Drivers in Mexico enjoy an extensive infrastructure of roads and intercity highways.
Mexico has invested heavily in road infrastructure in recent times. Getting around Mexico by road today is easier and safer than it ever has been.
Car Rental in Mexico
Bringing Your Own Car to Mexico
Road Maps and Logs of Mexico
Driving in Mexico
Night Driving in Mexico
Car Breakdowns in Mexico
Military Checkpoints on Mexican Roads
Insurance for Driving in Mexico
Dealing with Car Accidents
Buying Gasoline in Mexico
Since the early 1990’s, Mexico has invested huge amounts of money to upgrade its interstate road network, working with the private sector to build and maintain high-quality interstate highways which connect Mexico’s major towns and cities
Most of Mexico’s new interstate roads are tolled. The tolls are relatively expensive too, in comparison to toll roads in the USA, for example. However, the tolled roads are well maintained, modern four-lane roads (except in very rugged mountainous stretches where it is impossible to build a wide road), and provide a fast, safe and effective way to travel by road across Mexico.
You can travel on Mexico’s non-tolled interstate roads for free (these are known as carreteras federales), but some are slower to travel on; most are two-lane highways, making it more likely that you will get stuck behind slow-moving traffic. They are also less-well maintained than toll roads, so you’ll need to look out for pot-holes and other similar road surface hazards.
Toll Roads in Mexico
Mexico has an extensive network of intercity toll-roads. See the guide about Toll Roads in Mexico on Mexperience, for more information and advice.
See Also: A Guide to Mexican Street Speak
Mexico is well-served by a number of global and local car rental agencies. Read the complete and detailed guide to Car Rental in Mexico for more details and advice about renting a car in Mexico.
Driving Within the “Free Zone”
If you drive a non-Mexican plated car across the border, but remain within the “Free Zone” (which is a defined area approximately 22 miles/35 km from the land border), you do not need to apply for and obtain a temporary import permit for your vehicle.
All roads leading south have guarded check-points, where vehicles without Mexican licence plates must purchase a temporary import permit for the vehicle. Foreign vehicle import permits cannot be obtained at checkpoints in the interior of Mexico. You must arrange the permit ahead of time, or at the border crossing. See “Driving Beyond the Free Zone”, below.
Special arrangements apply for cars driving into the Baja Peninsula and the State of Sonora – see ‘Special Arrangements‘, below.
Car Imports for Holders of Resident Visas
Since the introduction of Mexico’s new immigration law in November 2012, the rules regarding car import have changed. Holders of Residente Temporal visas may import their cars, but holders of Residente Permanente visas may not. Please read this article for further details.
Driving in Mexico Beyond the “Free Zone”
(See note above about current rules)
Foreigners driving into Mexico beyond the Free Zone are allowed to bring their vechicles into the country after meeting certain documentary requirements including the payment of a “temporary import” permit.
Foreign retirees (“inmigrantes rentistas”) or those in Mexico on working permits (“no-inmigrante”) may bring in one car (their own) for the duration of their visas and subsequent extensions. Tourists may also bring in one car, even if it’s not their own; but they must show documentation to demonstrate that they have permission to take the car to Mexico.
One Vehicle Per Eligible Person
Only one vehicle can be imported into Mexico per person. If you are traveling with your spouse or child over 18, they may each register one car in their name.
There is one exception to the one-person, one-car rule: if you tow a car behind your RV, there is no need for second person to be traveling with you; but you must show proof of ownership for both vehicles, and both vehicles must be taken out of the country together when you leave.
A trailer does not count as a vehicle, but you need to show ownership of it and it must be exported with the vehicle towing it when you leave Mexico.
Motorcycles, ATVs, etc.
If you are towing or carrying other single-passenger motorized vehicles these may be registered with the car that is towing or carrying them. You must show proof of ownership of all vehicles and you can only bring up-to three single-passenger vehicles–one each for up to three passengers traveling in the main vehicle. All vehicles must be exported together when you leave Mexico.
