Crossing the Mexican border by car may sound like an intimidating experience and if you are planning on driving to Mexico for the first time, you are probably nervous at the concept of doing so. Mexico and its border crossings often make the headlines for all the wrong reasons and the country on the whole isn’t always considered the safest place in the world.
The reality is that crossing the Mexican border by car and driving to Mexico from the US and Canada can be a safe and even enjoyable experience, provided that you plan ahead, take precautions, and use your common sense. I live in Mexico and have personally driven across the US-Mexico border.
In this guide, we are going to look at everything you need to know about crossing the Mexican border, which US-Mexico border crossings to take, and practical tips to make your journey easier.
Crossing the Mexican Border by Car in 2023
With all the different opinions on what it’s like to cross the Mexican/US border, I am here to share my own experience. Although not everyone’s experience is as smooth as mine I can assure you that most of what you read online is not coming from factual sources.
There is a lot of unnecessary scaremongering, and many of the articles that have been written about driving to Mexico from Canada and the US have not been written by people who have actually made the crossing themselves.
I crossed the Colombia Bridge Crossing (Puente International Solidaridad-Colombia) of the US-Mexico border in July 2023. (This border crossing connects Laredo Texas with Anáhuac, Nuevo León on the opposite side of the Rio Grande).
I was moving to Puerto Vallarta from Alberta, Canada after months of planning.
The whole planning process took a couple of months as I was looking for others who were driving down to Puerto Vallarta. I thought it was a good idea to join someone who was taking their car and wanted to share the costs of tolls and gas.
This proved to be difficult as most people I planned with for weeks ended up canceling their plans to go to Mexico and deciding to stay in the USA/Canada instead.
In this post, I will first share my own first-hand experience, and then provide practical tips to help you plan your own border crossing.
My journey driving from Canada to Mexico
I used Google Maps to plan out my route for each day and this meant seven to eight hours of driving per day.
While planning, I looked up hotels along my route and pre-booked them. I do not advise waiting until the day before or the day of travel to book hotels, especially outside of your own country where you are in a potentially vulnerable position.
Since I was taking my small dog with me I researched hotels that allowed dogs as well.
I started my journey from Grande Prairie, Alberta with only my dog and a couple of suitcases. I had sold everything else and said goodbye to everyone in Canada. My sister drove me seven hours from Grande Prairie down south to just outside of Calgary, Alberta.
The next day I crossed the border with a good friend into Montana, USA which was about five hours away. We waited about one hour at the USA border in a large lineup.
The border agent asked us for our passports, and the reason for our visit and I provided my dog’s updated vaccination records. There was no secondary inspection and we were on our way to Great Falls.
Entering the United States from Canada
I stayed at the Grizzly Inn which had their very own dog park on the property. The next day I picked up my pre-booked rental car from Great Falls Airport and drove for 3 days by myself with my dog.
On the first day, we drove seven and a half hours to Casper, Wyoming. We stayed at a Motel 6 in Casper which I do not recommend as it did not feel safe.
Our next destination was Ellis, Kansas which was just over an eight-hour drive. We stayed at the Days Inn here which was very clean and comfortable. The staff was also very friendly.
After that, we were on the home stretch and onto the last day of driving by ourselves. We made the eight-hour drive to Dallas Texas where we stayed at La Quinta Dallas Airport.
This hotel was very nice and had an excellent buffet breakfast. I was able to return my rental car to the Dallas Airport and get a shuttle back to the hotel.
Throughout my drive, I was able to cross Montana, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. A lot of the areas were flat with farmlands.
Once I got into Colorado I was able to see the mountains which was a real treat.
A change of plans
I had made arrangements with an American guy in Texas who I had met through a Mexico travel Facebook group, to cross the US-Mexico border together. However, when I arrived in Montana, he canceled on me at the last minute!
I was in a panic about what to do but luckily the timing worked out that Puerto Vallarta Pet Transport was able to meet me in Dallas and help me cross the border safely with my dog.
Next up was the longest and most exciting day of the journey. It was a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Dallas to the Mexico border.
