala season? Can you do without another designer handbag? I now spend my life in Birkenstocks and Mexican dresses. Talk about a lifestyle change!
III. Build Up Savings & Set A Target Move Date
Once you have built up about 6 months of living expenses, it's time to dump funds into a moving account. Estimate how much everything is going to cost and plan accordingly-- What paperwork is required? What are the fees? How much will it cost to transport yourself and your animals and children? Do you need to rent something month to month if your house sells quickly? What can you expect to spend per month on living expenses in your new country?
It's important to determine the cost of the initial move and your estimated monthly expenses post-move. I recommend doing this so that you continue to live below your means. There are a MILLION unanticipated costs associated with an international move. Living below your means will allow you to handle these surprises with ease.
When setting a target move date, choose a date far enough into the future that you are certain to have completed all the necessary paperwork. I would recommend at least six months in advance. A year is better.
IV. Make A Site Visit & Estimate Monthly Expenses
Once you've decided on a potential location and an estimated move date, it's time to make a visit! This will give you an opportunity to make a test run on life in your new city. Plan to do this about six months prior to departure to give you plenty of time to make adjustments to your budget. Find an Airbnb in a desirable neighborhood for at least a week. While being a tourist and on vacation is nice, use this as an opportunity to experience life in its everyday mundaneness.
Formulate some questions ahead of your trip that will help guide your activities once you're there. We were childless prior to our move. Anyone moving with children will certainly want the list to reflect any and all questions pertaining to little ones.
Here Was Our List:
1. Is internet service reliable?
2. Can we find our prescriptions at the local pharmacy?
3. Is there a good veterinarian in town?
4. Is there a health food store that carries high quality food and supplements?
5. Is there an Episcopal church?
6. Is there a gym or yoga studio?
7. Is the city walkable?
8. Whom do people see for dental care, vision, and wellness?
9. What are the most desirable neighborhoods?
10. What is our estimated monthly cost of living?
V. Find A Rental Specialist
On your site visit, find some inexpensive rental options in the best parts of town. Ask for referrals for a rental specialist as soon as you arrive. Your new home doesn't need to be beautiful, but it does need to meet your needs and expose you to the best and safest neighborhood the city has to offer.
Our rental specialist was bilingual and had lived in San Miguel de Allende her entire life. She knew exactly what neighborhoods to show us as well as some rental properties that were available around the time of our target move date. We took some photos, put pen to paper on costs, and signed a lease over email within one to two months of our visit. Our planned arrival date was at the peak of tourist season. Had we decided to wait until we arrived to find a home, we would have been priced out of our desired neighborhood!
VI. Start Wrapping Up Affairs At Home
You've researched the paperwork requirements, estimated moving costs, chosen a target move date, and maybe even signed a lease... It's time to prepare for the move! You'll want to begin this process about 3 months out from your projected leave date.
A. It's time to get rid of "stuff." Decide what to take, what to dump, and what to store. We divided our entire household into thirds and dealt with each phase separately: kitchen, garage, and the rest of the house. See the next blog post regarding the Top 20 Things To Pack When Moving Abroad for more information on critical items to take with you on your move.
B. Decide on mail forwarding, banking options, and storage options. How will you continue to receive mail and access your money abroad? We set up an account with Scan Mailboxes in Austin. They receive our mail, open and scan it, and email it to us. We can tell them to either keep it or shred it. In terms of accessing money, we decided to forgo a Mexican bank account and just use cash that we take out of the ATM instead. We recommend Charles Schwab for zero ATM fees and conversion costs. If you decide to continue using a US bank account or credit card, make sure to notify them of future international activity on the account. Lastly, it was important to us to keep our furniture until we were able to send for it. We opened up a storage unit in Austin to house everything we intended to bring down to Mexico in the future.
C. Plan move-out dates and cancellation of utilities. We let our landlord know we would be leaving our lease a bit early and were willing to help him find a new tenant since showing a property with furniture in it is always better than showing a vacant property. We let him know approximately two and a half months prior to our departure. We decided to continue paying the utilities until he found a new tenant or at the conclusion of our lease, whichever came sooner.
D. Decide what to do with your vehicle(s). If you are selling a vehicle or two, make sure to make arrangements to do this about a month before you leave. We sold our Lexus to the mechanic a month before our departure. If you are driving down to Mexico, you MUST have the title to your vehicle, which means it must be paid off, and the title needs to be in the name of the driver. Your car can legally be in Mexico for six months. Once you have received your temporary residency card, you can then ask for an extension. More information is available here.
E. Plan your drive or flight. When you're ready to pull the trigger, it's time to book that flight! However, if you're driving, we highly recommend purchasing a road log. It will help you navigate the entire drive from the best rest stops and gas stations to mapping out the toll roads you'll need to take to your desired destination. We purchased the Mexperience e-book, "Mexico Road Logs & Driving Guides - Nuevo Laredo to Tapachula."
