Working Traditional Jobs in Baja
The good news is that there are multiple ways you can make a living in Baja, depending on your skills, desires, and bank account. If you have some money to invest, you can start a business here or join forces with an existing Mexican business. Bringing money to the Mexican economy is one of the easiest ways to get a visa that allows you to work here and derive income from Mexican customers. Some of the most popular expat enterprises in Baja include wine country tours, sports equipment rentals, and guided fishing expeditions. Be sure to consult a Mexican attorney about the legal issues involved in starting a business in Baja or creating a partnership with a Mexican citizen.
You can also work for a Mexican business in Baja, although usually you need to demonstrate that you offer something the employer can't get from a resident here. You'll definitely need to have the proper visa that allows you to work in Mexico. Some businesses will help with the visa process, while some expect you to have a work permit before you apply. The more highly specialized your resume, the more likely it is that you will find work here.
To find out more about getting a work permit in Mexico, whether you want to own a business or work for someone else, you should consult your nearest Mexican consulate. Some people hire consultants to help them navigate the system and translate immigration documents for them. Many also hire tax advisers to help them deal with questions that arise from foreign income; you may qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion if you pay taxes in the United States.
(Side note: be ready to see far fewer white collar jobs in Baja than you are used to in the States, Europe, or even in places like Mexico City. As a developing nation, Mexico does not have the large middle class that many other countries do, nor is the demand for white collar jobs as high here in Baja, away from the major urban areas. Most of the expats I know who work traditional white collar jobs in Baja are representatives of US companies with facilities here or work in the travel, hospitality, and real estate industries.)
Commuting to the US for Work
When I first moved to Mexico, I made my living by commuting to the States for work almost, literally going between two lives every day. I mainly worked as a self-employed equine massage therapist, but I did side gigs for extra cash, like dog sitting and working horse shows. I even worked as a nanny and a tutor when I really needed the cash. I know a few people who still make their living this way, but the commute can be exhausting. When I acquired my fourth dog, a six-week-old puppy that was left on my doorstep by departing weekend renters, I decided to give up the grind of daily border crossings and focus on writing full time from home.
Why is commuting to the States so grueling? The border lines are long and unpredictable, meaning you may be an hour late for work one day and two hours early the next. Right before I stopped doing the border drive every day, I was getting up at 2:45 a.m. to get in line in Tijuana by 4:30. Then I would hope I crossed by 6:30, or I wouldn't make it to my side job by 7. I know people who head to the border in their pajamas the night before they have to cross, park around the corner from the start of the line, and sleep in their cars until traffic starts filing past them, indicating it's time to get going.
Some predawn commuters were vicious, pushing in front of other drivers with monster jacked-up pickup trucks or cutting off orderly traffic to make way for a group of line cheaters. Occasionally fisticuffs ensued. I was in car accidents twice--both at the same stop sign, no less. I was constantly ragged with fatigue, angry at the world, and praying my 1996 car wouldn't break down in a bad neighborhood or run out of gas while idling in line. Once, right before Christmas, the line to the border started as far back as the American Consulate, which is a good mile or two further behind where it normally began. I waited five hours to cross that day--so long that by the time I reached the United States, I had missed all my appointments and could only turn around in tears to go home again.
Unless you set your own schedule, I highly recommend daily commuters get a SENTRI pass. This is a special passport card that only works by car and by boat to enter the US from Canada and Mexico. SENTRI holders are prescreened, as are their vehicles, and they have a special fast lane at the border for rapid crossing. Occasionally the SENTRI lane gets backed up, but usually the wait is only around 15 minutes or less--like a regular toll booth in the US. Had I not decided to start working remotely, I would have applied for a SENTRI myself.
I love working for myself from home: I get along with everyone in the office; I can show up in my pajamas, and I always win Employee of the Month.