We chose to take the Colombia Bridge Crossing (Puente International Solidaridad-Colombia). The great thing about hiring a pet transport company was that they are very familiar with border crossings and know the ins and outs of what needs to be done/where to go.
(Even if you are not traveling with pets, if you are nervous about crossing the Mexican border by car, there are plenty of reputable companies you can call and have someone meet you at the border and help you cross it.)
Crossing the US-Mexico border
Upon entering the border zone, we stopped at a Mexican government building. It wasn’t exactly labeled well but we just pulled up at the first building and it happened to be the correct one.
We were the only car in the parking lot. I went in alone since the guy from the pet transport company stayed back with my dog. There were military police and border protection guards sitting outside the building.
I walked inside and there was a gentleman who asked me what I needed. I was the only visitor in this section of the building.
He directed me to the border agent behind a desk. I told him I would like to enter Mexico on a visitor visa.
He asked to see my passport and then gave me a paper Multiple Immigration Form (FMM) to fill out. I did so and handed it back to him. He asked me if I would like 180 days and I said “Yes, please”.
Then, he handed back the FMM and told me to go to the other section of the building to pay the fee. He did not ask me many questions about why I was coming to Mexico or who I was with.
He did not ask if I was bringing any animals either. I had all my paperwork ready if needed.
If I was driving my own vehicle then I would have had to make photocopies of vehicle information/license and do more paperwork but because I was driving with the pet transport company, I was simply directed to pay my FMM. I waited in line behind two people who seemed to be Mexican citizens.
I waited my turn and then I paid the FMM fee in cash which was $675 pesos.
The traffic light system at the Mexican border
I walked back outside, got in the car and we drove through the inspection lane. At some US-Mexican border crossings, you will find that there are multiple lanes of traffic.
Roads may be separated into ¨nothing to declare¨ lanes (Nada que declarar) and ¨declaration¨ lanes (Carril de Declaración). Of course, you need to choose the most appropriate lane yourself depending on what is inside your vehicle.
The Colombia bridge crossing did not have multiple lanes. Regardless, all US-Mexico border crossing points do have a traffic light system for customs that is somewhat random.
Basically, as you are next in line at the border crossing, a traffic light in front of you flashes either green or red. If it is green, you are free to continue on your way.
If it is red, you have been selected for random checks and need to pull your vehicle over to the side of the road so that the Customs Agents can search your car and your belongings. (This sounds intimidating but it exists for everyone’s safety. They even have a similar traffic light system at Mexican international airports).
We got the green light so we did not need to stop for an inspection.
There were a couple of other cars driving through but they did not stop for paperwork and they also did not get a Red Light for further inspection. Obviously, your experience may be different depending on the border crossing you use, etc.
Driving across Mexico to our final destination
There was nothing notable about crossing into the Mexican side at this point. It looked like a rural area.
I have heard not to stop for gas right away and to wait until you get into larger areas. We did not have any issues and I did not see anything out of the ordinary.
From there, we were on the next leg of the drive to Saltillo, Coahuila. We had to stop in Monterrey at the airport so that the pet transportation company I hired could switch transport drivers.
Then it was another four-hour drive to get to our Airbnb. From Saltillo, we traveled to Chapala, Jalisco nine and a half hours to drop off some other dogs that the Pet Transport had brought from Nebraska.
We took the San Louis Potosi route due to criminal activity within Zacatecas. It is always better to take a little bit longer route to avoid known dangerous areas.
We stayed the night in Chapala near Guadalajara at an Airbnb. The next day was the last leg of the trip. From Chapala to Puerto Vallarta it was a swift five hours.
This section of the drive was my favorite. The beautiful scenery made for an enjoyable day. It did rain pretty hard for an hour passing through Tequila.
I loved looking out the window at the blue agave plants lining the highway! My experience crossing the Mexican border by car was a positive one, and the tips in the next few sections aim to help yours be the same.
Useful Tips for Crossing the Mexican Border by Car in 2023
As mentioned, it is a good idea to do plenty of research and plan your journey and intended route in advance. You also need to make sure that you have your documentation in order before crossing the US-Mexico border.
