This Small Mistake Almost Landed Me in a Mexican Jail, Now I Always Read the Fine Print
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INSIDER SECRET: Before you travel out of the country be sure you understand the visa requirements not only for getting into the country, but also for while you are in the country.
Visiting friends is one of my favorite reasons to travel. There’s nothing like having a local to stay with and show you around. Even a nice AirBnb doesn’t compare.
My first trip to Mexico was to visit a former co-worker living in Mexico City. The food was great and the people were friendly. But it was the fine print on my visa that got me.
The Advantage of Having a Local on Your Side!
Travel can be a stressful experience, especially when you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the culture. For those reasons, Mexico City was never on my bucket list. But I’m a frugal guy (some might say, miser). So I had developed a habit of visiting places where I could stay for free, and that meant staying with friends!
So I decided to visit a friend, Jorge. He made it easier to stay off the beaten path and avoid the crowds. I didn’t have to rely on online reviews to find the best restaurants. And Jorge negotiated deals for me at the markets I would never have gotten as a tourist!
After seeing the sites of Mexico City, we decided to relax on the beach. So we booked bus tickets to Acapulco.
After a few days in the sun, we were on our way back to Jorge’s place when the bus was stopped at a checkpoint where immigration officials reviewed everyone’s paperwork to ensure we were in the country legally.
Always Read the Fine Print
At the time I was traveling to Mexico, US Citizens were given a 6-month tourist visa upon arrival. What I hadn’t realized was that you were required to carry the visa with you at all times!
When we left for Acapulco, I took a copy of my passport with me, but left my official passport and visa at Jorge’s house. I figured I wouldn’t I need it. And I know how absent-minded I can be, and didn’t want to lose it.
I was removed from the bus with another guy – a Canadian citizen with even less documentation than me. We were put into a van with half a dozen officers armed with assault rifles. I asked their translator if I would be able to leave if I could get my visa faxed over. He shrugged his shoulders and let me know it was “up to his boss to decide.”
At this point, I thought I might be on the verge of drowning in a sea of bureaucracy. You can’t pay for this kind of experience!
My Friend’s Family Came to the Rescue
Surprisingly, it only took me ~8 hours to get back on the road! Jorge’s family was quick to fax my visa over. Then I signed some papers, written in Spanish, that I was told authorized my release.
I was on my way. But the Canadian guy who got taken in with me was definitely spending the night. He had been living in Mexico, working remotely, and stayed well beyond his visa’s expiration, didn’t have his passport, and to top it all off the Canadian Embassy was closed for a holiday.
Skipping the fine print isn’t as bad as completely ignoring all the rules and hoping you don’t get caught.
Later on, I found out that Jorge had spent most of his afternoon trying to bribe (unsuccessfully) an immigration officer to release me. Did I mention the value of having friends who care?
Traveling usually involves some level of uncertainty. But I’ve found that knowing a local can be invaluable.
What has your experience been with government bureaucracy abroad?
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