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Shopping for a Bank Account in Mexico

Updated: 6 days ago

As an expat living in Mexico since 2022, I decided this year that having a local bank account would provide greater convenience for my household, despite the risks.


If you haven't yet read my banking article examining the pros and cons of banking in Mexico as a foreigner, I suggest you start there. For those who did, welcome back!


shopping for a bank account in Mexico
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This post takes a deep dive into the experience of shopping for a personal bank account in Mexico.


The details that follow are based on multiple visits to the branches of Banorte, Santander, and BBVA in Guadalajara in 2024.


While there's no guarantee that your experience with these same banks in Guadalajara (or another city) would match mine, after extensive research I'm convinced that what I encountered is common for expats, because there's abundant evidence to corroborate it.


Why I Chose These Three Banks


If you live in a decent-sized city in Mexico or a resort town popular with expats, there are going to be many banks to choose from. For me, the most important factors in "qualifying" a bank to do business with were:


  • Having numerous branches and ATMs in my city (Guadalajara)

  • Strong presence across Mexico, for ease of use when traveling

  • They offer accounts with IPAB coverage

  • Relatively low or no fees

  • Recommended by actual clients (both expats and Mexicans)


If your criteria are similar to these, you will probably gravitate to one of the largest banks. And while size doesn't guarantee legal or ethical behavior, it does increase the likelihood that the bank is using modern technology, has sophisticated account security features, and offers customer support in multiple languages.


I also looked at the following banks and ruled them out:

HSBC, Citibanamex, Intercam, Inbursa, CiBanco, BanBajio, Banco Azteca


Apart from not excelling in my list of criteria, these banks also suffered myriad other issues, including high-profile corruption (HSBC, Citibanamex), higher fees, and clunkier technology.


Mexican Attitudes Towards Banks


During this process, I learned heaps about how Mexicans view the banking industry.


Despite Mexico's booming economy, data from the Center for Global Development released in 2020 found that only 37% of Mexicans have bank accounts, a lower level than in Kenya or Bolivia, both of which have much smaller economies.


To put it plainly, most Mexicans have a deep distrust of banks.


Why is that?


Older Mexicans remember a string of bank failures in the 1990s at a time when there was no deposit insurance to protect their money (before 1999). Perhaps as a result of past recklessness, Mexican banks operate conservatively, offering the typical customer few benefits, while piling on fees for many basic activities.


The lack of transparency surrounding bank fees (and overall high levels relative to deposits) has fostered significant animosity towards the industry.


International money transfers with Wise

One anecdote a Mexican friend shared with me illustrated this perfectly. She said it used to be commonplace for Mexican ATMs to accidentally "eat" debit cards during transactions.


Getting a replacement meant standing in line at the branch and filling out forms, then waiting for the new ATM card to arrive in the mail. Customers also got charged to replace the cards lost as a result of the bank's faulty technology.


Are you kidding me?


Besides the lack of trust, many lower-income Mexicans don't see the need for banks due to the informal nature of their work, and their tendency to pay for most things in cash. And even if they did, most rural areas lack easy access, as banks tend to concentrate in urban centers.


Even wealthy Mexicans, who disproportionately use the formal banking system, keep a lot of their money in U.S. banks where deposit protections are stronger (and better enforced).


Shopping for a Bank Account in Mexico in 2024


While most Mexican banks do not charge fees to open personal savings accounts, you still see the occasional post on social media mentioning this problem. Sometimes it's a language issue.


All the Mexican banks I investigated in 2024 require minimum balances of at least $4,000 pesos to avoid monthly maintenance and other fees.


When an account falls below the minimum, fees range from $230-$325 pesos per month per account (including IVA tax). This equates to $14-$19 U.S. dollars per month!


My findings validated the widespread belief that Mexico's banks do a poor job of catering to lower-income clients.


To avoid nosebleed fees that can quickly devour your funds, you will have to keep the equivalent of $200-$300 USD in your local account that you don't touch.


As such, minimum balance requirements feel like fees because a portion of your money can’t be used without penalty and earns no interest -- though it remains your money. What it represents is free capital for the bank.


Stop 1: Banorte


My first visit was to a Banorte branch on Av. Camacho in Zapopan not far from my house. It was a Tuesday, and they had a sign posted saying they weren't seeing clients that day.


So I tried a second location on Av. Americas near Plaza Patria, and the security guy told me this office wasn't a branch, and it only deals with pensioners.


Another day I returned to the Av. Camacho branch, finding it relatively empty. A few customers were waiting to see a cashier while several bankers sat at their desks without customers.


No one paid me any mind. Finally, a "greeter" appeared and I explained to her I was interested in asking a few questions about account options for foreigners.


She gave me a number (like the DMV), and I stood around for about 10 more minutes.

Realizing that my number had already come up, I approached a teller window and asked if they could answer my questions.


They said no, and sent me back in the direction of the idle bankers. I waited conspicuously a few minutes more when, incredibly, one waved me over.


International money transfers

When I asked him what documents were required to open a savings account, he said I needed a passport, residency visa, and RFC number.


