Driving in Mexico
American and Canadian drivers’ licences are valid in Mexico. The rules of the road are a little different, and some of these differences are important to keep in mind. In cities and towns, east-west traffic tends to have the right of way, and some of the locals will bomb through every intersection if they are on an east-west route. Don’t expect to be given the right-of-way just because you are on the right. Similarly, one-way streets may not be entirely one way. Residents will sneak up a street half a block to their house going the wrong way rather than drive an extra 2 or 3 blocks to come at it the right way. Sometimes the signs for one-way streets are missing or obscured and out-of-towners will be found going the wrong way.
Street signs are another issue in Mexico. Sometimes they are tacked to the side of a building, sometimes they are nailed to a tree, sometimes they are attached to a fence, and often they are just not there. Also, house numbers are not always sequential, and the same numbers may be used 3 or 4 blocks apart. Be prepared for a few turnarounds when looking for a new address and don’t hesitate to ask the locals if they know where a given street or building is located.
The police sometimes ask foreigners to show identification and proof of their legal status in Mexico. Ensure it is a legitimate police officer requesting the documentation. Traffic police have no jurisdiction to request such papers. Nevertheless, you should always carry valid photo identification and photocopies of the identification page of your passport, visa and other documents, and keep the originals in a safe place.
Road conditions vary and are usually not as good as Americans and Canadians are accustomed to. Dangerous curves, poorly marked signs and construction sites, roaming livestock, slow-moving or abandoned vehicles, and unmarked speed bumps as well as other obstacles pose hazards. Road travel should be limited to daylight hours throughout the country.
Toll (cuota) highways are less heavily travelled and in much better condition than the free (libre) roads. The toll roads are not inexpensive, however, and the budget traveller might prefer the congestion of the free roads to the higher cost of the toll roads. Make overnight stops only in major centres, at reputable hotels or secure campsites.
Mexican styles of driving and road safety standards are very different from those in Canada and the U.S. Police do not regularly patrol the highways. Be prepared for vehicles that fail to observe speed limits or indicate lane changes, and that do not stop at red lights. Look both ways when crossing a one-way street. Pedestrians should be extremely cautious at all times. Fatal hit-and-run accidents occur.
In case of a vehicle breakdown or roadside emergency, a highway patrol service offered by the Mexican Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) called the Green Angels (Angeles Verdes) provides free assistance on all major toll highways from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The telephone number in Mexico City is 3002-6300 ext. 8987 to 8989 (when dialing from outside Mexico City, dial 01 and 55 before the number). The 24-hour toll-free number is 01-800-987-8224. In case of emergency, you can also dial 078.
Canadian and American automobile insurance is not recognized in Mexico. You must obtain additional insurance at the Mexican border or in advance of your trip. Full coverage is recommended, including coverage for legal assistance. Although it is required by law, many local drivers do not have any form of car insurance. Motor vehicle insurance is considered invalid in Mexico if the driver is found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of an accident, or if the driver has no valid driver's licence.
There is a tendency to minimize the damage when an accident is the fault of a Mexican, but to maximize the costs when it is your fault. In most minor accident cases Mexicans will want to settle for cash on the spot rather than involve the traffic police. Be aware that involving the traffic police will cost more than $1,000 pesos (depending on the severity of the accident) in mordida, and will take hours to process. They will simply keep talking and hanging around (and not letting you nor your vehicle move) until they receive what they want.
In the case of a serious accident (with or without injuries), a police report should immediately be filed and your Mexican insurance adjuster notified. The adjuster will come to the scene as quickly as possible. The police report may need to be presented to the nearest customs office no later than two days after the incident in the event that your vehicle will be written off. It is customary for drivers to be taken into custody until responsibility for the accident is determined and until all penalties are paid. If you do not have Mexican liability insurance, you could be prevented from leaving the country until all parties agree that adequate financial satisfaction has been received. Depending on the extent of injuries or damages, drivers may face criminal charges. It is way better to slow down and drive defensively than to go through an accident investigation, even if the accident was not your fault.
In the case of theft of your vehicle, a police report should immediately be made at the nearest police station and presented to the nearest customs office no later than two days after the incident. Police apprehension of car thieves is not very likely, so you may need to make alternative transportation arrangements.
More popular than vehicle thefts is theft from vehicles. Do not leave anything visible inside your vehicle. If you have a hatchback model and have suitcases or other bags in the back, cover them with a blanket or tarp. Removable CD players, external rear view mirrors and even headlights and taillights are favorite targets of petty criminals.
In order to reduce air pollution primarily in Mexico City, there are time restrictions on driving. Based on licence plate number, there will be at least one day each week and one Saturday per month when driving is forbidden. This applies equally to permanent, temporary and foreign plates. These regulations are strictly enforced. Offenders face heavy fines and temporary confiscation of their vehicle.
As of September 1, 2008, a supplementary driving restriction has been implemented in Mexico City. Vehicles without plates from the State of Mexico (Estado de Mexico) or the Federal District (DF) will not be able to circulate from Monday to Friday from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. For more information, visit http://www.sma.df.gob.mx/ (in Spanish only).
