How to Drive to Tijuana

by wheretheroadforks

At this point, I’ve been living in Tijuana for over a year. In that time, I’ve made the drive across the border dozens of times. This guide outlines, step-by-step, how to drive to Tijuana. In this guide, I discuss auto insurance, safety, border crossings, parking, the visa, driving in Tijuana, and more.

The US-Mexico border

The US-Mexico border

Table of Contents- How to Drive to Tijuana

Documents You’ll Need to Drive to Tijuana

Before driving across the border to Tijuana, make sure you’re prepared. You can greatly reduce any risks by having all of your documents in order. You’ll need insurance for your vehicle, a visitors permit for yourself, and possibly a vehicle importation permit. I’ll outline each below.

Mexican Auto Insurance for Making the Drive to Tijuana

Auto insurance is required for driving in Mexico. Having said this, I have never had my insurance checked. Not at the border, a checkpoint, or a traffic stop. Even though you could probably get away without insurance, it’s a major risk. If you cause an accident, you could be in serious trouble if you can’t pay up.

Before driving across the border into Mexico, you want to make sure your vehicle is insured. Most US auto insurance policies don’t cover you outside of the country. You have 3 options for buying Mexican auto insurance:

  1. Stop at an insurance office in San Ysidro before crossing and buy insurance- Get off at the last exit before the border which is San Ysidro Blvd. You’ll pass by several auto insurance companies. They have small kiosks and offices where you can stop in before crossing to buy an insurance policy. It only takes a few minutes. I even know of one that even has a drive-through so you don’t even have to get out of your vehicle. Prices are more or less the same at all of them.
  2. Buy insurance through your regular auto insurance provider- Most insurance companies offer short term policies for your trip. Just give your agent a call for a quote. I have heard that Geico offers the best rates.
  3. Buy Mexican auto insurance online- This is the most convenient and probably the cheapest option. A multitude of companies sell auto insurance online. For a free quote, check out mexpro.com.

How Much does Mexican Auto Insurance Cost?

A wide range of policies are available. Insurance cost depends on:

  • The type of vehicle you drive- Insuring older vehicles costs less, for example.
  • The amount of coverage you want- Do you just want basic liability or full coverage? With basic liability, you may not be covered if your vehicle is stolen, for example.
  • How long you plan to stay in Mexico- Expect to pay $15-$30 per day for an average vehicle. For longer trips, policies are available in 6 or 12 month terms at a much lower rate. Expect to pay around $150-$300 for 6 months of coverage.
Tijuana

Tijuana

Forma Migratoria Múltiple (FMM) Mexico Visitors Permit

This document works just like a tourist visa. The FMM is a card that you fill out at Mexican immigration at the border with basic information such as your name, passport number, dates of travel, etc. It allows you to travel anywhere in Mexico for up to 180 days.

You need an FMM if you plan to stay in the country for more than 7 days. The cost is 533 pesos (about $25). If you plan to stay in Mexico for less than 7 days, you don’t need a visitors permit and there is no charge.

When crossing Mexico’s Northern border into Tijuana, the process is a bit different than when you fly into Mexico. You’ll need to pay for your FMM when you enter Mexico rather than when you leave.

If you need an FMM visitors permit for your trip, here’s how you get it when driving to Tijuana:

  1. Park your car after driving across the border into Tijuana- Drive into Mexico first. If you try to park on the US side and go get your FMM, you’ll end up in Mexico without your car.
  2. Go inside the Mexican immigration building- Wait in line at the immigration counter and tell the official that you want to pay for an FMM form.
  3. Fill out the form, and pay for your permit- The official will send you to the cashier to pay for the permit after you fill out the form.
  4. Get your permit stamped- After payment, go back to the immigration counter to get your stamp.
  5. Exit immigration and go back to your car- Now you have entered legally and can stay for up to 180 days. Don’t lose your receipt or you could be fined or asked to pay again upon exit. This happened to me when I crossed to Guatemala. 

For more info on entering and exiting Mexico, check out my complete guide: Do I Need a Visa to Visit Mexico? The FMM Visitors Permit Explained.

In this guide, I explain, in detail, how to get your visitors permit when crossing the border to Tijuana.

CECUT Cultural Center in Zona Rio, Tijuana

CECUT Cultural Center in Zona Rio, Tijuana

Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) for Driving to Mexico

If you don’t plan to drive outside of Tijuana, the Baja peninsula, or the Sonora free zone, skip this section. You don’t need a TIP. If you plan to drive anywhere in Mexico outside of these areas, you may need a TIP.

The Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) is a document that allows you to bring your vehicle into Mexico for up to 180 days. Mexico requires this document because they want to make sure you bring your vehicle back with you when you leave. They don’t want anyone illegally importing a vehicle without paying taxes.

The bank Banjercito issues the TIP. Currently, the TIP costs 1022.60 pesos (about $53). You must also pay a deposit which is refunded when you return to the US with your vehicle. The deposit ranges from $200-$400 depending on the year of your vehicle.

You can apply for a TIP either online on Banjercito’s website here.  or in person at various Banjercito locations. You can also apply in person at some Mexican consulates.

To get a TIP, you’ll need the following documents:

  • Passport
  • Your vehicle’s title
  • Drivers license
  • Proof of Mexican Auto Insurance

Another Document to Consider: Your Vehicle’s Title

If you own your vehicle free and clear, skip this section.

If your vehicle is owned by the bank or dealership and you’re still making payments, you may not be able to legally take the car to Mexico. You’ll just have to check with whoever holds the note. In the fine print, you may find that you can’t take your car out of the country. In this case, you must wait until the note is paid off and the title is in your name.

The same is true with leased vehicles. You’ll have to check the terms of the lease to make sure that there isn’t a clause which prohibits you from driving the vehicle outside of the country. If whoever you leased the vehicle from finds you broke the lease, you could face some penalties.

Of course, nobody will stop you if you decide to drive the car to Tijuana anyway. You are taking a risk though. The insurance company has an out if you get in an accident. They could just argue that you weren’t supposed to be driving there and leave you on the hook for any damages.

Note: The case is the same with rental cars. Most companies state in the rental agreement that you can’t drive the vehicle outside of the country. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it.

Passport

These days, you need a passport to enter Mexico. It needs to be valid for at least 6 months after your date of entry.

If you’re only staying for less than a week and don’t need to stop to get an FMM, chances are nobody will stop you to check your passport as you enter Mexico. You will need it to cross back into the US. 

Tijuana Border Crossings

Now that we have all of our documents in order, we can drive to Tijuana. The city has 2 border crossings. Both are open 24 hours a day. The best one to use depends on where you want to go and the time of day.

The Main Tijuana Border Crossing

This is the big crossing in San Ysidro at the end of the I5 freeway. This is the best crossing for most trips. Choose this crossing if you plan to go to the main tourist areas of the city like downtown or Zona Rio. It’s just a 5 minute drive to either of these areas from the border when traffic is light.

From the main crossing, you can also easily catch highway 1 or the toll highway 1D south. These roads take you to Rosarito, Ensenada, and all the way to the bottom of the Baja Peninsula.

The drawback to using this border crossing is that it is the busiest border crossing in the world with around 50,000 vehicles crossing each day. Because it’s so busy, it can be a bit intimidating and confusing.

Otay Mesa Border Crossing

Some travelers prefer this crossing to the East. It’s smaller and less hectic than the main crossing.

This crossing is more convenient if you’re going to Tijuana airport. It’s less convenient if you’re headed to the touristy areas of the city, downtown and Zona Rio. The drive from the Otay Mesa border crossing to downtown Tijuana is about 10 miles and takes 20-30 minutes depending on traffic.

To get to this crossing, take the freeway 905 East or 125 South and follow them all the way to the border.

Tecate Border Crossing

Further to the East is a third crossing into the town of Tecate, Mexico. This crossing is much smaller and less crowded than either Tijuana crossing. To get here, take the highway 94 East from San Diego. Turn South on highway 188. This road takes you to the border.

This is a good option if you want to avoid the traffic and hassles of driving through Tijuana. For example, if you’re headed to Ensenada or further down Baja, you could take Highway 3 from Tecate and skip Tijuana completely.

If you’re headed into mainland Mexico, you could take the highway 2 or the toll road 2D from Tecate toward Mexicali. After continuing on this road, you’ll leave the state of Baja and enter Sonora.

If you want to cross at Tecate and drive to Tijuana, you can. The drive is about 33 miles and takes around an hour depending on traffic and the route that you take. Toll road 2D connects the cities. If you prefer to avoid the tolls, highway 2 is also available.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Tecate

Tip: If you have the time in your itinerary, it’s worth the drive to check out Tecate. It’s a beautiful little town. In fact, Mexico’s secretary of tourism declared Tecate a ‘Pueblo Magico’ or magic town in 2012. Towns with this designation are known for their history, beauty, or cultural significance. For more info, check out this article about Tecate from The Mexico Report. 

