Driving in Mexico is not as daunting as it may sound. Honestly, opting to rent a car here makes getting around much easier and gives you a lot more freedom and flexibility of schedule.
That being said, it is understandable to feel anxious about driving in Mexico for the first time.
Generally speaking, the roads in Mexico are very well built and maintained, and the same rules apply here as with driving in most countries in the world. Perhaps the only extra thing you need here is more patience than usual
With the right mindset and a little information on what the road rules are, driving in Mexico can be an enjoyable experience! This rings true even if you are a relatively new driver.
This article has been written by a British expat Travel Writer living in the Mexican Yucatan (me!) My partner and I live in Merida where we own a car and frequently take road trips around the Yucatan peninsula. We have also driven in Chiapas, Jalisco, and Sinaloa.
Rest assured, you are in good hands here 😉 In this guide to driving in Mexico, we will run through everything you need to know before driving here for the first time, as well as some practical safety tips.
Driving in Mexico in 2023: Things to Know
When you are driving in Mexico, you will note that people here drive on the right-hand side of the road. This is the same as in the United States and most of the world.
You might assume that people speed or drive chaotically in Mexico but for the most part, local drivers are just as cautious as drivers in the US. (Or maybe even more so).
This is because that Mexico has a very high police presence and fines and penalties for speeding, skipping red lights, and driving dangerously are high. Not to mention, a lot of police here are low-paid and are often looking for ways to make a few extra dollars on the side (if you know what I mean).
If someone were to get caught speeding or doing something they shouldn’t, not only would they have the standard fines to worry about, but they would also need to worry about the police asking for bribes. This isnt something anyone wants to entertain so most people drive quite carefully.
It is worth mentioning this as people often have the presumption that driving in Mexico is like the wild west. Really, it isnt that different from driving in the United States and Canada.
Sure there are some exceptions of people who speed and don’t respect road rules. But these are the exceptions, not the rule, and you encounter the occasional crazy driver in every country.
Can I drive in Mexico as a tourist?
You can drive in Mexico provided that you have a full driving license. If your license is written in the Latin alphabet (i.e. this one), the only thing that you need to take with you to Mexico is your driving license from your own country.
This applies to American, British, Australian, Kiwi, and most European travelers. However, if your driving license is written in another language – e.g. Chinese or Korean characters or Cyrillic letters, you will need to obtain an International Driver’s Permit.
IDPs are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. The process for getting one varies depending on where you are from. You can find out more information here.
When it comes to renting a car in Mexico, there are a few things to consider. Age restrictions vary from company to company but generally speaking, you need to be between the ages of 21 and 75.
A few rental companies may rent to drivers under 21 but they are few and far between. Drivers under 25 are likely to be charged a premium rate.
Plenty of reputable international rental companies operate in Mexico. It is generally better to rent from there as opposed to a small independent company.
That way, you have some assurance about their quality and reliability as scams do happen in Mexico. You can expect to pay between $30-40 a day for a rental including full-coverage insurance.
Discover Cars is a great place to find your rental car. The platform allows you to compare vehicles and quotes across various different providers in order to secure the best possible deal.
What are my other options for getting around in Mexico?
Driving in Mexico is not imperative, it just gives you a lot more independence and flexibility than if you are depending on public transport or a tour company. Public transport leaves a lot to be desired in many parts of the country.
This is even the case in areas that are popular with tourists and places in the Yucatan. For instance, even if you want to get from a major city such as Merida to a nearby Mayan ruin such as Mayapan or Dzibilchaltun, you will find transport either nonexistent or extremely infrequent.
You may often find that you need to take multiple buses to get from A to B, or a combination of buses and taxis. Some quaint pueblo magicos and gorgeous beaches in the Yucatan are simply impossible to get to if you don’t have a car.
Organized tours are indeed another option. However, it usually works out much more expensive to participate in such a tour rather than to go it alone.
Not to mention, you have to follow a group around and you might not get the time that you want to explore certain places. The best approach is to look to traveling to Mexico independently and supplement your itinerary with day trips and bus trips where it makes sense to do so.