Duration of Vehicle Import Permit
The Import Permit lasts for as long as your current visa lasts. If this this a FMM (Visitor’s Permit) the period is 180 days. If you are living in Mexico on a temporary resident visa, your car import permit will be valid for as long as your visa is valid. If you are entering Mexico on a permanent resident visa you cannot import your own vehicle. See the Immigration page for details of different visa types and see this article about importing foreign-plated vehicles to Mexico.
Note: If your immigration status changes while you have a vehicle in Mexico, you do not need to apply for a new vehicle permit. For example, if you entered Mexico on a FMM, and subsequently apply for and are granted a temporary resident visa, your vehicle permit does not have to be renewed and will last so long as your temporary resident visa is current (see note above about permanent residency visas). However, you must surrender the permit and purchase a new one every time your car leaves and re-enters Mexico — see “Taking Your Car Out of Mexico” below, for details.
Documentation Required for Vehicle Import Permit
Foreigners will need to show:
- Proof of nationality (e.g. Passport)
- Their Mexican visa or tourist card
- Proof of ownership of the vehicle*
- A valid driver’s license with photo
*Financed Vehicles, Rental Cars and Company Cars
In the event the vehicle is being financed or leased, a letter of credit or invoice from the corresponding financial institution will need to be presented.
If the vehicle is rented, the hire contract in the driver’s name and a description of the vehicle.
If it’s a company car, the importer will need to show documented proof of a working relationship with the company (e.g. letter on headed paper signed by a company official), as well as the company’s proof of vehicle ownership.
Payment of Import Bond
The Mexican authorities require that the driver also deposits a bond, which is forfeited if the car is not exported by the expiry date printed on the import permit. Holders of American Express, Visa or MasterCard credit cards can provide a card’s details as security for the bond. If you are leaving a cash deposit, the amount asked will be between US$200 and US$400, depending on the make, model and age of the vehicle.
Recovering Your Bond Payment
In order to recover your cash deposit or avoid credit card charges, you must go to any Mexican Customs office located along the border immediately prior to departing Mexico
How to Obtain Your Temporary Import Permit
Contrary to any advice you may hear, foreign vehicle import permits cannot be obtained at checkpoints in the interior of Mexico. You must arrange the permit ahead of time or at the border crossing.
The steps for obtaining a permit can be taken online at the site of Banco del Ejercito where you will find a link to vehicle permits from the homepage. There now exists a system whereby you may arrange your import permit before you get to the border: the authorities send you the permit by registered mail. You’ll need to arrange this at least fifteen days before your planned departure date.
Applying Via Mexican Consulates in the USA
Permits may also be processed in person at the following Mexican consulates situated in the USA: Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Sacramento, Phoenix, and Albuquerque.
Applying In Person at the Border Crossing
If you do not apply online or at a consulate, you can apply in person with your vehicle at the Banco del Ejercito booths situated at Mexican customs on the border or at seaports.
About The Permit (Windscreen Sticker)
The permit “document” is a special sticker that is affixed to the inside of your car’s windshield. DO NOT attempt to remove this yourself. When you get back to the border, have an official scrape it off. See “Taking Your Car Out of Mexico” below, for more details.
Warning: We’ve heard stories of unscrupulous individuals approaching persons lining up at the Banco de Ejercito booths and offering to “process” their vehicle import application. These people take cash and leave individuals with worthless documentation. Don’t be caught out! Get to the front of the line before you begin to transact any paperwork and hand over any money or credit card details.
Taking Your Car Out of Mexico
The Mexican government is very strict on the import and export of vehicles in Mexico and uses a centralized computer system to track and trace all cars entering and leaving the country; furthermore, the authorities are strict when it comes to applying the rules about car import and export.
When you leave Mexico, you MUST stop at the border checkpoint and get the Import Permit sticker (attached to the inside of your car’s windshield) removed. Do not remove it yourself — wait until one of the officials at border scrapes it off. Once removed, the border official will present you with a receipt; and you should keep this receipt safe. Bring it with you next time you bring the same car to Mexico, in case there is any query at the border about when you exported the car.
