If you’re not familiar with driving in Mexico it can feel intimidating to plan a road trip through this beautiful country. Before we started RVing in Mexico we knew very little about what driving in Mexico was like.
Road conditions, driving practices, and specific requirements can vary from region to region. But this guide to driving in Mexico should help you feel more prepared and what you need to drive a car, RV, motorhome, trailer, fifth wheel, or van in this country no matter where you’re going.
You can drive in Mexico as long as you have a valid driver’s license. You do not need a special international driver’s license to drive here. However, if you plan to drive your own vehicle (registered in a foreign country) you will need to first get Mexican liability insurance and you may need to import your vehicle to drive here.
Mexico driving insurance
In order to drive an international vehicle in Mexico you must purchase a special liability policy from a Mexican insurance company. Your current insurance provider may provide personal theft or bodily injury coverage while in Mexico. However, their liability policy will not qualify under Mexico’s mandatory liability insurance law requirement.
The minimum liability coverage requirements vary from state to state. For this reason, most insurance companies suggest getting a policy with a minimum of $300,000 in liability coverage in order to meet the country’s minimum requirement.
You can purchase full liability and collision coverage from a special Mexican insurance company, or basic liability coverage for one or more vehicles for a period of 6 months or 12 months at a time. We’ve got insurance coverage from MexPro and Baja Bound now. Both companies were great to work with and offer flexible plans to meet your needs and timeline in the country.
No matter who you purchase insurance from, ask what their process is like for dealing with a claim. Some will require work to be completed in the United States or Canada. Others will allow work to be completed in Mexico. It’s also important to note that policy prices will vary depending on the length of time you plan to travel to Mexico and the regions or states you plan to visit. If you leave the country before your policy expires you may be entitled to a refund.
If you are driving through Mexico going beyond the “free zone”, a region along the Texas and Arizona border as well as the Baja California Peninsula. You will need to get a temporary import permit (TIP) for your vehicle. Trailers are not considered a vehicle, but you do need to show proof of ownership when bringing them in or out of the country.
If you are entering Mexico with a tourist visa, your TIP will be attached to that permit, giving you a maximum of 180 days for vehicles, ATVs, and motorcycles. An RV, trailer, or motorhome TIP is good for 10 years without needing any permit renewals.
You can obtain the permit at the border crossing, but you will have to present:
- Proof of nationality (e.g. Passport or passport card)
- Mexican visa or tourist card (FMM)
- Valid vehicle registration
- Proof of ownership of the vehicle (such as title and possible permission from lender if the vehicle is financed)
- A valid driver’s license with a photo
In addition to paying a refundable bond for the permit which can range from $200 USD to $400 USD. We brought our Class C RV and scooter into Mexico and paid $7,648 pesos for our scooter and $1,053 pesos for our RV in February 2020.
TIPs are now issued electronically. You will get a receipt showing proof of importation and the vehicle’s information. You will also receive an email that has this information stored online. Make sure to keep this receipt in a safe place. You may need to show it to the National Guard if you are stopped. You will also need to close out your TIP upon exiting the country. They will use this receipt and printed verification to do that.
You can apply for the permit before you get to the border if there is not a Banjercito at the border crossing, however, this should be done well in advance as the permit will be sent by mail and can take at least 2 weeks to arrive. Important note: The payment method for the TIP must match the name of the vehicle owner.
It’s a good idea to make a copy of all of your important documents. This includes:
- a vehicle permit (with proof of payment)
- proof of Mexican liability insurance,
- color copy of your driver’s license and passport,
- tourist visa (FMM)
You have several road and highway options when driving through Mexico. The primary method of transportation for RVers is the Mexican toll (cuota) road. There are toll roads throughout Mexico, especially from large city to large city. While they can be expensive, in most cases they are safer, newer, and have better road conditions.
Tolls are cash (effectivo) only, so it’s important to have ample amounts of pesos if taking the toll roads and the cost for tolls will vary dramatically. Some tolls are as little as 40 – 100 pesos, while others are several hundred pesos. To help estimate the cost of driving the toll roads on a specific route, use the Secretary of Transportation’s tool to map out your drive.
In mainland Mexico we always have at least $2,000 pesos with us on drive days to cover the tolls.
If you have a tow car, you will be charged by the number of axles for your camper or RV as well as your tow vehicle. Since our scooter was raised off the ground on the back of our RV with our Mototote, we only had to pay for one vehicle.
The toll roads also include free assistance from the Green Angels, which is funded by part of the toll road costs. If you break down on the toll road during the day they will come and bring you gas, help change a tire, or tow your vehicle if needed. The number to contact the Green Angels differs for each region, so if you need assistance look at your most recent toll receipt and call the number on the back of the receipt.
Another option when driving in Mexico is to take the free (libre) roads. In many places, the free road will be your only option (especially in Baja). We have driven both free roads and toll roads, and have noticed toll roads have significantly better road conditions, and in general, feel safer as they are patrolled.
Mexico is a very mountainous country. As you drive you will pass steep grades, lots of mountain passes, and find yourself on very windy roads.
The condition of roads will vary greatly in Mexico. Sometimes the roads were smoother and wider than areas in the United States. Other times the roads were filled with potholes and had very little shoulder. This is especially true in the Baja California peninsula. Many roads in Baja are dirt roads. Expect lots of divots, potholes, and washboard conditions.
The roads in Baja particularly are extremely narrow with very little to no shoulder. If you are a wide vehicle it can be challenging to navigate the windy and steep roads with lack of shoulder.
Is driving Mexico safe?
