Driving in Mexico - the ultimate Guide
Wondering what driving in Mexico is like and looking for some useful tips and information? You´ve come to the right place!
I have spent a total of 4 months in Mexico in 2022. For two months I have been driving in my own, temporarily imported car and I have also rented a car and a scooter to drive in Mexico.
This is a very detailed and long blog post about everything you need to know before driving in Mexico. If you are only looking for specific information, you can navigate to your desired topic by clicking on it in the table of content below.
1. Renting a car in Mexico
My personal experience about renting a car in Mexico:
When I first came to Mexico, I was surprised to find that car rentals are actually pretty expensive. I would say on a European level or even more than that. Count on at least 50 USD per day to rent a car in most cities. Prices are depeding on season, car type etc. the price might even go up to 100 USD per day.
Important to know when renting a car in Mexico (if on a third party website or with a car rental agency directly) is that mostly mandatory insurance is not included in the quoted price. Make sure to read rental terms & conditions in detail, consider calling them or going directly to an agency to get a quote.
I booked my first rental in Playa del Carmen directly with Hertz. The price (through a hotel partner program that I have status with I got some discount) was about 40 USD per day. Comparing to kayak etc. I found it to be a good deal, so I before I booked, I checked if something was mentioned regarding insurance, but it said it was optional.
As I usually automatically have car insurance for any rental I book with my American Express Platinum, I don´t book insurance with the rental companies. To my surprise, when I went to pick up the car, the agent told me that the minimum insurance was not optional, but mandatory. He wanted to charge me another 40 USD per day for that! The same price as for the rental itself – crazy!
After long discussions, he ended up giving me a 50% discount on insurance, but I still had to pay the additional 20 USD per day. The second time I rented a car was in Merida, which we drove to Cancun and returned there. The one-way rental fee was 300 USD and price per day 50 USD, no hidden insurance fees here tho!
Conclusions about renting a car and driving it in Mexico:
Cost of renting a car in Mexico:
average about 50 USD per day, could be lower or higher, depending on multiple factors.
Insurance for car rentals in Mexico:
Most companies will not allow you to rent their cars without buying their liability insurance, which is often not included in the quoted price.
Deposit for car rentals in Mexico:
If you do not opt for full coverage insurance, the car rental agency will usually block a deposit on your credit card (usually around 1000 USD, but depending as well).
Credit card needed for renting a car in Mexico:
Yes, In my experience, you pretty much always need a credit card when renting a car. Some local agencies might accept cash deposits too, but credit card is definitely the better option.
Driver´s License needed for renting a car in Mexico:
In Mexico you are allowed to drive with any valid driver´s license that is issued in the roman alphabet. So any European or US license should be good to go. An international driver´s license is not necessary.
2. Buying and driving a car in Mexico
While I did not actually end up buying a car in Mexico, I did look into the option for several weeks.
Even though it does require a bit of paperwork, it should be possible to buy and register a car as a foreigner in Mexico. To my understanding one or two states do still allow foreigners to register cars. However it is definitely a good idea to get some help for that process.
I was trying to buy a car in Mexico really badly, flew to several cities to look at cars. In the end the problem was communication (I am not fluent in Spanish) and also the payment of the car, most sellers would only accept cash and it´s difficult to get to a big amount of cash outside of Europe with a European bank account.
So spontaneously, I flew out to the US and bout a car there – but that´s a story for another day 🙂
3. Entering and driving in Mexico with a foreign car
Wanting to drive your car with foreign plates into Mexico? This process was actually a lot less complicated than I initially expected.
Documents you need in order to obtain your mandatory TIP (temporary import permit):
1. Your car registration & title (this applies to US cars, I am not sure what exact other paperwork is needed when coming into Mexico with other plates than US.
2. Driver´s license
3. Passport & FMM (Mexican tourist visa)
4. Mexican car insurance (more details below)
5. Copies of all the above
If you are crossing the border from California to Baja California and will only remain there, not cross to “main land” Mexico, you do not need a TIP in my understanding. However, make sure to double check anyway. I knew I was going to the rest of Mexico as well, so did not research everything about it.
I personally crossed at San Ysidro, one of the busiest border crossing in the world. Crossed on a random Tuesday morning and had a very good experience. Hardly any cars, no waiting time whatsoever, was in and out in about 20 minutes all together.
MOST IMPORANT WHEN CROSSING AT SAN YSIDRO:
Do NOT miss the building to get the FMM & TIP right after the border, you are not being stopped and can just drive through and illegally enter Mexico. I have been reading about SO MANY people who drove through and realized 100s of kilometers later they missed something.
Right after you drive over the border there is a building on the right hand side. It is not really obvious that this is the building with immigration and customs, no signs or anything. Only after asking a couple of staff members in broken Spanish, I actually figured I was at the right place.
First thing you need to do is to get your tourist visa (FMM).
