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Driving to Mexico: Documents, Insurance, Crossing the Border, and More

Thinking about taking a road trip to Mexico? Taking the wheel and driving yourself is one of the best ways to visit this vibrant country. From catching stunning views along iconic coastal highways to discovering surprises on roads less traveled, there’s something special about hitting the open road in Mexico. This guide outlines everything you need to know about driving to Mexico. We’ll cover travel documents, Mexican auto insurance, immigration and customs, safety, and more. We’ll also share a few tips for driving to Mexico. Hopefully, this guide makes your drive to Mexico a bit smoother and easier.

The U.S. Mexico border
The US-Mexico border

Table of Contents

What Documents Do You Need to Drive to Mexico?

To legally drive to Mexico, you need the following documents:

  • Passport, passport card, or alternative identification document

  • Valid driver’s license

  • Mexican auto insurance

  • Vehicle registration and proof of ownership

  • FMM visitor’s permit

  • Temporary vehicle import permit (TIP)

You should make copies of all of these documents so you have backups. Also, take photos and upload them to the cloud so you can access them if the original is lost.

In the following sections, I’ll outline the requirements for each document. It’s important to note that the document requirements can change at any time. For the most up-to-date info, check the U.S. Department of State website here.

Do You Need a Passport to Drive to Mexico?


Yes. Most travelers need a passport to drive to Mexico. Both passport books and passport cards are accepted for crossing the Mexican border by land.

Your passport must remain valid for the duration of your stay in Mexico. It does not need to be valid for six months, like in most other countries. In addition, you must also have a blank page in your passport for a stamp.

There are a couple of alternative documents you can use to travel to Mexico. If you’re a resident, you can drive to Mexico with a temporary resident or permanent resident card.

For more info, check out my guide: Do I Need a Passport to Go To Mexico?

A Valid Driver’s License

You need a valid driver’s license to legally drive to Mexico. You don’t need a Mexican driver’s license. Driver’s licenses from most countries, including the U.S. and Canada, are accepted in Mexico.

Do I Need an International Driving Permit to Drive to Mexico?

No. Most travelers don’t need an international driving permit to drive to Mexico. You can use your regular license from your home country. The only requirement is that your license must be printed in a language that uses the roman alphabet (the alphabet you’re currently reading).

If your driver’s license is printed in a language that uses another script, such as Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, or Russian, you will need to get an international driving Permit. For info on how to get an international driving permit, check out this helpful guide.

Do You Need Mexican Auto Insurance?

Yes. To legally drive in Mexico, you need auto insurance that is issued by a Mexican insurance company. Foreign auto insurance is not valid in Mexico. This means you can’t use your regular American or Canadian auto insurance to drive to Mexico. You could be asked to show proof of insurance at immigration or if you get pulled over by a police officer.

The minimum insurance policy required to legally drive in Mexico is civil liability insurance. This covers you if you injure someone with your vehicle or cause damage to another person’s vehicle or property with your vehicle.

For more protection, you may consider buying collision insurance. This covers damage to your vehicle if you’re involved in an accident with another vehicle or an object. If you’re hit by an uninsured or underinsured driver, you will be covered if you have collision insurance. This is highly recommended because many people drive without insurance in Mexico.

You may also choose to buy comprehensive insurance. This covers you if your vehicle is damaged by events that are out of your control, such as theft, vandalism, fire, etc. This is recommended because vehicle thefts are common in parts of Mexico.

Some Mexico car insurance companies also offer a product called full coverage insurance. This is a combination of different types of car insurance including liability, collision, and comprehensive.

There are additional car insurance products available. For example, you can purchase roadside assistance to cover you if your vehicle breaks down. You can also buy personal effects coverage to cover personal items stolen from your vehicle. This is a good idea because break-ins are common in some areas.

Where to Buy Mexico Car Insurance

You can buy Mexico car insurance online. I always use Baja Bound Mexican Insurance. They offer affordable prices and you can buy online right away.

You can also buy Mexico car insurance in person before you drive across the border. In most U.S. border towns, you’ll find kiosks where you can buy temporary Mexico insurance. These policies usually cost around $20-$30 per day depending on the coverage you choose. You can’t buy insurance at the Mexican border but you can buy it right before you cross.

Vehicle Registration Document and Proof of Ownership

When driving in Mexico, you need to show your vehicle’s proof of registration. The registration must contain the VIN and license plate number of the vehicle. This document proves that your vehicle is currently registered with the government and is legal to drive on public roads.

You may be asked to show your vehicle’s registration to immigration when you cross the border. You will also need it if you’re pulled over by the police. If you get pulled over by the police and you can’t prove that you have legal possession of the vehicle, the officer could assume that the vehicle is stolen. You will also need your vehicle’s registration in order to apply for a temporary import permit. If you don’t have a valid registration, you won’t be able to drive the vehicle to Mexico.

What if You Borrowed, Leased, Financed, or Rented the Vehicle?

If you borrowed, leased, financed, or rented, your vehicle, or if you’re driving a company car, the vehicle may not be registered in your name. You can still drive to Mexico if you don’t own the vehicle. You will need to do some additional paperwork.

If you don’t own your vehicle, you will need supporting documentation in the form of a letter of permission to drive to Mexico. The letter of permission proves that you are allowed to drive the vehicle in Mexico. This document is required for insurance purposes. It is also required if you need to apply for a temporary import permit. You may also need it if you’re pulled over by a police officer.

If you financed the vehicle and it’s not yet paid off, you need a letter of permission from the lienholder or financing company. You may also want to bring a copy of your credit contract.

To drive a leased vehicle to Mexico, you’ll need a letter of permission from the lessor. You should also bring a copy of the lease.

If you’re driving a company car, you need a letter of permission from the company that authorizes you (the employee) to drive the vehicle in Mexico. This letter also needs to confirm your employment with the company. It should be printed on official letter headed paper. You need this document even if you own the company that owns the car.