- Missy Mwac
Freelancing in Mexico
Probably the easiest way to make a living in Mexico is to work remotely from home. This is ideal for writers, marketing professionals, transcriptionists, lawyers, telemedicine physicians, and other people who can work online or over the phone. Another group of home-based workers here includes scientists and researchers who come to Baja independently to study the flora and fauna of the area, especially marine biology. I know some artists who also freelance here, painting, sewing costumes, and making jewelry. (The issue with freelancing when you have a product sold in Mexico is that you will likely need a different visa than if you are deriving your income online from outside Mexico.)
Aside from tax and visa considerations, for which you should consult the appropriate professionals, there are a few other issues related to freelancing that are specific to Baja, so let me fill you in.
First and foremost, you'll need a reliable and reasonably fast Internet connection. Most of northern Baja is served by Telnor, which provides high-speed Internet (along with a free telephone land line). They key is to make sure that any place you rent or buy already has a Telnor hookup or that the area is not oversaturated because in some locations, there are no more lines available for new accounts.
Some landlords keep a Telnor account for tenants in their own name, and you just pay an addition $30 or so every month to use it. Others require that you set up an account in your own name, which requires government ID (passport or drivers license) and proof of residence (your lease or the presence of your landlord to affirm your rental status). You need to go to one of the Telnor offices (your landlord will know the nearest one) to set up the account. They'll send you home with a modem and a sign to stick in your window, so the Telnor technician can find your house about a week later to install your hookup.
If you are responsible for paying a Telnor bill every month, there are several ways to do it:
- Go to the Telnor headquarters in Tijuana, Rosarito, or Ensenada and pay at the kiosks at the entry way.
- Use cash at Telnor kiosks located in area businesses like the Calimax grocery store.
- Pay at the OXXO (a Mexican mini market chain often found next to Pemex gas stations) or at Calimax (grocery store).
- Pay at local merchants who are licensed representatives of Telnor.
- Set up a Telnor account online (instructions come in a pamphlet with your modem) and pay by debit or credit card.
The other most viable alternative to Telnor is satellite Internet from Telcel, the major mobile phone carrier here in Mexico, owned by Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world. Telcel can either give you a satellite wifi hotspot (good if you use multiple devices in the same household) or a USB dongle that works on one device.
I've used both Telnor and Telcel Internet service and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Sometimes in heavy winds or rain, Telnor goes down, whether due to its own system failure or loss of overall electrical power. But Telnor is less expensive, and you won't have to worry about eating up data by streaming crazy cat videos on Youtube (officially part of the freelancer job description) or watching Netflix on your laptop.
Telcel seems more reliable in bad weather, and you aren't tied to a modem (you can use it anywhere you can reach the satellite), but it's pricier. Unless you get an unlimited plan, you won't have enough data to both work and stream content, and even without limits, you may run into buffering issues. Furthermore, Telcel blocks Skype and other VOIP platforms. Like Telnor, you can set up a Telcel account and pay for service online, but occasionally they have hiccups with their system, resulting in problems accessing data you've paid for. Customer service with both providers is a crap shoot and usually necessitates at least rudimentary Spanish.
Other Internet alternatives (not always optimal, but better than nothing):
- Share Telnor wifi or a Telcel hotspot with a trusted neighbor.
- Go to an Internet cafe to work.
- Work from a restaurant, bar, or campground with free wifi.
- Ask about Internet availability from your cable TV provider.
- Use your cell phone's data plan as a wifi hotspot through tethering.
- Pay for satellite Internet services from an international provider outside Mexico
You may not be required to have telephone service to work as a freelancer in Mexico, but it sure helps. Most clients or contract employers will want some way to reach you, and you may need a phone for information gathering, technical problems, and the like.
As mentioned above, a Telnor Internet account comes with a free land line, but you'll incur long distance charges if you use your Telnor line to call outside Mexico. Clients in the United States won't usually want to make international calls to a Mexican number either. If you work as a virtual assistant or phone customer service rep, you'll definitely need an unlimited US number.
The solution is to use one or more of the following:
- Magic Jack, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, etc. to make/receive calls and send messages via wifi.
