Currency in Mexico
The currency of Mexico is the peso (MXN), which is divided into 100 centavos.
Coins are issued in 5, 10 (steel), 20, 50 centavo (brass; the new 50 centavo coins issued from 2011 are steel and smaller) and in 1, 2, 5 (steel ring, brass core), 10, 20, 50 and 100 pesos (brass ring, steel or silver core), but it is extremely rare to find coins worth more than 10 pesos.
The banknotes are produced in denominations of MXN20 (blue), 50 (pink/red), 100 (red), 200 (green), 500 (brown) and 1000 (purple and pink for the latest issue, purple for the old ones). The latest MXN20, MXN50 and MXN100 notes are made of polymer plastic, and there are several different series of all the notes. There are ten pesos, but they are very rare and no longer issued or accepted.
Old” pesos (issued before 1993) are no longer accepted, but are collected by numismatists.
The symbol used locally for pesos is the same as for US dollars ($), which can be a little confusing. Prices in dollars (in tourist areas) are marked with “US$” or have a two-line “S”. In June 2015, the exchange rate was around 15 MXN for 1 USD. As this exchange rate has generally settled around 13 MXN per USD, vendors and traders often use this exchange rate. Therefore, it is currently preferable to buy with pesos. The U.S. dollar is widely accepted in the far north and tourist areas.
Other currencies such as the euro, the pound sterling and the Swiss franc are generally not accepted by traders, and even banks based in Europe may refuse to accept euros for exchange. On the other hand, they are widely accepted by most banks and exchange offices (“casas de cambio”).
If you are arriving from the south and still have Central American currency with you, try to exchange it as soon as possible, as it is not accepted even by banks outside the immediate border area. Since all Central American countries have the US dollar as their national currency (El Salvador, Panama) or circulate it to varying degrees as a de facto second currency, and since virtually all Central American banks and most banks in Mexico accept the US dollar (usually at better rates than any other currency), it is best to “triangulate” your money from national currency to dollars and dollars to pesos rather than exchanging them directly, which can be difficult and expensive. If you forget to change your money and the banks are closed, street money changers (called coyotes or cambistas) do not have fixed opening hours and often have better rates. Be careful, however, as occasionally foreigners are scammed with fake calculators, wrong exchange rates and counterfeit or expired (and therefore worthless) notes.
Banking in Mexico
If you brought cash in USD or €, the best places to change your money are the arrival airports (like MEX and CUN) where there are already many exchange offices in the arrival hall (where you can also compare some exchange rates and choose the cheapest one) and usually the exchange rate in airports is mostly fair. Be sure to go through customs before looking for foreign currency, because in the Cancun customs area the rate is around 9.6 MXN for 1USD, which is much lower than what the most eager street vendors charge.
If you want to wait longer to get Mexican currency, don’t try to change at your hotel, as the rates there are usually very unfavourable for tourists. However, some hotels offer an exchange service as a courtesy. In this case, it is best to just ask to be sure. You can often find exchange bureaux at strategic locations in most tourist resorts and near the hotel (zones). Exchange rates should not differ much from those at the airport. If you are not familiar with Mexican currency (notes, coins), try to stick to the official exchange offices. In some internationally known seaside destinations such as Cancun and Los Cabos, local merchants are accustomed to the US dollar and often accept it as payment (they even have cash registers and drawers with two currencies). However, it should be borne in mind that the convenience of such “private” money exchange usually comes with a somewhat unfavourable exchange rate.
Credit and debit cards (with Maestro or MC/VISA affiliation) are widely accepted in Mexico. You can use them at ATMs and in most department stores, large restaurants and petrol stations, but make sure you always have enough cash in pesos in your pocket when you are out of town and generally check that you can pay with the card before using it. Small (often family-run) shops often only accept cash. There is usually a 5% surcharge for card payments. Also, you cannot get a lower price if you haggle, unless you pay in cash. Often you can pay half or less by pretending to leave.
While many Pemex petrol stations accept credit cards, especially in busy areas, there are also some that do not; travellers wishing to pay by credit card should always ask the attendant if the card is accepted before starting to fill up.
