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Banking in the Yucatan

The experience of banking in Mexico is nothing if not frustrating. And yet, it has improved SO much over the few years since we moved here.

Most banks in Mexico are now really international banks, not Mexican banks. HSBC is here, as is Citibank (disguised as Banamex), Scotiabank (Canadian bank), Santander and Bancomer (Spanish banks). The largest Mexican-owned banks are Banorte and Inbursa. But though many are international in ownership, they still operate in Mexico, according to Mexican customs and preconceptions.

We have personal experience of only three of these banks, and we stress that it is our *personal* experience. Your mileage may vary.

One of the first things we learned about banking in Mexico is that not everyone does it. People don’t just naturally trust banks here and banks certainly don’t have a lot of trust in their customers either. Mexico has a much larger cash economy than the United States. More transactions are done in cash, and a lot more people here do not have bank accounts of any kind. Partly this is because many people, especially indigenous people like the Mayans, participate minimally in the cash economy, often growing much of their own food and bartering for services amongst themselves.

And the trust issue? Well, consider that Mexico experienced a national revolution less than 70 years ago, and a major peso devaluation about 10 years ago, when anyone who had money in the bank saw their net worth cut to 10%. Mexican banking, and money in general, is fraught with a history that we as Americans can only begin to comprehend.

Let’s suppose you DO have a bank account in Mexico. You’ll probably have a savings or checking account that holds pesos. It’s good to know that you can also have a dollar account at some of these banks. We happen to have one at Banamex. That means that if someone pays us a check in dollars, we can deposit it into that account without paying conversion fees. Of course, the check has to be from Mexico. We can also deposit (or withdraw) cash dollars to this account without fees. So it comes in handy, since we are Americans and still deal in dollars on occasion.

If we need to deposit a check in US dollars from outside Mexico, that is another story entirely and takes a lot longer. We used to get frustrated by this, until we realized that we probably wouldn’t be able to cash or deposit a peso check in an American bank no matter how long we waited. So we’re over that.

Here are some other useful things we have learned when banking in Mexico:

-It really helps to get to know the manager. They say this is a good idea in the States, but in Mexico it can make all the difference if you have a problem. If they have seen you and dealt with you in the past, then a degree of trust is cultivated and everything goes more smoothly. This applies generally to doing any business in Latin America. Personal relationships are very important.

-Very few people in Mexican banks speak English. If your Spanish is minimal, expect to bring a translator with you the first few times if you are trying to accomplish something complicated. The Spanish of banking is a specialized idiom.

-Never go to the bank (if you can help it) around the 1st or 15th of the month. These are the days, called quincenas, when most people are paid and go to deposit or cash their checks at the bank. If you go, you will wait a very long time.

-Don’t try to do anything at the bank after noon. You might be able to accomplish something, but we’ve had so many experiences where a particular thing doesn’t happen after 1 or 2 pm or the person you need is at lunch, so its just not worth it. Conversely, don’t expect to talk to a manager before 10 am either. The best banking hour is 11 am.

-If you are going to need more than, say, 100,000 pesos in cash, let the bank know a few days ahead of time. And if you buy property here, you might need that much and more. We once had to provide the sellers of a $50,000 USD property with CASH for the closing. That’s a lot of pesos… and they wanted it all in cash. Why? Like we said, a lot of Mexicans do not trust banks. What we wonder is: where do they keep all their money? Most Mayans sleep in hammocks, so they don’t have mattresses…

-When you sign up for your checking account at the bank, pay close attention to how you sign your name (su firma). You will be required to sign your name that way EXACTLY from then on, or your checks will be returned. Checks will also be returned if you scratch anything out (forget putting your initials next to your mistake), if you spell anything incorrectly or if you forget any part of the exactly correct way to spell out the amount of the check. We’ve had checks in the states cashed or deposited without a signature (!) and we’ve had checks returned here because we didn’t sign our name the “right” way. We’ve even had a check returned because we wrote the wrong deposit account number on the back, scratched it out and put the correct account number on the check. Nope. Something fishy there. They would not deposit that check.

-Are you running out of checks? To get a new checkbook, you have to personally show up at the bank with your identification in hand and sign for the checkbook. No one else can pick it up for you.

-Do you want to cash in some dollars for pesos? Bring only your most pristine bills. Banks in Mexico will not accept a dollar bill (or any other kind of bill) that has writing, stamps, holes, tears or anything else unusual about it.

-You can pay your telephone, electrical and water bills at the bank, but only if you pay before the due date. (You can also pay those bills at many of the grocery stores and pharmacies in town).

