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Essential Tips for Living in Mexico

A mother and child in Mexico
Credit: Judy King

If you’re going to live in Mexico, sooner or later you’ll find that you need to adapt to the culture. To help you do this, I’ve put together some essential tips for living in Mexico.

Get ready for your personal space to be invaded.

People generally get closer to each other in Mexico in many more situations than other North Americans are comfortable with. They’ll stand obliviously in what you might consider your circumference of “personal space”, and it won’t always occur to them to move over to let you by on the sidewalk. In social situations when you’re making the rounds and saying hello, you’ll be kissed on the cheek by women and men if you’re a woman, and usually only by women if you’re a man. I’ve only seen male relatives that haven’t seen each other in a long time kiss each other. Don’t get too excited – the kisses are simply an acknowledgement and greeting and are not romantic, though I’ll admit that even after nearly 18 years living here, I still feel a bit self-conscious exchanging a kiss with a man in front of my husband.

Don’t get to the point too fast.

Small talk and exchanging pleasantries before “getting down to business” is important here, and ignoring this rule will get you quickly designated as cold and strange. Talk to people! They’re nice and they’re genuinely interested in learning about you. Make that a two-way street!

Learn Spanish as well and as quickly as possible.

Even if you’re downright terrible at it, people will be charmed and sometimes even flattered that you’re making the effort. If you have the means and the time to study, there’s really no excuse not to.

When you’re learning Spanish, don’t decide that the formal “usted” form is too much trouble to learn on top of everything else.

Mexico is a much more formal country than the rest of North America, and designations of respect are important; use it for people you don’t know, especially if they’re obviously older than you (no need to use it with children). For women especially, I find it very useful when I want to establish social distance between myself and strange men, which is an important tool in a generally more romantically forward culture.

Speaking English loudly is annoying.

If you’re going to do it, which is understandable if you’re with other English speakers, at least remember that you don’t have to “show off” to everyone around you that it’s your native language. You certainly don’t want to insult or make fun of people in English, either. As David Sedaris reminds us, it’s not as if English were some obscure language that only a small tribe and a handful of anthropologists speak. Be on the safe side and assume that anything you say in English can be at least partially understood!

Believe NO ONE when they say “no pica” (not spicy).

They are lying. EXTREME caution advised when they say “casi no pica” (practically no spice at all).

Be ready to laugh, sometimes at yourself.

Mexicans have a lively sense of humor, and gently (alright, and sometimes not-so-gently) teasing and making fun of each other is a favorite sport among friends and family members. The sooner you can stop taking yourself so seriously, the better.

When going out to a restaurant, it’s common for one person to “invitar” (pay for) the others at his or her table.

So common, in fact, that most waiters will not be prepared to divide up the check, so get ready for some arithmetic and have cash on hand if you want to contribute (your proposed contribution could very well be refused). The check will not come until you specifically ask for it, lest you think the waiter is trying to shoo you out of the restaurant. And if you have a bite or a sip of something and don’t like it, be prepared to be charged for it anyway (I’ve done a lot of fighting on this last one, usually to no avail).

Always keep change in your pocket, and tip informal workers.

The people who bag your groceries at the supermarket don’t get a paycheck, and only work for tips. The same goes for those that help you carry your groceries out to the car and load them up, and the ones that help you back your car out in chaotic parking lots that were never meant for the quantity of vehicles they contain.

Whatever you do, do not put your feet up on things.

It’s considered rude and dirty to place your feet on surfaces where other people sit or put their hands, and I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s pretty reasonable. I was once told by a security guard to get out of my cross-legged position and sit properly on a concrete block outside of the bus station!

Take toilet paper or tissues with you everywhere!

It is not always a reasonable expectation that there will be toilet paper wherever you go, even in some small restaurants. And on the issue of bathrooms, a note: while most might be officially “clean”, don’t expect to not have to squeeze into an impossibly small space, or for there to be a toilet seat. Bathrooms in more American-style places like malls and movie theaters are, well, more American-style, but if those are the only places you’re planning to hang out, why come to Mexico at all?

Whatever the temperature is outside, expect the same temperature inside, plus or minus a few degrees.

Most places do not have central heating or air conditioning, and windows are mostly symbolic. I myself have been known to spend the 40-50 F winter months where I live walking around in five layers and carrying a caballito (shot glass) of tequila to fend off the chill in my bones. Be prepared.

Go with the flow.

Things are done differently down here, and often not in ways we think they should be. Especially in the initial throes of culture shock it can be hard, but try your best to shrug your shoulders, learn the lesson, and move on when things seem impossibly illogical. Like every country, Mexico has its positive aspects and its maddening ones, but – and I am biased, I know – the good far outweigh the bad!

Take these tips to heart, and you’ll be well on your way to fitting in and exploring one of the richest and most interesting cultures that the Americas have to offer!


  1. Great tips Sarah. One VERY important one to add is to always have LOTS OF PATIENCE!

    When a Mexican tells you that they will meet you at a certain time, or a repair person says they will come to your home at a specific time or day, for example, “mañana” (tomorrow), you need to understand that they may not show up at the designated time or even that specific day.

    They are not being disrespectful or irresponsible! Time is different in Mexico (as in many other countries). It’s a more relaxed concept here than in our punctuality insistent cultures of the US, Canada, western Europe etc.

    So BE PATIENT and RESPECTFUL of their culture and their traditions, it will make life much more enjoyable here!

    • Great addition, Tom! This is something that in 17 years I haven’t totally accepted 😀 – especially since my husband is the KING of being late! Even other Mexicans are like, “Man, Carlos, why can’t you ever get anywhere on time?”

  2. Thank you for all your helpful information. I am retiring in a few years and looking to move to Mexico. The Lake Chapala area. My son has lived in Guadalajara for 3 years and has been telling me I should retire there. I have begun trying to find out as much as I can about living there. My son is trying to help but he is bay and I don’t yet know all the things I want to ask people. Your information is very down to earth and uncomplicated. General things I need to know to start with. Thank you.


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