I was only asked to show my passport and information on my address in Mexico because I was not driving my own vehicle. If you are driving your own vehicle, you should be prepared to show additional information.
What do I need to travel to Mexico by car?
The items that are listed below are the things that you should have in hand when crossing the Mexican border by hand. Keep in mind that some of these things need to be booked and paid for in advance.
Vehicles must be a certain age to be allowed into the country. Always look at the government website prior to making the trip to Mexico to ensure your vehicle qualifies.
- A valid passport (with at least 6 months of validity)
- Information on where you are staying in Mexico (e.g. a rental contract or a screenshot of a hotel reservation)
- A full, valid driving license (and an IDP if your driver’s license is not in English)
- Mexican auto insurance (Canadian and US insurance does not cover you in Mexico)
- Vehicle registration document
- TVIP/Temporary Vehicle Import Permit
- FMM tourist card /relevant residency documents
Purchase Mexican auto insurance for when you arrive in Mexico
If you are crossing the Mexican border by car, you need to purchase Mexican auto insurance for your time in Mexico. You need to have bought this in advance of your trip and you cannot purchase insurance somewhere at the border.
If you arrive at the Mexican border and you do not have valid Mexican auto insurance, you will be refused entry into Mexico. Baja Bound is a great choice and offers affordable Mexico auto insurance for taking a variety of vehicles across the Mexican border. (Cars, motorcycles, ATVs, and camper vans).
Be prepared to show your vehicle registration document
Make sure that you have all of your car registration papers in order before arriving at the Mexican border. If this has expired or you don’t have it with you, you will be turned away at the border.
Apply for your TVIP permit in advance of your trip
If you are driving your own vehicle into Mexico, you need to obtain a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TVIP). You can apply for a permit anywhere from 10 to 60 days in advance of traveling into Mexico, but arguably, the sooner the better.
Although there are lots of different sources of information online about obtaining a TVIP, the only place that can actually issue these is Banjercito, an official Mexican government agency that processes TVIPs. You can find more information on this process and the costs on the official Banjercito website here.
As of summer 2023, the cost for American vehicles, including motorhomes is $919.76 MXN which works out at about $53.84 USD. You may need to pay a deposit at the time of booking and you can opt to pay by credit or debit card.
Obtain an FMM tourist visa (Forma Migratoria Multiple)
If you do not have legal residency in Mexico (whether temporary or permanent), you will need an FMM tourist visa to enter the country. This can easily be issued at the border, you just need to fill in a small form.
Citizens of most countries (including the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most European nations) are eligible to stay in Mexico visa-free for up to 180 days. This means that you only need to fill in a simple form at the border.
If you are crossing the Mexican border by car and you are not from the US or Canada, you should check your country’s government travel advice and with your nearest Mexican consulates to see if you need to obtain a visa in advance of traveling to Mexico. (Citizens of some countries do).
As of summer 2023, the FMM fee is $675 pesos which work out to about $39.50 USD or $53.26 CAD. You have to pay an FMM fee when traveling into Mexico overland but you do not have to pay one if you are entering the country by air.
You will be given a slip of paper that you must not lose throughout your time in the country. Keep it inside your passport so it’s safe.
If you lose your FMM, you need to pay a fine of around 600 pesos (Circa $ 30 USD) either at an INM office or at an airport/land border crossing when exiting the country. (Which can be stressful if you only have a limited amount of time before a flight.
Some entry points to Mexico (including Cancun International Airport) are experimenting with giving you an FMM passport stamp in place of a piece of paper. But for now, people crossing the Mexican border by car are given paper visas.
Check your government travel advice before you travel
When traveling to another country be sure to check the latest travel advisories issued by your home country. It will tell you which locations are under caution and which ones are safest at that time.
It is kept up to date so continuously check for updates prior to your travel dates. The US Department of State website, although sternly worded, is a good source of information as it provides a state-by-state breakdown of the current situation in each part of Mexico.
You can also find the Canadian government travel advice for Mexico here, and the UK travel advice for Mexico here.