Tips for Driving in Tijuana

Overall, driving in Tijuana isn’t too difficult. The rules of the road are more or less the same as in the US. The only difference is that drivers tend to be a bit more loose with the rules.

You’ll witness illegal turns, speeding, and some strange maneuvers in the city. On the highways, people tend to pass in a bit more risky manner than they should. The only thing you can do to reduce your risk of an accident is to keep an eye out and be extra careful.

The roads in and around Tijuana are not as well designed or maintained as they are in the US. Many roads are much more narrow than they would be in California, for example. Because of this, you have to drive closer together than you may be used to.

You’ll see some big potholes while driving around Tijuana as well. Do your best to avoid them.

Highway crossing over the Tijuana River

The highway crossing the Tijuana River

The Toll Roads in Mexico

When driving between Tijuana and nearby cities such as Rosarito, Ensenada, and Tecate, I recommend you take the toll roads. These roads are smooth, well maintained, and have spacious lanes with wide shoulders. They make the drive much more relaxing and comfortable. Traffic is usually less as well.

The toll prices are reasonable. Driving from Tijuana to Ensenada only costs 37 pesos (about $1.95). From Tijuana to Tecate costs 111 pesos (about $5.84).

In Mexico, the highways with a D in the name are toll roads. For example, in Baja, highway 1D is the toll road and highway 1 is the free road. You always have the option to take a free road if you’d prefer to save the money.

Parking in Tijuana

Finding a place to park in Tijuana is pretty easy. You can park:

  • At your hotel- Pretty much all hotels offer parking included in the price of the room.
  • Pay parking lots-There are plenty of pay parking lots throughout the city. Most have security.
  • Plazas and strip malls- These all have plenty of parking. Sometimes it’s free and sometimes there is a small fee. They all have security so your vehicle stays safe.
  • Restaurants and bars- Most have a secure parking lot. Again, sometimes there is a small charge.

Parking downtown is a bit tricky. The streets are usually parked up. I recommend you either park in a pay lot or parking structure. Several are available. If you shop around, you can find parking for $5-$10 for the whole day.

Tip: Give the guys running the parking lot a small tip. They’ll make sure your car stays safe. I hate tipping, but this can help. Particularly if you drive a nice car.

How to Drive Back to the US from Tijuana

I recommend you use your GPS for this drive. The route is a bit confusing and the roads aren’t very well signed. I’ve missed a turn and had to double around more than once. I do admit that I’m pretty bad with directions though.

Once you get in line, it’s just a matter of waiting. This is the worst part about driving to Tijuana. There’s not much to do while you wait. There are a few people pushing carts through the lines of cars selling refreshments and snacks.

During peak commuter hours, during the holidays, and on weekends the wait can exceed 2 hours. I recommend you time your return so you can cross when the border is at it’s least busy. You can usually cut the wait time by at least an hour. Unfortunately, this means late at night or early in the morning.

Before you cross, you can check the wait time here.

Line of cars waiting to cross back into the US from Tijuana

Line of cars waiting to cross back into the US

Before you reach the US immigration post, have your passport ready to hand over to the official. They’ll usually ask you a few questions like ‘what were you doing in Mexico?’ “How long were you in Mexico?” etc. Sometimes, they’ll peek in the back seat or ask you to pop the trunk. The whole process usually takes just a minute or two. They’re pretty efficient.

Risks of Driving to Tijuana: Staying Safe

If you can avoid driving in Tijuana, you probably should. You can get around just fine without a car by using Uber, taxis, and colectivo shared minibuses. The main tourist areas like downtown and Zona Rio are easily walkable. In this section, I outline the risks of driving in Tijuana.

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

Dealing With Corrupt Police While Driving in Tijuana

This is probably the biggest worry for most tourist. Tijuana police officers are known to stop vehicles to solicit bribes. They are corrupt. Unfortunately, as a foreigner in Tijuana, you don’t have many rights.

Sometimes, the police target US plated vehicles because they know that the driver probably isn’t a local. They also assume you’ll have money.

When the police pull you over, they may tell you that they suspect that you had been drinking and threaten to impound your vehicle. They may just tell you that you broke some road rule (this could be true). Maybe they’ll just flat out ask for a bribe. Your only options at this point are to pay up, negotiate, or go to the police station with them.

If you refuse to pay or negotiate and end up at the police station, all bets are off. You could have your vehicle impounded. You could be charged with a crime and end up in jail. Most likely, you’ll end up with a large fine.

