I Really Need a Better Bank in Mexico

(Post 49 of 233. Thanks again to those who participated in the Fundrazr!)

Some of you may remember how difficult it was to open a bank account in Mexico as a temporary resident. After three years at such status, I can tell you that this difficulty to establish a financial life in Mexico in the early stages of immigration, when you’re setting the foundation for a new life in a new country, is a huge deficiency. It is also very difficult to get financial information as someone who wants to severe all financial ties to the old country, but I’ll get more into that later in this post. Anyway, I was only able to open a bank account, with HSBC, because my landlady acted as a guarantor for my account.

Banking with HSBC has pretty much been a nightmare, but I say that as someone who has an exceptionally good 30-year relationship with her bank in Canada, so she knows her standards and expectations are high and that most people would say my experience has been on the bad side of average. Every Mexican I’ve spoken to here and across the country on various forums who has experience with HSBC and another bank say that all banks in Mexico are on a scale of bad to terrible and HSBC is on the terrible end…

Before I get into the nightmare they put me through this last month, I’m going to say I stopped counting at about 60 the number of hoops, which included trips to the ATM, getting through multiple phone trees, and waiting for various codes by email, phone call, and text message, to enable me to send my landlady May’s rent through an electronic transfer — and we’re at the same bank. I know that we’re spoiled in Canada by being able to transfer money to anyone if we know their email address, but come on! A rep at my branch would later be amazed that I got through all those steps, especially with the language barrier, and confessed that other banks don’t make it such a Process.

So I don’t know if this is the case with all ATMs in Canada, but with CIBC ATMs, you don’t get your money until you take your card out of the machine. Before that change was instituted, the ATM would scream at you if you forgot your card in the reader. And I don’t know if this is the case with all ATMs in Mexico, but with HSBC, you take your money out and then you get your card back, and the machine will not scream at you if you forget to grab the card. It’s happened twice that I made withdrawals under stressful circumstances where my routine was interrupted and I left my card in the machine. So I do take partial responsibility for the nightmare that ensued after this second time I forgot my card in the machine…

This happened on a Tuesday and I realised it on the Thursday night. I was surprised that the card hadn’t been canceled yet as I was still able to use it for online purchases, but I figured it was only a matter of time before it was. I didn’t want to risk being cardless over the weekend, so I masked up on Friday morning and went to get the card replaced. I made sure to have my passport and green card with me for identification.

To replace the card at HSBC, you wait in line to speak to an executive who will look up your file and then write some information on a scrap of paper. You then have to queue to see a teller. This first time of going up to a teller with a mask on and handing her a note was very amusing, but would grow old as my tale of woe progressed…

The teller gives you an envelope containing the new card. You then queue again to speak to an executive, who will activate the card for you. Then, if you’re smart, you’ll take your card to an ATM and attempt to make a withdrawal. If it works, then your card is fine. In theory. This whole process costs about 150 pesos…

I got home and started to change my card info for various services — bills, Amazon, PayPal, and more. I started to run into some difficulties but thought that the card activation maybe needed a couple of hours to process.

The next day, I had no trouble using the card on the Apple Mexico website to order something, so I thought it was fine. But by Monday, I knew something was wrong.

I’m not going to bore you with every single detail of what transpired next. But know that for my card to work, I ended up making four calls to HSBC customer service and three visits to the bank in person over two weeks because the phone people were so dismissive. Yes, three visits to the bank in person during a lockdown to resolve something that should have been resolvable over the phone. During this time, I couldn’t order anything online that I couldn’t pay cash for at delivery, so that meant even more contact with people. When I can pay for groceries online, I have the driver leave everything in a crate outside my front door and then ring the bell before he walks away. Not the case when you have to give them cash!

I found myself making frivolous random orders on a bunch of sites to amass enough “payment declined; contact your bank” message for HSBC to believe they might be the cause of the problem.

I ended up finding a rep at my branch who speaks good English who finally found a phone rep who resolved the problem. This English-speaking rep heard me talk to the last phone rep in Spanish and said there was no way I was having a language barrier issue. The reps just didn’t care to find the problem. What happened was that my card was extra blocked because… I was making purchases their fraud system didn’t think a “foreigner” would make. So while I repeatedly confirmed my Friday purchase attempts and my Saturday Apple purchase, that only unblocked a first level of security. By my third phone call, the security rep should have clued in that I had an extra layer of block that needed to be escalated, rather than dismissively tell me that the problem had to be with the companies I was trying to pay.

This extra blocking has happened to me in the past and was slightly easier to resolve, but it’s a problem that is going to keep happening. I know I’m stuck with HSBC another year until I get permanent status, but I’ll definitely be switching banks at that point. It is going to be so frustrating to have to start over after having a four-year relationship with HSBC, but there is no way I would trust them with the investments I will eventually move here, nor do I expect that four-year relationship to even matter when I start shopping for a mortgage.

I do have to say I’m still chuckling that the only online purchases that went through during this two-week nightmare were for my new iPhone and for two orders of tacos. The card knew my priorities!

As I mentioned earlier in the post, it has been very difficult for me to get financial information as an immigrant to Mexico — and I’ve even been looking for information in Spanish aimed at people coming from other parts of Latin America. The expat services that take you to open a bank account and guide you through the process of buying a house do so from the perspective that you’re always going to be a foreigner with accounts “back home.” I haven’t found anyone yet who can tell me this is the product you need to invest in to fund your retirement later and this is the product to stash the money you’ll use as a deposit on a house. The only advice I get is “Don’t bring your money here!” That’s not helpful.

I had a chat with my investments guy in Canada today and it became very clear to me that soon as I hit permanent status, I need to cut financial ties there. So now is the time to figure out how that is going to happen and where my money will go when it gets here. I’ve been talking with some Mexican friends who don’t see me as an expat with deep pockets who have slightly demystified the path I need to take to buying a home here using methods that self-employed Mexicans with no government home-buying credits and parents to help with the deposit would take.

So I think that now that I’m starting to know what specific questions I have, it might be easier to find answers. Moreover, I’m about 18 months away from the end of my current rental contract and hard at work figuring out how I could move into a house of my own at that point, even if that home is a hovel. In March, I didn’t even think I’d want to stay in Yucatán long-term. Not even two months later, I’m ready to buy a house here. It’s amazing how a global crisis can bring clarity! And I also see a business opportunity, creating a Mexican financial literacy course for other immigrants!