If you rented the vehicle, you need a letter of permission from the rental agency that states that you are permitted to drive the vehicle in Mexico. You should also bring your rental contract.

If you borrowed the vehicle from a friend or family member, you need a notarized letter of permission from the person who owns the car.  

If the vehicle is registered in your spouse’s name, you’ll need to bring your marriage certificate.

The letter of permission must include:

  • The name of the person or company that owns the vehicle

  • The name of the person borrowing the vehicle

  • The dates that the vehicle will be driven in Mexico.

The owner of the vehicle needs to sign the letter of permission. The letter of permission should also be notarized by a registered public notary.

You need to purchase Mexican auto insurance before you can get a letter of permission in most cases. The lienholder, lessor, or owner of the vehicle will want to verify that you have sufficient insurance in case the vehicle gets damaged or stolen in Mexico.

You will need the permission letter if you are involved in an accident in Mexico. The insurance company will require it. If you don’t have one, the insurance company could deny your claim because you weren’t authorized to drive the vehicle in Mexico.

You may also need the permission letter if you’re pulled over by the police. The officer could assume the vehicle is stolen and impound it if you can’t prove that you have permission to drive it.

A Monterrey, Mexico highway
A highway near Monterrey, Mexico

FMM Visitor’s Permit (Forma Migratoria Multiple)

Foreign citizens traveling to Mexico for the purpose of tourism for less than 180 days need to obtain an FMM form (Forma Migratoria Multiple). This document works kind of like a tourist visa.

The FMM is a travel document that allows citizens and residents of a number of countries to travel to Mexico without applying for a visa in advance. The FMM permit is available to citizens of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, European Schengen Area countries, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and more. Check this list to see if you’re eligible for an FMM. To apply for an FMM, you need a passport or passport card.

Those who are traveling on a passport issued by these countries may not be eligible for an FMM. In this case, you must apply for a Mexican visa from your nearest Mexican consulate or embassy before driving to Mexico.

You can obtain an FMM visitor’s permit on arrival at the Mexican border. It takes just a few minutes to fill out the document. You can also apply for an FMM online here. If you’re driving to Mexico, it is recommended that you apply for your FMM online. It can save some time. Every traveler needs their own FMM including children who are two and older.

To get an FMM visitor’s permit, you simply fill out the form and pay the FMM fee. The form requires basic travel information such as your name, date of birth, passport number, nationality, the purpose of your trip, your destination in Mexico, how long you plan to stay, etc.

There is a fee for the FMM. If you’re staying in Mexico for less than 7 days, the FMM is free. If you’re staying for more than 7 days, it costs 595 pesos (about $30).

Every foreigner needs to have an FMM while they’re in Mexico. This immigration document proves that you’re in the country legally. You should carry it with you while you’re driving and while you’re out and about.

If you’re stopped by immigration or the police and you can’t prove you’re in Mexico legally, you could be detained and deported.

Don’t lose your FMM form. Depending on the border you cross when you exit Mexico, you may have to surrender it when you exit the country.

If you lose your FMM, you will have to go to an immigration office in Mexico, pay a fine, and obtain a replacement FMM form. This costs about 600 pesos or $30.

It’s important to note that the Mexican government is slowly phasing out the FMM form. In the future, you will simply receive a passport stamp. Everything works exactly the same.

For more info, check out my guide to the FMM Tourist Permit.

If you plan to stay in Mexico for longer than 180 days or if you plan to work in Mexico, you’ll need to apply for a temporary resident visa at your nearest Mexican consulate or embassy before your trip.

How to Get an FMM When Driving to Mexico

When you’re driving to Mexico, you’ll have to stop at immigration to obtain an FMM permit or have your online FMM validated.

Follow the ‘something to declare’ signs when you reach the Mexican border. Here, you will find parking. Park your car and walk into the immigration building. Here, you can get your FMM or have it validated. You need to stop at immigration even if you applied for your FMM online to get it stamped and validated.

The Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP)

If you plan to drive outside of the border zone or the free zones, you will need to obtain a temporary vehicle importation permit (TIP) before you drive to Mexico.

The temporary importation permit is a legal document that allows you to temporarily import and drive a foreign-plated vehicle anywhere in Mexico for a predetermined period of time. The TIP is available for all types of vehicles including cars, trucks, campers, motorhomes, and motorcycles.

You only need a temporary vehicle importation permit if you plan to drive outside of the free zones. The free zones include the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Quintana Roo, and most of the state of Sonora. The border zones (20-25km or 12-15 miles from any land border) are also free zones.

Only those traveling in Mexico on an FMM tourist permit, temporary resident visa, and Mexican citizens living abroad are eligible for a Temporary vehicle importation permit. The TIP remains valid as long as your immigration document (up to 180 days if you’re traveling on an FMM tourist permit).

To apply for a temporary vehicle importation permit you need the following documents:

  • Proof of citizenship- A valid passport or passport card

  • FMM visitor’s permit or temporary resident visa

  • A valid driver’s license- It must be a non-Mexican driver’s license

  • Your vehicle’s title or registration

  • An affidavit for temporary importation- This is only necessary if the vehicle is leased, financed, borrowed, or rented.

  • Proof of Mexican car insurance

The temporary vehicle permit is issued by Banjercito (a Mexican government bank). You can apply for a temporary vehicle importation permit on the Banjercito website here. If you apply online, you must apply 7-60 days before your trip.

I highly recommend you obtain your temporary vehicle permit online. It will save you lots of time and hassle at the border. In order to apply for a TIP online, you’ll first have to obtain an FMM online.

You can also apply for a temporary vehicle importation permit at Bajercito locations near most major border crossings. If you get your TIP in person, you can apply right before you cross. Wait times can be long so it’s best to apply online in advance if possible. You can also apply for a TIP at certain Mexican consulates.

There is a fee of around $51 to apply for a temporary vehicle permit. You’ll also have to pay a deposit of $200-$400. The amount of the deposit depends on the model year of your vehicle.

