Driving to Mexico: Renting a Car or Using Your Own

Aerial view of freeways in Mexico

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Driving across the southern border of the United States into Mexico is relatively easy no matter where you decide to cross. However, the documents you'll need to bring with you vary depending on whether you plan to drive your own vehicle or you want to rent one to drive back across. Whichever way you choose to drive, prepare for your trip by reviewing the rules of the road, which include what you'll need to know to cross the border into or from Mexico.

Driving Requirements

Whether you're renting a car in Mexico or driving your own across the border, there are several documents that are needed to operate a motor vehicle in Mexico.

To drive your own car into Mexico, you'll need a tourist card and a temporary vehicle importation permit, which you can get on arrival at the border. However, in some tourist border areas, you don't need this permit or a tourist card—just ask at the border if you have any doubts. In any case, you will need several documents to acquire a Mexico vehicle permit or tourist card, including proof of car ownership, proof of American registration, an affidavit from any lien holders authorizing temporary importation, a valid American driver's license, and proof of citizenship (like a passport).

Alternatively, if you're simply renting a car in Mexico, you will need to have a valid U.S. driver's license, civil liability car insurance, and a valid credit card to reserve the rental and cover incidental costs.

Renting a Car

If you're renting a car in Mexico, your credit card will provide insurance, but you should buy the Mexican car insurance anyway. If you get in a car accident and don't have Mexico car insurance, you might not be able to leave the country until the damage has been paid for. However, your credit card will reimburse you when you get home regardless of whether you purchased additional insurance.

When you rent a car in Mexico, look the car over before you sign the rental agreement, and have the agent write down every scratch or non-working part on the vehicle—or you'll have to pay for those scratches and parts when you return the car. It's worth taking photos of every single scratch on the car before you get in to use as proof in case the companies try to claim you caused them when you come to return it.

Mexican Car Insurance

The rumors about possibly going to jail if you have a car wreck in Mexico are true, but having Mexican insurance helps alleviate that possibility. The minimum required insurance coverage to drive in Mexico is civil liability insurance, which covers you in case you cause injury or damage to another driver or vehicle. Your American liability insurance is not valid in Mexico for bodily injury, but some American insurance policies will cover you for physical damage—check with your carrier to make sure.

If you want some flexibility on the date you'll take your car out of Mexico, consider a six-month policy. Check with Mexinsure or Mexpro, which both allow travelers to purchase policies from them before leaving home. Alternatively, sites like RentalCars let you buy travel insurance from the major providers and compare prices so you can score the best deal. 

You can also buy Mexican car insurance in several American border towns—there will generally be several stores or just storefronts selling Mexican car insurance near the Mexico border (except in Deming, New Mexico).

Tourist Cards and Vehicle Permits

The two other primary documents all drivers will need in Mexico are a tourist card and a vehicle permit.

Get a tourist card (an arrival/departure card) at the border with a U.S. driver's license and proof of citizenship. Fill out a simple form at the border immigration office declaring information (your purpose in Mexico, for instance), pay approximately $44, and then hang onto the card! It's good for up to 180 days, and you should carry it with you at all times while you're in the country.

As of 2019, the vehicle permit costs $44USD, and you must pay with a credit card; if you don't have a credit card, you'll have to pay a bond and a processing fee. Keep the permit on your windshield while you're in Mexico. 

Crossing the Mexico Border From the U.S.

At the border of the United States and Mexico, you'll drive through one of several lanes, the number of which depends on how much traffic the border crossing handles. Traffic lights hanging above the lanes will then direct traffic into the country or into the inspection area.

If the light turns green when you're under it, proceed directly into Mexico. However, if the traffic light is red, you'll be directed to an area where you'll park, and a Mexican customs official may ask you some questions or search you and your car. Fortunately, as long as your papers, like your Mexico vehicle permit and tourist card, are in order, and you are carrying nothing illegal like switchblades or illicit drugs, you'll be fine and allowed to proceed into Mexico.

Driving in Mexico

The country's laid-back attitude is evident in the citizens' casual driving habits and logical driving patterns. While the way Mexican drivers operate on the roads may seem a bit extreme to U.S. citizens, they make perfect sense once you've got the hang of them, and as a result, big metropolises like Mexico City are no worse than Denver, Colorado, at rush hour.

Areas to avoid do exist, like the Toluca Highway—Carretera Nacional 134 in Guerrero, locally called carretera de la muerte (Highway of Death)—which is known for random encounters with Bandidos (bandits). However, you're more likely to get held up in downtown Detroit than on a Mexican back road, which isn't to say you shouldn't follow the same safety rules when driving in Mexico that you do when driving back home.

It's not worth taking risks and driving dangerously just because that's what the locals seem to be doing—they have far more experience than you do, and what looks like a danger to you may be well-rehearsed and safe for the locals.

