Living in Mexico City as an American Expat

Living in Mexico City as an American Expat

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Considering living in Mexico City?

You’re in the right place for information because I lived there for a year. In fact, Mexico City and I fell madly in love at first sight — just like in the movies.

I made a deal with my then-travel buddy to start in Mexico City (his choice), only if he continued traveling with me down to Buenos Aires (my choice). Long story short: I never left Mexico City! 

Well… eventually I left; relocating to Mérida for my second Mexican love, my boyfriend! However, not before learning, exploring and eating as many taco as I possibly could during my time living in Mexico City.

As we all know, no place is perfect. Mexico City (AKA CDMX), though, does have a lot going for it. Here are some quick pros and cons of living in Mexico City, that I’ll expand on more thoroughly in later sections of this article.

Some links may be affiliate links. This means we may get paid if you buy something or take an action after clicking certain links at no extra cost to you. 

Pro: Your Free Six-Month Visa

Yes, you read that right! Mexico gives a free 180 day/6-month FMM tourist visa to (nearly) everyone. Now, I’m not saying this is legal, but some people leave to another country for vacation every six months, then return to Mexico and get another 180 day FMM.

To take the fully legal route, you’d apply for a Temporary Resident card. These aren’t necessarily hard to get, but you do have to make your appointment interview at a Mexican consulate outside of Mexico.

Pro: The Weather

Being from Miami, I’ve accepted that anywhere cold is off the table for me.

Much of central Mexico has what is known as “eternal spring” weather, meaning there’s a temperate climate nearly year-round. It was really amazing to live a life with my apartment windows always open!

living in mexico city roof bar
A rooftop bar in the Condessa neighborhood

Pro: Parks and Outdoor Green Spaces

The weather also helps keep the city lush and green, with flowers and trees in bloom throughout much of the year.

In fact, the thing I hear most when I share Mexico City photos on social media is, “I can’t believe how green it is.” Now, not all parts of Mexico City are so lush and green; however, the nice parts of the city are nicer than many expect.

Pro: Culture

Mexico City is a cultural mecca. It has about 150 museums, a thriving music scene, the country’s biggest LGBTQ+ scene, and honestly, every other scene you’d expect in a big, world-class city. There’s also the amazing and ever-changing street art to look at.

Really, there’s seemingly no end to the amount of things to do and see in Mexico City.

Pro: Amazing, Inexpensive Foods

Going back to the “eternal spring” climate, Mexico City also has constant access to fresh produce and foods. I think I ate one bad meal in a year — no joke. Everything was fresh, handmade, and also somehow, inexpensive.

Pro: Low Cost of Living

As an example: I had a large studio apartment in one of the best neighborhoods, with a cleaning lady who also did my laundry once a week and cooked, with all bills and WiFi included for $600USD/€510 a month.

If you’re keeping your food budget low, you could get away with less than $400USD/€350 a month for food, with a mix of eating in and out.

Pro: You Don't Need a Car

I’d venture to say you don’t want a car! With a population of about nine million in the greater Mexico City area, the traffic is legendary.

I think the way to take advantage of the high quality of living/slower pace of life many come to Mexico City for, you’re going to want to live and work in the same general area.

For weekend trips from Mexico City, and there are many great ones, you can take the bus. Mexico has an amazing inter-country bus system that can get you literally anywhere in the entire country.

Before it starts sounds like I work for CDMX tourism, there are definitely some negatives; one of which caused me to relocate.

Cons of Living in Mexico City

Con: Crime

The thing with Mexico and Mexico City is that some parts are safe, and some are very very unsafe. If you know what’s what, you should be fine. I have traveled to 14 states in the country, most of them on solo trips, and I’ve had zero issues.

Con: The Traffic

The traffic is, well, bad. According to the INRIX congestion and mobility study, Mexico City residents lose about 160 hours per year to traffic! 

I combatted this by living and working in the same area of town. Since there’s nice weather so often, walking, biking and using rental scooters are great options. Beyond that, there’s the metro buses and metro (subway), and Uber.

Uber in Mexico is much cheaper than in many other places, especially in the U.S. As an average my 30-45 minute rides cost $100 pesos ($5USD/€3.50).

Traffic is a negative in any country you live in

Con: Air Pollution

This was the one that did me in!

I ended up developing horrible allergies after a year in Mexico City. Now, I know allergies can happen anywhere and at any point in your life, but I’m pretty convinced mine were triggered by the notoriously-terrible CDMX air pollution.