This deposit is refunded when you export your car from Mexico. You must cancel your temporary vehicle permit when you exit the country. You can cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit at a Banjercito office. you don’t need an appointment. Your deposit will be refunded in the method that you paid as long as you follow the rules of the TIP.

For more in-depth info, check out my guide to the temporary vehicle importation permit.

If you’re traveling in a region where a temporary vehicle permit is not required, such as the Baja Peninsula, you still need your driver’s license, your vehicle registration, and proof of ownership. Your vehicle could be impounded if you can’t prove ownership. You will also need temporary Mexican car insurance from a Mexican insurance company.

U.S. Mexico border
The U.S. Mexico Border

How to Drive Across the Border into Mexico by Car

Now that you have all of your documents in order, you can drive to Mexico. Driving to Mexico for the first time can be a daunting experience. The border crossings can be extremely busy. The San Ysidro crossing, in particular, is one of the busiest borders in the world. The border area can also be a bit confusing to navigate. There are multiple lanes of traffic going in different directions. The border is crowded. Security is also extremely tight. With some patience and preparation, driving to Mexico can be an exciting journey.

Before you drive to the Mexican border, first check that the border crossing that you plan to use is open when you plan to cross. Large crossings are open 24 hours per day. Some smaller crossings close at night.

Once you reach the border crossing, it’s important to have all the necessary paperwork ready and organized. You will need your passport, proof of temporary Mexico insurance, and vehicle registration. You should also have a printed copy of your temporary import permit (if necessary for your destination) and your printed FMM acceptance letter, if you obtained it online. If you’re leasing or financing your vehicle, you’ll need a letter of permission from the owner.

If you didn’t obtain your FMM and temporary vehicle importation permit online, you can obtain them at the border. In this case, you’ll first have to stop at immigration to obtain your FMM permit. After that, you can return to the Banjercito office to obtain a temporary vehicle permit. From there, you can drive across the border.

Once you reach immigration, all you will need in most cases is your passport or passport card and FMM immigration permit. You could be asked to produce any of the above documents so it’s important to be prepared.

After passing through immigration, you’ll drive through customs. You usually don’t have to stop at customs if you have nothing to declare. After customs, you can proceed into Mexico.

Which Lane Do I Use When Driving to Mexico? Nothing to Declare Vs Declaration Lane

If you don’t have your FMM yet or if you obtained your FMM online, you will have to stop at the border. You can’t just drive through. Follow the signs for something to declare (Carril de Declaración.) Here, you will find parking. You can park your car and walk into the immigration building.

Inside, you can obtain an FMM permit or have the FMM you obtained online stamped and validated. Unfortunately, you still have to stop, even if you obtained your FMM online.

If you already have a temporary resident visa or permanent resident visa or if you’re a Mexican citizen, you can just drive through using the nothing to declare lanes. You don’t need to stop at the border in most cases.

Of course, if you have something to declare, you will need to use the declaration lanes.

What Can I Bring With Me When Driving to Mexico?

You can bring your personal belongings into Mexico duty-free. There are limits as to how much you can bring in your luggage. For example, if you try to carry 2 laptops, you might have to pay tax on one.

In addition, you can bring up to $300 worth of gifts or new merchandise with you to Mexico. If you’re bringing more, you’ll need to pay tax. You can also bring up to 3 liters of liquor or 6 liters of beer and wine duty-free. The current import tax is around 16% of the value of the items you’re importing.

If you’re unsure whether or not you need to stop at customs for declaration, check out this great guide. It outlines the items you can and can’t bring with you to Mexico.

Passing Through Customs When Driving to Mexico

If you have nothing to declare, you usually don’t have to pass through Mexican customs (aduanas) when driving to Mexico. You can just drive straight through.

Mexican customs does perform random checks. Some borders use a red light, green light system. When you reach customs, you’ll see a traffic light. If it’s green, you’re free to drive through and exit the border area into Mexico. If it’s red, you have been randomly selected for a secondary customs inspection. You will be asked to pull over into the customs inspection area.

Mexican customs has the authority to stop anyone for any reason. Even if you were given a green light, they can stop you and search your vehicle if they choose. You could be stopped for any reason. If you look suspicious for whatever reason, you could be stopped. You can be stopped for no reason at all.

If you’re stopped at Mexican customs for a secondary inspection, don’t worry. As long as you don’t have anything illegal or items that you should have declared and paid tax on in your vehicle, you won’t have any issues.

When you pull into Mexican customs, a customs officer will inspect your vehicle to check for contraband. They will ask you to open the trunk. They could ask you to open your luggage. This inspection is usually pretty quick.

If the customs officer doesn’t find anything, they will send you on your way. The customs officers working at the borders are professional. They will not ask you for a bribe or threaten you. As long as you haven’t broken the law, you won’t have any issues.

Driving From California to Mexico

Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
Tijuana, Baja California

The U.S. state of California borders the Mexican state of Baja California. There are six public ports of entry between California and Mexico where vehicles can cross.

Driving to Mexico from California is easy. Most travelers start their journey from Los Angeles or San Diego and drive to Tijuana. The two most popular border crossings include the San Ysidro port of entry (El Chaparral) and the Otay Mesa crossing. There is also a large crossing to the east between Calexico, California and Mexicali, Baja California. There is also a crossing between Tecate, California and Tecate, Baja California. The least busy crossing between California and Mexico is Andrade, near Yuma, Arizona.

For most travelers, San Ysidro is the most convenient crossing to use. It is located just 16 miles south of San Diego. The San Ysidro crossing takes you directly to Tijuana. From the Mexico border, you’re just a mile from downtown. There is also easy access to Highway 1 and 1D, which takes you down the Baja Peninsula. If you stay on the Baja Peninsula in the states of Baja California or Baja California Sur, you don’t need a temporary import permit for your vehicle. From Tijuana, you can also access Highway 2, which takes you to mainland Mexico.

The Baja Peninsula is an extremely popular tourist destination. Baja California and Baja California Sur are home to some of the country’s best beaches, large resorts, fishing villages, and beautiful desert landscapes. The Baja Peninsula is an excellent destination for a road trip.