- a US mobile phone with an international or Latin American plan that works in Mexico
- a Mexican mobile phone plan like Telcel or Movie Star
- an international phone plan that works anywhere
I currently have a US phone number via Magic Jack, with a corresponding app that lets me take calls on my mobile anywhere I am connected to wifi, for less than $15 a year. This is the number I give to clients, friends, and family members in the States, so they can reach me without any long distance charges.
I also paid $18 online for the code to unlock my mobile phone, which my exorbitantly priced American provider refused to do. I then removed the American SIM card and inserted one from the Mexican provider Telcel. Their Amigo plan provides mobile service and unlimited texting, along with a small amount of data, on both sides of the border. I use this to make outgoing calls because sometimes there are delays and echoes with VOIP calls, and I like having a phone that I can use when I'm out and about away from wifi, including on trips to the States. I pay about $5 every 23 days for my plan and top it off online or at the local OXXO store; you can pay a bit more and get more data if you need it. I also use this account when I want to give someone a Mexican number, like repairmen and Mexican friends.
Finally, I use WhatsApp for messaging some people here in Baja who have limited texting or data plans (I used to use Viber for the same thing). While you have to be in range of wifi to use WhatsApp, it's great for sending voice messages and photos back and forth with people who couldn't otherwise. I suppose I could use it with people in the States too, but I just haven't had the need.
You may or may not want to have a mailing address for your freelance work, although you probably need to have one anyway if you plan to live in Baja full time. Having a mailing address makes you look legitimate to clients and it may be required for certain business classifications like a corporation or LLC.
Unfortunately, there is no real Mexican postal service in Baja; even the electric company and Telnor deliver their bills to their customers' homes by hand! Luckily, you can get a mailing address in the US (if you're not already using a family address or address from a property you own there). To get your mail, do one of the following:
- Travel to the States to pick it up in person.
- Share a box with a friend and take turns picking mail up.
- Hire someone to pick it up for you or ask a friend to bring it down.
- Sign up for a Mexican mailbox service that gives you a box in the US and brings your mail to a box down in Baja.
- Sign up for a community box, used by everyone that pays for it; whomever is in the States picks up mail and brings it back (can create some squabbles over pickup responsibilities and backups when the box becomes very full, as well as problems with missing/misplaced mail and parcels).
Banking and Payment Methods
One of the biggest headaches as a freelancer is getting paid. I'm not talking about getting clients to pay for services (although that can be challenging at times too!). I mean getting your money once the client has paid you.
Unless you are a permanent resident or citizen of Mexico, you may not be able to open an account here with a Mexican bank, and even then you may need references and a large opening deposit. Also, after the Tequila Crisis of 1994 during which the peso was devalued and bank customers lost everything, you may want to think twice about keeping your money in pesos.
If you are planning to move to Baja from the US, I would advise you not to close your bank account there, especially if it offers you an ATM card that works in Mexico. Instead, let your bank know you are moving abroad and ask them to put a note in your account, so it doesn't get flagged for fraud if they see transactions in Mexico.
If you are relocating to Mexico from Europe or somewhere else besides the US, I would recommend getting an account with a bank that either has branches/ATMs in Mexico or that partners with a Mexican bank. Then, follow the advice above, and let your bank know they will see Mexican transactions.
Some banks, including one where I used to have an account, might close your account anyway because they are suspicious of you doing business in Mexico. Some limit debit card use to point-of-sale purchases only and do not allow cash withdrawals at Mexican ATMs. Since Mexico is largely a cash economy, where debit and credit cards are not widely accepted and checks are unheard of, this can pose quite a problem for expats. (This happened to me without notice, and I was stuck having to travel to the US to get money until I could set up another account--talk out high ATM fees!)
I would suggest the following to ensure you always have access to money as a freelancer:
- Maintain at least two bank accounts in the US or your home country. Make sure they know you are using your accounts in Mexico, and try to get your account marked for long-term use here (not just a week, as banks typically do for vacationers).