The second I left the city, I could breathe again.

Mexico City's Neighborhoods

Now that you have an idea of the pros and cons, you can identify any deal breakers. If you don’t have any, consider which neighborhood works best for you.

Here are some safe, expat-friendly areas:

Roma Norte/Roma Sur/Condesa/Juarez/Reforma/Zona Rosa

Yes, that was quite the list! These are all right by each other, so I lumped them all together. These are the fun, funky, artsy, hip, and co-working-space-rich areas of Mexico City.

Personally, if I lived in Mexico City again, I’d choose one of these. When I lived there, I was in Roma Norte, though Condesa was my other top pick. It is my favorite area because it had great cafes, architecture, street art, parks, and it was safe.

However, all places listed here have similar characteristics; I just personally liked Roma Norte most. Condesa, Roma Sur and Juarez were very similar to Roma Norte.

Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) is the LGBTQ+ epicenter of Mexico City. Just next door, the Reforma neighborhood has all the city’s tall skyscrapers and office buildings, and a couple of We Work locations.

The big con to these areas is that they are in the earthquake zone. Now, the entire city is technically in the Ring of Fire, and therefore earthquake prone; however, some areas are more prone than others.

living in mexico city roma norte neighborhood
The colorful facades of Roma Norte

Santa Maria la Ribera

To get out of the earthquake zone, yet retain some of the great amenities of previously listed neighborhoods, consider Santa Maria la Ribera. It is further north in the city, but I met quite a few expats who left the “cooler” parts of the city for this “safer” part after the horrible 2017 earthquake.

After living through my first earthquake, a small one at only 3.0 on the Richter scale, I can’t say I blame them. For comparison, the 2017 earthquake measured 7.1!

Polanco

If you want to live even further out of the earthquake zone, and enjoy posh amenities, look into Polanco. Here you’ll find all the new construction buildings, complete with pools, gyms, rooftop gardens, etc., and also, higher price tags.

Polanco also has a lot of workspaces and office buildings, yoga studios, fine dining restaurants, upscale shopping, etc. In fact, Polanco’s Avenida Presidente Masaryk is known as the Rodeo Drive of Mexico.

Expat Life in Roma Norte

So what was it like living in Roma Norte?

In short, I loved it. Everything was there: My apartment that I loved, my Spanish school, my favorite cafes, a great mercado (market), pretty parks, great co-working spaces, etc.

roma norte living in mexico city
Roma Norte Park Bench

Meeting New People

I’m a pretty textbook introvert (INTJ!) and I found meeting people quite easy. Mexicans in general are known to be quite friendly, and everyone in my building and neighborhood was no exception.

Besides casual conversations with neighbors, I met fellow foreigners at my Spanish school, and I knew some friends of friends who were living in Mexico City at the time, so I actually pretty effortlessly grew my social circle.

Though I say it started happening effortlessly, I was, in fact, making an effort. While it didn’t feel natural at first, and I wasn’t this way in Miami, I made an effort to meet people — and it worked! 

For me, “making an effort” started small with just making eye contact, smiling and saying hello to strangers. From there, my confidence grew and my social anxiety waned, to the point that now, I do those things effortlessly.

Coffee Shop Culture

If I didn’t go to my co-work, I went to the same cafe most of the time. It was one of the city’s better known ones, especially among coffee snobs. It was also comfortable to work in, and there were always other people working, which made conversations easy.

One of the things I love about CDMX is they don’t kick you out!

It was culturally acceptable to buy a coffee and a cookie and sit in a cafe for six hours. This is the same with dinner; people regularly sit for hours after, just talking, and it’s very much accepted.

Meeting Other Expats Living in Mexico City

More colorful captions in Roma Norte

I don’t want to sugar coat that though areas of Mexico City like Roma Norte are incredibly economical when you earn in dollars or euros, the average Mexican could not afford to live there. This is a very gentrified area of the city.

Because of this, you will meet a lot of other English speakers and expats. There are of course positives and negatives when a city or area gentrifies, but the point I’m making is that when you live in an area with a lot of other expats, it does make socializing quite easy.

I have found Facebook groups and online networking also works well. Three of the most active groups on Facebook are Foreigners In Mexico City, Foreigners & Expats in Mexico City (CDMX) and Expat Women In Mexico City.

Working in Mexico City

Given that the average worker in Mexico City makes about $10,000 pesos per month ($500/€400), you will want to have either a well paying job lined up or a digital nomad lifestyle. 