Mexican Car insurance is essential
Comprehensive insurance is a prerequisite for driving in Mexico. You will also need a credit card to keep on file with your rental company.
Most rental companies do not accept debit cards although there are exceptions. Full coverage insurance is not essential but it is better to purchase this for your own peace of mind.
A lot of rental companies will try and pressure you to purchase their insurance and oftentimes, they may refuse to let you rent a car unless you buy insurance through them. It is typically better to just buy their insurance rather than an external policy.
Full insurance coverage usually means that there are zero deductibles. Read the small print as some things may not be included. For instance, tires, windows, minor damages, and keys.
Do note that if you are driving from the US to Mexico with your own car, your American insurance will not cover you. You need to purchase Mexican auto insurance for your time in Mexico.
Carry your license and passport everywhere
Up until recently, tourists entering Mexico would be asked to complete an FMM tourist card upon entry. It would be stamped by an Immigration Officer after passing through customs, and they would write down how many days you were permitted to stay in the country. (Up to a maximum of 180 days).
Now, most airports and border crossing entry points just stamp your passport instead. Most tourists are automatically given 180 days to stay in the country.
It is important that you carry your driving license and passport with you everywhere in Mexico. This is important because should you be stopped by the police or find yourself involved in some kind of accident, you will be asked to present your documentation.
Travelers from the US, Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of other nations are permitted to stay in Mexico for 180 days visa-free. If you are traveling to Mexico from a nation that requires you to obtain a tourist visa in advance, then you also need to carry your visa with you at all times.
You should also consider making photocopies and taking photographs of all important documents. For instance, your driving license, your passport, and your FMM.
Take a photo of each on your phone and send them to yourself via email so that you always have access to them. You may also want to print out and keep a couple of photocopies.
Perhaps keep one with you, and another at your hotel.
Is it Safe to Drive in Mexico?
It would be wrong to unequivocally say that driving in Mexico is safe as the safety situation and the conditions of the roads can vary substantially from state to state. However, tourist areas like the Yucatan peninsula, Southern Jalisco, Chiapas, and Baja California do feel very safe.
There absolutely are areas where you should not be traveling. However, they tend to be in parts of the country where you would have no business going as a tourist anyway. Rest assured, you are not going to encounter road blocks manned by bandits in the Yucatan.
You will find that there are two main types of roads in Mexico – toll roads (autopistas/carreteras de cuota) and free roads (carreteras libres). If you are traveling from one place to another, e.g. Merida to Uxmal, you will generally find that you can use either option to get there.
The two options exist because the Mexican government ruled that it was unacceptable to force people to pay to use roads. However, it is definitely the toll roads that you want to stick to.
These are better quality and well-maintained. Police are stationed here and there, and you will pass by various checkpoints that exist for your security.
Tolls can be annoying but the costs are low and it is better to be safe than sorry. Just be sure to always carry plenty of change with you.
The free roads are less busy and are more likely to be home to thieves and bandits. Other areas to avoid specifically? The Toluca Highway – Carretera Nacional 134, known as the ¨Highway of Death¨.
Avoid driving at night
Most Mexico travel guides will advise you against driving in Mexico at night but they will never give you more context as to why you shouldn’t do it. Obviously, sketchy parts of the country become even more sketchy at night but most areas frequented by tourists are safe.
So this is more because the roads in Mexico are poorly lit and many rural roads don’t even have street lamps. This can make it difficult to see hazards, stray dogs, and stray animals that wander into the road.
(It is not because if you drive in Mexico at night, your car is going to be pounced upon by bandits or anything like that!)
Driving in a safe city like Merida, Puerto Vallarta, or San Miguel de Allende at night is less of an issue, but remote intercity roads should be avoided.
Getting your bearings becomes altogether more stressful when you cannot see your surroundings clearly. Locals too, will generally not drive at night.
General Rules for Driving in Mexico
All of the rules that you have in your own country likely apply to driving in Mexico. For instance, no speeding or driving recklessly, no driving under the influence, no texting at the wheel, and you must always wear a seatbelt.
Mexican state police often patrol roads and highways in the same way that state troopers do in the United States. It is seriously not worth the risk of breaking any road rules here.
