In preparation for my trek to Mexico City, I had to secure a visa. This type of visa I acquired is a Student Visa (also known as the FM3). It is necessary for anyone entering the country as a student. The pros are that you are legal, and it is a pleasant olive-green color to flash at customs with a wink and, if you are daring, a coquettish nod. The cons are that it requires waiting, unanswered questions, and fingerprint scans. For anyone not wanting to be entered in ‘the system’, bypass this route. I wouldn’t be able to offer you necessary advice to an alternative, but be tricky and you will probably think of something!
So, The Visa. Do be wise and learn from these mistakes: don’t ever listen to anyone else’s advice (except mine). If they have not gone through this experience themselves their advice will most likely be wrong. Every country’s consulate issues an FM3 differently. Senegal, for instance, allows you to apply for the visa through the mail and sets the visa’s active date as the date of your arrival into the country. Basically, from country to country the requirements vary. Mexico requires a student applying for an FM3 to go to the office two times. At least, the consulate in Boston needed this. The first time you must go and have the necessary documents in hand. They only allow students to apply for the visa during a three-hour period in the morning, so be aware. The active issue date of your visa starts WHEN YOU APPLY. But, is there anywhere on the visa website that says this? Of course not. For people planning on staying less than a year in the country, the year-long visa validity will not be a problem. But for those staying for a year (or the equivalent of 2 semesters) you will need to apply as close to your departure date as humanly possible. This will ensure that you will not have to re-apply for the FM3, pay the fee and deal with more Mexican bureaucracy than you need. The initial FM3 when applied for in the US is free, so why pay more?
The first time they will look at your paperwork, scan your index fingers, and take your picture. The second time, the next day, you arrive in a one-hour time slot in the late afternoon. In my case there was a line of slightly anxious Mexicans and gringa/os waiting outside the door. The consulate opened 15 minutes late, but no matter. To pick up your visa you just tell them your name and they give it over. They then take your thumbprint. If it helpful to pretend that you are a radical being booked for an almost successful coup-d’etat, please do so. By the way, you leave your passport with the consulate overnight. So, it is helpful to have a friend in the city, or not mind getting there two times in a two-day period.
The good news: The people are, at least the three times I was in the office, so nice. (In fact, a part of me hopes that Mexico is exactly like the consulate: a small office with a window and men wearing yellow alligator-skin boots. Ah well...) Do not be pushy with the staff as they are probably hampered with bigger issues than you applying for your student visa. Keep in mind that people going to this consulate could very well be illegal, or be trying to reach out to family across the border. With the pernicious immigrant raids that have occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Area and sections of Western and Central Mass one can only imagine the problems that people bring to this office. It is helpful to be mindful of all the unique and sensitive situations people could possibly be in to bring them to that office. As a privileged American student, you will be seen as a slight anomaly going to, as one friend of mine put it, “the big poison apple” that is Mexico City. While there I never felt that I was looked down upon or discriminated against for being a white person. In fact, trying out your Spanish or responding to the employees when they speak in Spanish was always met with good results. If you try, they will be nice. Wouldn’t you feel good if a Mexican at the US consulate in Mexico spoke to you in English? From this angle it doesn’t seem improper to give it the old college try. And if they are disturbed/offended then you will probably be able to tell. And if your heart is in the right place, isn’t that enough? Once you get The Visa, prepare to feel like $1000 dollars and an international traveler.
The next thing I would advise is to call your bank! If you have a debit card or other plastic money card with your name on it, you will need to let the proper establishments know that you are going to be in Mexico. This way they will not decline your purchases. For more old-fashioned, yet lovely, advice see The People’s Guide to Mexico under their bank/money section.
When calling the bank be prepared to be on hold. When they get to your call, they may ask you to verify your identity by asking seemingly non-sequitur questions. Don’t worry, this is fun and will only enhance the aforementioned feeling of your $1000/international traveler status. Be sure to ask your bank about which ATMs you can take money out of, and what charges could possibly be incurred for each withdrawal.
If you are a seasoned traveler, then you know what to do. I am lucky enough to have been carted around parts of Eastern Europe and have spent time in both the UK and the American West. Be sure to both pack light not underestimate minute creature comforts. If you know not packing something it will make a huge impact on your trip, just go for it and take it. But to paraphrase the sage advice from The People’s Guide, “do not pack anything that you are willing to trade, sell, lose, pack and unpack a countless amount of times, or explain the use of over and over again” (Franz, Havens 194). Honestly, my only vice is shoes (I am bringing four: running, hiking, black flats, tan flats). But know your limits. And the airline limit! Bags can only be 50 lbs or under to check, or else they charge a rather steep fee. Just be aware. And you don’t really want to cart a 75 lb. bag around the Benito Juarez International Airport, right?
Last tips: arrive with pesos, because the last thing you will want to do when you try to locate your baggage is worrying about exchanging money. Do yourself the favor, you deserve it. If you are a knitter, be aware that airline people are totally confused about the TSA rules about knitting needles. Err on the side of caution (this is advice you will hear from me over and over again) and opt for plastic or wooden needles no more than 6 or 7 inches in length. They still might confiscate them, so just be aware. I have heard of people bringing a print-out of the rules with them, which seems like a smart idea if you know that knitting on the plane will make that much of a difference.