The United States Department of State also suggests that all American travelers register in the STEP program. You can find the link for the STEP program here.
Download the Border Traffic App
The Border Traffic App is a great resource that shows real-time information on how long people currently have to wait at each US-Mexico border crossing. It also contains useful advice from the Mexican/US travel advisories and is frequently updated to reflect any current safety warnings.
Be sure to download it before you go. There is usually a short wait time of around a minute between vehicles.
Useful Facebook groups
There are a lot of useful Facebook groups for travelers and expats in Mexico where you can potentially meet other travelers to share your journey with, or ask for advice on crossing the US-Mexico border yourself.
Some of the most useful ones are listed below. You can also search for an expat group that caters to the specific part of Mexico that you will be moving to. (E.g. groups for expats in Merida, Mexico City, etc).
- On the road in Mexico
- Women traveling in Mexico
- Mexico travel community
- Backpacking Mexico
- Foreigners in Mexico City
- Expats in Mexico
- Merida Mexico Expat Community
Crossing the Mexican border with a pet
My main concern traveling from Canada to Mexico was to bring my dog with me. He is slightly too big to fly in the cabin and I did not want to put him in cargo.
Also, most airlines from Canada have a temperature ban in place during the summer months when arriving at destinations over a certain temperature and you are not allowed to put animals in cargo.
To cross the USA border you will need to show proof your pet has vaccines up to date, especially rabies. Some people state they do not have to show proof but it is better to have it on hand just in case. Not to mention, having the vaccine helps keep your pet safe.
If you need a Pet Transport service I recommend Puerto Vallarta Pet Transporter. Bill and Victor were very professional and made sure the dogs were well taken care of.
You have the option of flying to your destination and having the company drive to pick up your pets and bring them down for you or you can do what I did and ride down with them. It is well worth the price because not only are they knowledgeable about driving to Mexico and border crossings, you will feel at ease knowing you are not alone on this incredible adventure.
We traveled in July 2023 so we experienced very high temperatures in both the USA and Mexico along the entire drive.
Be sure your vehicle has air conditioning and stops every couple of hours to let your pet do their business and drink water. Never leave your pet unattended in a hot vehicle!
Be sure to pack something from home that your pet can sleep or lay on. It will help them if they have any vehicle anxiety to have a familiar scent close by.
Useful advice for Canadians driving from Canada to Mexico
Crossing the border into the USA is much more intense than crossing into Mexico. You must show your passport with six months validity, documents for your pet, and the reason for your trip as well as how long you will be staying in the country.
I have crossed into the USA many times and have never had any issues. Always be respectful and honest.
I have not heard of any Canada/USA border crossings that are not recommended but I have only ever crossed through Montana many times.
If you are driving from Canada to the USA, be aware that the speed limits posted are in miles per hour, not kilometers. The speed limits are often several times higher than we are used to in Canada so be prepared to drive faster.
Drivers in the USA are much more aggressive than in Canada, so use caution when merging and switching lanes.
Finding car rentals in Canada, the US, and Mexico
Several reputable rental companies operate in Canada, the US, and Mexico. I rented a car with Budget through Expedia.
You will often find that people tell you that one-way rentals work out substantially more expensive than rentals where you pick up and drop off the car at the same location. However, I was able to do a one-way rental from Great Falls, MT to Dallas, TX.
You can often do one-way rentals if you pick up and drop off at major airports. It cost me $533 CAD/circa $395 USD for the 4 days.
The gas cost was $170 CAD/$125.99 USD driving in a 2022 Kia Soul.
You are not able to do one-way car rentals between countries. This is why I had my sister and a friend take me to Montana.
Then I hired a pet transport company to pick me up in Texas to take me across the Mexico border to Puerto Vallarta. Discover Cars is a great rental platform to use within Mexico.
They allow you to compare and contrast the prices between various different rental companies so that you can secure the best deal. You should expect to pay between $30 and $40 a day for an economy-sized vehicle with full coverage insurance if you plan on renting a car in Mexico.
(Sometimes you can see ultra-cheap deals when searching for rental cars in Mexico but if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Always read past reviews of rental companies before you make a reservation).
