Tijuana, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 04/27/23
Personal Experiences from Tijuana, Mexico
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, this was my seventh overseas assignment. I have lived in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and just finishing up in Mexico.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
I am originally from the West Coast of the US, so this was very close to home. For one’s initial assignment to post the Department generally prefers that employees drive to post, if flying, one will likely be required to fly to San Diego International Airport. San Diego isn’t a huge airport, but you can fly to most other hubs in the US. However, it is a very convenient airport in terms of its location within the city of San Diego, and it is about 40 minutes from Tijuana. Tijuana International, at least post-pandemic, does not have any international flights to the U.S., there is/was one from Tijuana to Shanghai that AeroMexico announced they were re-starting. There are lots of flights (albeit on discount carriers for the most part) to other cities in Mexico, but it is easier to cross the border to San Diego and fly from there if heading to anywhere in the U.S. or farther abroad.
3. How long have you lived here?
Two years, ending at time of this post report.
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The housing was pretty decent. Singles and couples without children live in pretty nice apartment buildings in nice neighborhoods with lots of restaurants and coffee shops. People with families live in gated compounds in the hills. For those who work at the US Consulate General in Otay, commute in the morning is generally 15-30 minutes (depending on what time you leave), and 25-60 minutes on the way home. The consulate is not that far from the housing as the crow flies, but there are not that many ways to get back across the city so all the main traffic arteries become pretty clogged during normal commute times.
We had a nice apartment overlooking the city’s only major green space, which is a private country club (that we are not allowed to access). There are a few other consulate-leased buildings in the same area, and one of the buildings has had frequent maintenance issues. I had heard the consulate was phasing that building out, however at the time of this posting at least one new officer was moved into that building for the duration of their assignment.
I noticed some other post reports are from people complaining about maintenance issues with their housing, but from my experience the issues are not worse than any other “developing” country to which I have been assigned. A lot of the US direct hire staff are on their first overseas assignments and do not realize how decent the housing is, hence the complaints about maintenance; construction quality is no worse than any other post I have served at outside of industrialized Europe or Asia, and I found our landlord to be generally responsive when there was as an issue. Admittedly, some landlords were much better than others.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are cheaper than the US, especially compared to D.C., but more expensive than the rest of Mexico. There are major local supermarkets: Soriana and Calimax. You can get most things there, and certain produce is definitely cheaper in Mexico. However, we found that we did more shopping in San Diego due to the better quality (especially of produce) and selection, and overall variety of stuff. We usually went to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Sprouts etc., on the weekends. Thus, the cost of living is about the same as DC, however we get no COLA unlike other Mexico posts.
In Tijuana, there is COSTCO, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Home Depot, etc here, but again I found that COSTCO in the US was a better deal and more consistently stocked with the items that we needed. One can, however, get a COSTCO membership in Mexico and use it in the US: it is about 50% cheaper than the US membership with the only disadvantage being that one can’t use a Mexican membership to shop online on COSTCO’s US website. I think most consulate US citizen employees, and a lot of Mexicans as well, do a lot of shopping in San Diego on the weekends.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing, although not a consumables post anyway.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
