Driving can give you a lot more freedom than other forms of transportation in Mexico, but it has some downsides as well. Depending on your destination, you may have to find your way on roads that are in dubious condition or have poor signage, and you might find yourself dealing with other drivers who make left turns from the right lane or don't seem to know what a turn signal is, as well as a host of other hazards. If you're considering driving in the Yucatan Peninsula or Baja, you'll find it fairly easy to get around, whereas driving in other areas can be more challenging. When you're weighing the option to drive in Mexico, consider the pros and cons before driving across the border or renting a car for your vacation.
A driver's license from the U.S. or Canada is acceptable for driving in Mexico. You can rent a car in Mexico as long as your driver's license is valid, but always have your license on you when behind the wheel. Consider getting an international driving permit, especially if you'll be driving in other countries besides Mexico. It's a good idea to have your passport and FMM tourist permit (for non-Mexican citizens) handy as well, in case you get stopped by the authorities. Keep proof of your car insurance and registration in the vehicle, and have either your temporary import permit or rental agreement, if it's a rental car.
Checklist for Driving in Mexico
- Driver's license (required)
- International Driving Permit (recommended)
- Passport (recommended)
- FMM Tourist Permit (recommended)
- Proof of car insurance (required)
- Car registration or rental agreement (required)
Rules of the Road
Driving in some parts of Mexico is "freestyle." Though some conventions may be different from what you're used to, you should basically expect that some other drivers may do anything at any time.
- Drive defensively: Always proceed with caution. You likely won't be able to predict the actions of other drivers or the road and weather conditions as much as you are accustomed to doing at home.
- Driving on the right side of the road: In Mexico, you must drive on the right side of the road. Passing is done on the left side of the road, but must be done with great care to avoid accidents.
- Driving under the influence: Operating a vehicle while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is prohibited. The legal limit of blood alcohol content is 0.8 percent. Drivers who have been drinking and have an accident will lose the validity of their insurance.
- Cell phone use: Using a mobile device while driving is illegal.
- Take advantage of daylight: If possible, drive during the day for a better view of what's around you. There aren't many overhead lights, and you never know when an animal or pedestrian might be on the road, along with vehicles that are stopped or without taillights.
- Reduce speed in populated areas: You'll want to go slower in areas with bigger groups of people and activities. Families might be walking along the side of a road or crossing the street with young children, and vendors might come right up to your car. You'll need to be aware that speed limits are posted in kilometers per hour, and in urban areas and along highways, the speed limits may vary.
- Turn signals: On a two-lane highway, if the car in front of you flashes their left turn signal, rather than indicating that they're planning to turn or change lanes, this could be a sign to you that it's safe to pass.
- Buying gas: It's not complicated, but there are a few details that are different from buying gas in other places. At the gas station, you should always check that the meter marks zero before the attendant starts to pump.
- Toll roads: Mexico has a full system of toll roads (cuotas) which can be pricey but assure drivers higher quality, safer, and faster roads for traveling long distances. Tolls for cars and motorcycles may be paid in U.S. currency as well as in Mexican pesos; you'll get change back in pesos. Your fee depends on how far you'll drive, and you may encounter more than one toll booth on one trip. The tolls include additional insurance coverage should an accident happen, so keep your receipt for insurance purposes. Free roads have signs saying "libre."
- In case of an emergency: For roadside assistance on Mexico's federal toll highways or major highways, call the helpful bilingual Green Angels at 078. Dial 911 from a cell phone or landline in an emergency.
Crossing the Mexico Border
If you are passing through San Ysidro, the southernmost part of California, and heading south into Tijuana, you will find yourself at one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Though crossing times are unpredictable, you can have an easier drive by checking border wait times, avoiding high-traffic times, and giving yourself extra time to arrive at your destination.
Choose one of the many open lanes at the border; traffic lights and signs guide you to proceed or stop. In the chance that you are directed to a parking area, a Mexican customs official may ask you questions and search you and your vehicle, as long as you are carrying nothing illegal and have your paperwork in order and with you, everything should be fine.
If you'll be driving your own car across the border into Mexico, you can travel within the border zone (roughly 12 miles from the border) without doing any special paperwork. However, if you intend to drive farther, you will need to do some paperwork before you cross. It is required to purchase Mexican car insurance (the insurance you have in the U.S. or Canada will not cover you), and you'll need a temporary import permit.
You must prove your financial responsibility in case an accident happens while driving in Mexico: Your options are having Mexican auto insurance, proving your finances are stable through acquiring a bond with a Mexican bank or having enough cash to cover liabilities. Driving your car out of Mexico within the given time frame to get your money back is a must, so plan accordingly; if you are caught driving in Mexico without your paperwork in order, you could face hefty fines and possible vehicle confiscation.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Mexico can be easier than driving your own car across the border or relying on the bus and other public transportation schedules, and most tourists have a smooth rental experience. But there are a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, renting a car is usually not as cheap as advertised. You will need to get all the insurance coverage offered, which adds substantially to the bottom line.
Also, some people have had issues with rental agencies claiming the customer damaged the car, so be sure to inspect the car with the agency staff before leaving the lot. Taking pictures of the car with your phone before you drive off is also helpful. Remember to take pictures of any damage that's already on the car. Prices may be quoted in dollars; however, once you are ready to pay, it is likely the rental company asks for pesos at a poor rate, so ask for your rate estimate in Mexican pesos.
Planning Your Route
It's essential to plan out your route before you start out. Use a driving distance calculator to find out how far it is between destinations, and check out the Mexican government's Point-to-Point Routes Tool for more specific information about which roads to take and how much you can expect to pay in tolls.
Encounters With the Police
There are some Mexican police who are friendly and helpful. However, there are some who are just looking to make some extra cash (their salaries are very low). Hopefully the police will leave you alone, but unfortunately, it sometimes seems that money-hungry officials can smell out a gringo from a mile away. So if you do get stopped, be aware of mordidas, illegal bribes in which public officials seek cash payments in exchange for disregarding your traffic violations.
Topes and Other Bumps in the Road
Road conditions vary enormously in Mexico. There are some highways that are in great condition with good signage, and other terrible roads are full of potholes. Some are not paved at all, and you may even come across some mountain roads where there have been landslides. You will undoubtedly drive over numerous topes (speed bumps) in many areas. These speed bumps, some of which are not marked, seem to appear out of nowhere. The main thing is always to be attentive and aware. It's also best to drive during daylight hours so you can better see what's ahead of you.