As with most countries, just showing up with no plan and hoping to wing it, is probably not the smartest move in a foreign, big city. In addition to the legalities, you’d need to be fluent in Spanish to be able to work.

What to Expect Living in Mexico City

I am from Miami, which has a strong latin cultural influence. The point being, I was already very acclimated to Mexico’s culture before I even went to Mexico.

In Miami, you do have to speak a few words of Spanish here and there, so I knew the absolute basics when I arrived. After 2 months, I was pretty comfortable speaking my still-quite-basic Spanish and going out on my own.

I will say that I gained a lot of confidence after my one-month, six-hours a day, intensive Spanish program. This really levels you up, but it’s a big commitment, and admittedly, hard, frustrating, etc.

living in mexico city cafe
One of the many great cafes in Mexico City

Homesickness and Culture Shock

For me, being only a 2.5 hour flight from Miami, making actual attempts to develop my social life, and just the distractions of being and living in Mexico City, meant I wasn’t homesick much. 

As I mentioned, many people leave every six months in order to get a new FMM visa, so I knew another trip to the U.S. was never far away; if I needed it. 

Also, Mexico City has some amazing weekend and day trips. Within a three-hour drive, you have Teotihuacan, Tepoztlan, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Queretaro, Peña de Bernal, Puebla, Cholula, Valle de Bravo, Las Estacas, Cholula and more!

From Mexico City, you could also hop on a plane and head anywhere else in the country. Mexico has a few inexpensive, inter-country airlines that all fly out of Benito Juarez International Airport.

In short, I never felt homesick.

However, I think I was ready to leave the U.S. when I did. I also think I knew I was so relatively close to “home,” in case I wanted to go, and I wasn’t experiencing much culture shock.

When "Home" Starts to Feel Foreign: Reverse Culture Shock

I have now been to 14 states in Mexico, and lived in three. I don’t feel “like a local,” but I do feel like a person loving life in my chosen country.

At one point in time, I thought I’d move back to the U.S., so I returned to my hometown in Miami. I left after two weeks. Then I tried Asheville, North Carolina, where I have family. After two weeks, I rented an apartment in Mexico City, and left two weeks later.

Here are a few things I’ve identified that won me over about Mexico:

Friendliness

From my perspective, Mexicans value connection, community and enjoyment above most things. It might be cliche, but on my daily walks in Mexico City, 90% of Mexicans would say buenos días/tardes (good morning/afternoon), or something similar.

In general, Mexican seem happier and are usually smiling.

Food Quality

The food in Mexico tastes real. I remember going to a Trader Joe’s to get ingredients for a salad, and everything was pre-packaged. I missed the interaction with foods in Mexican mercados, and I missed seeing people prepare fresh things in front of me.

Chilis at a local mercado

A Slower Pace of Life

Time seems to move slower for me in Mexico. Now, I have switched from a corporate 9-5 in the U.S. to a digital nomad lifestyle, and I’m sure that contributed. However, I feel most Mexicans work to live, rather than live to work, and it sets a good example for me to follow. 

A Car-Free Existence

I have realized quickly that driving leads to increased stress and unhappiness. Given the “eternal spring” climate in Mexico, and the ways cities are laid out, I’ve been perfectly happy without a car.

I did give it some thought, but eventually realized there’s nowhere in the U.S. (that wasn’t cold) where I could get away with being car-less.

Inter-Country Travel and Ease of Travel

Travel is my therapy. In Mexico, I can inexpensively travel within the country, and since it’s a big country, I have a ton of options!

For international travel, there are direct flights to most of the U.S., Canada, and Central and South America from both the Mexico City and Cancun Airports, so I still feel connected to the rest of the world.

What I Miss the Most About Life in the USA

Ironically enough, as I was writing this, a friend from the U.S. was chatting with me on Facebook and asked me what I missed from there. I told him 1) customer service, 2) gourmet cheeseburgers, and 3) Amazon Prime.

Let me explain:

In Mexico, the customer isn’t always right. I bought some wireless headphones that kept giving me static, so I went to return them. It took about 30 minutes of arguing with two managers to finally convince them to let me return them.

Fact: Mexico doesn’t like returns.

I was really craving a very specific bacon, blue cheese, arugula, sundried tomato aioli burger from a place in the U.S. when he asked.

Fact: U.S. burgers are better than Mexican burgers.

Now, I don’t miss supporting the Amazon machine, however, I recently started a podcast and I want a microphone. I went on Amazon Mexico, and I can have one — but for five times the price of U.S. Amazon, and in two months instead of two days!

