Driving Into & Around Mexico | The Essential Guide
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
So you are thinking of driving into or around Mexico, the big questions are, should you take your car or not? And is it safe to do so?
Well hopefully I can clear some things up for you so that you are better informed on the situation, in this article I'll run through some points to tell you precisely what you need to do to bring your car into Mexico, and if you really should do so.
Whether you choose to bring your car or not, your journey of driving around Mexico is going to be an amazing adventure, there are just some things you need to do to prepare yourself for the road ahead, in this guide you'll find information about topics such as insurance, documentation, road safety, car rentals, hazards, road signs and more.
Let's get started by saying it's not just as simple as taking your car on a road trip to Mexico, there are some things you need to do first to make sure that you are abiding by Mexican laws, in order to get your car into Mexico you need to jump through a few hoops, all of the information on how to get your vehicle into Mexico can be found below.
Is it safe to Drive into and around Mexico?
There is no simple answer to this question, the truth is that it depends, there are so many different factors at play here, if I were to give you a general answer, it would be yes, it is safe to drive in Mexico, but it's not that easy so let's dive a little deeper and try to understand what it means to drive safely in Mexico.
Are you going to run into the Cartel or Criminals
It is highly unlikely that you are going to have this kind of experience when driving in Mexico, it just doesn't happen that often. I've heard over and over again that I was crazy for moving here, that it's so dangerous and different from where I lived before (Ireland), while it is true that it's vastly different, people just don't have a clue what they are talking about, and that's a fact!
I have travelled across this beautiful country countless times now and never once ran into such criminals, if you apply common sense and take care when you are driving, you won't have a problem.
I'm not saying it is entirely safe, as there are some stories of paramilitary or criminals setting up roadblocks along less popular highways, most of which are near border towns, and shouldn't be of much concern.
Are the Roads Dangerous
Yes, absolutely! This should be your biggest concern when driving in Mexico, most of the roads in the country are terrible, so much so that you wouldn't believe it, I've actually seen potholes here as big as cars.
It's not all bad though, there are two kinds of roads in Mexico cuotas (toll) and libres (free), with the libre proving more dangerous to travel on, it would be nearly impossible for me to drive along the libre roads at night, there are potholes everywhere and most of the streets don't have any lighting whatsoever, you would be taking a considerable risk if you choose to drive on these roads at night.
Cuotas are the private toll roads that are immensely safer and faster to drive on, also on top of the two previous reasons for driving on these roads, you won't be damaging your car!
I recommend you take the libre roads only in the daytime if you would like to visit or stop off in some of the small cities or towns that the cuota roads don't arrive to.
Are Mexicans Good Drivers
I might make a lot of people with this answer, but the truth is no, Mexicans are generally not good drivers, they drive fast, don't obey traffic laws and have little regard for anyone or anything else!
This answer is not entirely accurate as I'm not continually driving everywhere in Mexico, but speaking for Mexico City, the drivers are most definitely bad! And from what I have heard, the driving does differ from city to city and state to state, but the general consensus is that the country has bad drivers everywhere.
This also a big problem, because if you have an accident with a local and they don't speak English, you are in for a world of trouble, they can tell police anything they like, and the police would be inclined to believe them.
Know the Street Signs & Road Rules
This is something that can really help you stay safe when you are driving in Mexico, and it can take little or no effort on your behalf, learn the rules of the road and take notes of the street signs, the signs are all in Spanish, however the graphics and shape usually don't change, everyone knows what a stop sign looks like, make sure to apply common sense, you should do fine!
One thing to be careful of is that the street signs may be situated in different locations to where you would typically expect them to be in the states, pay attention and keep your eyes open at all times.
Be careful of Topes!
If you have not visited Mexico before, you may be wondering what a tope is? In short, a tope is a speed bump, and they are everywhere! These speed bumps aren't like usual speed bumps either, most of the time they seem to appear without any warning or reason.
They will destroy your car if you don't pay attention when driving, if you are only travelling at a speed of 10km and don't see a tope before it's too late, there's a good chance it's going to damage your car. They are small and huge at the same time, most of the time you might not even see them coming.
There also seems to be no consistency about building them anywhere in Mexico as they come in all forms, shapes and sizes. If you are driving on the libre roads and are approaching a small town or farm you might see some man-made topes, made from rubble, dirt or anything they can use to slow your car down, these topes can be especially dangerous as people put whatever they like on to them with little care in mind for the vehicles passing over them.
