Paying For Utilities in Mexico

Back in Canada, paying for utilities like internet, electricity and gas wasn’t a difficult process. Most of the time, these things happen automatically from your bank account or on a credit card, so you don’t even really think about them.

Any utility I had used in the past 10 years in Canada usually had their own app, allowed payment through my bank online, or had their own online portal for making payment quick and easy.  I’d come to expect that kind of simple and straightforward service when paying for utilities.

And then Mexico happened.

Short on Electricity

Ok, before I get caught up in a rant about how things work differently in Mexico, I will admit that at least part of the problem has been the language difference and my own dodgy Spanish skills.  Even with the help of automatic website translation, Chrome browser can only help so much when I try to make sense of a Spanish website.  As a result, I fumble through navigation of the site as I try to decipher the unfamiliar menu items and button names, all the while comparing what I am seeing to how I expect a website to function.  The translated terminology makes it tricky sometimes.

For example, a fillable form might have a button labelled ‘Limpiar’ somewhere near the bottom.  When you translate that name, it is rendered as ‘Clean’.  Does that mean the button will ‘clean’ the last field you filled in?  Will it clear all the fields? Will it generate an entirely new (clean) form?  Experimentation is pretty much the only way to figure that out, and after I’ve invested time into filling something out, I am generally not too willing to risk losing what I’ve entered just to find out what a button does.  This really slows things down, especially the first time you’re trying to use online services.

Some of the utility services, like CFE (Federal Electricity Commission, in English), do provide their own app for managing your account and making payments.  Of course, that only works if you can actually GET the app.  And getting the app was the first problem.  In the Google Play Store, the app didn’t even appear.  After some research I figured out that the problem had to do with the way Google handles localization.  Since my Google account was linked to Canada, apps that are designated as for Mexico only don’t even appear in a search, making it impossible to locate or install them.  Even after reading multiple articles on the subject and trying different fixes, I never was able to install CFE’s app for account management.  For whatever reason, my wife was able to install the app on her phone without a single problem, even without addressing the Google localization problem.

Grass on electrical post
The lawns are all carefully manicured. The electrical posts, not so much.

Before we even began fiddling with the CFE app, we had a local friend help us with the process of figuring out our account number.  The first time we went to the CFE office downtown to figure things out, we made a horrifying discovery.  The previous tenant in our home hadn’t paid the electric bill for over a year.  Normally, CFE will cut off electrical services after just a couple of months of default.  The fact that we live in a secured privada may have made it more difficult than usual for services to be disconnected.

Here in Querétaro, cutting a customer off for non-payment of electricity usually involves a linesman with a big pair of wire cutters.  As a result, reconnecting your electrical services means there is a service fee to be paid, since a linesman has to come to the property to restore the wiring.  Since getting services restored could easily take a few weeks, having your electricity cut isn’t an option I really wanted to explore.

Phone Home – If You Can!

Another interesting billing anomaly that has made our life interesting involves paying for pay-as-you-go cellular phone services.

There are several phone companies that offer cellular service here in Mexico.  Plans range from the year long contract with AT&T (which I am using myself) to the pay-as-you-go options through Telcel (on another family phone).  Suffice it to say that cell services here are FAR cheaper than anything Canada has ever seen.  My AT&T contract for the full year was about the same as I would pay for 2 months of service in Canada.  The Telcel pay-as-you-go option gives you about 25 days of unlimited phone call service, including 2GB of data for $100 pesos (or about $6.80 CAD).

Given the great prices, you’d expect some hiccups with the service.  There are occasionally times when the connection isn’t great, but overall we have few problems.  The cellular service in this part of Mexico is outstandingly fast too.  I normally clock my data at over 45 mbps, which makes downloads super quick.

Super-quick Download Speed on AT&T Mexico. 45mbps downloads!

I should clarify one point:  It is true that we have few problems with the prepaid plan through AT&T.  The pay-as-you-go with Telcel, on the other hand, is another story.

Recently, we had to top up our Telcel account plan and recharge it with minutes so we wouldn’t run out during a day trip.  The plan was set to expire the day after our trip, but these expiry dates don’t seem to be very precise.  Instead of risking running out of service while away, we decided to just top it up to be on the safe side.  Prudent, right?  We thought so.  What could possibly go wrong.

We added another $100 pesos to recharge the Telcel plan, figuring that would give us plenty of credit, as it would extend the plan by another 25 days.

Last Light in Downtown Querétaro

Then, the following day, the phone stopped working.  No outbound calls possible and no more data.  When we finally got to a main Telcel office to figure it out, we discovered the most convoluted processes we have yet encountered in Mexico.

As it turns out, when topping up credit on a Telcel phone, it isn’t possible to exceed the expiry date of the current credit.  For example, if you have previously added credit that will expire on March 1st, adding more credit to the same account prior to the expiry date will not extend the date, no matter how much you spend.  All the additional funds do is give you more data – which must ALL be used up by the expiry date so you don’t lose it.