San Ysidro is considered to be one of the busiest land border crossing in the world, with up to 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians crossing daily. On the return trip to the U.S., people often have to wait in line for hours before they are allowed to pass through. You can check border wait times on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website here. To reduce your wait time, you can cross late at night or early in the morning.

For more info, check out my guide to driving to Tijuana.

Driving to Mexico from Texas

Texas and Mexico share a 1,254-mile-long border. There are 28 border crossings between Texas and Mexico. 25 of those crossings allow vehicles. This gives you a lot of options to choose from. Driving from Texas to Mexico is easy.

The largest border crossing between Texas and Mexico is the El Paso crossing between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Other popular crossings between Texas and Mexico include the Laredo crossing, the Brownsville and Matamoros crossing, and the Pharr-Reynosa crossing.

Driving to Mexico from Arizona

The U.S. state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora share a 370-mile-long border. There are six border crossings between Arizona and Mexico where you can drive across.

By far the most popular crossing is the Nogales crossing. The second most popular crossing is the San Luis crossing, near Yuma, Arizona. The Douglas-Agua Prieta crossing is the third busiest. If you’re driving to Mexico from Arizona, chances are you’ll use one of these three crossings.

Driving to Mexico from New Mexico

The U.S. state of New Mexico shares a 180-mile-long border with Mexico. There are only three crossings between New Mexico and Mexico. All of these crossings take you to the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The Columbas-Puerto Palomas crossing is the largest of the three. The Santa Teresa-San Jerónimo crossing claims to have the shortest wait times on the whole US-Mexico border. The Antelope Wells-El Berrendo is a minor crossing that is only open from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day.

What is the Best Border Crossing to Use When Driving from the U.S. to Mexico?

There are about 50 crossings between the U.S. and Mexico. The best crossing for you to use depends on where you’re starting your trip, your destination in Mexico, the time of day you plan to cross, and whether or not you need to obtain a TIP.

You may choose to use the closest crossing for convenience. Alternatively, you could opt to use a smaller crossing. Smaller crossings can be easier to use because they’re less crowded. The wait is often shorter.

It’s also important to consider the time of day you plan to cross. Large crossings are always open. Some smaller crossings close at night. If you need to obtain a temporary import permit at the border, you will need to use a larger crossing with a Banjercito office.

The two busiest crossings between the U.S. and Mexico are the San Ysidro crossing between San Diego, California and Tijuana and the El Paso crossing between El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez. If you’re driving to Mexico, there is a good chance that you’ll be using one of those crossings.

A highway in Mexico City

Can I Rent a Car and Drive to Mexico?

Yes. It is possible to rent a car in the U.S. and drive to Mexico but there are some restrictions. It’s not so straightforward. Most U.S. rental agencies won’t allow you to drive their cars across the Mexico border. It can be difficult to find a rental company that will rent you a car to drive to Mexico.

That said, it is possible to rent a car to drive to Mexico if you want to. Major international rental agencies such as Enterprise, Avis, Dollar, Budget, Hertz, National, etc. will allow you to rent a car in the U.S. and drive to Mexico. Most locations don’t offer this service but a few do.

You’ll have to call ahead and notify the agency that you plan to drive the car to Mexico. You may have to call several rental companies until you find one that will allow you to drive the car to Mexico. You can’t simply book a rental car online and drive to Mexico. While calling around, be sure to ask about the rules they have regarding driving their cars across the Mexico border.

The rules vary from company to company. In some cases, only those with corporate accounts are permitted to rent a car to drive to Mexico. You may have to pay a large deposit. There will also be an additional fee that you’ll have to pay. You may also need to fill out some additional paperwork before you can drive the rental car to Mexico. For example, you may need a letter of permission from the rental agency to prove that you have been granted permission to drive the car to Mexico.

Renting a Car in Mexico

Instead of renting a car in the U.S. and driving to Mexico, a far easier option is to fly to Mexico or cross the border on foot and then rent a car in Mexico. This way, you won’t have to call around to different agencies. You won’t have to deal with any additional paperwork or fees. You also won’t have to obtain a temporary import permit because the vehicle will be licensed in Mexico.

All of the major rental agencies have locations in Mexico including Enterprise, Hertz, Budget, Dollar, Alamo, etc. There are also Mexican brands and independent rental companies. On average, it costs $40-$50 per day to rent a car in Mexico, including Mexican insurance.

To rent a car in Mexico, you will need:

  • A valid driver’s license- Your regular driver’s license is fine, as long as it’s printed in the roman alphabet.

  • A credit card- Debit cards usually aren’t accepted.

  • Mexican auto insurance- The minimum insurance is third-party liability insurance. It’s a good idea to buy full coverage insurance with collision damage waiver insurance (CDW) for the rental car. You can buy Mexico insurance from the rental agency. You should buy insurance, even if your credit card comes with rental insurance.

  • A valid passport or passport card- Some agencies ask for a copy of your passport and immigration document (FMM).

  • A driver who is of age- Many Mexican rental agencies only rent to people who are 25 and older. Some agencies rent to those who are 21-24 but charge an underage fee. The minimum driving age in Mexico is 18.

There are a few benefits to renting a car in Mexico rather than driving your own car. First, renting a car can save time. You can fly to your destination and rent a car rather than spending days driving to your destination. If you do this, you also won’t have to deal with the hassle of buying Mexico insurance. You can just buy Mexico insurance from the rental agency. You also don’t have to risk damaging your own vehicle by driving over potholes and speedbumps. You’ll also have a car with local license plates. This can reduce your likelihood of getting pulled over by a corrupt police officer.

Be Aware of Car Rental Scams

If you decide to rent a car, there are a couple of scams you should be aware of. Many Mexican rental car agencies advertise an extremely low daily rate online. You may see rates as low as $5-$10 per day. This is dishonest marketing. The actual rental price is much higher.