-Getting a credit card in Mexico is like pulling teeth. Debit cards are fairly easy to get, but credit cards are a different story. We finally got a credit card for our business account from Banamex, but since we have to actually transfer money into the credit card account (which we can do on the Internet) before we can use the card, it is more like a debit card. We still have not cracked the code on getting a real honest-to-goodness credit card here. Just as well, of course. But interesting that it is so difficult here and so easy in the United States.

-In Mexico, you don’t write a check to “Cash”. You write it to “Al Portador”, which is NOT a guy named “Al”. It means “to the bearer”. The check must be cashed at the bank from which it comes, not at your own bank. So if the check says “Banamex” on it, you have to cash it at a Banamex bank. The Al Portador check is a very common practice here and much preferable to carrying around a lot of cash, though that doesn’t stop people who insist on being paid in cash, especially if it’s a large sum, because banks limit the amount you can write these checks for.

-Change or cambio is a very valuable thing to have and you’re going to need it when shopping at the local mercado or buying handicrafts. Most Mayans and others who do not fully participate in the money economy do not take checks or credit cards (duh!) but they also do not usually have large bills and only a minimal amount of change. We try to always keep a healthy amount of coins in the car and in our wallets/purses for those occasions. If you are going to a bank to get money, try to get some of it in smaller bills (20 pesos bills are the smallest).

Lines at banks can be very long, even on a normal day. At our Banamex branch, the lines are often so long that you must take a number from a dispenser just inside the entrance, and then sit in one of the chairs provided for waiting. We once had to sit through 120 numbers before ours was called.

Unlike four years ago when we first arrived in Mexico, the banks here have developed functional internet sites. The Inbursa website that we use is a much better design and much more user-friendly than the Banamex website. However we only need to remember one userid and one password for Banamex. For Inbursa, we have to remember FOUR passwords or claves (keys). Once inside the website, however, the Inbursa website makes interbank transfers and paying some of your utility bills quite easy. We have not tried the interbank transfer on the Banamex website, but the utility bill payment for CFE (electrical bill) and Telmex does not seem to work.

Banking has gotten a lot easier in the four years we have been here. Partially that is due to bank improvements and the fact that the Mexican economy is improving and joining the 21st Century. But mostly, we think, it is because we have begun to learn the ropes.


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39 Responses to “Banking in the Yucatan”

  1. It’s true what you said about banks here in Mexico. I’ve been living in Merida for a long time and It’s expensive to send money to USA and I can’t open a dolar bank account because it is not allowed for mexican citizens. the fees are very expensive withdraw money from ATM also is expensive and the costs of use your credit card is also expensive so you have to be very carefull.

  2. We recently heard about a service called Monex. They let you cash US checks…they might also be a way to send dollars to the States. Check it out!

  3. I have not seen anything mentioned about a company called XEtrade On-line Foreign Exchange. Do you know if it is a good deal for exchange rates? Also, I assume I must have my FM3 and have opened a banking account to have money transferred from my US bank for exchanges. Do you have any experience dealing with this company or have recommendations on the best way to get access to my US funds?

  4. We started to sign up for XETrade, but then we found out about Monex. Its a similar service which has a physical office here in Merida. They make it very easy and from what we understand, a lot of the local real estate agents use them and recommend them for transferring USD to MXN large amounts of money. We dealt with Ivette Perez Antuña, who speaks English. The exchange rate seemed reasonable and they didn’t charge anything extra.

    They have a website, but it’s not at all helpful.

    We transferred money directly from our brokerage account to an account we set up with them. And then they transferred it into our peso account. We had to visit them once to show a copy of our visa or passport (We don’t remember which… it’s best to bring both), but that can possibly be done long-distance as well.

    If you want to all Ivette directly, the Merida phone number is 999-944-0002 and her extension is 113. Her email is iperez [at] monex [dot] com [dot] mx.

  5. Banking Question: Can you tell us where any HSBC ATM machines are located or branches.

    I have an internet HSBC account that I use exclusively for Mexico travel. Their web site only lists branches/ ATN locations in the U.S.

    Thanks in advance :-)

  6. HSBC Banks and ATMs are not hard to find in Merida. Here are two:

    Calle 58 at 47, Merida Centro – this is the very beginning of the Paseo de Montejo.

    Paseo Montejo #467A, Merida Centro – this is near the Fiesta Americana and Hyatt Hotels.