Special Note for Foreign Residents
You must stop to have you car’s import permit removed even if you have a resident visa and plan to return to Mexico soon. You cannot drive out of Mexico and back into Mexico on the same permit. If you live in Mexico and plan to take your car back across the border for a visit, be sure to take with you the ownership papers and other documentation you need to re-apply for an import permit when you come back to Mexico.
Failing to Export The Car Properly
If you failed to undertake the exit procedure (removing the sticker, getting the receipt), and thus “export” the car officially, then you must return to the border with the same car and with the sticker affixed to the windscreen. There is a procedure to undertake to reset your car’s import/export status on the computerized system. If you cannot take your car back (e.g. it was stolen or crushed, or it’s simply not viable to drive it back to the border, contact your local Mexican Consulate who will explain a procedure you can undertake to get your permit cancelled. You will need to complete some paperwork, get reports from your local police department, and you will also surrender the bond you placed on the car when you took it into Mexico.
See Blog: Driving Out of Mexico with Your Car
Taking Your Car to Sonora
The border state of Sonora has a special arrangement, waiving the fees, deposits and other requirements for visitors who intend to stay in the state, provided that the vehicle passes into Mexico at the Nogales border crossing.
Taking Your Car to the Baja Peninsula
If you take your car into Mexico and stay in the Baja California peninsula, there is no need to undertake the “import” arrangements or pay any fees as described above. Instead, your vehicle must have valid and current US or Canadian plates, and the plates/stickers must be kept current during the vehicle’s stay on the Mexican Baja peninsula. Many expats keep their US/CA plated cars in Baja and have the plates/stickers/documentation mailed to them as required.
Digital mapping has revolutionized map reading and now provides excellent maps of Mexico. Connect to the Maps of Mexico page here on Mexperience to get access to maps of places across all of Mexico, using Google Maps.
Mexico Road Logs
However detailed, maps can only give you part of the story on a road trip in Mexico. Enter the Mexico Road Log, that offers detailed mapping and documented notes about what’s really on the road journey ahead. They are the ideal accompaniment to your maps (whether you are using printed maps, digital maps, or GPS) as they fill-in lots of gaps that will be missing on traditional charts, and proffer local tips and knowledge that you just won’t find elsewhere.
For more details about these indispensable driving guides, read the blog: Driving in Mexico Using Road Logs
Driving in Mexico City
Most foreign visitors to the nation’s capital eschew driving, unless they have a specific reason for needing a motor car. Taxis are plentiful and affordable, and the city’s Metro system is still the most efficient way to get into the center of the city, without the malaise of traffic and parking to deal with.
Mexico City is extremely congested with traffic, and journey times for even mid-range distances can exceed one hour—considerably longer during the early morning rush hour and again between 6 pm and 9 pm at night.
See Blog: Driving the Mexico City Way
Need for Documentation
Have your driver and vehicle documentation on hand at all times when you are driving in Mexico. If you are used to driving in a country where immediate documentation production is not required (e.g. UK), you may be accustomed to leaving your driver’s license and/or other car documentation at home, because if you get stopped, you can present it to the police later, or they will look up your record electronically from the squad car. This is not so in Mexico. Traffic police are allowed to ask to see your license and your car registration card, known in Spanish as the “tarjeta de circulacion.” It’s also practical to keep your car insurance papers with you.
If you’re renting a car in Mexico, besides the personal documentation listed above, the rental company will provide the other necessary documentation related to the car.
Getting Pulled over by the Police
You’ll need to present your paperwork (as described above) to the officer who pulled you over. If you don’t speak Spanish, they may well just leave you alone, unless your offence was serious or you are involved in a nasty accident; in such extreme circumstances, get your country’s Consulate involved.
If you live in the UK, Ireland, Australia or other country where people drive on the left, remember that you will be driving on the right hand side in Mexico.
Driving in Mexico City is similar to driving in other large metropolitan cities. Be careful, use your mirrors, and be additionally vigilant for the unexpected as drivers in Mexico don’t often give warning about their intentions.
Drivers in Mexico don’t often use their indicators, and won’t be that amenable when it comes to letting other drivers into a line of traffic from a side road—even if the line isn’t going anywhere! Signaling your intentions might help or it might simply ensure that other drivers prevent you from making the maneuver; e.g. changing lanes.