Tourists book these cheap rental cars thinking they scored a great deal. When they return the car, they are surprised with unexpected charges for taxes, fees, and additional Mexico insurance. After factoring in all of the additional charges, a rental that was advertised for $10 per day actually ends up costing $40 per day.

This feels like a scam even though it really isn’t. The information is all available in the fine print. Who reads that? If it seems too good to be true, it is.

Some scammy rental agencies may also try to charge you for damage you didn’t cause. For example, maybe there is a small scratch on the vehicle. When you return it, the rental agency claims you caused the scratch and they charge you for it.

To avoid this, be sure to do a walkaround with the rental agent before you sign the rental agreement and take possession of the car. Document all damage to the vehicle. Look for scratches, dents, dings, paint chips, cracks in windows, stains in upholstery, tears in upholstery, tire damage, parts that don’t work, and any other damage you can spot. Look inside the car and out.

The rental agent will have a piece of paper where they will mark the damage. You should receive a copy of this page. Use your phone to take photos of the damage as well. You can use this as evidence if the rental company tries to charge you for damage you didn’t cause.

For more info, check out my in-depth guide to renting a car in Mexico.

Driving Back Across the Border to the U.S.

A line of cars at the U.S. Mexico border in Tijuana
A line of cars waiting to cross at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana

Before driving back to the border, make sure all of your documents are in order. If you’re a U.S. citizen, all you’ll need is your passport or passport card. There are also some alternative documents you can use. You can also cross into the U.S. with a permanent resident card (green card), enhanced driver’s license, or a trusted traveler program card (SENTRI card, NEXUS card, Global Entry card, or FAST card). You should also check the opening hours of the border you plan to cross. Large crossings are open 24/7. Smaller crossings may only be open during the day.

When returning to the U.S., there is often a long line at the border. At busy crossings, such as the San Ysidro crossing and El Paso crossing, you might have to wait in line for an hour and a half to 2 hours. During peak periods, the wait can be even longer. At smaller crossings, you may be able to cross in 30-60 minutes. You can check Mexico border wait times on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Once you arrive at the border crossing, you’ll find several lanes of traffic. If you don’t have a Trusted Traveler Program card, you’ll wait in the general entry lane. Wait in line until you reach U.S. immigration.

Once you reach immigration, an agent will ask you some questions about your trip. They may ask you why you traveled to Mexico, how long you stayed, and where you went. They will also ask you if you’re bringing anything back from Mexico. Make sure that you give honest answers here. If you get caught in a lie, you will be further questioned. You could be detained or denied entry. You could even be jailed.

Once immigration agents finish questioning you, they may briefly inspect your vehicle. They might ask you to pop the trunk or unlock the doors so they can have a quick look around. If they choose, they can look through your luggage. They may also use mirrors to inspect the underside of your vehicle. They could also use sniffer dogs to check for drugs or other contraband.

For this reason, it’s important that there is nothing illegal or suspicious hidden within the car during this inspection process. It’s also important to declare any items that you bought in Mexico. Even if everything you’re bringing back is within the legal limit, you should tell the officer what you have so you don’t get caught in a lie.

U.S. immigration and customs officials are strict and no-nonsense. They have to be because there is a lot of smuggling going on along the US-Mexico border. When speaking to immigration and customs officials, stay calm, be polite, and cooperate.

If you show any signs of aggression or if you don’t cooperate, you could be detained and further questioned. If you give the customs officials reason to believe that you’re carrying something illegal, they could literally tear your car apart.

The immigration and inspection process is usually pretty quick. If you don’t look suspicious and the immigration agent doesn’t find any contraband, you’ll be through the checkpoint in just a minute or two.

Once you’ve been cleared by immigration and customs, you are free to drive through the border crossing back into the United States.

What Can I Bring Back to the United States?

To avoid any problems at customs, you must declare anything you’re bringing back with you from Mexico. A few common items you can and can’t bring back include:

  • Your personal belongings and luggage. This includes your clothing and personal electronic devices.

  • $200 worth of gifts or personal items that were bought in Mexico. You will need to pay import tax on anything over this limit.

  • One liter of alcoholic beverage if you’re over 21. You can bring more but you will need to pay import tax on it.

  • You can bring prescription drugs only if you have a valid prescription from a physician who is licensed in the U.S.

  • You cannot bring any illegal drugs back from Mexico. If you do, you could be fined or jailed.

  • Most fresh fruits and vegetables are prohibited to prevent the spread of invasive species.

  • You can bring fish you caught in Mexico.

  • Products made from endangered species are prohibited.

  • Most weapons are prohibited including guns, ammunition, and switchblade knives.

For more in-depth info, you can read about what you are and are not allowed to bring back from Mexico in this guide from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Querétaro Aquaduct
Querétaro Aquaduct

Is it Safe to Drive to Mexico?

Yes. It is generally safe to drive to Mexico. The Mexican government has built an excellent network of roads. Most drivers abide by the rules of the road. Traffic laws are familiar if you’re used to driving in the U.S. Driving in a large city, like Mexico City, is similar to driving in a large American city.

That said, driving in a foreign country can feel overwhelming at times. Drivers can be aggressive. People drive fast and close together. Mexican drivers sometimes perform risky passing maneuvers. Roads can be more narrow than you’re used to. Some extra precautions should be taken to ensure a safe and secure journey. Always stay alert while driving in Mexico.

It’s important to be aware of the local laws and road signs. Before your trip, familiarize yourself with Spanish road signs so you can read them. One of the most important things for American drivers to remember is that speed limit signs are in kilometers per hour. Always keep an eye on your speed and abide by the speed limit. Driving the speed limit reduces the risk of being stopped by police or getting into an accident. You should always follow Mexican law when driving in Mexico. Always wear your seatbelt. Respect speed limits. Don’t use your phone while driving. These laws are enforced. driving the

Before driving to Mexico, you should also read up on any current safety warnings issued by embassies or travel agencies. You can check the Mexico travel advisory from the U.S. state department. This can help you avoid traveling through dangerous regions.