Practical tips on driving in Mexico
Driving in Mexico is not as intimidating as it might seem. Road rules apply here just like anywhere else and since the penalties for speeding, breaking the rules, or driving dangerously are harsh, people are deterred from driving too fast or in a way that could endanger themselves or others.
Most states in Mexico also have a relatively high police presence on the roads, with police cars and checkpoints that look out for speeding and dangerous drivers, just like you would find with state troopers in the US.
It would be wrong to say unequivocally that driving in Mexico is safe as there are definitely areas that you should avoid when planning your route. The road conditions can vary from state to state, but roads are generally well-maintained in the Yucatan peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and the Yucatan, in Jalisco, and in the Baja peninsula.
Always make sure to do research on areas you should not be driving through. At this point in time, it was not recommended to drive through Zacatecas due to criminal activity.
If you are traveling to a different part of Mexico than Puerto Vallarta, your route may suggest you pass through other areas that are not completely safe, so do plenty of research and never hesitate to take detours for your safety.
Useful driving tips
Some useful tips for driving on the Mexican side of the border are detailed below.
- Stick to toll roads (autopistas/carreteras de cuota) rather than free roads (carreteras libres) as they are safer and better maintained
- Avoid driving at night. We only traveled during the day
- Be sure to have pesos for the tolls as they only take cash. If you plan your route on Google, it will tell you how much is estimated for your tolls.
- We did not see any suspicious activity at all while driving
- We did stop in some local gas stations and towns to eat lunch and had no issues
- Gas stations are full-service and not self-serve. You are expected to tip the attendant and sometimes they will clean your windows for 20 pesos or so
- There was one police checkpoint in between Monterrey and Saltillo and we were not asked to stop. The police officer looked at us and then waved us through.
- Always keep an eye out for suspicious cars on the road as there have been instances of car-jackings or robberies. This can happen anywhere in the world.
- Look out for topes (speed bumps) which come in all shapes and sizes and can be very steep. Sometimes there aren’t even road signs warning you of them on the road
- Look out for hazards on the road like wild animals, stray dogs and pedestrians not looking where they are going
- Download an offline map like Maps Me and ideally, pick up a Mexican sim card so you can stay connected during your journey
- Mexico’s Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) are a breakdown service that assists tourists and locals if their vehicles break down. You can call them 24/7 toll-free on 01.800.987.8224
Keeping safe on your drive
Always have emergency money or credit cards on your journey when crossing the Mexican border by car. Be sure to share your location with your friends and family and check in with them regularly.
I think part of the reason my ride went so smoothly through Mexico was because I was with locals in a Jalisco-plated car. I do feel like driving with USA or Canada plates could make you more of a target.
It was good to know that I was traveling with a Mexican citizen who is fluent in Spanish and understands how politics works. Some information on the internet about crossing the US-Mexico border is completely wrong and can get you in more trouble with the law.
Crossing the Mexican border with children
If you are traveling as a family, children under the age of 16 can show their birth certificates (either the original or a copy) as proof of citizenship in place of a passport or passport card. Children over 16 need to show their passports with at least 6 months of validity to the Immigration Officer at the border zone.
Crossing back from Mexico to the United States
There are often longer wait times when crossing back into the United States from Mexico than when crossing into Mexico. Be patient, and allow plenty of time for the crossing.
While you will go through the traffic light official customs process on your way into Mexico, when driving into the US, an Immigration Officer will ask you if you have anything to declare. It is important to be honest as you can be imprisoned for carrying illegal items in your car.
You will also notice Sentri lanes back into the US at some border crossings. These are special lanes that allow for a faster, expedited border crossing process.
It is important to note that not everyone can use them. They are for people who regularly cross the border and who hold a special SENTRI/global entry pass or a NEXUS, Global Entry, or FAST travel card.
You must be pre-approved for the SENTRI program and go through rigorous background checks before you can obtain your permit. SENTRI stands for ¨Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection¨.
Do not get in the SENTI lane if you don’t have this card as you will be turned back to the end of the queue.