ATMs are easy to find. Bank of America customers can avoid ATM fees by using Santander Serfin ATMs. Other banks may have similar policies, check with your respective institution. For example, Banamex Bank is part of Citybank/Citygroup, and Bancomer is part of BBVA, which is affiliated with Chase in the US. Ask your bank if it has relationships with Mexican banks and what advantages such an ally can offer. If not, don’t be surprised if you end up paying a fee for each withdrawal. ATMs in small towns can run out of cash; this is sometimes the case. Ask the bank (or local residents) for the best time to use the machine and never wait until the last minute to get cash.
Tipping in Mexico
Tipping in Mexico is similar to that in the United States. It is generally 10 to 15 %.
For meals, a tip of 10-15% is given (this includes fast food deliveries). This tip is usually left by most people in restaurants, although it is not as common in street restaurants or stalls as vendors usually have a tin or box where people leave coins.
It is common to leave a tip on the table after paying, so it is very useful to have some change with you.
It is common for Mexican bars and nightclubs to charge 15% of the total amount (including taxes) directly on the bill. This is illegal in most cases because of the tip tax and because they charge the 15% including taxes. In large groups or nightclubs, bartenders expect customers to put a tip in a cup placed on the table before serving the drinks, so that the service is based on the tip received.
It is also common to tip the person who sometimes looks after the car as if it were a valet; in Mexico these people are often called “viene viene” (literally “come, come”) or franeleros and people usually tip them between 3 and 20 Mexican pesos, depending on the area, although they sometimes ask for larger amounts if the car is parked near a nightlife area.
In medium and large shops like Wal-Mart, there are uniformed helpers, mostly children or senior citizens, who pack the products shortly after the salesperson has scanned them. This role is called “cerillo” (in Spanish: “match”). Often these helpers have no basic salary, so all the money they earn comes from the tips people give them. Most customers give between 2 and 5 Mexican pesos, depending on the number of products. The cerillos also put the bags in the car and if the load is big, they might even help to take it to the car and unload the bags, in which case they usually get more than 15 pesos.
There is no tipping in taxis and buses, except when visiting. In some popular Mexican restaurants, street musicians perform, play and wait for customers to pay something, albeit on a voluntary basis. At petrol stations, workers usually receive 2 to 5 pesos for each tank of petrol. In stadiums, people give a small tip to the person who tells them where to sit. Tips are also given to bellboys, hairdressers and people working in similar services.
Shopping in Mexico
- Weights are measured in kilograms. Length is measured in centimetres and metres.
- Continental” measurements are used for clothing and shoe sizes.
Traders can be fussy about the condition of your paper money and may examine it and reject anything that is torn. Try to keep it in as pristine a condition as possible. This seems to be more the case the further south you travel. In any case, you can simply go into a bank with a damaged note and have it exchanged at another bank.
In small towns, traders are often reluctant to give change. Avoid paying with too many large denominations; the best customer has exact change. In rural areas, your “small change” may consist of chiclets or other small goods.
Traders, especially those in small markets (“tianguis”) and street vendors, are no strangers to haggling. Try asking: “¿Es lo menos? (“Is that the lowest price?”). The more rural and less touristy the area, the more likely you are to succeed.
- Indigenous art When visiting Mexico, you have the opportunity to purchase “old world” style artwork that reflects Mexico’s ethnic diversity. These items include textiles, wood carvings, paintings and carved masks used for sacred dances and burials.
- Timeshares When you visit the resorts in Mexico (e.g. Cancun, Puerto Vallarta or others), it is more than common to be approached on the street, in bars, restaurants and everywhere with offers of gifts, free car rentals, free nights, free dinners and anything else that might interest you, just to make you attend and listen to a presentation to buy a timeshare. Unless you are desperate, you can ignore the people making you an offer and stay away from these free offers. Although the properties are beautiful, conveniently located and offer many amenities, this is not the place to learn more about timeshares. Do your homework before you even think about buying a timeshare, look at the values on the resale market and understand the rights you are buying and the future costs. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to find out about free listings.
- Cars It is definitely worth going there and importing a car, even though importing to EU/US standards is the hardest part. The recommended cars are the Ford Fusion (like the British Ford Mondeo, but higher spec) and the Chrysler 200 (the 2.4 model is worth it). Volkswagens can be much better equipped than their European or North American counterparts. The Passat sold in Mexico is NOT the same car as in Europe, and it is much bigger, but the engines are the same as in Europe, except for the 2.5 petrol.