When driving over topes, you will notice that almost all Mexican drivers practically come to a standstill to pass over them, some drivers even pass over the topes diagonally, so that they don't damage any bumpers on the car.
Is your Driver's License valid in Mexico?
Most likely yes! Mexico recognizes driver's licenses from all around the world, and any that are issued in English are accepted.
So whether you are from Europe, Australia, America, Canada or any other English speaking country for that matter, you will most likely be able to use your license in Mexico.
If you intend on moving or living in Mexico, that is an entirely different matter as you won't be able to buy a car in Mexico without a valid Mexican driver's license, you may rent or import your own vehicle, although it is required of you to have a Mexican license if you plan to live and drive here, though it's never really enforced.
Can you Take your Vehicle to Mexico?
Yes, you can drive your car, motorhome or whichever vehicle you have to Mexico, although it is possible to drive here, sometimes it can prove to be more of a hassle and inconvenience to do so.
There are certain things you need to do to get your vehicle into Mexico, you need the correct documentation, vehicle permits, tourist cards and evidence of what you intend to do in Mexico with your vehicle.
Sometimes it can just be easier and cheaper to rent a car when you arrive in Mexico, now this entirely depends on how long you are staying and which vehicle you would like to drive, but generally speaking, renting a car in Mexico for a week could work out cheaper and more efficient for you.
Documentation Needed For Entry
It's not as simple as just driving up to the border and crossing, you need to have some documents prepared before arriving, for you to gain entry into Mexico with your vehicle, you need two things, a vehicle permit and a Mexico tourist card.
Some of the documents you may need to present the border officials to get your Mexican vehicle permit and tourist card are as follows:
Proof of vehicle ownership.
Proof of vehicle registration.
A valid driver's license.
Proof of citizenship.
These are only some of the documents that I recommend you bring with you, make sure to research current policies on border crossings with vehicles, if you are unsure as what you may need to have, the border officials can be very informative and helpful.
Since early 2018, the vehicle permit costs $44 plus taxes, I highly recommend keeping the permit on your windshield throughout your stay in Mexico, so that you don't run into any trouble with the local law enforcement.
You can purchase the permit online or at the border crossing. Once you supply sufficient evidence that you are the owner of the vehicle, how long you plan on staying in the country and explain that you don't intend on selling your vehicle in Mexico, they should issue you the permit without a problem.
There is also a vehicle deposit fee that you need to pay electronically at the border, the cost is usually $400 but may be cheaper if your vehicle is older than 2007. If you fail to come back across the border before the expiry date on your permit, you will lose this deposit.
You need to get a Mexico tourist card next, when you travel by plane, the Mexico tourist card always comes included in the cost of your plane ticket. If you're arriving in Mexico by land, you need the pay the fee of $25.
Take care of this card! If you lose it, you could be fined upon exit of the country. The card generally states that you have permission to stay in Mexico for a period of up to six months, if you choose to stay longer than this period, you don't need to be worried about being banned from revisiting Mexico, that doesn't really happen here, however you will have to pay a fine and lose your vehicle permit deposit.
The fines are usually small amounts around $40 or $50 depending on how long you have overstayed, if you choose to stay anything more than a year, you could expect to pay a fine up to $400, it depends on the circumstances.
It almost goes without saying, make sure that you have photocopies of all these relevant documents, if something was to happen to the originals, at least you have some evidence that you had got the proper documentation before.
When I say photocopies, I mean actual photocopies and not digital documents or photographs, it's much safer and more convenient when trying to explain something to an official if the situation happens to arise.
Mexico Car Insurance
You need to keep yourself covered at all costs when driving in Mexico, the law here is not quite the same as it is in the states, in Mexico you are guilty until proven innocent, so if you do end up in a crash and don't have any Mexican insurance, it's very possible you could end up in a Mexican jail cell.
Unfortunately, the company you are insured with now, will not cover you on the other side of the border, but not to worry, the insurance is relatively cheap, and you can buy it online before even leaving your home or at the border if you prefer. You could expect to spend anywhere from $80 to $120 for a week of full-comprehensive insurance, depending on your vehicle.