In general, driving in Mexico is safe. However, it is a good idea to stick to the main roads and only drive during the day. Especially near the border or in areas with high crime advisories. While uncommon, there have been verified reports of people getting robbed at random roadblocks on the highway.
Toll roads are generally considered a safer option. For this reason, toll roads are the preferred method of travel when possible. Try to avoid taking unknown roads in more rural areas, especially side streets or dirt roads. Stick to the main highway and focus on getting from one location to the next in the fastest and safest possible manner.
Before we left for our next destination we would typically consult a Facebook group or iOverlander to see if there were any reports or things to know about the specific route we were planning to take like road closures, federal checkpoints, or reported crime.
Roads are poorly lit at night making it hard to see potholes, topes, and other obstacles in the road. Cattle and other wild animals are commonly found on or near the roadway. This is another reason to avoid driving at night.
What to expect driving in Mexico
Mexican drivers are aggressive. While it may seem chaotic at first there is rhyme and reason to their method of driving, but it helps if you are a defensive driver. So far we have only seen one car accident in the entire country and we are driving a lot.
Big rigs, like a large class A, fifth wheel, or longer trailer can get around Mexico but not without ample planning. Most roads in Mexico are not made for larger vehicles. But driving a big rig in this country can 100% be done. After all large trailers and semi trucks are able to navigate the country. But in most cases the smaller your vehicle the easier it is to get around and the more places you can go.
Plan before you drive no matter where you are going, and always, always, always have a backup route. Google Maps was our primary method of navigating through the country but we also asked for advice on routes from fellow travelers in Mexico in groups. Google Maps lead us astray several times. It’s also a good idea to have maps downloaded offline.
Tips for Mexico driving
Now that you have a better idea of what driving in Mexico is like. Here are a few tips that will help you as you are driving.
Have pesos with you
Have ample amounts of pesos on you. Especially just after crossing the border. Depending on how far you plan to drive in a given day and what your specific setup is you could need several hundreds if not thousands of pesos if driving on the toll roads.
Watch out for topes
Topes are large speed bumps that are frequently found in small villages and towns throughout Mexico. Sometimes they are well-identified, other times they are not. If you are getting close to a town keep an eye out for topes, it’s almost inevitable you’ll hit one going too fast which can cause damage to your vehicle.
Mexican drivers use their vehicle signals such as a blinker or flasher as a way to communicate with other drivers. For example, drivers may put their flashers on if they are stopping for a tope, toll booth, or if traffic is slowing ahead. Flashers can also let the driver behind you know if there are hazards in the road like a car on the side of the road, debris, or if there is a truck coming from the other direction.
Blinkers are used for turning, but also as an indicator for passing down the center lane. If you’re on a two-way road or highway and you want to pass someone down the center lane, leave your left or right blinker on. If there is another vehicle in front of you, they will typically move to the side hugging the shoulder of the road, and turn their left or right blinker on as an indication that it is safe to pass.
Hug the shoulder
As you can see from the vehicle signals, having a two-lane road or highway become a three or four-lane highway by passing in the center lanes is very common. For this reason, it’s a good idea to hug the side of the road as semis and other Mexican drivers will try and pass you no matter the size of the road.
Traffic signs are often optional
While you will see traffic signs throughout the country, it seems adhering to traffic signals and signs is optional — at least based on our observation. To date we have not seen one Mexican driver actually stop at a stop sign. We always suggest abiding by the law, but also following what the locals do. Notice what other Mexican drivers are yielding or stopping for and follow suit.
Head weight and vehicle restriction signs
Some roads, highways, and cities will have restrictions as to what vehicles can drive where or when. Mexico City for example, restricts how many cars can drive on a given day based on the age of the vehicle and license plate number. Additionally, the periferico (the road that goes around the city) does not allow camions. Look for signs that have a cross over a truck symbol as an indicator you cannot drive on that road.
Military checkpoints are very common. You will notice areas with National Guard (Guardia Nacional) vehicles or signs and people in uniform with vests and weapons. If you do get stopped at a checkpoint provide them with your documentation and answer any questions they may have. The Federales are working hard to minimize illegal activity and make these routine stops a part of their efforts to reduce cartel activity across the country.
Getting pulled over
Some of the smaller municipal cops are notorious for pulling over foreign vehicles (especially RVs) looking for bribes. We did not personally have this experience but know of people who have. If this happens, give them a copy of your driver’s license, not your real one. If they demand payment for a ticket when you clearly did nothing wrong, ask them to pay the ticket at the office (quiero pagar en el estacion). Most of the time this will deter them and they will let you go without payment.
Avoid paying, bribing is illegal. If it is a valid ticket they will take you to the station in order to pay.
Fuel is more expensive in Mexico than in the United States, comparable to gas prices in California. Gas stations are readily available both sprinkled throughout the tows or cities or alongside the toll road. When you get to a gas station an attendant will fill your tank for you. Tell them “llena lo por favor” (jen-a lo) and specific the type of gas such as diesel or gasolina.
Make sure they zero out the meter before they begin filling. Some gas station attendants will scam you into paying for more gas than you actually used by not clearing the tank meter before filling. It’s customary to tip the gas attendant $5 to $10 pesos, or more if desired. Most gas stations accept cash or card, however, it’s a good idea to ask if they accept cards before they begin filling.
As you can see driving in Mexico is different than in other parts of the world. But it’s very navigable and not as scary as it may seem. Hopefully, this guide has helped digest the ins and outs of Mexico driving. Are you ready for a road trip through this amazing country, yet?