Speed limits in Mexico
Always make sure that you are adhering to speed limits in Mexico. Road signage will usually make it easy to understand what speed you should be driving at.
Police do enforce speed limits and will often be found at the side of the road checking people’s speed. Speeding often incurs an on-the-spot fine.
That is unless the police officer involved is dodgy and offers for you to pay him a lesser amount as a bribe (more on that below). Otherwise, you may get a ticket and have your driver’s license taken away. You will have to pay for the ticket in order to get it back.
Speed limits in Mexico are displayed in Km/h. Obviously, this varies depending on what type of area you are passing through.
The maximum speed limit on a Mexican highway is 110 Km/h. On main roads, the limit is up to 70 Km/h.
The speed limit in built-up areas (vías locales) is up to 40 Km/h. Meanwhile, in pedestrian zones and close to schools and hospitals, it is 20 km/h.
Speed cameras and bumps in Mexico
Fixed speed cameras do exist in Mexico, commonly on the outskirts of cities and on main roads. However, they are nowhere near as commonplace as in say, the US or Western Europe.
What you need to be concerned about however are speed bumps or ¨topes¨. Keep your eyes peeled for them!
There are a lot of speed bumps on some Mexican roads and the thing is, there are no signs warning you that one is coming up. Even if you are driving slowly, they can be bumpy, and sometimes they are extremely steep and wide.
Rules of driving in Mexico
Using a seatbelt is mandatory for all passengers in a vehicle in Mexico. You are not permitted to use your phone at the wheel.
If a policeman sees you with your phone in your hand or on your lap, even if you are not looking at it, you will be fined. If you need to use your phone to navigate and use GPS, make sure that you have a car phone holder.
Rental cars don’t come with these by default but you can pick them up before you travel for just a few dollars.
If you get into an accident whereby you caused the crash and potentially put someone else in danger, punishments are severe. So drive carefully.
Download offline maps to help navigate
It is useful to download an offline maps app such as Maps Me in advance of your trip to Mexico. You will often find that you pass through areas where there is no phone signal whatsoever, rendering your online maps ineffective.
This is fairly common and you will often find that close to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, you need to drive along a quiet road with nobody around and absolutely no service. Offline maps are great because they continue displaying your location along the route even when the service dips in and out.
If you plan on spending a lot of time in Mexico and you are going to be driving a lot, it may give you additional peace of mind to have a paper road map in your car as a backup. If you cannot speak Spanish, downloading an offline translator app is useful for helping you to translate if necessary.
Get a Mexican sim card
Some American and international phone plans do include calls, texts, and data in Mexico. Check your plan before you travel to see if this applies to you.
Alternatively, you may be able to purchase something through your provider that allows you to use your phone in Mexico. Failing that, it is cheap and easy to pick up a sim card in Mexico.
Telcel, Novistar, and AT&T are the main cell phone providers in Mexico. You don’t even have to venture into a phone store and go through a lengthy signup process to get one.
Instead, you can pick up a sim card in OXXO stores and gas stations. You will find OXXO convenience stores on virtually every street corner in Mexican towns and cities.
Plans start from less than $10. For this, you can get unlimited texts, plenty of calls and data, and unlimited social media usage.
It is very important to stay connected when driving in Mexico. You never know when you have to Google and check something, use a map, research the opening time for something, or find a local contact number.
Useful Tips for Driving in Mexico
General etiquette for driving in Mexico may differ from that which you are used to in your home country.
A selection of some useful things to keep in mind for your trip to Mexico is detailed below.
- Many Mexican drivers are liberal users of the car horn. They will honk impatiently when you are stuck in traffic and honk furiously at a stop light if you do not move immediately when it turns to green. It is better to keep your cool and not get annoyed by this or reciprocate with more honks.
- Driving in Mexico City, although not that different from driving in some major US cities, is extremely congested, and getting from one side of the city can mean waiting in traffic for long periods. This is best avoided if you can. You don’t really need a car in the city.
- There are often one-way roads in Mexico City and in other cities/rural areas and worst of all, they are often not marked as such on the road or on Google Maps. Watch what other drivers around you are doing.
