In December of 2013 I walked up to the American Airline check-in counter in Guadalajara, Mexico. I plopped my bag down on the scales and handed the man my passport. I was headed to the States.
“I’ll need to see your immigration form also”, he said.
“I don’t have an immigration form”, I told him, “But I do have an FM3”. I pulled it out of my jeans pocket and handed it over.
He glanced at it, did a little double-take and looked at it again. “I’m sorry Mr. Williams,” he said, “But this expired two months ago. I can’t give you a boarding pass unless you have a valid immigration form.”
Uh-oh, I thought, I’m screwed now.
Let me tell you, I have this fear of someday getting trapped somewhere (like the USA) because of some snafu with my passport or paperwork. It looked like this might be the day.
In Mexico, immigration rules and laws change yearly. This year, FM3’s don’t even exist. Last year and the year before that FM3’s cost about $300 USD and allowed a person to stay in Mexico for one year. Without an FM3 (or a more permanent type of visa) it is necessary to leave Mexico at least every six months.
There was a lot of redtape to be dealt with to get an FM3, usually including at least two trips to an immigration office and mucho paperwork involving copies of bank statements and proof of income. So, the cost and the headaches have to be weighed against just making a trip somewhere out of the country every six months and then coming back in later.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, just explaining. If this sounds like a lot of trouble to get to stay in a country for a year, you should read up on what a Mexican has to do to get the same privilege in the United States.
When I had decided three months before to stay in Mexico until December, I didn’t remember exactly when I had gotten my FM3. I’m old(er) and my mind doesn’t retain trivial details (like expiration dates of travel documents) as it did when I was younger. And I don’t care, I’ve got other things to think about – like, is it time for my medication or have I already taken it.
I didn’t remember and I refrained from checking to see. I had a sneaking suspicion that the date might not fit my plans but I was locked into a lease that didn’t expire until December. But, for the benefit of any immigration official that might be reading this, I really (really, really) didn’t remember.
In any case, there I was. I had already bought my ticket, given up my apartment, had people waiting on me in the States, and I couldn’t get a boarding pass.
I looked the man straight in the eye and I said, “Huh!”
He said, “Yes Sir, this is expired.” He handed the FM3 back to me, pointing to the date. And, there it was: expiration date October, 2013.
I just stood there giving my best imitation of a deer caught in oncoming headlights. “Well,” I said, “What do I do now?”
“You’ll have to talk to an immigration officer,” he said. “Go right around that corner. There’s an office with a sign. You can’t miss it.” The look he was giving me by this time told me that despite his words, he doubted I could find it with a map and a guide dog.
But, I did. It wasn’t really an office. It was more like a bank teller’s drive up window, complete with bullet proof glass and a small metal grill in the middle to talk to the three hundred pound, mean looking guy parked on the other side.
“Hello Sir,” I said in Spanish. “How are you today.”
“I’m good,” he replied in English. “What do you want?” He kind of curled his lip and gave me an evil eye. I didn’t care. The fact he was speaking English was a great relief. I had used up just about everything I knew in Spanish with that one sentence.
I handed over my FM3. “It’s expired,” I said.
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “I can see that,” he said.
I expected that at best I would have to pay a fine. I expected I might be deported and not allowed back into Mexico. I don’t know. I really didn’t know what to expect. What I got was completely unexpected.
He handed me an immigration form. “Fill this out,” he snarled. I filled it out and handed it back to him, still not knowing what was going to happen.
He stamped it and handed it back to me. I looked at the form. I looked at him. “Is that all?” I asked.
“Si amigo,” he said and the snarl of his lip twitched up into a smile. Clutching my brand new form in hand I scurried back to the check-in counter and I was on my merry way – into a winter from hell in the Arkansas Ozarks. But that’s another story.
More on Vagabond Journey: Overstayed Mexico Visa Experience