Cars may be in a higher state of disrepair than you might be used to at home, especially in rural areas. Bald tires, no head lights or tail lights, and malfunctioning break lights are not uncommon. Take extra care in bad weather conditions.
“Topes“, Mexican Spanish for speed bumps, are a common feature on all Mexican roads in urban areas, and on highways which pass through small towns and villages. Some are worn out and behave like bumps in the road that you don’t notice anymore, and some are like brick walls that will do real damage to your vehicle if you go over them at speed. If you are renting a car be especially aware of speed bumps – rental companies regularly check under the car for speed bump damage. Slow down at all bumps, and keep your speed down in urban areas; not all topes are sign-posted or marked out.
If you drive defensively in Mexico, chances are you’ll have no problems at all. Driving in Mexico can be a very enjoyable and safe experience; you’ll simply need to exercise extra care, especially in urban areas where traffic congestion is higher.
Road Conditions – Smaller and fringe roads can be under-developed or in disrepair. Watch out for pot-holes—some are bad enough that they will wreck your suspension and possibly leave you needing a new tire or wheel. Sometimes they are marked with a cone (or a rock painted white is also common), but sometimes they are just there and may be hard to see, especially so at night.
Markings and Lighting – Road markings may not be present. This makes driving tricky on remote dark highways or inside unlit provincial towns when you can’t see where the road edge ends. Road signs may not be lit up. If you’re traveling by car at night it’s best to stay on a main highway (toll roads are best) or be in an area you know.
Cyclists and Pedestrians – Be vigilant at night for cyclists: most don’t have lights fitted to their bikes nor do they wear any reflective clothing; they will be near-invisible until you are very close to them. The same applies for pedestrians: in rural areas, many locals walk home from work along the edge of local roads when there are no sidewalks; they may not be walking towards you and probably won’t be wearing anything bright and far less likely to be wearing reflective clothing.
Beware of the Animals! – Another important consideration when driving, especially at night, is the presence of cattle and animals wandering into the roads. Many roads in Mexico do not have fences fitted either side of them where they cross ranches, farms or areas where animals are allowed to graze. It’s not uncommon for cows, sheep, chickens, dogs and other animals to wander aimlessly into the middle of the road, regardless of what may be traveling towards them! Not only does this present a danger to your own vehicle (if it’s a rental car, you may have to pay excess charges for any damage – see Car Rental, above) the event could be a catalyst for a bigger accident involving several cars.
If you rented a car, your car rental company should have breakdown recovery services in place—check with them to find out what the procedure is before your start your journey.
Angeles Verdes (Green Angels)
On the interstate highways, “Angeles Verdes” (Green Angels) patrol the roads, looking for broken down vehicles, and helping out with minor repairs and, surprisingly frequently, selling fuel. They ride green trucks; sometimes it’s a tow truck, and will provide free help, although they will charge for fuel if you need it, as well as any car parts. They’ll tow you to the nearest town if your car is in need. It’s appropriate to Tip the mechanic if they help you out.
Dealing with Breakdowns
If you are driving in a rented car, or your own private car, dealing with a breakdown in Mexico will depend where you are and what cover you have in place to help you.
If you are in a large town or city, someone may come to your aid to help you move the car to the edge of the road; many Mexicans are amenable and helpful when they see someone who has broken down.
If your car is rented, call the rental car company at once, as they will mobilize their breakdown service and get help out to you as soon as possible.
If you are covered for breakdowns by your insurance company or some other breakdown service (for example AMA, Asociacion Mexicana de Automoviles) call them to get help to you.
If you are on a major highway, especially toll-roads, a patrolling vehicle from the Angeles Verdes may find you and help you (see note above). Note that cell phone coverage can be scarce on remote roads across Mexico; tolled highways have wired phones posted every few miles. If you are on a non-tolled highway, and there is no cell phone coverage, you may need to walk back to the nearest town or village to summon help.