    Here’s the HSBC Mexico Website in English, although they do not seem to list branch locations on it:

    http://www.hsbc.com.mx/aptrix/internetingpub.nsf/Content/Home

  7. Great artricle! Nailed it perfectly
    It’s not easy for Mexican either.

  8. Well “Gringos trabajadores”, I’ve found your article on baking in Mexico very interesting indeed, and now I have a question for you. Let’s see if you have had some experience on the subject.
    Two months ago I tried to cash a check through my Banamex account, but I got it bounced due to lack of sufficient funds in the drawer’s account. Now I’m out of Mexico for some months and I’m not receiving concurring opinions on what I should do from the bank itself.
    In the first place I need to know how much time I have to take any action before I face limitations, and how it’s possible to initiate a litigation…
    Any possible relevant hint from you? It would be of much help. Thanks a lot, Patty.

  9. Could you elaborate more on the use of Monex and how it works?
    I have purchased house which I will need to renovate and therefore will be needing large amounts of cash. What about an article explaning differeing methods of getting money from out of the country, ie how to use Monex, wiring to a bank in which you have no account, cash a personal US check written to oneself (I used to do this in Turkey ) , are there banks where one doesn’t need to have a FM3 to open a peso account etc

  10. I have a problem which I could work on if I could telephone to Banamex Merida from the U.S.
    No long distance at home, need account to use MagicJack or Skype. So I bought a calling card for international use, never gets to Mexico, says “can’t be completed as dialed”, or gives me a U.S. number. Can get centro branch at 1-800-226-2639, but it’s totally push button (hell). I don’t speak Spanish well enough to get info or a human on that line.

    Problem is I sent money to Banamex thru xoom.com, showed it was received, but never showed at Banamex. Believe it’s in a suspense account at Banamex, but do not have internet access and can’t call Banamex to ask. Had same problem with Wells Fargo, but could go to office and work it out, xoom is internet.
    Can anyone out there advise me?

  11. Internet access is available at most public libraries or many restaurants and coffee houses if you have a laptop. Since you used xoom.com to send the money, there must be some way you can use the Internet or are at least have familiarity with the Internet. After all, you posted this comment, so “no Internet access” makes little sense.

    Or, you can buy another International calling card at nearly any store – grocery store, convenience stores, etc. Some cards may look like international cards but are not. Or use a family member’s phone who does have LD access and promise you’ll pay them the charges for the call to Mexico.

  12. internet?
    tried to make it work on my bancomer account without success and after repeated visits to the bank to try to solve the problem, i gave up. changed to HSBC and after two months HSBC still can’t manage to fix the problem of me not being able to register on the internet banking system (because of some technical problems on the site….) I was promised a week ago or more to be contacted by somebody in mexico city who could fix this problem, and yet it has still to happen.
    internet banks in mexico? forget it! I havent manage to have one yet after one year.
    P.s. i am fluent in Spanish….

  13. we do have a house in merida but still live in the us. i’m trying to find a phone # for Banco Inburso to call in he US. Is there anybody that could help me?

  14. The number in Mexico City is 555-447-8040. If you put a 11-52 in front of that number, you can call it from the US.

  15. hurray! we now changed to SCOTIA BANK (my third attempt of having a bankaccount with simple internet access where i can check the status of our account) and it is WORKING. after appalling experiences with Bancomer and HSBC finally we are satisfied….another thing that puzzled me at HSBC is that they don’t handle….us dollars! that is, in HSBC BANK YOU CANNOT BUY NOR SELL DOLLARS!!!!!! I thought this was the most ludicrous thing I ever heard, being HSBC one of the biggest banks in the world….but that is what I was told. Scotiabank sells and buys dollars and euros, the internet works and we are back to being happy inhabitants of Merida.
    but yes, banking in Mexico is a ‘strange’ experience.
    Fabio

  16. Can you suggest a person to talk to at Scotia bank as i am moving to Merida soon and is there a branch in merida centro?
    Paul

  17. Paul,
    Yes, there is a Scotiabank branch in Merida. We now have a very useful service called Yucatan Expatriate Services (YES) that can help you with this matter. We suggest you go to http://www.yucatanyes.com and talk to someone there. Unless you are fluent in Spanish, you will want someone like them to help you talk to the bank here in Merida and make whatever arrangements you need before and after moving here. Their service will make whatever you need to accomplish that much easier…

  18. Can you tell me if there is a corresponding bank to Bank of Montreal and also if the ATMs in Merida accept the BMO debit cards?
    Thank you for the information.
    Natasha

  19. Natasha,

    Bank of Montreal has an equity position and alliance with Bancomer. Any debit card using the Visa, Mastercard or other common transaction networks will work in any ATM in the world.

  20. I am having trouble getting good info on cashing American Express travelers checks. Do banks cash them ? Is there a long wait ? Do cambios cash them? Last time I was in Merida (about 15 years ago) I had no trouble cashing them. Now, it seems, everyone is using plastic. I will be in Merida for one month and would like the safest, easiest , cheapest way to get cash. Thanks.