I used Uber Eats often. Too many restaurants and experiences to list here. You can find excellent Mexican food/excellent seafood. Tijuana has become a venerable foodie paradise with all kinds of cool trendy restaurants. One can eat a pretty nice meal that will be half the cost of a comparable meal in the U.S. There is a dearth, however, of good Asian and other world cuisines, but San Diego has outstanding authentic Asian food, as well as a pretty wide variety of cuisines from all over the world. Whenever we were craving Thai or Japanese food we would just pop-over to San Diego.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We sporadically had quite a few ants, but nothing crazy.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The Consulate has mail annexes that USDH staff can have their items shipped, and the consulate mailroom retrieves them. Items arrive very quickly and are picked up by the consulate every day. If something is delivered to the mail facility on Monday, it will usually be in your hands on Tuesday.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is reasonable when compared to the US, but more expensive than the rest of Mexico. We paid about $7 an hour for our housekeeper who came for five hours a day twice per week. This is more than Mexicans pay, so if you can find someone who has never worked for US diplomats you may be able to get a cheaper hourly rate.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
My apartment building had a small gym at the top of the building which was adequate for our needs, and the consulate has a gym of course. I do not know of anyone who had a membership to an outside gym, but I think the prices are comparable to the US without being comparable in quality.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Yes, almost everywhere will take a credit card. ATMs are fine, just be smart with your surroundings. There is one in the consulate. Unlike other US diplomatic posts one cannot cash check/have currency exchanged at the consulate.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
No idea, but if English-language services are a must, one can cross the border.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It helps to make an effort. You'll often find somebody who can speak English, but one should not expect it. Due to the number of gringos that come to Baja California daily (more than 200,000+ US citizens are in Baja California on any given day), people do not expect non-Mexican/Hispanic people to speak Spanish, but appreciate it when you do. Many people speak English extremely well, many people don’t at all, and many others understand but do not really speak it. One can survive without Spanish, but it makes life nicer if one has some grasp on basic elements useful in daily conversation.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, sidewalks will randomly end without warning and there are holes everywhere, like a lot of places outside of the U.S., it would be a difficult place to live if you have mobility issues.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The use of taxis is discouraged but not prohibited, Uber is safer and cheaper. There are buses and minivans which serve as the main public transportation, but U.S. direct hire staff are not allowed to use them (nor would one want to).
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
Carjackings are not really an issue for people who do not go to the worst parts of Tijuana (a USDH never would have any reason to go there). People at the Consulate have everything, from large SUVs to luxury sports cars, and in my neighborhood I have seen rich locals with Aston Martins, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, etc.
Overall, I do recommend something with decent ground clearance for the rare occasion when the streets flood, and because speed bumps and potholes can be unpredictably worse than one may expect. There is no restriction that post nor the host Government places on types of vehicles though, so feel free to bring whatever suits your fancy. As a note, diplomatically accredited staff may be asked to keep their vehicles registered in the US, due to what seems to be a complicated local registration process.
My recommendation would be to drive to post so that one can arrive with a car that can be used right away, then apply for diplomatic plates after one arrives. The advantage to having diplomatic plates is that one can then stop paying registration fees in the US until one needs to re-register in the US (which may save hundreds to thousands of dollars over a three-year tour).
Some binational insurance policies in Mexico may also require that one has Mexican diplomatic plates. If you arrive from an overseas post with a car that has never been registered in the US or is not currently registered in the US, it may be recommended that you register your car in California (note: it's my understanding registering in CA could cause a sales tax issue). One should also note however if the car is financed through a bank then the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) will accept a notarized letter from the bank without requiring the title.
I have also heard that it has been said that it will not make a difference with CBP nor Mexican authorities if you have dip plates or do not. In my experience, this is not true, as all of my other colleagues with US plates were pulled over at least once during their tour while I was never stopped. CBP recognizes that the plates are diplomatic and generally ask fewer questions (I know this because I started with California plates), and similarly with Mexican customs, they tried several times to pull me over until I had dip plates, but then never again.