Deciding Which Mexican Border to Cross
From the information I gathered from the advice of my local friends and other travelers the most common/safest crossings are Colombia Bridge in Texas and Nogales crossing in Arizona. The least advised crossings are Laredo, Tijuana, and most smaller crossings.
Many people have crossed at these crossings and have not had an issue, but from the research I have done, I would suggest the two above. Obviously, the most convenient place to cross may vary depending on your starting point in Canada or the US,
There are 48 different Mexican border crossings in total and a whopping 330 ports of entry. The San Ysidro crossing from San Diego to Tijuana is pretty popular among tourists who want to take a quick day trip into Mexico from California.
However, the border wait times here are among the highest.
The El Paso crossing that connects with Ciudad Juarez is also very busy. However, Ciudad Juarez is not a safe place or somewhere you want to find yourself for any amount of time.
The 48 border crossings exist across four different US states (California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico). The full list of US-Mexico border crossings is detailed below.
Arizona border crossings
If you are driving to Mexico from Arizona, the US-Mexico border crossings in this area take you to the northern state of Sonora.
- Douglas Arizona to Agua Prieta Sonora
- Lukeville Arizona to Mexican Federal Highway 8 in Sonoyta, Sonora
- Naco Arizona to Naco, Sonora
- Nogales, Arizona to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico
- San Luis Arizona to San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora
California border crossings
If you are driving from California to Mexico, the below US-Mexico border crossing points connect you with the state of Baja California.
- Andrade California to Los Algodones, Baja California
- Cross Border Xpress at Tijuana Airport
- Calexico, California to Mexicali
- San Diego (San Ysidro/El Chaparral) to Tijuana
- Tecate, California to Tecate, Mexico
- Otay Mesa, California to Tijuana Mexico
New Mexico border crossings
The New Mexico border crossings detailed below connect you with the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
- Antelope Wells to El Berrendo, Chihuahua
- Columbus to Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua
- Santa Teresa to San Jerónimo, Chihuahua
Texas border crossings
The New Mexico border crossings detailed below connect you with the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila when driving from Texas to Mexico.
- Brownsville to Matamoros, Tamaulipas
- Del Rio, Texas to Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila
- Donna, Texas to Reynosa, Tamaulipas
- Eagle Pass, Texas to Piedras Negras, Coahuila
- El Paso, Texas to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua
- Fabens, Texas (Tornillo-Guadalupe International Bridge to Chihuahua)
- Falcon Heights, Texas to Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas.
- Fort Hancock, Texas (El Porvenir International Bridge) to El Porvenir/outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua
- Heath Canyon, Texas/Boquillas Crossing to Coahuila
- Hidalgo, Texas (Mc Allen-Hidalgo International Bridge) to Reynosa, Tamaulipas
- Laredo, Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
- Laredo, Texas to Colombia, Nuevo León
- Los Ebanos, Texas to Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas
- Los Indios, Texas to San Joaquín, Tamaulipas
- Mission, Texas to Reynosa, Tamaulipas
- Pharr, Texas to Reynosa, Tamaulipas
- Presidio, Texas to Ojinaga, Chihuahua
- Progreso, Texas to Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas
- Rio Grande City, Texas to Ciudad Camargo, Tamaulipas
- Roma, Texas to Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas
Final thoughts on crossing the Mexican border by car
The biggest piece of advice I can give someone for making this drive is to always be prepared for worst-case scenarios. Sometimes things come up that you are not expecting.
If you are nervous at all while driving through Mexico I suggest hiring someone to meet you at the border and driving down with you. You can hire companies to fly to you then they drive your vehicle with you so that is an option as well.
I know there are lots of people who drive alone through Mexico but for first-timers, I do not recommend going alone because you do not know the area and if there happens to be an emergency you have someone to help you. As I mentioned I was absolutely terrified of the drive from everything I read online.
Luckily I had no issues at all and I do think it had a big help being in a local plated car.
All in all, I personally had a great experience and everything went smoothly. I can’t stress this enough but if you are nervous about driving through Mexico do yourself a favor and hire help.
Your safety and putting your mind at ease will be worth every penny.