- Confusingly, you cannot turn left on a green light but instead, you must wait for a green arrow. A green arrow signals the right of way.
- People often take right turns when there is a red light, even though it is illegal. Do not follow suit.
- Pedestrians seem to create more of a hazard in Mexico than in other countries and people often wander into the road without looking when they cross.
Sometimes you do see odd, illogical driving practices
Although I mentioned that people don’t really speed or drive dangerously in Mexico, sometimes you do see peculiar driving practices. This isnt really to the extent where you need to drive defensively, but you need to always be alert and aware of what is going on around you.
There have been times when I have been driving in Merida and have seen multiple silly accidents in a short space of time, many of which could have been avoided. (For instance, someone wasn’t looking at the road while driving and drove into a fence).
Mexico doesn’t have the same strict process for obtaining a driving license as many other countries do and there are often people on the roads that honestly shouldn’t be. For example, in the state of Jalisco, Yucatan state, and several other places, you need to take an exam before you can obtain a license.
Mexican driving licenses are available for periods of 2, 3, and 5 years with a 2-year license starting from around 1,000 pesos (circa $100). However, in many other states, people can bypass their driving test by simply paying an additional fine and obtaining a license without passing a test.
It sounds almost humorous, but it explains a lot about the kind of odd driving you see here sometimes and why you should always be aware of what is going on around you.
If you see an oncoming vehicle flashing its headlights, the driver is warning you to slow down. This could be for any number of reasons.
For instance, perhaps it is because you are approaching a narrow stretch of road that is only wide enough for one of you to pass. In Mexico, the first car to flash its headlights has the right of way and the other must yield.
One very useful thing that Mexican highways have are retornos. These are exits in the middle of a highway that allow you to do a U-turn and change direction.
They are very useful if you are driving along and you realize that you have missed an exit or set off in the wrong direction. You don’t have to take a long and convoluted route and wait for the next exit to correct yourself.
Instead, you just turn at the retorno.
There is a lot of wildlife in some parts of Mexico. Usually, you will pass road signs telling you to look out for deer, raccoons, or whatever other species inhabit that area.
Some parts of the country that sit within protected reserves will have additional signs telling you to drive carefully to protect the wildlife. That being said, it is not unheard of for animals to just run out into the road so always be careful.
Stray dogs too are a cause for concern and they often run around villages and remote areas in packs. Sadly, sometimes you will see dead animals in the middle of the road and you will have to switch lanes to miss them.
A lot of roads have limited to no street lighting meaning that visibility is bad when driving at night. Many roads in rural areas do not have sidewalks so you will also see people walking at the side of the road.
Take your time and always respect the speed limits.
Many Mexican towns and cities do have roundabouts. This is something that you may or may not be used to depending on where you are from.
The cars in the roundabout have priority over those joining. That means that you have to give them the right of way and wait for someone to let you in, or for the opportunity to join.
Potholes and hazards
A lot of roads in Mexico that are frequented by tourists have very good roads. For instance, the Yucatan peninsula was once laden with poorly maintained roads, potholes, dirt tracks, and other hazards.
However, in recent years, a lot of efforts have been made to improve road surfaces and the overall driving experience. That being said, in more off-the-beaten-path states like Veracruz or Tabasco, you may find that the roads are a different ballgame to those near tourist areas and resorts.
Drive carefully, you don’t want to cause any damage to your rental car. While well-maintained asphalt roads connect cities and towns, sometimes driving down a gravel/dirt road is unavoidable.
This is particularly true if you are visiting cenotes, archaeological sites, Mayan ruins, and hiking trailheads. Some are better suited to 4x4s although this is not exactly the type of car that everyone chooses to rent.
Know when a road is feasible for you and your rental car to access, and when you need to park nearby and hike a short way to whatever it is you are visiting.
Understand the different turn signals people use in Mexico
Turn signals in Mexico are a little different from what you may be used to at home. If you are turning left or right onto a particular road, you can use your indicator to make other drivers aware.
However, on roads and highways, people tend to use their turn signals to let other drivers know that they can pass them, rather than to communicate that they are trying to overtake someone.
