Definitive Guide to Exchange USD Dollars for MXN Pesos

Stop overpaying and never step foot in a currency exchange again

Tijuana has been in the news a lot lately. The cost of living in California is so high, it’s driving many people South of the border.  For some, it’s a change of lifestyle. For others, it’s the cost of living. For me, it was a broken heart. Whether you’re just exploring the idea of moving to Tijuana or ya vives aqui (you already live here,) I’m going to share some of my best advice for saving money while spending in the local currency.
Trips to Tijauna and the Baja California Peninsula over long holiday weekends are a right of passage for many Southern Californians. Think Vegas, only way more interesting. Before moving to Tijuana in 2021, I never spent more than a week here. Fast forward to the summer of 2019, I got to really explore the unique culture and personality of different neighborhoods AirBnB-hopping while trying to heal a broken heart.
Of course before leaving Los Angeles, I hit the currency exchange. The reality is, even after exchanging currency, sometimes it’s easier just to swipe a card. Apparently, I swiped a lot, because when I returned to LA, it was shocking to see how much I had paid in conversion and international transaction fees — roughly USD $300 — or an extra $6000 pesos I could’ve spent in Tijuana (the equivalent of a month’s rent for the average apartment in TJ).
The options for opening a bank account in México without a CURP are pretty limited. That’s when I discovered Wise (formerly TransferWise). There are a ton of reviews around the web, so this will be more of a guide to how I combine it with Cuenca to hack some of the idiosyncrasies of living in Mexico.
Wise is like a virtual bank account that allows you to add funds from your US checking account (there are multiple ways to add funds, but ACH is the cheapest) convert to pesos, then spend in the local currency without any additional conversion or international transaction fees. Instead of paying exchange and international transaction fees on every purchase, you only pay the exchange each time you add more pesos (or other currencies) to your account while receiving a better exchange with lower fees than a traditional currency exchange.
After you create your Wise account, they will require you to add a funding source (like your checking account) and deposit USD $20 during the verification process. Once the account is verified, you’ll have a virtual debit card number that you can use right away, but if you want a physical card that you can use in local businesses, you’ll need to pay $9 for the card which you can deduct from the $20 you just deposited. I highly recommend this option, because you can use it at ATMs to withdraw cash, swipe it at physical stores, and not all businesses in Mexico accept NFC Apple/Google pay yet.
One of the little surprises that you discover when you go to pay your CFE bill, (the federal power utility) is that they require a domestic debit or credit card to make payments online. The truth is, you can go to virtually any OXXO in México and pay most utilities, but the time you lose standing in lines and the commissions you pay eventually add up.
If you’re like me, and you pay all your bills online, that is a convenience I didn’t want to sacrifice. Which leads us to Cuenca. It’s basically a virtual Mexican Bank account with a debit card that doesn’t require a CURP and they will accept your Passport to verify identity. Using Cuenca allows you to pay CFE and other utilities that require a domestic card to process payments. Just like any ordinary bank account in México, it has a CLABE which you can send pesos to, from the Wise app. No more standing in lines and paying commissions at OXXO. It’s the little things that improve quality of life.
To verify your Cuenca account without a CURP, you’ll need to upload a copy of your passport to their WhatsApp. They responded to me within minutes, and I was approved. You’ll need an address here in Mexico for them to mail your card to.

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