New cars sold in the US with warranties are still valid in North America and therefore one can have a new car serviced in San Diego under warranty. As a note: leased vehicles, however, cannot be taken outside of the US.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
This is a great feature about this post. The consulate sets it up for you in advance, and you then take over the bill after you arrive. It's so nice to have internet from day one. I paid about $50 a month for the fastest internet connection available, but the standard package is about $20 a month including phone. I paid for more because we watch TV through the VPN and I thought it would make a difference, but the reality is that I didn’t notice a huge difference with the internet speed, however right before I left post I switched the speed back to the base package, and we noticed that with a VPN streaming would sometimes interrupt on the slower speed. Thus, if you plan to use a VPN I recommend getting the fastest speed.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have AT&T with our US numbers, which generally work, but randomly will stop working. AT&T offers unlimited roaming in Mexico, but speeds vary. For this reason, we got a local number that is $10 a month in addition to our US numbers. Older post reports state that there is a grace period before US carriers cut you off, this is not true of AT&T anymore, but may still be true of T-Mobile and other carriers. Most new phones have dual sim capability, I would recommend taking advantage of this feature and getting a Mexican SIM card in your phone and utilizing a US e-sim.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
We didn't have any pets, but I do not think there are any quarante requirements. People drove their pets back and forth across the border weekly.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
A lot of EFMs work in U.S. or telework, however there are a few EFM jobs at the consulate. Compared to the rest of Mission Mexico, there seem to be fewer positions. However, there are opportunities and I believe they are trying to add more.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Some, for example at local orphanages.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Overall, I would say it is pretty business casual, but Mexicans definitely dress to impress to go out, which I respect very much. When going to a nice restaurant please do not assume that your “California-beach-casual-this-is-Mexico-bro-clothes” are appropriate and inoffensive to our local hosts, because they are inappropriate and they are offensive.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Of course, this city does have one of the highest, if not the highest homicide rate in the world; theft and other crimes of opportunity are also rampant, having said that it is still easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. In August 2022 there was a “narco uprising” due to the arrest of a high profile narco. Narcos burned cars and blocked roads, but no Consulate employees (neither local nor USDHs) were victims of any car burnings. We were, however, on lockdown for 24 hours over the weekend. This was probably the most dramatic event that happened while I was there, but it was definitely a lovely reminder about how things can escalate quickly.
The amount of bodies and body parts that are found on a weekly basis all around the city is staggering (within yards of the Consulate as well), fortunately this violence rarely bleeds into our daily lives, but the possibility exists. However, in the end, there is little one can do except to live one’s best life and remain vigilant about what is going on in one’s surroundings. Ultimately, the chance of getting caught up in the most violent of the city’s crime is probably less than likely if one isn’t directly involved with nefarious actors.
I'm not aware of anybody in the consulate community falling victim to any violent crime in Tijuana during my two years, and most of the time (for better or for worse) I never feared for my safety during my tour year tour.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Tijuana is a medical tourism destination for cosmetic surgery and dental work, however, because wealthy Mexicans can go to the US for medical treatment (including to give birth) I did not get the impression that the private hospitals were anything special. The good news is San Diego is just right there and is home to world famous medical facilities. This is probably one of the main attractions of the post since people with medical issues can still serve overseas, but get very good medical attention in the US just minutes away.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality can be bad/dusty in Baja California and Southern California.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Air quality can be bad, so seasonal allergies can be bad, but due to its proximity to the U.S., most restaurants can accommodate food allergies, “gluten free diets,” “vegans,” etc. If not, one can always go to San Diego.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Weather is one of the other great highlights, it rarely gets below 50 degrees, and while there are hot days in the summer time, the evenings are generally pleasant. To be honest, I would have preferred it to be tad bit warmer particularly in the summertime so that swimming is more inviting, but overall, no one should complain about the weather.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It’s temperate, pretty dry, very livable climate; a little more rain is needed as the city has run out of water, and there are frequently water shortages that affect residences.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
