What Every Traveler Should Know About Driving in Mexico

Aerial view of freeways in Mexico

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So you're headed for Mexico in a car? You're going to have a great time, but you need a crash course to avoid incidents with animals and other vehicles, encounters with the law, and close calls with bandidos (very rare). You'll also need to understand driving in Mexico, Mexican car insurance, Mexico vehicle permits and tourist cards, and how to cross the border into or from Mexico.

Mexican Car Insurance

The rumors about possibly going to jail if you have a car wreck in Mexico are true. 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. Your American liability insurance is not valid in Mexico for bodily injury; some American insurance policies will cover you for physical damage - check with your carrier.

If you want some flexibility on the date you'll take your car out of Mexico, consider a six-month policy. Check with mexinsure.com or mexpro.com -- you can buy a policy from them before you leave home and the company will give you the rundown on all the policies available. Alternatively, sites like RentalCars.com 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 (Deming, NM is an exception).

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 -- your credit card will reimburse you when you get home.

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 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.

Getting Into 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. 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.

Documents Needed

The following documents are needed for a Mexico vehicle permit and Mexico tourist card:

  • Proof of car ownership
  • Proof of American registration
  • An affidavit from any lien holders authorizing temporary importation
  • A valid American driver's license
  • Proof of citizenship (like a passport). Consider bringing your marriage certificate if the name on your passport is different than the name on your driver's license.

Vehicle Permit

As of 2018, 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. 

Tourist Card

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 $20 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.

Crossing the Mexico Border From the U.S.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, you'll drive through one of several lanes (number of lanes depends on how much traffic the border crossing handles). Traffic lights hang above the lanes; stop your car -- if the traffic light in your lane turns green, welcome to Mexico!

If the border crossing 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/or your car. 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.

Driving in Mexico

The country's laid-back attitude is evident in the citizens' casual driving habits and the driving patterns are extremely logical -- the residents have devised ways to keep traffic moving that would be illegal in the U.S. but make perfect sense once you've got the hang of them. Big metropolises like Mexico City are no worse than dealing with Denver, Colorado, at rush hour.

Areas to avoid do exist, like the Toluca Highway (Carretera Nacional 134 in Guerrero, locally known as carretera de la muerte - the Highway of Death). You're more likely to get held up in downtown Detroit than on a Mexican back road -- however, that's not 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 you need to be aware of. 

Rule #1: 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. 

There are very, very few overhead lights on most Mexican roads, meaning you can't see broken glass, potholes, or topes (frequent speed bumps). And if you break down in a remote area, you're probably stuck for the night -- in the dark dark. Don't panic if that's the case -- wind up your windows, lock your doors, and try to sleep on your backseat. It's very rare that something will happen to you on the side of the road in most parts of the country.

Speaking of breaking down - if you do have car trouble during the day, the Los Angeles Verdes (the Green Angels) will come to your rescue, seemingly by magic. 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 (if you can - many roads have no shoulders to speak of) and put your car's hood up.

They then seem to appear just like angels -- you can't see them unless you need them.

Rule #2: Stick to the main roads if you're alone. As said, Bandidos are few and far between, but road conditions can be very iffy off the beaten track. If you're adventurous or with a group, by all means, hit those back roads! That's where you'll see the real country -- really local cafes, kids flagging you down to sell you Chiclets, and traffic adventures: No shoulders, sharp curves, and roads that gradually become little more than goat tracks. But if you're alone and not a confident driver, it's best to avoid the backstreets.

Mexico toll roads, or cuota roads, kept in excellent condition, do exist but are expensive. You'll speed right along but, just as happens in the U.S. on a freeway, you'll miss some lovely country, so try not to spend your entire trip on these roads. 

Rule #3: Turn signals are not what they seem. Generally, a left turn signal is an invitation for you to pass, not an indication of the driver's intention to turn left... if you don't see a road ahead to the left, then it's a signal for you to pass. I love this example of Mexico's inherently courteous people's ways.

Rule #4: If you're on a road with a shoulder with an oncoming vehicle in the other lane, and another oncoming vehicle appears in your lane, you're expected to drive on the shoulder while they pass. You can also pass cars on the right shoulder; just make it snappy. Mexico drivers use every inch of the road in order to keep moving.

Rule #5: Don't drive drunk or drugged. Ever. You don't want to make friends in a sweaty jail cell, or, worse, accidentally kill someone or yourself. It's not worth the risk -- take a taxi if you're intoxicated and need to get somewhere and come back for your car the following day. 

Rule #6: Do not offer to bribe a policeman if pulled over. 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.

 Pay traffic fines at the local police station.

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.

You may be searched, as may be your car; 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.

What you can and can't bring back from Mexico, plus US tax info:

  • 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; note that the state of Texas taxes all alcohol brought back from Mexico
  • No steroids, period; make sure you have a prescription for any other medication
  • No illegal drugs; if you have the slightest amount, you can be fined and sent to jail -- 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; even ammo is a no-no. You can get documentation showing that you legally purchased a firearm you're carrying in the U.S., but why bother taking a gun to Mexico?
  • Fish you caught in Mexico are okay
  • No clothing, purses, wallets, or shoes/boots made of endangered species, like sea turtles
  • If in doubt, leave it behind

This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff

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