For decades, expatriates from Canada and the U.S. have been crossing the border into Mexico looking for something better. Their reasons vary, but among them are less taxation, more personal freedoms, a lower cost of living, a higher quality of life, warmer weather, and a slower pace.
In fact, there are more U.S. residents living abroad in Mexico than in any other country in the world. Recent estimates by the U.S. State Department have the total number of U.S. expats living in Mexico nearing 1 million. That’s up from only about 200,000 just a decade ago. However, this number could be even higher.
U.S. illegals in Mexico are just as common.
Just as many Mexicans cross over into the U.S. illegally, likewise there are many U.S. citizens who overstay the time allotted on their tourist visas. Others go back and forth like nomads, without ever establishing formal residency.
As a result, it’s difficult to say exactly how many U.S. citizens are living in Mexico, or–for that matter–exactly where they are living. However, recently released data shows the 20 cities with the highest number of residents who register themselves as U.S. citizens. These locations account for 46.8% of all U.S. expats over the age of 50.
Expats in Mexico
Say ‘hello’ to the new kid on the block.
While many of the cities that made the list should come as no surprise, one up-and-comer that’s worth noting is the town of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula. As the data shows, 1.1% of all U.S. citizens over the age of 50 have established their permanent residency in Merida.
What’s even more remarkable is the rate at which the area’s foreign population is growing.
In 2012, 476 foreigners received their permanent residence cards in the Yucatan. In the early part of 2013, that number has seen a 30% increase. That kind of growth could bump the Yucatan up into 8th place out of all expat destinations in Mexico.
Why the influx of foreigners to the Yucatan?
Well, for one thing, it’s beautiful. Once covered in cattle ranches, fishing villages, and logging outfits, parts of the area were targeted years ago by the Mexican government as an ideal spot for a world-class leisure destination.
Today it boasts beautiful sand beaches, turquoise waters, ancient Mayan ruins, mangrove forests, lush jungles, first-rate resorts, low-key island getaways, happening nightlife, aquatic life, and a wealth of adventures to experience on both land and sea.
Not to mention, the Yucatan has quite a few specialized housing areas that are designed to attract foreign retirees. Altogether, there are 36 of these developments throughout the country, and you can find at least one in all three states in the Yucatan region: Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche.
So, where else are the expats going?
Expats can be found all over Mexico. In big cities, tiny villages, beach hotspots, and mountain towns. Here are a few of the major areas where you’ll find expats in Mexico, along with some details about some of the top cities that made the list in each category.
Not surprisingly, a number of U.S. citizens choose to live in places that are in close proximity to the border of their home country. These areas are popular places for multinational companies to establish their facilities. They’re also quite convenient for quick trips back to wherever “home” is, or even just to one of the large U.S. cities that is usually situated just across the border. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
- Tijuana – The largest city on the Baja peninsula (and the 7th largest in Mexico), Tijuana is an important manufacturing center that’s home to a number of multinational conglomerates. A growing cultural center, it’s home to a rapidly growing number of U.S. citizens, many of whom still work in Southern California but prefer the lower cost of living south of the border.
- Mexicali – With a highly educated population, Mexicali boasts one of the highest standards of living in Mexico. It’s a cosmopolitan city with a large middle class. It’s also home to Silicon Border, a large industrial park that hopes to become a global hub for semiconductor manufacturing. Mexicali is also known as an important sports town.
- Juarez – Located on the Rio Grande, Juarez has been dubbed “The City of the Future” for its rapidly growing industrial sector.
Mexico is unique in that it offers options for beach towns on a number of coasts. There’s the Baja Peninsula which is bordered by both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. On the eastern side of the country is the Gulf of Mexico and, on the southern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Caribbean Sea. Among all those shores are sand beaches, rocky cliffs, and shores that give way to lush mountains or even deserts.