For example, if you are driving down a highway and someone turns on their left-turn signal, they are indicating that it is okay to pass them. If you turn on your left-turn signal, cars behind you will assume you are suggesting they pass you NOT that you are about to overtake a car in front.
Use with caution.
Military checkpoints in Mexico
You will pass by a lot of military and police checkpoints in Mexico. They are all over the country – in touristic areas like Quintana Roo, the Yucatan State, and Baja California, but even moreso in more ¨dangerous¨ places in Mexico on the ¨Do Not Travel¨ list.
This can be intimidating at first but you get used to it after a while. The police are just looking for any signs of illegal activity (drugs, smuggling, weapons, etc.) and are there for everyone’s safety.
Most of the time, you just get waved on through. I have never been stopped in my two years in Mexico.
If you do get stopped, keep calm. The police may just ask you where you are going, to see your license, and then to see the trunk of your car. When they confirm all is well, they will wave you on your way.
Breathalyzer tests in Mexico
In Mexico, the blood-alcohol limit is 0.08% and there are harsh penalties if you are caught drinking and driving. Sometimes, you will see small checkpoints at the sides of the road where police are stopping people and asking them to do a breathalyzer test.
This is particularly common at weekends or on Mexican public holidays, and around any kind of beach/resort town. (E.g. on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta or in Progreso beach town in the Yucatan). Driving under the influence is an absolute no here.
The Mexico-United States border crossing
Crossing the border from the United States to Mexico (and vice versa) is a whole other topic in itself. There are 48 border crossings shared between the two countries with 330 ports of entry.
Some of these have multiple lanes of traffic and see tens of thousands of people pass through them every day. Lanes going in both directions are usually divided into ¨Nothing to Declare¨ lanes (Nada que Declarar) and Declaration lanes (Carril de Declaración).
Be honest and choose the correct one. When traveling from the United States to Mexico, there is a traffic light system that is somewhat random.
Basically, when your car is next in line to cross the border, the lights in front of you will flash green or red. If they flash green, you can continue on your way.
If they flash red, you have to drive to meet a customs agent on one side. He will ask to check your papers, vehicle, and personal belongings. As long as everything is fine, you are free to enter Mexico.
When driving from Mexico into the United States, a Border Agent will simply ask you if you have anything to declare. Arguably the wait times and queues are longer when traveling from Mexico to the US so allow plenty of time for the crossing.
Research the specific area you are traveling to in advance
There are 32 different states in Mexico and road conditions can vary wildly from one part of the country to another. So, it is important to do some research on the driving conditions of the specific state that you plan on visiting prior to your trip.
As mentioned, the roads that you will generally encounter as a tourist are in pretty good condition. However, in Chiapas for instance, there are potholes a-plenty!
Attitudes to driving can also vary in different parts of the country. While Yucatan drivers are usually more cautious and careful, Chiapas drivers can be seen speeding down the highway like a young German guy racing on the Autobahn.
Similarly, the roads around beautiful Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco are safe. However, if you want to use Puerto Vallarta as a base to travel to the villages of San Sebastian del Oste and Mascota, or you want to drive from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, you need to be more careful.
Southern Jalisco roads are not well maintained and are filled with hazards. Many roads hug mountain passes. This may be a stressful experience if you are not used to driving overseas or in mountainous landscapes.
So, it pays to do area-specific research on the region that you will be traveling to if you are considering driving in Mexico. Facebook groups can be a good source of information, as can travel forums.
Gas stations in Mexico
A lot of gas stations in Mexico are full-service. In other words, a gas station worker will fill up your tank for you.
They often also wipe your windows and windscreen. It is very important to tip them as many work for very low wages or for tips only.
10-20 pesos or so is a nice amount. Many gas stations accept cash only so make sure that you always have a few pesos with you.
A lot of Mexican gas stations are comparable to those in the United States. They have restrooms of various standards, and you can often buy hot coffee and snacks.
Many travelers and expats will caution you about gas station scams where the person filling up your tank claims to have given you more gas than they have. (So keep an eye on how much they put in the tank).
