There’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned American road trip — unless it’s a road trip that takes you South of the Border to explore all of the attractions and cultural experiences that Mexico has to offer. Unless you are headed to a resort, or you have booked a tour with a travel company, driving to and through Mexico can be a fantastic experience. Of course, there are a few things you should know before you start your engine, so relax and keep reading to learn all you need to about driving in Mexico.

Toll Vs. Non-Toll Roads

Think that driving in Mexico is going to involve a lot of rinky-dink, pothole-ridden, one-lane roads? You may be in for a pleasant surprise. In the past couple of decades, the Mexican government has invested a great deal of money in updating the country’s infrastructure, especially when it comes to interstates. It’s a lot easier and more pleasant to travel by car there than it was, say, pre-1990s.

When you travel between one Mexican city and another, you will essentially have two options: to take a toll road or a non-toll road. In either case, you get what you pay for. There is an extensive network of toll roads, most of which are four-lane, modern, and well-maintained. The downside? The tolls themselves can be fairly pricy, at least compared to their American counterparts.

The non-toll roads, aka the carreteres federales, generally only have two lanes, so you are more liable to get stuck behind a slowpoke (or have a speedster tailgating you). It will be a slower trip, with more potholes, as well. But if you have plenty of time and want to meander via Mexico’s byways, or are on a tight budget, the non-toll roads are fine.

The Free Zone

To improve tourism from the United States, the Mexican government has designated an area between 20 and 26 kilometers from its border as the Free Zone. Travelers can enter this zone without a Temporary Import Permit. This makes it easier and less expensive for tourists to make last-minute trips into the country.

Temporary Import Permit

All other destinations, besides Sonora and the Baja Peninsula, require the purchase of a Temporary Import Permit, or TIP. You will not be able to drive past the checkpoints on roads heading south from the Free Zone without a TIP, nor can you obtain a TIP at any of those checkpoints. You must purchase it, instead, either from the website of a government agency called Banjercito, or at the Mexico border.

The permit is good for six months. You will need to pay roughly $44 USD as well as tax for the permit processing fee as well as a refundable deposit of up to $400, depending on the model year of your vehicle. In addition, you must provide the following documentation:

  • Passport or passport card
  • Mexican visa or tourist card
  • Proof of vehicle ownership
  • A valid driver’s license

Special Exceptions: Sonora and the Baja Peninsula

Both the border state of Sonora and the Baja California peninsula have different prerequisites for visitors who are traveling by car. Sonora waives the fees and other requirements for visitors who intend to stay in Sonora for the length of their trip, as long as they also enter Mexico at the Nogales border crossing.

Similarly, when traveling to Baja California, you do not need the import permit or other fees as long as your car has valid, current US or Canadian license plates.

Auto Insurance

Your U.S. auto insurance policy is not sufficient if you are driving south of the border. Even if your American policy explicitly states that it provides coverage in Mexico, that is only for damage to your vehicle, not liability to others.

Getting into an accident anywhere is stressful, but if it happens in Mexico and you are discovered by the authorities to be traveling without Mexican insurance, you could face hefty fines or incarceration. It’s important to take us much precaution and preparation as possible in the case of an accident,” according to the San Diego accident attorneys at The Barnes Firm, so don’t take the risk.

Mexico Road Logs

Depending on how old you are, you may not be accustomed to relying on maps and atlases to guide you while traveling, but savvy road-trippers know that Mexico road logs are an incredibly helpful tool. These documents go much further than GPS or traditional maps; they are ideal for tourists because they also explain local customs, practical advice, recommendations for must-stop sights, and more. Mexico road logs have been likened to traveling with a local person sitting in the passenger’s seat, giving you tips and tidbits that will keep you safe, streamline your journey, and help you have the best possible experience in Mexico.

Vaya Con Dios!

Naturally, any road trip, but particularly one to a foreign country, will require a lot of research. But most travelers think that planning their trip is almost as much fun as setting off on the actual adventure!

Have you ever driven into Mexico, and if so, did you venture past the Free Zone? Do you have any tips about the customs in Mexico to share? Leave a comment below and help out your fellow wanderers!