Mexican police officers

La Policia

What to do if you get pulled over by the police while driving in Tijuana

If you get pulled over, the best thing you can do is to be as respectful as possible to the officer. Use your Spanish. Say please and thank you. Call them sen*or. Also, play dumb. You might get lucky and they let you go. If they start talking about money, you may be able to bargain a bit.

While driving in Tijuana, don’t carry large sums of cash or any valuables. If they see that you have $300, they’ll probably ask for all of it. If you had only been carrying $50, you would probably have suffered a much smaller loss. Rather than going through the hassle of taking you into the station, they’ll probably just take what they can get and send you on your way.

To prevent getting pulled over in the first place, the best thing you can do is to obey the rules of the road and drive carefully and normally. They probably won’t pull you over for no reason. Use your turn signals. Don’t make illegal maneuvers.

Minor Auto Accidents While Driving in Tijuana

Most minor auto accidents are handled without involving an insurance company. This happens because many Mexican drivers don’t have insurance, unfortunately. Luckily, auto bodywork costs much less in Mexico than in the US.

If you happened to be involved in a fender bender while driving in Tijuana, you’ll have to pull over and talk it out with the other driver. This can be problematic if you don’t speak Spanish. Try to trade insurance information if they have it.

The best thing you can do is to give your insurance company a call and explain the situation. They should be able to help walk you through it.

If the accident was your fault, your Mexican auto insurance should cover you. Hopefully, you bought a good policy. If the other driver was at fault, you could try involving the police if they don’t have insurance. This could go poorly. Getting in an auto accident in a foreign country is always a difficult situation.

Getting Lost While Driving in Tijuana

Always use GPS while driving in Tijuana. The road system is confusing and all over the place. It’s not a standard grid outside of downtown. Once while I was trying to get back to the border, I took a wrong turn and ended up having to wait in traffic for an hour to get back to where I was trying to go.

Damage to your Vehicle

Road conditions are pretty poor in places. You could hit a pothole or speed bump and cause some damage. Fender benders and minor scrapes and dents are also common. You won’t see too many pristine vehicles driving around Tijuana. Sooner or later you’ll end up with some minor damage to your car.

I would recommend against driving a new vehicle to Tijuana. If you have an old beater kind of car, take that one instead.

Alternatives to Driving to Tijuana

Honestly, if you can avoid driving to Tijuana, you probably should. In my opinion, the risks outweigh the benefits of having your own vehicle. Between public transportation, Uber, and taxis, you can get around the city just fine without a car. You’ll also save money because you won’t have to buy auto insurance. Leaving your car on the US side of the border is just less stressful.

If you decide not to drive to Tijuana, you may find the following guides helpful.

My Experience Driving to Tijuana

Over the years, I’ve made the drive to Tijuana a few dozen times. As a kid, my dad and I used to drive down to Ensenada to go tuna fishing a couple of times per year. We always crossed in San Ysidro and took the toll highway down. Before crossing, we stopped to buy a couple of days worth of insurance.

The biggest problem we ever faced was getting lost in Tijuana on our way back. On a couple of occasions, we missed the turn to the border due to poor signage and had to wait in traffic.

On one occasion, we were directed by the police to take a detour to bypass a flooded street after a heavy rain. We ended up going down an even more flooded street. Luckily our van was high enough that we could pass through.

Driving down a flooded Tijuana street after a heavy rain

Driving through a flooded Tijuana street back to the border

While living in Tijuana for the past year, I’ve driven across a few times per month. Luckily, I’ve never had any major issues. In fact, I haven’t even been pulled over. I do try to limit the amount of driving I do in Tijuana to reduce my risks.

A couple of my friends have been pulled over while driving in Tijuana. Both ended up paying small bribes to get on with their day. I don’t believe that either was targeted. Both admitted that they made an illegal maneuver before the police pulled them over.

Final Thoughts: How to Drive to Tijuana

As I said earlier, if you can avoid driving to Tijuana, you probably should. Of course, there is value in having your own transportation. Tijuana is spread out so you can’t just walk wherever you want to go. It’s nice to be able to drive where you want and not have to wait around for a taxi, Uber, or colectivo.

As long as you have Mexican auto insurance and drive carefully, you can reduce your risk to an acceptable level to safely drive to Tijuana.

Have you made the drive to Tijuana lately? Share your experience in the comments below!

More Tijuana Guides from Where The Road Forks

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