Ready to road trip through Mexico? Here’s everything you need to know to prepare and safely drive into Mexico. There are a few things that are a little different when driving “south of the border”, but driving in Mexico can be part of a safe, fun family road trip!
We drove from Los Angeles down to Ensenada and around Baja Norte with our kids (4, 7), as part of our Baja Norte Family Road Trip.
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All About Driving In Mexico
Road tripping is a great way to see Mexico at your own pace. Whether you are planning to drive your own car or renting a car while you are there, here is what you need to know before you start driving in Mexico.
Preparing: Before Driving in Mexico
If you are planning to drive across the border to Mexico, here are a few things to prepare before you leave.
Bringing the kids? Check out 60+ Fun Road Trip Activities for Kids: How to Keep Kids Entertained on a Long Car Trip.
You do not need a special driver’s license to drive in Mexico. A valid, current US or Canadian license is all that this required. However, if you are going to be spending more than a few days driving, we suggest you get an international driving permit.
These permits can be purchased for $20 at any AAA office and are valid in over 150 countries. An international driving permit is good for one year from the date of issue.
Good to know: There is no written or driving test to get a driver’s license in Mexico. You simply go to the DMV and pay the fees and get your license. So if it feels a little like everyone around you is just figuring it out as they go… you might be right.
Before heading out on any road trip, domestic or abroad, it is always good to take your car in for a maintenance and safety check. You don’t want to be delayed or stranded because of some minor issue that could have been addressed before you left.
This is also a good time to make sure you have jumper cables, a flashlight, and more. Get our complete list of safety gear in our road trip essentials post.
Mexican Auto Insurance
Whether you are driving your own car or a rental, you will need to purchase Mexican auto insurance. Your US auto insurance will not cover you while you are in Mexico. There are several vendors that offer this, we recommend that you also check with your current car insurance.
We got quotes from several places, but the Mexican insurance (El Aguila) recommended via our current insurance (Geico) was the least expensive. As a bonus, the paperwork was easy to fill out as they already had our car information. For alternative quotes, check Lewis and Lewis and Baja Bound.
By Mexican law, you must carry liability insurance of at least $500,000 USD. As a ballpark, our Mexican car insurance in 2021 cost about $12 USD per day. Make sure to carry proof of your Mexican car insurance in your car at all times.
Check your Phone Plan
Before you get to Mexico, make sure your phone will work and what it will cost you. We have T-Mobile specifically because of our travel plans and our phones work in both Mexico and Canada without any interruption or plan changes or extra costs.
You will want to use your cell phone for navigation, so either plan to use your data plan or download maps to your phone for local use while you are in Mexico.
As part of crossing the border, everyone in your car will need an FMM- Forma Migratoria Mulitple. No one looked at ours, and they are free if you are staying 7 days or less, but make sure you have one. These can be filled out online, but you’ll need to carry paper copies with you.
Many people prefer to rent a car in Mexico rather than drive their own vehicle. If you choose to rent, Mexican car insurance will be part of your rental agreement. Be aware that this will significantly increase the cost of your rental.
Many car rentals will quote a low price-per-day that does not include the additional cost of required insurance, then surprise you with the final bill. We recommend using Discover Cars– they are really upfront about what is included in your rental.
Check Prices: Car Rental at Discover Cars
You must be 18 years old to rent a car in Mexico. You will find the same large brands that you do in the US, such as Hertz, Alamo, and Budget.
In most cases you cannot drive a rental car across the border so you will need to cross into Mexico, then pick up your car. The easiest way to do this is to take a rideshare to the border, walk across the border, then pick up your rental car on the Mexican side.
Driving in Mexico: Staying Safe
It is generally safe to drive in Mexico, but there are some basic rules that you should follow to stay as safe as possible.
Like any other kind of travel, use your common sense and don’t wander into areas that are too far off the tourist path unless you know where you are going.
Don’t Drive at Night
While this has largely to do with road conditions and the limited availability of emergency and police services, it is also a safety precaution. Most carjackings and other unsavory activities occur after dark.
Bring Car Seats
If you will be taxis, Uber or another ridesharing app, be sure to bring travel car seats for the kids. We use the Mifold Comfort– it’s designed for kids 4+ who weigh at least 40 pounds.
These car seats work by bringing the seatbelt down, rather than the child up like a traditional booster. They fold up and are fairly easy to carry with you, weighing about 1 1/2 pounds.
If you prefer a high-back booster, they also have a Mifold Hifold which is larger, weighing just under 10 pounds. These make more sense for a rental car where you are not moving the seat every day.
Check Price: Mifold Comfort Travel Car Seat
Use the Toll Roads (Cuotas)
The State Department advises staying on toll roads while in Mexico as they are safer and the condition of the roads is better. They also recommend this as outside of major cities, there can be limited police and emergency services available. Tolls are only a few dollars and can be paid in US or pesos.
Driving from Tijuana to Ensenada, we encountered several toll booths, most of which were $40 pesos.
Google Maps or Waze work pretty well in Mexico if you have a smartphone. Cell service, however, can be spotty at times or non-existent. It’s best to work out where you are going in advance, and always bring a physical map with you as a backup. This way if your plans change, you can plot a new course even if you are not in cell range.
Drive at the Speed of Traffic
Signage indicating the speed limit can be spotty. When in doubt, drive at the speed of traffic. Outside of major towns, I did not see any traffic police (Transito), and while I am not a slow driver, I did not want to push my luck.
Most direction apps will give you the speed limit in your current location, but these did not seem to work in Mexico. I used my common sense and drove about the speed of those around me.
Keep Cash in Your Glove Compartment
We had several people advise us to keep cash in our glove compartment. If you get pulled over, cash on hand can quickly and easily solve many problems. Luckily, we never had to test this theory, so while this may be an urban myth, it’s worth passing along.