  21. Because there are ATMs almost everywhere now, the easiest way to get pesos is to use your debit or credit card at an ATM. You will usually get a very good exchange rate, and you will have to pay a per transaction fee (different depending on which bank you have and which ATM you are using).

  22. Frankly, last time I used travelers’ checks – about 10 years ago – they were a lot of trouble. My signature never comes out exactly the same way and people didn’t want to take them, etc, etc, etc.

    ATMs are definitely the way to go. Be sure to check with your bank to insure your card is “activated” for foreign ATMs and check to know what your daily limit is. Most ATMs in Merida are in English and Spanish both. Use the ones at the Banks, not the stores or other locations, for the best exchange rates.

  23. Hello,

    What about private safety box rentals in the Bank safe? Is there such a thing in Merida?

    Thanks

    Brigitte

  24. Yes, Brigitte, there is such a thing. Call Yucatan Expatriate Services (www.yucatanyes.com) to get their phone number and other contact information.

  25. Retired, living in Merida since May ’06. Santander and Bank of America are affiliated. I have my retirement checks direct deposited in the US with B of A and use B of A debit card at Santader in Mexico. No transaction fees, no problemo…Life is good….

  26. Have been searching for months for info just like this!! We are moving to Merida MX in the spring, and could not find any reliable info on banking, retirement checks, etc.
    If you have any info on living in Merida (ie:decent rentals) please, please let me know, or direct me to a sight. We speak very limited spanish.

  27. Linda, please explore our website and our advertisers. There is a LOT of good information here about living in the Yucatan… it’s what we are all about. In particular, check out http://www.yucatanyes.com for more of the technical details about things like registering your car, getting your visa and that sort of thing. Good luck with your new life adventure!

  28. Hey guys,
    Good article but you really didn’t say how to open an account. I discovered that you need an HR-2 (????) I think from the American consulate. Anyway, some form. I think it’s different if you live here or only visit infrequently. Seems like you need a permanent local address. So if you plan to do business here, it is helpful.
    What I wanted to do was to open an account with a bank that had a relationship with the parent bank in the States so that I could put my contractor on the account here and let him use an ATM card to take money out as needed ( as I deposited it). They don’t do that. It seems that the banks here do not have a straight through relationship with U.S. banks even thought the CitiBank sign hangs in the lobby, they don’t open Citibank accounts here.
    I decided that I’ll just use Paypal to pay him. For me it seems that it will take at least two or maybe three trips to get everything I need to open an account here.

  29. Hi Jack! That’s probably and FM-2 they were referring to, and that’s a type of visa. Its true that the banks are not as international as they seem. Paypal works great, though. And yes, a few trips is probably in order. If you have any questions, check out http://www.yucatanyes.com which tries to answer these types of operational questions for English-speakers in the Yucatan.

  30. I am in Progreso right now and expats are saying that there is no Scotiabank in town. I have read somewhere that there IS a scotiabank here. Where is it? I want to use it’s ATM…
    kim

  31. Scotiabanks are in Merida. There are none in Progreso.

  32. I already have a bank account in Merida but not in dollars; selling some property in the US and want to transfer the dollars into Merida and for now I do not want to convert those proceeds into pesos. Need some expertise on opening a dollar account in Merida: the where, which and how to find the best option. I will be moving to Merida within the year (2013).
    Appreciate all valid suggestions.

  33. Roberta, some banks in Merida will allow you to open a dollar account. We would suggest starting at Bancomer, which has a PCU, Preferred Customer Unit, just for English-speaking expats. Tell them that Yucatan Living sent you :-) (www.bancomer.com)

  34. Will direct deposits into a Scotiabank account ($ canadian) in Edmonton, be accessable and spendable in Merida in Pesos?

  35. Bob, you can always get pesos from an ATM card, which is a great way to make the conversion actually. However, it is our understanding that a Scotiabank account in Canada is not “shared” by a Scotiabank account in Mexico.

  36. Is it possible to have my US govt pension direct deposited into a bank in Mexico?

  37. Patricia, you would have to find a bank that allows you to maintain a US dollar account. Some do allow like (we think maybe HSBC). It probably won’t be simple to set up, but we are pretty sure it is possible. Have any of our readers done this?

  38. I was amazed when I found out how high the interest rates are on most Mexican-issue credit cards. Rates of 30 – 40% are not uncommon as are yearly card fees and other tacked on charges. Are there are no usury laws in Mexico?

  39. No, there are no laws against that. Mexico has traditionally been a cash country and the introduction of credit has been slowing creeping in. Surely there will be some sort of regulation eventually…

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