Beware of ‘Fake Breakdowns’
Principally on major highways, and especially non-toll roads, some deceptive people may stage a breakdown to lure a potential crime victim. Because of the risk, the best advice is to ignore people who are broken down on the highways and trying to flag you to stop, especially if you are alone and it is night; an alternative way to help them is to alert highway police or Angeles Verdes (see above) if possible. It is absolutely essential to stop if you witness a car accident or are involved in a car accident. Failure to stop when you are involved in an accident circumstances is a Federal offense which carries stiff penalties (fines and/or imprisonment).
If you take a roadtrip across Mexico, sooner or later you’ll encounter a military checkpoint. Some checkpoints are semi-permanent, although many are are set-up on the fly and may appear on any highway at any time of day or night. Some check points stop every vehicle for inspection, although most create a traffic bottle-neck to slow down the traffic enabling the officers at the checkpoint to selectively signal certain vehicles to pull-over and stop at an inspection area situated at the side of the road.
You can read more about Military Checkpoints and how to deal with them if you are pulled over by one by reading this blog article: Military Checkpoints in Mexico.
If you are involved in a car accident in Mexico and you are not properly insured, the authorities will pursue you personally for costs related to the repair of the public highway and third parties may also pursue damages against you.
In the event you are involved in a serious accident in Mexico, where persons are hurt or killed, you will be detained by the police until blame is assessed. If it is deemed that you are to blame, you will be detained for longer until the other party (parties) are satisfied with any compensation being offered by you (or more likely your insurance company) at which point they will sign the paperwork that will have you released from police custody.
Good insurance policies offer legal counsel and bail-bond services so that, in the worst-case scenario, you have the legal support and financial assistance you will need.
Auto Insurance in Mexico
If you are driving your own car across the border from the USA or Canada into Mexico, you MUST purchase a Mexican insurance policy to cover you in Mexico. However comprehensive your US or Canadian auto insurance policy is, it will not cover you when the vehicle is present in Mexico.
Connect to our comprehensive guide about Auto Insurance in Mexico for full details about the requirements, documentation, and how to get cover for your vehicle in Mexico.
If you are renting a car in Mexico, be sure that you are fully and comprehensively insured in that vehicle. See Mexico Car Rental Insurance.
Personal Liability Insurance
It’s strongly advisable to have personal travel insurance when driving in Mexico— in addition to the car insurance. Most car insurance policies that cover your vehicle also cover your personal liability, and include legal and bail cover. If the policy does not cover these additional elements, don’t buy it.
The better insurance policies on the market also offer travel assistance so in the event of a car accident, for example, you would have access to English-speaking advisors via 24/7 help line. They can get doctors, lawyers and other professionals to contact you directly and even send emergency messages to friend and family back home on your behalf.
Also See: Guide to Auto Insurance in Mexico
Minor Accidents and Bumps
Mexicans will tend to walk away from minor accidents because many drivers will not have insured vehicles. If you are involved in a “fender bender” or other minor accident, don’t be surprised if the other party drives off. In the event where the other driver does get out, you may need to wait until an insurance assessor arrives for the matter to be resolved (see below). If you are renting a car and the other driver speeds off, you will be liable for the damage on the rental car (or the excess fee associated with any damage) if you are not traveling with “full cover” insurance.
Hit-and-Run Accidents in Mexico
Bumps and scrapes which happen while the car is stationary in a public parking space are common, and very few—if any—drivers in Mexico will stop to ‘leave a note’ with their insurance details on the windscreen. More serious hit-and-run accidents involving ‘fender-benders’ on the road or, more seriously, accidents involving pedestrians or where a serious accident takes place can happen, because drivers who are uninsured don’t tend to stop to deal with the police and legal system. Needless to say, if you are involved in any car accident in Mexico, the worst thing to do is abscond. Aside from the moral issue at hand, a car with foreign plates (or a rental car) driven by a foreigner is easily traceable and, as unsophisticated as the Mexican police may appear at times, they can be very efficient at finding someone when they really want to. If you become the victim of a hit-and-run accident, you should report this to your insurance company or rental car agency as a matter of course.
For more serious accidents, and where the police get actively involved, it is certain that you will be arrested and held until blame is assessed.
You should always contact the insurance company and/or rental car agency in the event of a serious accident or where the police are involved. In such circumstances, contact your home country’s Consulate and advise them of the circumstances.