Some travelers have also reported gas station attendants giving them the incorrect change. Honestly, I have never had an issue in the two years I have been here.
Encounters with the police while driving in Mexico
Encounters with the police are not unheard of while driving in Mexico. Unfortunately, a lot of police officers here are corrupt.
If they catch you doing something you shouldn’t, they may try and get you to pay them a bribe. Alternatively, sometimes they may stop you for no reason whatsoever and make up a reason to charge you.
This is completely unethical and it can be very daunting to be hassled by the police in a foreign country. This is particularly true if you are traveling alone and there is a language barrier.
Paying the police should not be seen as encouraging or supporting this. Sometimes you just want to get out of the situation without hassle and intimidation so do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
Should you be so unfortunate as to have this happen to you, there are a couple of approaches you can take. First of all, you can refuse to pay the fee and ask to speak to the officer’s boss (Jefe).
This should usually be enough to get the officers to stop what they are doing. Mexico is very dependent on tourism and generally, people will not push it to potentially cause problems with foreigners.
If you happen to get stopped and you were doing something wrong, never suggest paying a bribe or buying your way out of the situation. It is an offense to bribe a police officer and if you deal with an honest one, you can land yourself in a lot of trouble.
Our experiences with the police while driving in Mexico
Unfortunately, my partner and I have had two uncomfortable encounters with the Mexican police while driving in Mexico – both in Campeche City and when driving in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. I think it’s important (and useful?) to share these experiences with you but this isn’t intended to scare you.
In two years, we have only had two such encounters and we drive almost every single day in Mexico. So with that in mind, the chances of you being stopped by a corrupt cop during your two-week Yucatan road trip are quite slim.
Over Christmas, we were visiting my partner’s family in Sinaloa and driving to lunch with his mum when a car came speeding out of nowhere from a lane on our right and crashed into the side of our car, denting it. We were partway through a junction and the other driver sped through a red light.
We pulled over to the side of the road expecting to share insurance details with the driver but he promptly reversed and sped off like a getaway vehicle. As we were stationary, two police cars approached us with their lights flashing (!) and asked for a statement.
We explained the situation to the police and they asked us to follow them in a convoy to the police station. One of the police got in the car to direct us there.
The police hadn’t even seen the collision, which was not our fault and could have endangered the passengers in our vehicle. At the station, they forced us to pay a fine of 1,500 pesos (around $88 USD), and then as we were leaving, we saw the police splitting it out amongst themselves.
It was a frustrating experience, but it wasn’t worth arguing over, especially not in Sinaloa.
Parking in Mexico
You cannot just park anywhere you like when driving in Mexico. Use basic common sense when looking for a place to park in towns and cities. E.g. you are not blocking someone’s driveway, etc.
A Mexican ¨no parking¨ sign is a capital letter P with a cross through it. If you see it, don’t park in that area.
A lot of tourist attractions, ruins, etc will have designated free car parks. Some have valet parking and others have parking attendants that will help you find a spot. You should tip both valets and attendants a few pesos.
What happens if I break down?
Breaking down is always a possibility, no matter how small, wherever in the world you drive. Should you be so unfortunate as to break down, call your rental company immediately and let them know what has happened.
A rescue company called the Green Angels (Ángeles Verdes) operates in Mexico. They drive up and down highways, toll roads, and major roads, armed with tools and prepared to help anyone who may need their assistance.
They should be your first port of call if you break down during the day. You can reach them on either 250-82-21 or 250-01-23.
If you have an emergency or you are in danger, call 911. (Yep, the emergency services number in Mexico is the same as in the US).
Final thoughts on driving in Mexico
Do you have any additional questions about driving in Mexico or planning a trip here? I live in Merida and will be happy to assist where I can.
As mentioned, I highly recommend using Discover Cars for your car rentals in Mexico and Latin America as their comparison tool is excellent in helping you find the best possible price and deal, and you can easily purchase your car insurance in the same place, at the same time.
Feel free to reach out via the comments below and I will do my best to get back to you ASAP. You may also enjoy reading these facts about Mexico before you embark on your trip.
Safe travels! Melissa xo