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Posted Thursday, December 2, 2004
Hi, Carl and Lorena
Read your books years ago and loved them, not only for the information content, but the sheer pleasure of reading the anecdotes. Somewhere in a move, I lost them, so was really pleased to see the reissue of PGTM. Have to see if I can scrounge up a used copy of "Camping, boating, and RVing".
Carl: You're an awesome writer and an inspiration.
On to questions: I'm a (nascent) writer/photographer planning an RV trip down to Mexico, and have heard disturbing reports that "excess" electronics are subject to confiscation. I normally travel with 2-4 computers in my endeavors (backups, special purpose), a satellite internet setup, and a lot of camera equipment.
I realize you folks are of the "minimalist" school and don't normally load up with this kind of thing - the nature of my endeavors will require a bit more real-time work online and off.
So, posing the question based on your experience with officialdom in Mexico: If you had this kind of requirement on a trip, what precautions would you take against official actions, over-zealous or not?
I can guard against thieves - official confiscation is something else, again.
Thanx, and perhaps our paths will cross sometime.
Carl replies: I can’t quote the Mexican customs regulations but my hazy memory is that a tourist is allowed one personal computer. So much for regulations. As for the reality (such as it exists) of what you might experience at the border... well... I wouldn’t worry too much about having your excess computers confiscated. Personally, I’ve never heard of this and it strikes me as unlikely.
On the other hand you could be asked to pay import duties on some or all of the computers. But again... if you keep your cool, smile a lot (but not too much), and are willing to sit patiently for perhaps hours on end until customs officials grow weary of you and the thought of extra paperwork... you’ll probably get through with nothing more than sweaty palms.
Keep in mind that all the large border crossings have an automated system that randomly selects those who will be given a closer look. This system is good, especially for people like us who tend to push the limits.
After you get your vehicle import permit you’ll drive through the customs area -- if the light turns green you’ve got an “all clear”. Have a nice trip.... If it turns red you’ll be directed to the inspection area and (usually, but not always) asked to open up the vehicle for a closer look.
We’ll assume your karma is in order and that you’ve chanted “Green!” 102 times. As soon as the green light comes on accelerate slowly but stubbornly through the customs area. Keep your eyes fixed on the road ahead. There will usually be a handful of customs officials standing just beyond the green/red light. Don’t look at them, lest they catch your eye and decide to arbitrarily wave you over. You’re through; you’re on your way.
Red light scenario: I assume you’ve distributed the computers and the most attractive peripherals throughout your vehicle, tucking things away in the deepest and most inconvenient corners. You’re not hiding stuff, you’re just packing it away very carefully, concealing a few items in a manner that suggests you’re not intentionally concealing anything. Know what I mean?
If you’re told to take something out of the van move slowly but don’t appear to be moving slowly on purpose. Move as if, “I’ve got all day. Do you?” If you are traveling with others, have them stay in the vehicle, preferably reading a magazine, completely uninvolved.
Be friendly but don’t overdo the conversation. Assume that everyone speaks fluent English -- some do, even though they probably won’t advertise it.
Forget bribes -- these days, the mordida option is almost always reserved for bigger fish.
Perhaps the greatest mistake that gringos can make at the border is to treat an official with condescension, scorn, or even over-joviality, anything that can be interpreted as “I don’t take you very seriously.”
Back to the possibility of confiscation: Again, I can’t see this happening. If this were offered as a threat, I’d say politely, “This is very unfortunate. Please, I’d like to return to the U.S.”
Oh yeah... whatever you do, don’t tell anyone that you use these computers for work. That will definitely put you into another, unwanted category. Admit that you’re nothing but a hopelessly geeky computer nerd.
If this all sounds more than a bit vague, you’re right, it is. In fact, customs regulations are very open to interpretation by individual officers.
To give an example: A while ago Lorena and I entered Mexico with our complete traveling office (not as extensive as yours, but close), plus a major load of camping gear, and, believe it or not, an 1800 square foot event tent that was being donated to a meditation center. To carry all this stuff we were traveling in two vans, both of them loaded to the gills, refugee-convoy-style.
To put a finishing touch on the awesome pile in my van, I invited Cuca, our largest and most intimidating dog, to sit in the passenger seat beside me as we approached the border.
Having completed the necessary paperwork and chanting, I got the wonderful green “PASE” light. Then, as we rolled past the light, five hawk-eyed customs agents saw the extent of my load and frantically waved me to a stop.
Doing my best to look baffled, I stopped the van but did not pull into the inspection area. Their leader came quickly to the driver’s side window. Before he could say anything, however, he looked past me -- and was met directly by Cuca’s penetrating, panther-ish stare. With a cry of “¡Caray!” he jumped back from the van, flashed me a quick grin and waved us on through.
Finally, with all that computer gear, and a satellite system as well, I hope we can count on getting a report from you after you finally settle down in Mexico. We'll all be holding our breath....
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We are wondering if there are any circumstances in which a photo ID and birth certificate could be used instead of a passport to obtain an FM-3? Is this ever done?
We have a problem getting our passport reissued - an unpaid repatriation loan from 1982. We could not afford to pay back this loan ($1100) initially, and now far too much interest has accrued now that we are in a better financial position ($60,000)!
Carl Replies: It would take an immigration official or a consultant to give a really accurate answer to your question. Since I’m neither one, take the following with the usual grains of salt:
When you apply for an FM3 while you’re in the U.S. the Mexican authorities will usually ask for proof of good citizenship. This means that they want a letter from your local authorities, verifying that you aren’t wanted by the law. Asking you for a passport is another way to verify that you aren’t on some Homeland Security black list, or a wanted felon.
But... if you apply for an FM3 in Mexico, you probably won’t be asked for the good citizenship letter. You will be asked, however, for a passport.
Have you actually applied for a passport and been refused? If so, I suggest that you go to Mexico, visit one of the popular gringo colonies, and speak with an immigration consultant there. If there’s a way to do this, they’ll know of it.
Finally, why do you want an FM3? Many people live in Mexico on tourist cards, renewing them every six months.
If push comes to shove, that may be your only option.
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