If any person is hurt or killed as a result of the accident, then you will be subject to a detailed legal process and will surely need the services of a lawyer and your insurance company and may also require assistance from your country’s consulate in Mexico.
If it is subsequently deemed that you are to blame for the accident, you will be detained for longer until the other party (parties) involved in the accident are satisfied with any compensation offered by you (or by your insurance company on your behalf) at which point they will sign the paperwork that will have you released from police custody.
Good auto insurance policies offer legal counsel and bail-bond services so that, in the worst-case scenario, you have the legal support and financial assistance you will need. See Auto Insurance in Mexico for more details.
Where an accident takes place between road vehicles in Mexico, insurance assessors from the companies representing the drivers are summoned to the scene. This is why you may see, adjacent to a car accident scene in Mexico, additional vehicles with insurance company logos painted on them.
In many countries where there is no personal injury or death involved in an accident, or the police are not involved, drivers simply exchange insurance details and the ‘fender bender’ is later sorted out between insurers.
In Mexico, this is not the case. In all circumstances, insurance assessors arrive on the scene to interview the drivers, take notes and photograph the incident to file a detailed report. If the drivers involved in the accident share the same insurance company, then one assessor will represent both parties; otherwise two or more assessors may arrive on the scene.
If you are renting a car in Mexico and are involved in an accident, then the car rental agency will probably arrange for the insurance company’s assessor to visit the scene of the accident. They may also have other people attend the scene; for example, an agency representative with a replacement car if the vehicle you are driving is no longer roadworthy due to the accident.
Once the scene of the accident is assessed, the insurance assessors will arrange for tow trucks, etc., if required, and negotiate with each other about who is to blame.
If people are hurt or killed, a legal process will also ensue (see Serious Accidents, above), otherwise, people will drive off (or have alternative transport arranged by the insurance company) and go about their business.
Also See: Guide to Auto Insurance in Mexico
Filling stations in Mexico are all PEMEX franchises. PEMEX—an acronym for Petroleos Mexicanos—is the state-owned oil company which has a national monopoly on the supply of fuel in Mexico. To find a filling station, look out for the green and white PEMEX signs located in towns, cities and along highways throughout Mexico.
Gasoline Prices in Mexico
The Mexican government sets a ‘maximum price’ for the cost of gasoline and diesel in Mexico and individual PEMEX stations can opt to charge less than this if they want to, so you might get fuel a bit cheaper by shopping around and it will never be more than the maximum official price. On the border with the USA prices are indexed to prices across the U.S. border for local commercial reasons. Sometimes those prices are below those of the rest of the country, and at other times they are higher, since U.S. prices vary considerably in line with world oil prices.
Full Service Stations
All stations are FULL SERVICE. Check that the counter on the pump is set to zero before the attendant begins to dispense the fuel. Most gas station attendants make a point about showing you that the meter is set at zero before filling.
Ask the attendant to fill the tank, (lleno -“YAY-noh”) or to a specified monetary amount, e.g. “Dos cientos pesos“. Additionally, if you ask, the attendant will also clean the windscreen, check/fill your oil if required (check this with him), replace your windscreen wiper blades (these are sold), fill your vehicle with water or coolant, check your tire pressure and adjust as necessary, and any other minor job that may need doing that won’t take more than a few minutes at most.
Someone may come along and clean your windscreen for you, unsolicited. It’s optional to pay, but you may like give them 2 or 3 pesos in return for their efforts if you allow them to clean your screen.
Tipping Gas Station Attendants
Attendants at gasoline stations should be Tipped, commensurate with the amount of work they do for you. 3-5% of the cost of your fuel is normal for fuel-only, 5-10% of same for additional services.
Paying for Your Fuel
Generally speaking, it’s a waste of time flashing your plastic card at most PEMEX stations—many of them don’t take credit or debit cards. Some stations are now starting to take major credit cards, but buying fuel for vehicles is still largely a cash business in Mexico. When you fill up, make sure you have cash with you in case the station you need to stop to refuel at doesn’t accept cards.
See Blog: Cash, Please