I'm a US Citizen, now living in Mexico. I would like to find an affordable Mexican credit card, but I have no Mexican credit. What are my options?
Mexico doesn't yet have "affordable" credit cards, by US standards.
Every card I've seen has an annual fee (200 MXN/year is among the lowest), and very high interest rates (APR around 30%).
If you need a card for local payments, and domestic online payments, all the banks issue debit cards. These are mostly Visa debit cards that work both locally and internationally. Like most debit cards worldwide (except in the US), they have chip-and-pin. Even in fairly out of the way places in Mexico these are now widely accepted.
Some Mexican banks offer accounts in USD, these come with a USD debit card.
If it must be a credit card, perhaps for car rental, then it doesn't take much to establish credit in Mexico. Basically because there are no real credit files or credit rating agencies in use yet.
What you need is a relationship with a bank that will issue you a card. If you are a customer, they will ask for an annual fee for the card (often without making clear what the fee is), will give a low credit limit, and will charge high interest. So, like non-prime credit cards in the US, they actually don't care that much what your credit risk is, their risk is limited.
Bancomer (owned by BBVA Spain) and Banamex (owned by Citibank) both have divisions that are set up for non-Mexicans, it's likely the other banks do as well.
To establish your reliability, open checking and savings accounts with a Mexican bank, and put a significant (by Mexican standards) amount of money in it (US$5-10k). Ask at the time of opening if they'll give you a credit card (as well as a debit card). They are trying really hard to sell credit cards to "wealthy" customers now, so they may do so. If not, they will likely offer you a card after 6 months, or a year. Be sure to ask about the fees and charges before accepting!
Some banks here, like Banamex or Bancomer, have credit cards specifically for people who never had a card before. They calculate your credit line based on whatever income you have received on a savings account over the last 3 months. Your credit line will most likely be pretty low, but I personally find it better, no risk of falling into unpayable debt.
Do make sure to choose your bank carefully though. Banamex is a truthful bank, not exactly honest but they always stay true to their word, but they are extremely slow. Bancomer is a remorseless money sucking machine that gives large corporations tons of awesome services and royal treatment by force of bleeding their individual customers dry with surprise charges, insurances plans that don't actually work, and hidden services that you must explicitly opt out from.
First, some theory.
Any foreigner can get a credit card & a credit rating in Mexico as long as you have FM2 or FM3, which are similar to resident cards, and the actual resident cards (which are new). You also need some way to prove your income (payroll slips, tax reports, or debit/checking card deposits for 3 months).
There are a lot of affordable credit cards in the market, you just need to look for them because most foreign banks (like BBVA, American Express, and Banamex/Citibank) are highly rent-seeking and will charge high fees, high interest rates, and will market them very aggressively. That is why you see them everywhere.
It is relevant to say that the market is somewhat regulated and every card-issuer is mandated by law to issue a 'basic' card that caps the credit limit to around 11,000 MXN, does not allow cash withdrawl or additionals, and charges no fees or commissions. However, they charge variable interest rates that are calculated on the market rate (called TIIE) plus several percentage points (for example a rate of TIIE + 40 means that if TIIE is 2%, they charge you 42%. To soften this up they would say its 3.5 per month although it's crazy high!).
Now, what card you should get?
If you have the documents, you can get almost any card. If you plan on paying off the entire balance each month, then a card with no annual fee is your best bet. Pick any basica or if you need a larger credit line, I recommend:
Inbursa bank, Clasica or Oro
With no annual fee, this is a good card to have. International coverage through VISA and benefits of Visa gold. Inbursa bank has branches in any Sanborn's shop and in any Walmart store, as well as standalone branches in cities across the nation. The good thing about Inbursa is that it is such a small bank that customer service is really great: there's almost no waiting time on the phone and there's rarely a queue at a branch.
If you plan on paying less than full balance, there's two references you should consider. The lowest interest rate and a government mandated calculation called CAT (Total Annual Cost, which considers all costs, not just the interest rate).
The lowest CAT card is:
Banorte bank, fácil
Annual interest rate is fixed, so it's not pegged on the TIIE market rate. It's 19.9% per year.
The lowest interest rate card is:
BBVA Bancomer Visa Infinite
The Interest rate is TIIE + 10, so its about 14% these days. However, they ask you to prove income of 150,000 mxn / month, and the annual fee is almost 5,000 pesos. Most inifinite cards have similar conditions, and after those, the cheapest card is Banorte fácil.
Credit files and credit rating agencies
They've been operating successfully for decades, all banks will make you sign an authorization to look up your info before opening your credit account. There's two credit rating agencies for individuals: Buro de Crédito and Círculo de Crédito. They will look you up.
There is a downside to all of this though, it's all in Spanish. Have a Mexican friend help you or bite the bullet and go to the foreigners section of American Express, Banamex, or Santander.