It’s crucial to plan ahead and make sure you have a good understanding of where you’re going before setting off on your journey. There are some areas that are not safe to drive due to cartel activity. When passing through dangerous regions, only drive during the day and stick to the main highways.

It’s best to keep your car doors locked while driving and while your vehicle is parked. Never leave valuables unattended in your vehicle. While driving, always keep an eye out for dangers such as roadblocks, potholes, speedbumps, people or animals on the road, stranded cars, etc.

Mexico is a large country, with plenty of diverse landscapes and terrain. Driving distances can be far. Weather conditions can be extreme in places. Driving conditions can vary greatly between regions. To be safe, you make sure you always have plenty of fuel as well as extra food and water in your vehicle. If you break down, you may have to wait a while for help. It’s best to be prepared.

Finally, it’s best not to drive at night if possible. Visibility can become low in some places because the lighting is poor. Crime also increases at night. There may be more risks involved in traveling during this time frame. 

For more general safety info, check out my guide: Is Mexico Safe? Avoiding Crime and Scams.

Mexico’s Green Angels (Angeles Verdes)

If you need help while driving in Mexico, don’t hesitate to call the Green Angels. The Green Angels (Angeles Verdes in Spanish) is an incredible Mexican government-funded mobile roadside assistance program that has been working to keep Mexico’s highways safe since 1960. They patrol Mexico’s highways in green trucks and help drivers in need. You can still call the Green Angels, even if you don’t speak Spanish. The drivers are bilingual. They patrol all of Mexico’s major highways and toll roads. They aren’t available on secondary roads. Mexico’s

The Green Angels can perform many services including repairing flat tires, charging dead batteries, towing, adding oil and other fluids, basic auto repair, and more. They also know basic first aid and medical care if you or one of your passengers is sick or injured. In addition, they can also provide you with basic supplies such as motor oil, gasoline, or water. The Green Angeles can also help provide aid in the event of an accident or emergency situation.

The Green Angels service is completely free. They do appreciate tips. If your vehicle needs a part replaced or if you need gas or oil or some other consumable, you will have to pay for what you need.

You can contact the Green Angels by calling the toll-free number 01-800-987-8224. In case of an emergency, you can dial 078 or 911.

The Green Angels are a beacon of hope on Mexican roads. They are capable, committed, caring souls who take pride in offering superb service to their fellow countrymen as well as visitors. The Green Angels is a Mexican government-paid organization. They are part of Mexico’s Secretaría de Turisimo (SECTUR).

For more info on the Green Angels, check out this guide.

Police Corruption in Mexico

A police car in Mexico

Unfortunately, corruption is a major issue in police forces across Mexico. It’s not uncommon for a police officer to stop a driver and solicit a bribe or ‘mordida’ in Spanish. This can happen anywhere at any time of day.

After pulling you over, the police will ask to see your driver’s license, proof of Mexican insurance, and vehicle registration. They may also ask to see your passport and immigration document. They may also search your person or your vehicle.

After checking your documents, they may accuse you of committing a crime. For example, they may claim that you were using your phone while driving, that you weren’t wearing a seatbelt, or that you didn’t stop at a stop sign. They could also accuse you of a more serious crime like driving while intoxicated or possessing a controlled substance. The officer may threaten you with a big fine or jail time.

At this point, the officer may imply that you can settle the problem right there and then by paying a ‘fine’ in cash. They are asking for a bribe. Oftentimes, they will ask for $100. If the officer accuses you of a more serious crime, they may ask for more. An officer could also demand that you hand over your wallet. In this case, they may take most of your cash. If you don’t have any cash on you, the officer could take you to an ATM to withdraw the maximum.

When interacting with the police in Mexico, try to speak respectfully, stay calm, and be patient. Never show any signs of frustration, anger, or aggression while speaking with the police in Mexico.

If the officer insists that you give them money, there are a few ways to handle the situation. The best option is to ask for a written citation. You may have to be firm and ask multiple times. If the officer issues you a written ticket, you know that the fine is legitimate. The money won’t go into their pocket.

Another option is to ask the officer to take you to the police station to pay the fine. When you pay your fine at the police station, you receive a receipt. You may also be given the opportunity to speak to a judge if you choose. The judge can reduce or eliminate the fine.

It’s best to avoid paying a bribe when possible. If the officer is acting aggressively, you can negotiate and pay the bribe as a last resort. This is the fastest and easiest solution. Corrupt officers commonly ask for $100. You can often negotiate down to 500-1000 pesos ($25-$50). After you pay, you’re free to carry on.

How to Avoid Getting Pulled Over by the Police While Driving in Mexico

The best way to avoid getting pulled over by a corrupt police officer in Mexico is to obey all traffic laws. Wear your seatbelt. Never talk on your phone while driving. Don’t speed. Make complete stops at stop signs. Don’t park illegally. You are less likely to get pulled over if you follow the rules of the road. Don’t give an officer a reason to stop you.

You’re also less likely to get stopped if you’re driving a vehicle with Mexican license plates. Consider renting a vehicle rather than driving your own. If you rent a vehicle in Mexico, it will be registered in Mexico and will have local plates. You’ll look like a local driver.

If you spend enough time driving in Mexico, you will get pulled over by a corrupt officer at some point. There is no avoiding it. The Mexican government has tried to stop this type of corruption but so far they have not been successful. If you know how to behave, you can reduce your losses at police stops.

For more info, check out my guide to police corruption in Mexico.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

10. Tips for Driving In Mexico

Driving in Mexico is pretty straightforward. That said, there are a few important things to keep in mind. In this section, I’ll share 10 tips to help you stay safe and avoid scams while driving in Mexico.

1. Obey all Traffic Laws

To stay safe, you should obey the rules of the road. Make sure that all occupants in the vehicle wear seatbelts. Don’t talk on the phone while driving. Don’t speed. Also, familiarize yourself with common road signs so that navigation isn’t hindered due to language barriers or unfamiliarity with foreign signage. Be aware of speed limits on highways.