- Ensenada – Dubbed the “Cinderella of the Pacific,” this city is a popular cruise ship destination, a wine-growing region, and a haven for a variety of exotic flora and fauna. It’s home to the great white shark, Guadalupe fur seal, puma, ocelot, roadrunner, and more. It’s also popular among North American snowbirds, as well as young Californians who want to work in California but enjoy a lower cost of living.
- Playas de Rosarito – Located on the Baja Peninsula, this area has always had a largely tourist-based economy. During prohibition when many U.S. residents began to cross the border into the speakeasies of Tijuana, Rosarito became a popular getaway among the more affluent clientele and the Hollywood crowd.
- Puerto Vallarta – Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most highly developed tourist destinations. It caters to a large number of tourists and expats, including cruise ships and a growing LGBT population. It’s been called the “San Francisco of Mexico.”
- Los Cabos – Composed of the twin cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, this area was once a fishing community. Today its economy is geared towards tourism, although sport fishing is one of its largest draws, as is golf. It’s also one of the top spots in the country for whale watching.
From bustling cosmopolitan cities to quiet mountain towns, Mexico’s interior also houses a large number of U.S. expats. Many of these places offer top-notch infrastructure, quality medical facilities, and great scenery.
- Chapala – This popular city is located on the north shore of Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater lake in Mexico. Famous for its mariachi music, this area is home to one of the country’s largest expat populations, many of which live in the village of Ajijic, a town of roughly 5,000 inhabitants.
- San Miguel de Allende – Home to a growing number of U.S. expats, this city has seen its economy shift from agriculture and industry to commerce centered around tourists and foreign residents. San Miguel has a well-preserved historic center, a mild climate, rich culture, and low crime.
- Guadalajara – When considering the fact that the city’s suburb of Zapopan also made the top 20, this area contains a very large number of foreign residents. There’s a historic city center with ancient buildings, public parks, and beautiful squares. Guadalajara also has a thriving manufacturing industry and serves as one of Mexico’s important cultural centers.
- Monterrey – This area has the highest per capita income in Mexico and is one of its most developed cities. It’s been heavily influenced by decades of U.S. immigrants, resembling its North American neighbors even more than cities located along the border. An important industrial and business center, Monterrey ranked 5th in all of Latin America for Quality of Life in a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.
What the numbers don’t show…
It’s important to note that, while statistically accurate, the numbers don’t necessarily paint a perfect picture of what the expat population in those cities actually looks like. The list merely shows the top places where expats are actually registered.
What the data doesn’t take into account is those who don’t register or those who are only in Mexico for part of the year (i.e. snowbirds). Since places like Quintana Roo, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen contain the seasonal homes of many from the U.S., a visit to one of those places would have you wondering why every city on the entire Yucatan Peninsula didn’t make the list.
Someone who’s spent some time on the Yucatan would easily argue that it’s home to as many expats as places like San Miguel, Chapala, and Rosarito. The likely explanation is that the expats in those areas have made those cities their more permanent homes.
Another thing to consider is that some of the cities on the list have high populations in general, such as Guadalajara (3rd highest in the nation), Leon (5th), Juarez (6th), Tijuana (7th), Zapopan (8th), and Monterrey (9th). So it’s entirely possible that you could arrive and still find yourself wondering where on earth all the gringos are.
Not to mention, just because these areas are popular among the majority of U.S. expats, it doesn’t mean they’re the best destinations for you. They could be if you are looking for a large city or a place with a high concentration of expats. But if you want to branch out and integrate yourself into the local community, your ideal destination probably isn’t on this list.
Come check it out for yourself!
The best solution, if you’re searching for a place to become an expat in Latin America, is to take a trip down and see things for yourself. While there’s nothing data-oriented or official about just laying eyes on a place, there’s no substitute for getting your feet on the ground and experiencing a city firsthand. So, narrow down your search. Then book your flight.
Mexico Fast Facts
- Population: 120.8 million
- Typical temperature: temperatures reach 90 to 92 degrees in the Yucatan.
- Nearest airport with U.S. flights: Merida International Airport
- Nearest U.S. consulate: Merida, Mexico