Mexico has strict rules regarding the entry of foreign motor vehicles. To travel beyond the 25 kilometre border zone, foreigners must obtain a temporary import permit or risk being fined and having their vehicle seized. It is not difficult to obtain a permit - just a matter of having the right number of copies of the right documents and standing in line for awhile. Before arriving at the vehicle registration office, make sure to have 3 copies each of the title page in your passport, the vehicle registration certificate, the title or purchase invoice of the vehicle, your driver’s license, and your FM-3 or other immigration or tourist document. The registration clerk will record your vehicle and indicate where you must pay the processing fee (usually there is a bank branch close by). You will need a credit card for payment and for a deposit to ensure you take the vehicle back out of Mexico in the future. If you don’t have a credit card, you will be charged up to $400 (U.S.) for the deposit. The cost of the import sticker, itself, will be $27 US at the border, $36 US at one of the Mexican consulates listed below, or $45 US on the internet.
Each traveller is allowed to bring only one vehicle into the country. Those travelling with a recreational vehicle are not entitled to tow a second vehicle, unless it is registered in the name of an accompanying traveller. The second vehicle should not exceed the weight limit of 3.5 tons. To avoid line-ups at the border, you can obtain the permit through the Internet at http://www.banjercito.com.mx/ (Spanish only) or http://www.aduanas.gob.mx/ (available in English) 10 to 180 days before departure, or at one of the Mexican consulates located in Albuquerque, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco or St. Paul.
Despite any advice, official or unofficial, to the contrary, vehicle permits cannot be obtained at customs checkpoints in the interior of Mexico. If you arrive at the 25 kilometre checkpoint without valid vehicle registration, you will be sent back to the border.
Be aware of individuals outside vehicle permit offices offering to obtain the permits without waiting in line, even if they appear to be government officials. There have been reports of fraudulent or counterfeit permits being issued adjacent to the vehicle import permit office in Nuevo Laredo and other border areas.
If you stay beyond the date indicated on the Temporary Importation Permit, the vehicle may be seized, but this is highly unlikely.
When taking the vehicle out of Mexico, the Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit must be cancelled in person, and with the vehicle with which you entered the country. This can be done at any customs office at the border. Keep a copy of the cancellation documents. Neither your Embassy in Mexico City nor the Embassy of Mexico in your home country can return these permits. It is fruitless to mail your permit to the border point, as it will remain in effect. As long as the permit remains in effect, you will be unable to import another vehicle into Mexico. You can cancel the permit on a future visit to Mexico if you enter at the same border point. However, a fine may be imposed.
In cases when the permit holder cannot exit the country with the vehicle (e.g. in case of death or sickness), the person driving the vehicle out of Mexico must be a foreigner with a valid tourist card or resident visa and have documentation to prove the relationship with the car owner, such as a marriage or birth certificate.
Purchasing/Selling in Mexico
Foreigners wishing to purchase a car in Mexico must be holders of an FM-3 as proof that they reside in Mexico and are therefore eligible to pay vehicle taxes (tenencia) and obtain Mexican licence plates. Tourists are not authorized to purchase vehicles in Mexico. It is illegal to sell your vehicle in Mexico unless it is at least 10 model years old, and it has been nationalized. To nationalize a vehicle you need to take it to a customs office (usually found at airports) along with your import documentation. Depending on the book value of the vehicle, a tax will be charged for the nationalization, but you will then be free to obtain plates and tenencia, and sell the vehicle. If you sell a newer vehicle, your vehicle may be seized and you could be subject to a fine and deportation.
The contract for a rental vehicle must be in the traveller's name and include a full description of the vehicle. Many outlets for vehicle rentals now exist at Lakeside and at the airport.
Travellers must produce proof of employment and of the vehicle’s ownership by the company if they are bringing company-owned vehicles into the country. The same regulations for importation as described above will apply.
A foreign-owned vehicle is restricted in terms of those eligible to drive it. Be aware that your insurance could be nullified if an ineligible driver has an accident with the vehicle. Those who are authorized to drive the vehicle include: the importer, his/her spouse, parents, children or siblings, foreigners who are expressly authorized to drive the vehicle and who are legally in the country. Mexicans may also drive the vehicle as long as any of the authorized persons described above is also traveling in the vehicle.
Mexico has a very thorough public transportation system. The long distance highway buses are extremely comfortable and safe. All the urban areas have an airport and several small commuter airlines service local routes. International air travel is also very convenient. The main thing missing is long distance train travel. The railroad network is mostly for freight, with a few short passenger routes. However, the highway system is gradually expanding and there are few areas that can’t be reached via high speed toll highways. The larger cities also have rapid transit systems, and local buses are everywhere. Although public transportation is relatively safe, take precautions in airports, bus stations and the Mexico City metro, which are often very crowded and popular with pickpockets. Avoid travelling during rush hour if you can.
Hitchhiking is not a common practice in Mexico and is not recommended.