If you intend on staying for a lengthier amount of time and need more flexibility, there are companies out there that can provide six-month policies. Check the insurance plans with mexinsure.com or mexpro.com.
Renting a Car in Mexico
As I previously mentioned, renting a car in Mexico can be more of an appealing choice for most people, there are certain benefits to renting a car in Mexico, one being insurance, if you rent a car using your credit card, the bank will provide you with coverage.
Even though your bank will cover your insurance, I still highly recommend getting, Mexican auto insurance, because If you are unfortunate enough to get in a car accident and don't have Mexican insurance, it's possible you won't be able to leave Mexico until you or your insurance policy pays for the damages, if you are dependant on your bank, it may take some time.
Renting a car in Mexico can also be somewhat deceiving, don't believe everything that is advertised online, if you think you are going to rent a car for $10 a day, you need to think again. Although companies may advertise these ridiculously low prices, never take them at face value, as when you arrive to collect the car, you can be sure there is going to be various add-ons like taxes, insurance, deposits and road fees, none of which are listed online.
If you have never rented a car before, make sure you don't fall victim to scams, take pictures of the vehicle and document any damages or concerns you may have, and make sure to inform the clerk of all the information.
What to do if you Breakdown in Mexico?
The green angels are the equivalent roadside assistance in the states, they operate all over Mexico and provide free services, although they will only offer aid to vehicles on major highways, so if you unfortunately break down in a small town or random place, they will not be able to help you.
The green angels only operate between 8 a.m and 6 p.m, so if you are driving in the night and breakdown, you are pretty much stuck where you are, you shouldn't need to worry about criminals or bad people coming to get you in the night, it's quite uncommon, so just make your bed in the back seat and get comfy as you will most likely be spending the night in your car.
You can get in touch with the Green Angels by calling this number, 01-800-987-8224078 or for emergencies 078, It's a 24/hour hotline so they can always assist you.
They very rarely have English speaking drivers, so some basic Spanish or translator may be needed for you to communicate with them.
If you did choose to rent a car in Mexico, there is a high possibility that the company you have rented the car from will provide you with roadside assistance, all major companies have their own private roadside assistance services, make sure to double check this with the company when you are checking out the car.
Tips to Abide by when Driving in Mexico
Don't drive around at night. The probability of you getting involved in an accident during the night is extremely higher than what it is if you drive in the day. Some roads are terribly lit or don't have any lighting at all, to make things worse, you have to be careful of potholes, topes, pedestrians and cattle, depending on where you are.
Confidence is key, the roads are some of the worst you may ever come across in your entire life, but don't let that put you off, you have the choice between the Libre and Cuota roads.
Don't always choose the toll roads to travel on as they can be extremely expensive and you will miss out on some of the best parts of the country, the only way you will get to experience and see some of these fantastic places is by choosing to drive on terrible roads, but don't worry about it, just make sure to pay attention to other drivers, as they will be your biggest threat.
Mexican drivers don't use turn signals. Maybe a select few do, but generally speaking, turn signals are never appropriately used here. If you see a driver indicating with his left turn signal, and there are no turns anywhere to be seen, he is telling you to pass.
If you're travelling on a road that has a shoulder with a vehicle coming towards you in the other lane, and another oncoming vehicle appears in your lane, you need to drive on the shoulder until the vehicle passes. Take extra care if you choose to overtake vehicles yourself, as the roads can be treacherous, and if you were to hit a pothole or tope at high speed, it most certainly would be lethal.
Take extra care on Sunday's, it's not uncommon for Mexican drivers to drive drunk on a Sunday, this is not something that happens widely, but it's also not unheard of, if you are involved in an accident with a drunk driver, things could be really bad for you as the other driver likely won't stop to work things out with you.
Also, don't drive under the influence, it's the same as in the states, police officials won't take too kindly to this, and you will more than likely be spending the night in a Mexican jail cell, bribe or no bribe.
You can bribe officials, as crazy as it may sound, this is true, it is mainly due to the fact of officials working such a high-risk job with little benefits and a lousy salary, so bribes are accepted almost everywhere in Mexico.
If you do end up in some minor traffic infringement, and try to bribe the officer who has stopped you, take extra care and play it smart, you don't just want to pay the officer cash immediately, say you are sorry, and ask is it possibly can you work out the problem here, as you have somewhere you need to be, ask how much the fine is, and is it possible you can pay him the cost.