Fact: Mexico online shopping options are sparse.

My New Life Living in Mexico City

If Mexico has taught me anything, it’s patience. In fact, when people from the U.S. visit, they can’t believe how long it takes to get food, for example. I explain to them that “In Mexico, they do this weird thing called ‘making your food fresh,’ so it takes longer.”

It’s times like these that make me realize I’m pretty acclimated to my Mexico life.

Now, as I mentioned, the acclimation process wasn’t hard for a Miami native who grew up around a lot of Latins. I also now have a Mexican boyfriend who helps me fill in the gaps when I get confused over cultural differences, so that helps.

In fact, I think one of the biggest things I’ve had to make myself do was stop being so shocked over how inexpensive things are. The “OMG that is so cheap.” started feeling trite, so I make an effort to keep those comments to myself.

I took a while, my brain has learned not to react when I can eat a delicious three-course menu del día (menu of the day) for $60 pesos ($3USD/€2).

Home office in my Mexico City apartment

The Cost of Living in Mexico City

As you can see, you can live inexpensively in Mexico City! I believe I lived an average expat lifestyle, but I know “average” is relative. 

I was living in a pretty big city before Mexico City, so I was acclimated to a smaller-sized apartment. For some, living in a large studio, like I was in Mexico City would be downsizing; however for me, that was also an easy transition.

For anyone coming from a large house, you’re likely not going to have that in most of Mexico City. However, there are some areas of the city that have a nice mix of home space and big city culture — like Coyoacan, where Frida Kahlo lived!

If you’re looking into the hip/artsy neighborhoods, here’s a rundown of some pricing estimates:

  • Monthly rent, 2 bedroom apartment: Depending on the building quality, you might want to assume about $1,000USD/€850 for rent, and another $100USD/€75 for all your bills.
  • Cost of commute monthly (transit pass, car, etc): Mexico City’s public transportation is great. The metro is only $5 pesos ($0.25USD/€0.20) per ride, so it’s also quite inexpensive to get around. I walked everywhere, but there’s also a scooter and bike rental app/program, and Uber when you need it. For a general budget, you might want to factor in $50USD/€35 per month.
  • Coffee from a local cafe: Expect to pay about $40 pesos ($2USD/€1.50) for a regular americano coffee and $65 pesos ($3USD/€2.50) for a latte. Mexico has many coffee growing regions, so most coffee is pretty good here.
  • Beer from a local bar: Beer and mezcal tend to be the cheapest options for drinking in Mexico City. As a ballpark, you can generally find the local favorites, like Corona, Pacifico and Bohemia, for about $50 pesos ($3USD/€2) a bottle. 
  • Common take-away food (pizza, shawarma, noodles, etc): Mexico City street tacos are incredibly cheap. On the lowest end, you can have tacos de canasta (basket tacos) at 5 tacos for $35 pesos ($2USD/€1.50). These are a favorite with the locals, and served from a basket. For cooked-to-order taco stands, figure about 5 tacos for $75 pesos ($4USD/€3). 
  • Decent dinner for two (like for a birthday or if your mom is visiting): Mexico City has some of the best restaurants in the world, including Pujol, arguably the most famous Mexican restaurant in the world. I ate there with a friend for the 7-course chef’s tasting and we got a $75USD/€60 bottle of wine… and the bill with tip came to about $300USD/€250. This is the top price point you’d expect to spend on a nice dinner. There are also plenty of other “finer dining” restaurants where the bill would easily be one-third that.
  • Typical grocery bill for a week of shopping: If you’re shopping in mercados (local markets), you can eat quite well on $500 pesos ($25USD/€20) a week.

Besides money, the biggest question I get asked about is Mexico City safety.

Honestly, I feel safer in many parts of Mexico City than I did in Miami, but I also make my personal safety a high priority. I also make it my business to know where I should and shouldn’t go, and I have dedicated myself to learning the language and Mexican customs.

I have found the expats who have a lot of issues with living in Mexico City, are the people who refuse to acclimate. For me, I made acclimating a priority… and I think it paid off.

Shelley

Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! After traveling solo to 14 states in Mexico, she’s currently calling Mérida home. She created the Travel Mexico Solo blog and the Dream To Destination podcast to help women cross Solo Travel & Mexico Travel off their bucket list.

If you’re moving to Mexico, currently living in Mexico City or just curious about travel or life abroad in the beautiful country, leave your questions for Shelley below in the comments.

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