I asked if a temporary residency visa would be sufficient. He said no, only permanent residents and citizens can open accounts at Banorte.


Throughout our conversation, the banker seemed vaguely annoyed, like I was bothering him. Even without the visa deal-breaker (my visa is for temporary residency), I would have passed on Banorte given the pitiful service.


For those who do qualify, you can see the rest of my Banorte findings in the Account Features table below.


Stop 2: Santander


Next, I visited a Santander branch in Zapopan Centro, where I've used the ATMs upwards of 25 times. Arriving on a Friday morning, the branch was bustling with customers and staff.


Giving the same spiel to the greeter that I'd used at Banorte, I found myself whisked into the office of the branch's director, Señora Lily Rodriguez, within two minutes of arrival.


Amazing.


Sra. Rodriguez politely answered my questions about personal accounts for foreigners. It would require a residency visa (temporary okay), an RFC number, as well as two personal character references from Guadalajara residents that the bank could call to verify.


The last requirement seemed onerous for a simple savings account, but it was mandatory.


She then proceeded to pitch me a few investment opportunities that would expire in a few days (CDs yielding 10%-12.5% for investments of $100,000 pesos+. Any client committing new funds was eligible).


A well-trained marketer, she deflected my request to see account terms on paper, asking simply... What doubts do you have?


I thanked her for her time, then said I was still doing research and would be in touch.


Before leaving I stopped to get some cash at the ATM. This time the ATM failed to dispense any cash, which sometimes happens on Fridays after everyone's cashed their paycheck.


I tried one more machine and this one failed too.


Later that day I tried to get money from a Banorte ATM and my transaction was declined yet again. Very odd.


This time, the ATM screen displayed a message stating I'd exceeded my daily withdrawal limit -- even though I'd completed no transactions anywhere that day. Hmmmm.


That evening I logged onto my foreign bank account and noticed that Santander had debited my account for the $6,000 pesos ($355 USD) I'd never received.


Sheesh. I was souring fast on the idea of doing business with Santander.


Returning to Santander on Monday morning (branch offices are always closed Sat-Sun in Mexico) I was prepared for the worst. But Sra. Rodriguez was unfazed, candidly admitting their ATMs sometimes failed in the manner I experienced.


She advised me to file an inquiry with my foreign bank (which I'd already done) and reassured me the two banks would resolve it. It's been 9 days and counting, and I'm still out $355 USD.


Stop 3: BBVA


Next, I visited the BBVA branch on Av. Americas at Calle Buenos Aires in Providencia. I was well-rehearsed with my script by now (all of these conversations had been in Spanish because no one I met spoke English).


The BBVA banker I met in this branch, Victor Sandoval, said all the right things:


  • Accounts could be opened with just a passport, FMM tourist card, and proof of address (comprobante de domicilio).

  • No RFC? No problem.

  • No insurance purchase required.


The third bullet might seem strange, but it relates to a coercive practice BBVA is infamous for laying on its foreign clients. Some years back expats began reporting they'd been tricked into buying unwanted insurance policies when opening BBVA bank accounts.


These policies were typically discovered when the bank client noticed unexplained fees being debited from their accounts each month.


Clients who pushed back and attempted to cancel the unwanted insurance were led through a Ninja warrior-like obstacle course of bureaucracy. Customers who made branch visits were told they had to make phone calls to initiate cancellation and then submit web forms that never got a response.


The runaround kept clients stuck in the unwanted policies and the fees flowing.


My Spanish teacher had attended a legal proceeding against BBVA related to this problem, in the capacity of translator. A BBVA client successfully sued the bank in Guadalajara for claiming that a multi-year insurance policy (called "Meta Segura") was mandatory when opening a simple savings account.


That tactic was illegal under Mexican banking law, and the client won, recovering a portion of the fees BBVA had debited over seven months.


To be clear, this BBVA marketing tactic is not used on Mexican nationals, only on foreigners. Over the years it's been marketed to prospective expat clients whether they speak Spanish or not.


Because of this history, I was on the lookout for it during the BBVA sales process and asked about it several times (both in person and over WhatsApp). Victor assured me that seguro (insurance) was not required.


Since my goal was to open a debit account with no monthly maintenance fees, our discussions mainly focused on the Libretón Premium product.


Below is a comparison of account features and requirements I compiled based on my visits to BBVA, Santander, and Banorte.


Mexican Bank Account Features & Requirements


At this point, I was leaning towards BBVA given the easier requirements and overall better account features. In addition to the information I'd collected on my visits, several locals had reinforced that BBVA was the best option for its superior technology. (despite their well-documented unethical practices)


They all mentioned BBVA's secure and user-friendly mobile app, which makes it possible to avoid visiting a branch to take care of most needs. It was a huge selling point for me given the long lines at most Mexican banks.


It's ultimately why I chose BBVA. In my next post, I'll share the experience of opening a personal account at BBVA.

 

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3 Comments


Very well done and informative - Thanks!

I've been wondering about Intercam. Care to share your experience with them?

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Thanks so much Dawn.

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