F. Make sure your health is up to snuff. Make all of your personal appointments a few months before you leave. It can be difficult to take care of this right off the bat in a foreign country with doctors who either don't speak English or just don't know you. We also scanned all of our health records into our computers before we left so we would have them if necessary.
VII. Begin Compiling The Necessary Paperwork
This could take a few weeks, so start this process about 3 months before you plan to leave also. You should have your passports up to date from your site visit, but make sure to check that expiration date! You will need to have all of the following documents with you on your voyage. We also recommend making 10 color copies of each document to put in a folder for the drive down.
B. Birth Certificates
C. Marriage License
D. Car Title
E. Notarized Bank Statements*
F. Proof of Income/Letter from Your Employer
An additional step we took that was not necessary to process our Temporary Residency permits, but was absolutely critical when we were applying for US and Mexican citizenship for our daughter, was having our marriage and birth certificates apostille certified. Each document will need to be mailed to the Office of Vital Statistics in the US state where it was issued along with a letter making the request for certification, pre-paid return postage, and payment. I cannot stress this enough, you will thank yourself later for doing this!
For more information on what this means and a company that can handle it for you, check out this link. Although we did this ourselves, you may wish to have a third party handle it for you.
*Regarding notarized bank statements, you will need these eventually, but you may want to wait until your appointment with a Mexican consulate to see how recent they need to be.
VIII. Schedule An Appointment With The Mexican Consulate
Make the initial appointment a couple of months before you plan to leave. Take the documents you have already compiled in case the officer would like to see them. We were walk-ins at the consulate located in Austin, so this was an easy meeting for us, but in larger cities, you may have a harder time with the bureaucracy.
Whatever you do, DO NOT tell the officer that you are going to Mexico to work unless you are expressly seeking a work permit from the outset. This can confuse the officer, and they may black ball you from receiving your temporary residency. We have a couple of friends who have had this problem and had to go to a consulate in a separate state.
At this time, the officer will ask you some questions regarding how you intend to support yourself while living in Mexico and ask for proof of both income and savings. The specific amounts vary from time to time, so you'll need to get this information directly from the consulate, but ballpark amounts are $2,000 US income per month for a couple (more if you have children) and a $25,000 average balance in your bank account. The required documentation for this is a year's worth of notarized bank statements and proof of income for the previous six months, which we satisfied with a letter from Tim's employer.
Once we got through the initial interview, we scheduled a follow up appointment two weeks prior to our departure to provide the additional documentation and pick up our visas. Make sure you pay attention to consulate hours. Sometimes they close at odd times and this can be frustrating. It is also possible that you will need an in-between visit to show proof of all of your documentation before they will issue you your visa. Like most things in Mexico, you will just have to remain flexible and remember that you are no longer dealing with the US government.
Check out this link for more information: Mexico Visa & Residency Information.
IX. Schedule An Appointment With Your Veterinarian
This process is relatively painless. You'll just need to take your animals to a vet to get a Health Certificate within ten days of your departure. We scheduled a visit one month out to catch up on teeth cleanings, vaccinations, etc. Then ten days before we took off, we took the animals back in for a final look-over and to pick up the certificates. Call you vet ahead of time to make sure they are capable of providing you the certificate. Here is more information from the USDA: Pet Travel from the US to Mexico.
X. Pack Your Car & Drive Away
Wow, here you are! At this point, we're just wrapping up the details and preparing for the journey. Make sure at this point you have done the following:
A. Create a comprehensive list of the household goods you are bringing with you. This is known as a "menaje de casa." The border agent did not even ask for this as we crossed into Mexico, but double check requirements here.
B. Bring originals and copies of all official documents. We recommend 10 color copies of each document placed in a folder separate from the original documents, both easy to access.
C. Pack your car in a test run. Are you comfortable? Can you see through the back window? Can you reach your animals or children if you need to? Does everything fit?
D. Prepare snacks and drinks. Of course, pack snacks and drinks in your super sporty YETI Hopper. There are long stretches of highway with absolutely nothing, and fast food is non existent. Plus, you'll appreciate the creature comfort of foods with which you are familiar.
E. Have your driving directions and pesos for the toll roads easily accessible. Toll roads are cash only. Make sure you have plenty of pesos for this and small change for bathroom attendants and toilet paper along the way. Map out all of your stops ahead of time.
F. Make sure your car is in great mechanical condition. Make sure your vehicle has been inspected and is ready for a long road trip. Make sure you have a good spare tire and anything else you think you might need.
In addition to the overview in this post, here is an extended expat guidebook for sale on Amazon, "Becoming an Expat Mexico: Your Guide to Moving Abroad (Vol. 6)."
BONUS TIP: When I asked my husband to take a look at my list, he told me to be sure to remind everyone to throw a party! You may not see friends and family for a while, and you'll want to get in as much face time with them as possible before you go. We also throw a party every time we go home. It's the best way to catch up with everyone when time is limited and it may be the only opportunity your friends get to see each other in your absence!