One difference between driving in Mexico and driving in and driving in the U.S. or Canada is passing. Mexican drivers will sometimes drive on the shoulder to let others pass or even pass on the shoulder. If an oncoming vehicle is passing in your lane, you are expected to move to the shoulder. Some drivers use their turn signal to tell you that it is safe to pass. This is common if you’re driving behind a slow vehicle.

2. Avoid Driving at Night in Mexico

There are a number of reasons for this. Some stretches of road are not well-lit. There can be curvy sections that get treacherous at night. Pedestrians and animals can walk on the road. It’s harder to see them at night. It’s also harder to spot potholes and speedbumps at night.

You can also get lost more easily at night. Signage isn’t very good in many Mexican cities. If you make a wrong turn, you could end up in a bad neighborhood or on a dangerous back road.

Crime is also higher at night. Carjackings happen in some parts of Mexico. You could encounter fake police checkpoints where criminals stop you and rob you. There are roads that are cartel controlled.

If you have to drive at night for whatever reason, stick to major highways, toll roads, and main thoroughfares in cities. Major roads are safer to drive on because police presence is higher.

3. Use Toll Roads (Cuota) When Available

When driving between cities, there are free roads (via libre) and toll roads (cuota). Mexico’s toll roads are a great option for drivers who want a safer, faster, and more comfortable journey.

The toll roads are well-maintained and offer a smoother ride, higher speed limits, and wider lanes than the free roads. There is usually less traffic on the toll roads than the free highways, making the journey less stressful.

When using a toll road, you’ll need to pay with cash in pesos. Be sure to bring enough cash with you. The tolls are generally affordable. A 2-3 hour drive on a toll road might cost $5-$7. You’ll pay at a toll booth.

As an added benefit, the price of the toll includes some additional car insurance that is covered by Caminos y Puentes Federales. This insurance can cover you in the event of an accident.

There are benefits to taking the free road instead. Usually, the free road passes through small pueblos and rural areas that you otherwise wouldn’t get to see. The free roads can be more scenic as well. You’ll also save a bit of money.

4. Gas Stations Are Not Self-Serve in Mexico

In Mexico, you don’t pump your own gas. Instead, full-service gas stations are the norm. An attendant pumps gas for you. All you have to do is let them know how many liters you want, and they will take care of the rest. You can also ask for basic services like checking your tire pressure or checking the level of fluids.

When you’re finished, simply pay the attendant and give them a small tip of 10-20 pesos ($0.50-$1). If you asked for additional services, you should tip extra. Many of the attendants live off of tips.

Some gas stations in Mexico don’t accept credit cards. This is common in smaller towns. For this reason, it’s important to always carry some cash.

On most routes, you’ll find plenty of gas stations. Every small town has one. Even though gas stations are common, it’s a good idea to keep your tank topped up, to be safe.

When buying gas in Mexico, be sure to check the meter to ensure that you’re getting all of the fuel that you’re paying for. Some gas station attendants will run small scams such as claiming that you gave them a smaller bill than you actually did. For example, they may claim that you handed them a 200 peso note instead of a 500 note. Some will start pumping gas when the meter isn’t zeroed out. In this case, you get less than you’re paying for.

5. Keep an Eye Out for Speed Bumps (Topes)

It’s important to be aware that speedbumps, or topes in Spanish, are common on Mexican roads. You’ll often find topes on the edges of towns when approaching populated areas.

Speedbumps in Mexico can be large. They are also difficult to spot. In most cases, there is a sign indicating that there is a speed bump. This is a bright yellow sign with a picture of speed bumps and the word ‘TOPE’ and the distance. Sometimes there is no sign so you have to keep your eye on the road at all times.

These speedbumps can cause damage to your car if you hit them too hard. When approaching a speed bump, slow down and approach it with caution.

6. Download an Offline Map to your Phone

Before your trip to Mexico, download an offline map so you can still use GPS when you don’t have an internet connection. Google Maps and Maps.Me are great options.

If you’re going to be spending more than a couple of weeks in Mexico, consider buying a Mexican sim card. Alternatively, choose a phone plan that allows you to use data in Mexico. T-mobile and Google Fi are popular options for Americans. being able to make calls or use the internet makes route planning easier. It also improves safety. If you break down, you can call for help.

7. Keep in Mind that Speed Limit and Distance Signs are in Kilometers

In Mexico, speed limits are marked in kilometers per hour. If you’re used to driving in the U.S., this can take some getting used to. Luckily, the speedometer on most modern cars is marked with kilometers per hour in addition to miles. If your car has a digital speedometer, you can usually switch it from miles to km.

Speed limits also change quickly in Mexico. The speed limit on the highway might be 100 kilometers per hour. Then it will quickly drop to 50 for a town or village. Then it might go back up to 100. Pay attention to the signs so you don’t get caught speeding. If a police officer catches you speeding, you can get ticketed.

8. Be Aware that Police Checkpoints are Common in Mexico

Police checkpoints are common on Mexican highways. If you’re going to be driving long distances in Mexico, it’s important to know what to expect at these checkpoints.

At a checkpoint, the police typically stop all vehicles and ask to see everyone’s passport and immigration documents. They may briefly search the vehicle for contraband. They could ask you a couple of simple questions such as where you’re coming from and where you’re going. Sometimes, they just wave you through and you don’t even have to stop.

As long as you have your documents in order, there’s no need to worry. The officers are just doing their job. You’ll pass through the checkpoint quickly and smoothly. The officers working these checkpoints are usually pretty friendly. Just be prepared for a minor inconvenience when driving in Mexico. Usually, it only takes a couple of minutes to pass through a police checkpoint.

It is possible that a corrupt police officer tries to solicit a bribe at a checkpoint. I have never encountered this but I have heard stories of it happening.

9. Don’t Talk on the Phone While Driving in Mexico

In Mexico, it is illegal to use your phone while driving. You can even be ticketed for simply holding your phone while driving, even if you’re not using it.

