Thursday, June 24, 2010

Living Here: Surviving Paperwork

People might wonder, after reading the many positive posts on this blog, if anything not-so-good ever occurs around here. Of course it does. As happens anywhere, life in Yucatán has its ups and downs and occasional frustrations, but the point of this blog is to talk about interesting and positive things I observe or find myself thinking about.

Bureaucracy is one thing in Mexico that could get on your nerves. There is lots of paperwork and there are lots of people with "date received" stamps behind desks and counters who need copies of all kinds of documents if you want just about anything having to do with a large organization, utility company, or that requires official assistance or permission.
I have speculated that the Mexican bureaucracy is another legacy from the Spanish. Perhaps the colonial elite created a cumbersome system on purpose to keep the poor and the natives down, and by the time of the revolution it was so ingrained that it has remained in place and continued to function ever since.

Actually I am not complaining. Every system has its greater and lesser attributes. I often have felt extremely frustrated, for one thing, by the litigious nature of the culture in the United States. Refreshingly, this does not exist in Mexico. And the vast percentage of my time in Mexico is so much less stressful and more relaxing than it ever was up north, that the price I pay by waiting in a few lines to work with the system seems well worth it to me.

And often it turns out to be a much more pleasant experience that you might think. Mexicans have a pretty casual attitude about lines and bureaucracy. They don't let it bother them. People make the best of the situation by getting to know the strangers around them, talking, sharing anecdotes, and often helping each other with forms or advice based upon their past experiences. Once I spent several hours in various lines and waiting rooms in order to title, register and get license plates for an imported car I had just purchased. I ended up with three or four temporary buddies among the people near me in the queue, including a man who reviewed my paperwork for me, explained the ins and outs of registering a car, and told me what to expect when it was my turn up at the counter. Later in the process after we'd split up, I and my new friends would raise eyebrows or wryly shrug and smile back and forth as we stood across rooms from each other in different lines, and would check with each other like conspirators as we crossed paths in various parts of the building. "Did you get the crabby one with glasses and big arms? When she pounded the stapler, I thought it was an earthquake! Watch out for her!" We laughed a lot. Why not?

It really helps to speak Spanish and be friendly. I have heard lots of horror stories from expats about how difficult it is to get things done in Mexico, the long waits and indifferent officials and how many times they have to go back with more paperwork. I have come to the conclusion that often their problems result from a poor understanding of Spanish or a demanding attitude. I always emphasize to foreigners who are considering living here that for many reasons it is very important to become proficient in Spanish. And a smile and sense of humor always works wonders. At the very least, it doesn't hurt.

All foreigners legally in Mexico get to know the officials at El Instituto Nacional de Migración, or INM. I recall one time watching as a foreigner from the U.S. sat fuming in a waiting room. He finally grabbed an INM official who was passing by and started complaining, in English, about how long he had been made to wait. Apparently these were not the first words the official had heard from the foreigner. The official politely but firmly replied, "Sir, we cannot help you unless you calm down. I will be able help you as soon as you are ready." I gathered that perhaps the man had mistakenly waited for some time in the wrong line, and then in frustration at the delay raised his voice to someone. He was no longer there when I finished my business and left. I saw him a few months later at the beach. I guess he eventually calmed down and got what he needed.

I have been to INM yearly since I moved to Mexico. Applying for and then annually renewing residency visas has taken up from one and a half to three hours of my time each year, distributed among three visits to the office over a period of ten days to two weeks. Normally on the first visit you present your letter of request and supporting documents, and a week or so later when these are approved you return, provide additional information or ID photos if necessary, and go to a bank to make a payment of the necessary fees. If all is in order, on the third visit normally you sign for and receive your new or renewed immigration document.

I followed these procedures in February to renew my visa. I had the system down pat, so I doubt the total time involved was more than an hour and a half. This week I returned to INM to request a change of immigration status, called a change of activity, that would allow me to work. Upon arriving, I discovered that since the end of April, all procedures have been changed in order to streamline service, and that now the preliminary application is handled online. I had all of my paperwork ready, according to the pre-April 30 procedures, but wasn't sure if I had everything I needed since I didn't have the new online application completed. I was already there and had a low number -- third in line -- so I decided to wait and ask in person what I needed to do.

When I got inside and was directed to a desk, I smiled and explained that I had thought I was ready for my change of activity request, but just that morning learned that they had streamlined procedures. The official, who was the same woman who had given me an instruction sheet containing the old procedures back in February, looked a little serious (my heart sank) and asked for my paperwork. After a couple of minutes sorting my documents, she smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'll do the online application for you." and proceeded to complete the form, print it out, and had me sign it.

She then frowned at my letter of request, and indicated that it needed to be redone. Again I felt a pang of doubt, until she made eye contact, smiled again and said, "this will just take a few minutes," and then proceeded to draft my new letter of request, print it out, and present it to me for my signature. She then handed me a receipt with a user ID and PIN and explained how I could check online next week on the status of my request, smiled again, and told me to have a nice day. "Muy amable," very kind, I expressed my profuse thanks.

Not counting waiting time outside before the office opened, I was in and out in about twenty minutes.

On the way out I exchanged waves with the Cuban man who'd been number one in line and had informed me about the new application procedures as we chatted before the office doors opened. I greeted a neighbor, a Scottish expat who lives several blocks over, and waved to an acquaintance I'd made some other time, in some other place. I smiled at an American college student who had lost her tourist visa and who had been explaining the problem to two officials at the next desk while I was waiting for my letter to be drafted. She smiled back and nodded while the security guard made a phone call in Spanish for her.

That wasn't bad at all. I guess I've gotten the hang of it.


  1. kindness and patience goes a long way just about everywhere. Being Alaskan, we are used to waiting. I recall being without electricity in Kenai for 2 weeks. Remember what it was like before planes had GPS, we may or may not get on a flight for days at a time.

  2. I love this, Marc! I have spent a lot of time on a Yucatan expat board over the last couple of years. There are so many complaints and expressions of horror over the Mexican way of doing things. It's refreshing to read a happier outcome here. Mike (esposo) just got his FM3 and it went very smoothly. I think you're right: a friendly attitude and a smile go a long, long way.

    Now. Back to Mango Languages. (Were you able to get in with my library info?)


I appreciate comments, but will delete comments that are rude, offensive or off topic. Unfortunately, due to the heavy volume of spam, comment moderation has been enabled. I will try to approve comments promptly, but your patience is appreciated.
If you have technical trouble leaving your comment, please email it to:
and I will post it for you.