Rules of the Road

If you've never driven in Mexico before, there are several rules of the road you need to be aware of to avoid accidents, emergencies, and getting stranded south of the border. While there are a number of rules that differ from driving laws in the United States, the top tips for safely driving in Mexico are:

  • Avoid driving at night: Road fatalities are far higher at night in Mexico than by day, so avoid it if at all possible. There are a lot of animals (alive and dead), pedestrians, and plenty of vehicles without taillights on the road at night, which increases your risk of having an accident. Additionally, there are very few overhead lights on most Mexican roads, meaning you won't be able to see broken glass, potholes, or topes (frequent speed bumps).
  • Don't panic if you break down at night: If you break down in a remote area at night, you'll most likely be stuck where you are until morning. To survive the night, simply wind up your windows, lock your doors, and try to sleep in your backseat until dawn. It's very rare that something will happen to you on the side of the road in most parts of the country.
  • Wait for the Green Angels if you break down in the daytime: Los Angeles Verdes (The Green Angels) will come to your aide in a short time if you break down on a roadway in Mexico in the daytime. The Green Angels are a fleet of green trucks with government-paid bilingual crews cruising the roads every day carrying tools and spare parts, looking for motorists in trouble. They'll even go to an auto supply store to buy a part for you if necessary. If you need them, call "060" (Mexico's version of 911) or pull over to the side of the road and put your car's hood up.
  • Stay on the main roads when driving alone: While Bandidos are few and far between, road conditions can be very iffy off the beaten track, so it's best to avoid the backstreets if you're alone and not a confident driver. Mexico also has a number of toll roads known as cuota roads that are kept in excellent condition but can be relatively expensive to use. You'll speed right along to your destination on these well-maintained highways, but you'll miss the local cafes and the charm of the countryside if you stay exclusively on them.
  • Turn signals mean "you can pass:" Unlike in the United States, where turn signals are used to indicate the intention to turn, in Mexico, they are used to indicate that the driver behind you is clear to pass. However, they can also be used to indicate turns, so make sure you look out for intersections up ahead before deciding to take the invitation to pass when the driver in front of you turns on their signal.
  • Drive on the shoulder to accommodate oncoming traffic: If you see an oncoming vehicle trying to pass another in your lane of the road, you're expected to drive on the shoulder while they pass. You can also pass cars on the right shoulder, but make sure to be quick about it as Mexican drivers use every inch of the road in order to keep traffic flowing.
  • Don't drive under the influence: Ever. You don't want to make friends in a sweaty jail cell or accidentally kill someone or yourself, so driving while drunk or other the influence of other substances is simply not worth the risk. If you're intoxicated and need to get to a hotel, take a taxi and come back for your car the following day when you've sobered up.
  • Do not try to bribe police officers: If you're pulled over and think you're being asked for a bribe, ask to be taken to the jefe (chief)—if the officer just wants money from you, he will probably back off at that request. It's also worth mentioning that you should never be the person who suggests paying a bribe, as this could land you in a lot of trouble. If you do try to bribe a cop, keep in mind that many Mexican policemen are honest, don't take bribes, and you may get in hot water for doing something that is technically illegal in the country.

    Crossing the Border Into the U.S. From Mexico

    At the Mexico-U.S. border, you'll drive through one of several lanes (the number of lanes depends on how much traffic the border crossing handles). A customs official will probably be standing at the side of the road and will motion for you to stop; he'll ask if you've anything to declare. Tell the truth because you and your car might be searched, and if you've lied, you may go straight to jail and lose your car.

    It's said that U.S. customs officials are notoriously more difficult than their Mexican counterparts because there is a good deal of smuggling traffic crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Stay calm, polite, and cooperative, and you'll pass through with few problems. Sadly, if you're Mexican, you can prepare for a greater interrogation at the border. 

    U.S. Customs

    Avoid any problems with U.S. customs at the Mexico border by declaring exactly what you have brought back from Mexico with you and, obviously, don't bring back anything illegal.

    • There is a $400 exemption for gifts and personal articles you've purchased in Mexico; anything over that amount will be taxed
    • One liter of alcoholic beverage per person over 21 is okay—more will be taxed, and the state of Texas taxes all alcohol brought back from Mexico
    • No steroids are allowed, and you must have a prescription (American) for any medicines brought across the border
    • No illegal drugs; if you have the slightest amount, you can be fined and sent to jail, and your car may even be confiscated
    • No switchblade knives
    • So many fruits from Mexico are prohibited in the U.S. that you may as well not bring any back
    • No guns of any kind are allowed, and even ammo is prohibited at the border; however, you can get documentation showing that you legally purchased a firearm you're carrying in the U.S.
    • Fish you caught in Mexico are permitted across the border
    • No clothing, purses, wallets, or shoes/boots made of endangered species, like sea turtles, are allowed
    • If in doubt, leave it behind

    This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff

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