If you must use your phone while driving in Mexico, use a hands-free device. This will allow you to keep your hands on the wheel and pay attention to the road.

10. Window Cleaners May Approach You at Stop Lights

These guys can get pretty annoying. They walk up to your car and start washing your windshield with a dirty rag without asking. If you wave them away, they’ll usually just leave. If you want, you can pay them 5-10 pesos ($0.25-$0.50) to wash your windshield.

Alternatives to Driving to Mexico

A taxi in Mexico
If you don’t feel safe driving in Mexico, you can take taxis

If, after reading this guide, you decide that driving to Mexico is too much of a hassle, there are some alternative options. You don’t need a vehicle to visit Mexico. In fact, most people who vacation in Mexico don’t drive there.

Probably the most convenient way to get to Mexico is to fly. Mexico is a major tourist destination. There are regular flights to cities all over the country. You can fly to most Mexican cities from the U.S. in just 3-5 hours. Flight prices are reasonable.

Another popular way to travel to Mexico is to take a cruise. You can cruise down the Pacific or Caribbean coast and visit some of Mexico’s most beautiful seaside cities. A cruise is a great option if you want an all-inclusive experience that doesn’t require any planning.

It is also possible to take the Greyhound bus to Mexico. For example, you can catch a Greyhound to Tijuana. From there, you can transfer to a Mexican bus to pretty much anywhere in the country. There are long-distance buses running all over the country. These can be long trips because distances are far. Mexico is a big country.

Once you reach your destination in Mexico, you don’t really need a car to get around. You can utilize public transport. Most cities have public buses or shared taxis that are extremely affordable. Of course, you can also get around with taxis and Ubers. Renting a car at your destination is also an option.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

FAQ About Driving To Mexico

In this section, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions about driving to Mexico.

Can You Drive to Mexico?

Yes. You can drive to Mexico. You will need to obtain a few documents to make this trip. Exactly which documents you need depends on where you’re traveling in Mexico and whether or not you own your vehicle.

To drive to Mexico, all travelers need a valid passport or passport card, a valid driver’s license, Mexican auto insurance, and proof of ownership for the vehicle.

If you’re driving outside of the free zones, you will need to obtain a temporary import permit. If you are financing or leasing your vehicle, you will need a letter of permission from the lender or lessor.

With the proper documents, you can drive your foreign-plated car anywhere in Mexico.

Does Customs Check Your Car at the Mexican Border?

Sometimes. Mexico uses a red light, green light system to randomly check vehicles driving into the country. When you reach customs, you’ll see a traffic light. If it’s green, you do not need to stop at customs. If it’s red, you need to stop at customs where your car will be checked. Customs has the right to stop and check any car they choose.

When returning to the United States, customs may also check your vehicle. Usually, the trunk and back seats are searched. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has the right to search any vehicle, even without probable cause.

Do I Need Insurance to Drive to Mexico?

Yes. You need Mexican insurance to legally drive to Mexico. Your insurance U.S. policy won’t cover you in Mexico. For whatever reason, Mexico has decided not to recognize foreign auto insurance. You must buy auto insurance from a Mexican company.

You can easily purchase Mexico auto insurance online. Many major insurance providers offer it. You can also purchase temporary Mexican insurance at kiosks near the border on the U.S. side before you cross.

Travel insurance is not required to visit Mexico but it is recommended. I use SafetyWing Nomad Insurance. It’s important to have health insurance in case you get sick or injured during your trip. I always buy travel insurance before I leave home.

Do I Need an International Driving Permit to Drive to Mexico or Can I Drive to Mexico with a U.S. License?

Most travelers do not need an international driving permit in order to get behind the wheel in Mexico. You’ll be all set with just your regular driver’s license from your home country.

The only requirement is that your license must be written in the roman alphabet. If it’s written in another script, you will need to obtain an international driving permit so Mexican police can read your license.

How Old Do I Have to Be to Drive to Mexico?

Mexico has established 18 as its minimum driving age. If you’re 18 or older, you can drive to Mexico. Anyone under 18 must find alternative means of transportation. Most rental car agencies in Mexico won’t rent to anyone under 25. Some will rent to people who are 21-24 but charge an additional underage fee.

Can You Drive to Mexico with a Dog or Cat?

Yes. You can drive to Mexico with a dog or cat. Mexico is a great destination to explore with your furry friends! In the past, a health certificate from a veterinarian was required to travel to Mexico with a dog. This requirement was dropped in 2019. These days, you don’t need any paperwork when driving to Mexico with a dog or cat, as long as your pet is in good health.

It is a good idea to bring a valid rabies vaccine certificate. Your pet may also be inspected at a zoo-sanitary office at the border by an official who specializes in animal importation. The official will look for infectious or contagious diseases, parasites, and open wounds. If your pet is healthy, they will be welcomed into Mexico.

If you want to import another species, other than a dog or a cat, the requirements can be a bit more strict. Before you try to import a reptile or bird to Mexico, be sure to check the requirements for the specific species of your pet.

For more in-depth info, check out my guide: Traveling to Mexico with a Dog or Cat.

Monterrey, Mexico
Monterrey, Mexico

Final Thoughts About Driving to Mexico

As you can see, driving to Mexico is pretty straightforward. You’ll need to obtain some documents before you can drive across the border. When you stay in the free zones, you’ll only need a passport, driver’s license, vehicle registration, and Mexican insurance. If you plan to leave the free zones, you’ll need a temporary vehicle import permit. If you leased, financed, or borrowed your vehicle, you’ll need a letter of permission from the vehicle’s owner. All of these documents are relatively easy to obtain.

If you decide not to drive to Mexico, you can always fly, take a cruise, or take a bus to Mexico. For some travelers, renting a car in Mexico is more convenient. Whether or not you decide to drive to Mexico, I hope this guide helps make your trip a bit smoother and less stressful.

Have you driven to Mexico recently? Share your experience in the comments below!

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