How to Drive to Mexico


(photo by Kyle May)

If you’re planning to travel to Mexico for an extended period of time, you might wonder whether you should drive instead of fly. I was confronted with the same choice when my wife and I decided to move to Mexico for six months. Since we have a dog and wanted to bring him with us, we decided to make our adventure a road trip.

I’m glad that we decided to drive to Mexico. It’s a great way to see the country, we were able to pack more personal items with us, and it is nice to have transportation for side trips whenever we want it.

We have had no major issues whatsoever while driving, and we’ve met dozens of other people down here who have successfully made the drive from the U.S. or Canada. Many regular visitors drive every year.

I would recommend driving as an option for intrepid travelers who want to experience more of the country and are well prepared. Here are some requirements, potential hazards and other things you should be aware of before driving to Mexico.

Should you bring your current car?

There are a few considerations when deciding on which car to use for the trip. It's best to have a reliable car that is unlikely to need repairs during your trip. It is possible to find a decent auto mechanic while down here, but they are mostly in the more populated areas. There are long stretches of road where breaking down would be a major inconvenience, and waiting for repairs in a small town could take days or weeks.

Another thing to consider is the make of your car. Some car brands are more popular than others in Mexico, and therefore would be easier to repair. Volkswagen, Nissan, Ford, Honda, Toyota and other cars are popular. Some people also like to not stand out too much while driving in Mexico. Luxury brands are not very common here yet, so driving a BMW or Mercedes or some other uncommon luxury model might gather more attention than you want.

Financing requirements

Most financing companies have strict requirements about whether you can take your leased or financed vehicle out of the country. For instance, in many cases you cannot drive a financed car out of the country unless you have been a customer in good standing for at least six months. Many financing companies also have limits on how long you can be out of the country for. Some forbid border crossings altogether. Check with your specific company for details.

When you cross the border in a financed vehicle, you’ll need a letter from your bank stating that you have permission to drive the car out of the country. If you own your car outright, you don’t have to worry about this extra step.

Mexican auto insurance

To drive in Mexico, you'll need to have a special type of insurance policy specific to Mexico. If you don't have this insurance, you can be jailed in the event of an accident. Mexican auto insurance is available from many vendors, including AAA. Policies can be quoted and initiated online.

The cost of insurance will depend on how long you’re in the country, what type of car you have and what limits of coverage you want. We found the cost of coverage to be similar to what we pay in the U.S.

Bringing a pet

When we crossed the border with our dog, we didn't get a single question or look from any of the crossing agents. We've heard similar stories from other pet owners.

The official policy is that you are supposed to have proof of current rabies vaccination and a health certificate from your vet. The health certificate should be no more than 72 hours old. You might also want to stock up on your pet’s favorite food before coming, as it is difficult to find any premium brands of food in Mexico.

Where to cross the border

There are a number of different places where you can cross the border from the U.S. into Mexico. You'll want to research the specifics of the place you want to cross at before planning your trip.

You may want to avoid certain crossings for various reasons. Some crossings have long wait times. Others cause you to drive through potentially dangerous border towns. We crossed at the Mariposa exit in Nogales, Arizona south of Tucson and found it to be an easy place to enter Mexico by car.

Getting your vehicle permit and visa

After crossing the border, you’ll need to get a vehicle permit and tourist visa from the Mexican government. There will be signs directing you to Banjercito within a short distance of the border. You’ll first need to get your tourist visa. Then you’ll apply for a vehicle permit.

Be prepared by having the original plus two copies each of your passport, vehicle registration, vehicle title (or leasing/finance contract), a letter granting permission to take the vehicle out of the country from your financing company (if applicable). You’ll also need copies of your tourist visa. There will be a copy stand somewhere nearby the office where you obtain your visa. Do this before applying for the vehicle permit.

Other considerations

Gas stations in Mexico are all run by the state-owned company called Pemex. This means that prices will be the same wherever you go, and the gas stations are all fairly clean and well-run. Attendants fill your gas for you, and you'll have the choice of regular (87 octane) or premium (92 octane). It's not expected to tip the attendants, but some change is always appreciated.

Whenever possible, you’ll probably want to use the toll (cuota) roads in Mexico. They’re much safer and faster than the free (libre) roads, which are poorly maintained and run directly through towns and cities. It is also smart to avoid driving at night in Mexico. Roads in Mexico are poorly lit and it’s common for people and farm animals to wander onto the roads after dark.

More information

This is part four in a series of posts called living in Mexico.

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