In the jargon of the expat, a "border run" is understood to mean a short trip out of the foreign country where you live to reset the clock on your visa.
For example, let's say you have a tourist visa to be in Mexico for 180 days and that time is expiring but you don’t want to leave because you still have not met the senorita of your dreams. In that case you could go to Texas or Arizona or anywhere that isn’t Mexico for as little time as a day and then re-enter Mexico on a new 180-day tourist visa.
While this type of shenanigans might cause the immigration officer to give you the stink eye, it can be done. We have read on expat forums that the Mexican government is cracking down on this type of thing, so proceed with caution. We do have a friend with an expiring tourist visa and she went to Costa Rica for a week and is now back in town with a shiny new six-month visa.
An alternative to leaving the country when you have an expiring visa is to do nothing, let the visa expire, and stay in the country illegally (i.e. without a visa). Nobody really knows what would happen if you got caught. You might get thrown in a Mexican prison or worse, deported to the U.S.
R and I don’t have to mess with any of the above because we have temporary resident visas. This allows us to stay in Mexico for a year before we have to file paperwork to extend our resident visas. After doing that a few times we can file for permanent resident status and never have to leave or file more papers.
Note: Our residency status in Mexico has nothing to do with our status as U.S. citizens. We are and will remain U.S. citizens until we decide we are tired of paying taxes and we renounce our citizenship with the U.S. State Department.
Despite our good standing with the Mexican authorities, R and I did have to make a border run of sorts this summer. I don’t want to bore you with the technical intricacies of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, even though I could, but it contains something called the foreign earned income exclusion. Under this rule, we can avoid paying U.S. income taxes on the few dollars we earned in 2018 as foreign earned income if we could manage to keep ourselves out of the country for more than 330 days in the year.
Now, lest you forget, before I devoted my days to my strict Pickleball training regimen in hopes of earning Olympic gold, I was a well-respected tax attorney, so it is not unusual for me to be thinking about my Form 1040 in the middle of July.
When you are on budget you really only want to spend money on the essentials - dog food, Amazon Prime, and a new hipster wardrobe. Taxes do not count as an essential expense, so any opportunity to avoid paying them is welcome news. In order to take advantage of the foreign earned income exclusion, however, we needed to limit our summer visit to the States to see friends and family to less than 35 days. Since we arrived in the U.S. on July 11 we would need to be out of the U.S. by August 15.
R, Coconut, J, and I traveled to the U.S. by plane. Only Coconut and J will return to Mexico by plane. R and I drove Wesley, our 1985 VW Vanagon, to Mexico. An underpowered van with a manual transmission is not really the best vehicle to navigate the steep, narrow streets of San Miguel de Allende, so why we would do this was a matter of some debate. Ultimately, R convinced me that it was necessary so we could bring all the important things we left in Alexandria that we could not bring by plane - our crockpot, a hot/cold water bubbler that we garbage picked, and a suitcase full of stuffed animals for our dog to chew on.
We left Alexandria on Monday, August 6 with plans to be in Tulsa to visit my cousin and his family by the weekend. From Tulsa it is a straight two-day drop down through Oklahoma and Texas to Laredo where we planned to cross the border into Mexico.
The route we planned to Tulsa allowed us to notch a few new states into our belts, bringing R's total number of states visited to 35 and mine to 34 (she's been to Idaho and South Carolina. I haven't. I've been to Nebraska. She hasn't.) We count visiting a state as either 1) sleeping/camping there, or 2) engaging in a cultural event or visiting a historical site. Spending time at the airport doesn’t count. Under our system, buying bourbon in Kentucky counts as a cultural experience.
I have never driven across the country. I still haven’t, but I have now driven half-way across the country twice (we did it in 2015 as the start to our overland trip to Panama). R took many long road trips with her family as a child, but she can’t remember that she asked me to take out the trash for four days in a row, never mind what she saw and experienced 40 years ago. Anyway, you notice different things as an adult. If you will give me the liberty of calling myself an adult, I’ll share our main takeaways.
The United States is very green. The trees in the forests, the grass along the highway, the stuff that got stuck in my toenails after not changing my socks for four days. All very green. It was quite a contrast to the high desert setting we are getting used to in Guanajuato state, Mexico. Even in West Virginia, which looked more economically depressed than the other states we drove through, things looked prosperous. It’s amazing how a vast green lawn surrounding a double-wide trailer and crumbling barn overflowing with decades of crap can lend a feeling of hopefulness as compared to a concrete rectangle with a tin roof built in the middle of a dusty field. Even if you add a pig and a few chickens to that scene it still seems desperate.
The United States is very clean. The large pick-up trucks everyone drives look like they are washed and waxed daily. Highway rest stops are not used as impromptu garbage dumps and people take great pride in mowing their grass in patterns and prettying up their yards with wind socks and colored flags. There was nary a fence in Kentucky that hadn’t been freshly painted white. Yes, there’s a stray Monster energy drink can here and a plastic bag stuck in a fence there, and more than a few crumbling barns and ramshackle houses, but even the rusted out cars are neatly lined up on the property’s edge. In Mexico there is so much litter that I sometimes feel that when I bend to pick up my dog's poo I should also pick up the nearby soda can, empty cement bag, dried out mango seed, and stiff paint brush. On the other hand, there are no rusting cars sitting in yards. People are driving those things around.
The United States has plenty of places to eat. Nearly every town we drove through had a KFC, Subway, hamburger place like McDonalds, Hardees, or Sonic Burger, Pizza Hut, and DQ - making every town we drove through look remarkably similar. Despite all these restaurants, there are very few non-chain places where you can actually get something good to eat. Fortunately, we were in our small, self-contained traveling house so could eat home cooked meals on the road. On our last night in country we did fatten up at the Golden Corral. For me, that fried chicken and instant mashed potatoes can't be beat - though, it tasted a little better when it was only $7.99 for the buffet rather than the current $13.99.
We crossed the border uneventfully on Tuesday, August 13 - two days before our 35-day window closed. We were happy to get back to Mexico and to our home in San Miguel de Allende. Taking this road trip in Wesley reminded R and me how much fun it is to see new places, meet new people, and pee outside under a full moon in an empty campground. The world really is so big with so much to see and we are happiest when we are rolling here and there. And now that we don't have to pay so much in U.S. taxes, we will have more money to explore it.