For Americans paying “by plastic” has almost become a way of life – a replacement to cash interactions. Credit cards – or especially for Canadians, debit cards – are virtually the norm. Going into a store, cafe, restaurant or any other such place without card payment options is almost unheard of; it’s like asking someone to pay in barter (exchanging goods.)
As you may guess, this is not the case in Mexico.
If you prefer cash, you’ll do fine in Mexico.
But the big question is, if you simply prefer paying by card, do you have that option?
The answer is yes and no.
Modern Mexico and Card Payments
While it’s not 100%, a good rule of thumb is that if you stick to the places that are similar to what you know back home, you’ll be able to use cards.
Modern supermarkets, chain restaurants and cafes, nice bars, expat hangouts, department stores, movie theaters and malls – these are just a few examples of places that will usually offer card payment.
With Mexico’s growing economy and middle class, places like this are becoming almost common place; you’ll easily find them in any expat community, and in many other cities as well.
Once you open your Mexican bank account, you’ll easily be able to use your credit or debit card in many places. However, this requires you to hold a resident’s visa, and you’ll probably spend at least some time in Mexico using only your cards from back home.
International credit cards will usually be accepted in the regular machines.
However international debit cards will usually only work at bank machines, and not for direct payment in a store. This is an important point for Canadians who love their “interac” cards, which have now become the universally accepted replacement to cash in that country.
You’ll have no problem getting cash at any bank machine; you’ll just have to watch for fees, which will be charged at both ends. If you work with the right bank, you’ll be allowed withdraw cash at no fee. (For example, if you have Scotiabank, you can withdraw from Scotiabank Mexico without a fee.)
However, for Canadians who generally rely on “interac” cards, I would suggest getting a Visa or Mastercard before heading to Mexico to allow for more payment options.
In my experience, there are no extra fees for paying with Visa or Mastercard in Mexican stores or restaurants.
However, as I’ve said before, if you stick to only the stores and restaurants in Mexico that look like the U.S., you’ll be missing out on an important part of the Mexican experience.
In local markets, more traditionally Mexican restaurants, smaller stores, local shops and even some stores that you would expect otherwise, it will be only cash. This is also true of taxis.
While you don’t want to carry huge amounts of cash everywhere, you will want to get used to having cash on hand. The last thing you want to do is discover that amazing local seafood restaurant and then have to spend 30 minutes after the meal running around looking for the nearest ATM. (They are usually not hard to find in the tourist areas, but outside tourist areas, you may be left looking …)
On the whole, cash is still dominant in Mexico. You will be able to make good use of your bank cards on a day to day basis and this is becoming more common, but you’ll also need to be prepared for interaction with a largely cash-only society as well – especially if you want to experience Mexico more fully!