This is one of the highlights of this post. I do not have kids, but people choose this post so that their kids can go to public school in the US. The consulate has an agreement to send kids to a very exclusive, but public school in the US. In addition, it is a great post for kids who have developmental and special learning needs. Kids can also do all the normal extracurricular activities in the US, so families really seem to love this post for those reasons.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Again, not super familiar, but definitely one reason why people come to this post is to take advantage of special ed programs in San Diego.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I know of one family who sent their kids to a local preschool, but I do not have much information. Similar to housekeepers, nannies are cheaper than the US. but more expensive than other parts of Mexico.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but all in San Diego not much in Tijuana as far as I am aware.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is no real expat life in Tijuana, which is the biggest drawback of this post in my opinion. There is an “Expats Tijuana” Facebook page, but this is more a page of retired US citizens in Baja California, and not really “expats” in the traditional (more refined) sense. There are only a couple of other consulates here and the other big one is the People’s Republic of China, and we do not interact with them. There are a couple other smaller diplomatic posts (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras?), but otherwise this is a very “binational” city, and not/not an international city.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
As alluded to above, this is the drawback of this city: it is very difficult to meet people outside of the Consulate. This might have been due to the pandemic, but I think it has more due to the fact that locals are not really interested in investing the time to make friends with Americans – we are not exactly a novelty in these parts, so I understand. That coupled with the fact that there is no real sophisticated expat scene means that you have to work extra hard to make friends outside of the consulate community. People join affinity groups etc in San Diego to try and network/date, but it at times felt very isolating as I would have hoped for a wider social circle.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great place for families, good place for couples, decent place for younger singles who like to go out to nightclubs, but singles who are not nightlife types may find it difficult to make friends.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I do not think that Mexicans are particularly welcoming of people of African descent especially due to the Haitian diaspora here in Tijuana – many of whom came to the border with the hopes of gaining asylum status in the US, only to end up residents in Mexico. Having said that, my spouse is black and did not feel that it was that different here than in the US(for whatever that this worth). I do not think, based upon what I have been told, that it is nearly as bad as the other border posts where people are more overly hostile and racist towards people of African descent (think cities along the Texas-Mexico border).
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think so, especially in the context of the border region. There are several gay bars downtown on “Revolucion Boulevard” where all the nightlife is, and of course Tijuana has always been the place people came to do all the things they could not in the U.S., so I think the local cultural is historically more welcoming of “non-mainstream” lifestyles, generally speaking. Having said that, “machismo” cultural is very much alive in Baja California and Mexico; and outside of cities people may not be so welcoming. Many Mexicans still hide their true sexual orientation from families and friends. I have found that it is like a lot other more traditional cultures – people are accepting (to your face) as long as you are not related to them, however they would not want one of their own children to be LGBTQIA+ (for example).
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Gender equality, as in many places remains a constant issue. See above response regarding racial issues.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Food. Amazing Mexican colleagues. Travel around Mexico. The Valle de Guadalupe. Proximity to Southern California.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
As mentioned, the “Valle de Guadalupe” wine growing region about two hours south of Tijuana is up and coming. While the wine is still young and is not on par (generally speaking) with great European or California wines, the culinary scene and the natural scenery are amazing!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
No, not really as far as I know. However, handicrafts are really not my thing.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Weather for most of the year – the advantage of having all of the conveniences and amenities of a California city at your disposable without having to pay California rent.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Morale can vary, but based upon other post reports I think it is very good when compared to before. The current Consulate management has worked to make Tijuana as good of a place to serve as possible. I wish I had known how much Mexico City seems to micromanage the day-to-day operations of the Consulate. The work (as I expected) is exhausting, and the consular cases (both on the visa and ACS side) can be very grim, but these experiences actually made for great professional development as well.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: It has been a great place to live for my spouse and I. The caveat is that I do not think I would want to do it twice, but assuming I could go back in time, I would still be happy with the fact that I chose to come to Tijuana. In summary, I am happy we came, we had a great time, but as they say “one can never go back;” and while I will always have the great memories, one set of Tijuana memories is plenty.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
idea that Tijuana is just another miserable border city, and any paranoia about the city’s state of security.
4. But don't forget your:
patience with other drivers, sense of adventure, and most importantly your Global Entry Card (for crossing the border).
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Netflix Series "NARCOS MEXICO" one of the more recent seasons is about the Tijuana narco history, do not be fooled though: I do not think any of it was filmed in Tijuana, especially the beach scenes. However, it does accurately (from what I understand) depict the history of the cartels in the city. Also, the 2000 movie "Traffic" - similar theme, and highly dramatized, but worth watching. Also, the Hulu show "Eater" there is an episode about Tijuana that features some of my favorite restaurants.