Driving in Mexico: How it’s Different from Driving in the US
There is so much to see when you are in a foreign country and driving in Mexico is no exception. The best advice I can give is to be alert, give yourself plenty of time so you are not in a hurry. Be mindful of those around you and the potential for changing conditions.
Speed Limits are in Kilometers
Outside the US, most of the world uses kilometers or km/h, rather than miles and mph. This means that speed limits, as well as distances, are in kilometers. This is not that big a deal, most US cars have both marked on the speedometer, but you should be aware.
There are roughly 1.6 kilometers in a mile, so things marked in kilometers away will come up faster than you may be used to. We missed a few turns and had to double back because the turns came up faster than we were expecting.
I found it helpful to make sure my Google Maps is set to kilometers for navigation. You can find this in settings under “distance units”. If you set it to Automatic, it will switch units when you cross borders either into Mexico or Canada and back again when you return to the US.
Diagonal White Lines Across the Road
A series of white lines across your lane is to get your attention and inform you of changing road conditions. These act as minor speed bumps and can be found prior to entering a town or residential area, or before a shape curve or a very windy or narrow stretch of road.
Passing and Breakdown Lanes
Like in the US, passing should be done on the left and only when it is safe. A dotted center yellow line means you can cross into the oncoming traffic lane to pass.
There are also highways with a single solid yellow line where the road is straight and you can clearly see oncoming traffic. I found myself behind four cars following a slow truck and one by one, the cars in front of me went around the truck. In this case, I waited till it was safe and passed as well.
One of the ways a slow-moving vehicle will let you know it is safe to pass it is to put on its left-hand turn signal. Make sure they are not breaking as well or coming up to an intersection or this could just mean that they are turning.
On roads with a breakdown lane, slower traffic will also use this lane so you can pass.
Speed Bumps (Topes)
Speed bumps are used to slow traffic down when entering a town or neighborhood and often without warning. If you see the car in front of you suddenly pop up, best to slow down fast. These bumps are not good to go over fast and can do some serious damage to your car if you do.
Armored Military Vehicles are Common
In Mexico, it is not uncommon to see military vehicles with mounted machine guns and troops in the back. These vehicles are usually just patroling, and while it can be a little surprising, they are there for your protection and just to show that the government is present.
Driving in Mexico: Cities or Smaller Highways
Whether you are driving in dense urban or city areas, or small rural towns and highways, here are some things to watch out for.
In cities, it is common to have multiple lanes of traffic going in the same direction. Lanes are not always clearly marked and especially around curves or where there is construction, lanes suddenly merge or appear.
Cars will often change lanes without signaling or cross several lanes and turn without warning. It is always best to drive defensively and stay alert.
Left Turns From the Right
On roads with multiple lanes and a center divider, the center lanes are often express and you cannot turn left from them. The lanes on the far right are used for slower more local traffic.
If you need to turn, you merge from the center to the right lane before a stoplight. There is a green arrow specifically for turning left from the right lane. When the light turns, you will be able to turn across the stopped traffic. This same lane is also sometimes for u-turns as well.
Alto! Watch for Stop Signs
Stop signs are often hard to see. Unlike the US, in Mexico, there are rarely white lines on the street indicating where you need to stop. The signs are on the right-hand side of the street, but often on the opposite side of the intersection. In some cases, they are used to control the speed of traffic and are placed periodically along a highway-type road, without obvious intersections.
Three Second Rule
When driving around towns and cities, make sure you stop for a full three-second at stop signs. We have been warned that this is an easy way for police to hand out tickets.
Especially when you are driving with an obviously out-of-country plate (like our CT plate), best to err on the cautious side. Many of the cars driving around have California plates, so if you also have that license plate, you will stick out much less than we did.
No Right Turn on Red
It is illegal to turn right on a red light in Mexico unless there is a sign that says you may proceed with caution after stopping. But this does not stop the taxis from doing it all the time. I got honked at while waiting for the light to turn green (it was a polite honk). So use your discretion.
Blinking Green Light
At traffic light intersections, the green light will start to blink before it turns yellow. This warning that the light will be changing soon gives you a chance to adjust your speed accordingly.
Pot Holes (Baches)
Watch out for potholes on anything but the major roads and toll roads. These can be big and deep- the kind that eat tires. This is another reason to avoid driving at night as they can be almost impossible to spot in the dark.
Getting Gas in Mexico
Don’t expect to pump your own gas. Most gas stations in Mexico will have attendants to pump your gas and take your money, as well as clean your windows, check your tire pressure or water levels.
A good rule of thumb is to look for gas stations with longer lines. These are usually the more reputable ones that are not charging for less than a liter or trying to swindle you.
Still, be aware of a few common tricks:
First, make sure the pump is set to zero when they begin to fill your gas. They will usually call this out when they start.
Second, if you are paying with cash, the exchange rates are bad, so you are better off carrying pesos. One way they might try to trick you is if you pay with a large bill, say a 500 peso note, they will show you a 50 peso and say you did not give them enough. If you count your money out loud as you hand it to them, this can help prevent this little scam.
Third, if you are paying by credit card (first check that they are equipped to take cards) never let the card leave your sight. Scammers will swipe your card, then turn and swipe it again on another device to get your information.
Expect to tip a few pesos if you are paying in cash and especially if you ask them to do anything more than just pump the gas. Rounding up to the nearest ten is common. If you are paying with a card, handing over a few pesos will go a long way.
Also, if you need to use the restroom at the gas station, expect to pay 5 to 10 pesos to the attendant by the door.
There You Have It!
A family road trip into Mexico can be a fantastic way to explore the country. With a little preparation and a little knowledge, driving in Mexico can be a fun and safe experience.
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