This means that in order to recharge a pay-as-you-go phone account, the phone must first be expired, dead and useless to you.  Only then (with the expiry date at least one day in the past) can you add more credit and set a new expiry date.

By adding $100 pesos of credit to the phone one day before its current expiry date, we basically lost the entire credit!   We insisted on speaking to a manager at Telcel, but that got us nowhere.

We’ve come across a lot of ridiculous things in Mexico, but so far this one tops them all.  It is a miracle to me how some of the businesses here function at all with their inflexible, nonsensical procedures.  Even more surprising is that nobody here seems the least bit bothered by this!

The Water-Gate Incident

At our privada, we have to pay for water as a separate utility bill.  The main office for the entire colonia (neighbourhood) charges the fees.  Paying the water bill means going to the administration office near the main gates and having them bring up your account on the computer.

Of course, when we first moved into this colonia, we had no idea that water was even charged as a separate utility.  I assumed that utilities provided inside our privada were all included in the monthly rental fee for the property.  There was a very nice looking office for the Sonterra colonia located just outside the main gates, but it seemed more like a pre-sales office for the housing still under development.  I never really gave it much more thought beyond that, assuming it would never be something I needed to worry about.

I first discovered the error in this reasoning when one day, mysteriously, my gate access key stopped working at the front gate.

Sonterra gate
Main gate at Sonterra Fraccionamiento in Querétaro.

On the way out of the colonia, I scanned my card at the residents exit to open the gate… and it didn’t work.  The gate control just beeped at me and did nothing.  After a few more frustrated swipes (thinking, ‘It’s GOT to work this time’) with no better success, I had no choice but to try to get out of line with multiple cars already backed up behind me.  What followed was a frustrating attempt to back out of the exit lane, past the gate control machine, so I could get realigned for the visitor exit.

With my terribly inadequate Spanish I told the guard that the exit tag had stopped working.  He said a lot of stuff in Spanish.  Most of which was incoherent to me.  The only word I caught was ‘officina’.  Obviously, I was going to have to visit the mysterious Sonterra office near the front gate.

Sonterra business office
Sonterra business office, just outside the main gates of the Fraccionamiento.

The next day, I made the trip to the business office for the Sonterra fraccionamiento to see if they could get the gate key issue resolved.  In preparation, I had memorized a few lines in Spanish to explain that the tag was not working.  The girl working the desk definitely understood my problem, but for reasons I could not fully understand, she was unable to do anything to help.  I did determine that it had something to do with the computer, making it impossible to fix the problem.  At that point, I had no idea what else to do or how to fix the problem.  Without the ability to freely explain or to understand the explanation given, I left somewhat frustrated, chalking the whole thing up to being just one of those ‘Mexico’ things I don’t understand.

For the next two weeks, I had to continue using the visitor entrance to the colonia, going through the hassle of having to explain that I was actually a resident and that my card wasn’t working.  Each time, the guard helpfully told me to visit the office.  If I’d been paying attention more closely, I probably would have noticed that the guards always had a slightly knowing and judgemental look in their eye.

In desperation, I finally visited the colonia office again to see if something couldn’t be done about getting me a new card.  This time, through use of Google translate, I finally managed to figure out what was actually going on.

warrior dancer statue
Native Warrior Statue at Last Light Near the Main Plaza Downtown Querétaro

As it turns out, when residents in our colonia fail to pay their monthly water bill, the office terminates gate access privileges on their card, thus encouraging them to visit the office to pay up.  The day I had first visited the office, the computer system for accepting payments was down, meaning they couldn’t process a payment against my account.   As a result, my card stayed inactive for gate access.  Every trip through the visitor entrance, the guard must have been thinking what a cheap payment deadbeat this white ‘extranjero’ was.

Ever since the water-gate incident I am quick to stay on top of getting our water bill paid in a timely fashion.  It is just another one of those things in Mexico that we are still getting accustomed to handling.

**Hope you’ve enjoyed these unrelated bits and pieces!  These are just a few things that I’ve been holding on to for a while, so I figured I’d better try and write a coherent blog to get them all off my mind!


4 Replies to “Paying For Utilities in Mexico”

  1. Your article brings back memories! What a steep learning curve it is/was during the first 2 years of out life in Mexico. Frustrations were balanced by sunshine, cheap everything and beautiful vistas.

    1. Wow! It sounds to me like you’ve lived the lifestyle! Only somebody truly ‘in the known’ would be familiar with the pain and joys! Thanks for reading…

    1. Good question. Things like water, electric and gas bills (facturas) are often used as proof of address for other things in Mexico. For this reason, you have to be able to prove that you are the one paying the bill. In our case, the owner of the house we rent still has his name on the gas bill, since the gas gets charged monthly (for processing fees) regardless of use. As a result, we probably won’t be able to change that. Newly set up services, like internet, are no big deal, since you create the account in your own name.

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