- Consider using a brokerage account, which may be more amenable to customers living outside the US, since they typically cater to retirees and high net worth individuals.
- Think about using a few reloadable prepaid debit cards that work abroad for recurring payments in Mexico (mobile, Internet, etc.).
- Link your bank accounts, so that if one ATM card stops working in Baja, you can transfer money to a different bank with ease online.
- Investigate how to wire money from your bank in an emergency if necessary.
- Any time you open a new account or buy a prepaid debit card, when you activate the card, make sure it also authorized for international use.
- If you get paid through Paypal, as many freelancers do, make sure a debit card that works in Mexico is linked to your Paypal account. Also, make sure Paypal knows you will be logging into your account from Mexico, being aware you may have to go through extra security precautions because of this. Use the flag icon at the bottom right of the Paypal landing page to switch to English from Spanish.
- Explore other online payment methods as an alternative to Paypal. Make sure they will work with your bank.
- Make sure contract employers who only want US employees know your IP address will reflect your residence in Mexico but that you can provide proof of US citizenship with your passport or Social Security card. (Be aware that some companies hiring freelancers require them to be physically located within the United States.)
- Keep a stash of emergency cash on hand in case your debit card is lost, stolen, or limited.
Of course, you can be retired and still work from Mexico, as long as your work doesn't violate your Social Security or other government pension rules. I know a few retirees here who do transcription, translation, and SEO work online for American businesses without maxing out their income limits for retirement benefits. The extra few hundred dollars a month go much further in Baja than they would back in the States and make the difference between eking out an existence on a fixed income and having a little extra money for emergencies or just going out.
- trust funds or inheritances
- profitable sale of property prior to moving
- rental property outside of Mexico
- investments yielding sizable dividends
- businesses outside of Mexico that provide revenue
- alimony payments
- support from family members
- royalty payments for books or entertainment
A Few Final Tips
What else do you need to know about making a living from Baja? Electricity can be uneven in some places, and your outlets may be subject to surges. The first week I lived in Mexico, I woke up to find the power adapter to my Mac fried to a crisp, after leaving my laptop charging overnight, plugged into the wall with nothing to shield it. Get yourself a few good surge protectors (not the same as power strips) for any valuable electronics.
Mexican ink cartridges do not work in American printers and vice versa. Anticipate your need for ink when in the States or order cartridges online if you have a US printer. I'm told you can also get your cartridges refilled at Costco in Ensenada for a very good price, although I haven't tried it yet. Other office supplies are readily available in Baja, and we have Office Max and Office Depot here just like in the States.
Electronics are expensive to buy new in Mexico. If you are are a freelancer, purchase your office equipment in the States and bring it with you, rather than counting on buying it in Baja. You are allowed to bring one personal computer, one printer, one phone, etc., with you into Mexico. If you need to outfit an entire office, you will probably have to buy your equipment in Mexico; if you bring multiples of the items above across the border, it could look like you are trying to import them for resale in Mexico, which is illegal.
Like most other labor in Baja, computer repair is inexpensive here. I currently use a Mexican-American guy who makes house calls. For about 30 bucks, he can usually diagnose and fix most problems, and he even loaned me a computer while mine was in his shop. Many computer repair people also sell equipment they have refurbished and at a good price, and this is a better alternative than buying new electronics here.
You can purchase good quality gently used office furniture at the secundas (secondhand stores) in Baja. Since I don't entertain often and like to work near my kitchen, I typically enlist my dining table as my desk. This also allows me to keep an eye on my dogs, which I wouldn't be able to do if I were holed up in an office.
The main points to remember about making a living in Mexico are to have your income situation lined up before you move here (unless you have significant savings you can rely on) and to make sure your work is compliant with Mexican immigration laws. Once you have satisfied those issues, you can be as creative as you like, and if you derive your income from outside Mexico, know that your money will go a long way when you turn it to pesos to enjoy life south of the border.
My goal is to build a life I don't need a vacation from.
- Rob Hill Sr.