Your passport will be stamped and you will be asked to pay around 30 USD. Usually you wil be given 180 days to stay in Mexico, however I heard of cases that were only granted 90 days or even less.
Then you can proceed to the Banjercito, who will issue the Temporary Import Permit.
They will need all of the above mentioned documents in order to process your TIP. You will be asked to pay the fee for it which is around 50 USD. Also you will need to leave a deposit that you will get back after you exit Mexico again. For any cars younger than 20 years, the deposit is around 400 USD. You can either pay by cash or credit card. I chose credit card and had my money back one day after leaving Mexico and cancelling the TIP at the border to Belize.
Getting insurance for your foreign vehicle in Mexico:
This step is actually really easy. The best way is to do it online the day before entering. There are several different companies offering insurances. I went for www.Mexinsurance.com and paid around 200 USD for 6 months of full coverage.
4. Road safety & police while driving in Mexico
Now let´s get to one of the most asked topics about driving in Mexico: Road safety
Overall, after driving through a lot of states in Mexico, I can say I always felt safe and have never been in any really bad situation.
Police in Mexico
I heard a lot of stories like for example about police stopping you for non-existing speeding or similar, wanting a bribe, especially if you drive a car with foreign plates. I personally only had one incident in 7 weeks of driving through Mexico with my US plated car, which was in Puerto Vallarta and the police officer said he saw me talking on the phone while driving. That was not true and after discussing back and forth, he let me go without a fine or bribe or whatever.
Useful tips when police stops you while on the road in Mexico and accuses you of something that you have not done:
- Always be polite and respectful
- Even if you speak Spanish, pretend you don´t – most cops in Mexico do not speak English and usually get tired of trying to communicate with you quickly
- Be calm but insist that you have not done anything wrong
- If they won´t let you go without paying a fine, ask to pay at the police station, never pay on spot. If they have only been wanting to get a bribe, they will mostly give up on you at that point.
- Have only a small amount of money in your purse, in case you don´t get around a bribe for whatever reason, you will probably need to pay as much as you have, so better to only have a max of 500 pesos (25 USD) or something like that visible.
6. It might also help if you are blonde and female, not sure. 😀
Additional tips for road safety while driving in Mexico
In addition, I have been reading some info to only hand over a laminated copy of your driving license. However not sure if that is really advisable, I understood that´s not actually 100% legal…
I always keep my documents and cash hidden in different parts of the car. In case I get robbed, the car gets broken into or anything like that, it´s likely they will at least not find all the hidden stuff and the loss will be less than if you have everything in your purse for example.
Police & military checkpoints in Mexico
Police and military checkpoints are very common, especially when entering towns and cities. Often times I was just waved through. Sometimes they stopped me, asked where I was headed and where I came from and I was on my way again. Twice my car was sporadically searched, but only lasted a few minutes and they let me go.
Roadblocks by locals in Mexico
The only state I did not feel very comfortable in driving was unfortunately the beautiful state of Chiapas in the South of Mexico. Lots of roadblocks from locals and cartels? Sometimes you can pass through by paying a small fee, sometimes roads are blocked completely without the option of paying and some other times I have been hearing & reading about robberies at those roadblocks.
Other than that, I have felt very safe and welcome, driving in Mexico. A good place to check about roadblocks or warnings of robberies etc. is the App IOverlander. (www.ioverlander.com)
Also, military & police checkpoints are mostly listed here.
5. Road conditions in Mexico
Overall, the road conditions in Mexico are not actually too bad!
Free roads vs toll roads
I have mostly been using the free roads “Libre” instead of the toll roads “Cuotas”. I prefer to see the country and doing a lot of stops in between hours of driving. Toll roads often run through boring areas without anything to see and have only limited options to stop along the way.
A lot of people recommend using toll roads whenever possible, specifically in the North. I only used them, if there was no other option or they would save me a lot of time or distance, if I was in a rush.
Generally toll roads in Mexico are expensive, like really expensive. The average price for driving an hour on a Mexican toll road can easily add up to 10 USD. Prices vary a lot throughout the country.
In my experience they can also only be paid in cash, so make sure to always have enough pesos on hand, when planning to take a toll road.
Topes (speed bumps)
One of the first things you will notice when driving in Mexico: there are speed bumps everywhere. And I´m not talking about small bumps that you can drive over with 50 km/h – no.
Most speed bumps in Mexico are “tree-like”, you need to come to a complete stop and slowly drive over them. If not, your vehicle can easily get seriously damaged.
Unfortunately, oftentimes there are no signs warning you about an upcoming speed bump. Drive slow, wherever you go and always focus on the road. Happened to me a few times that I saw it way too late and drove over too fast, felt like my car was falling apart. (luckily it didn´t)
Also expect them in places where they absolutely make no sense at all. Like on a long, straight road with no houses, no crossroads whatsoever. Yes, they are there as well! I wonder who decides where to put speedbumps!
Some newer roads might have “nicer” speedbumps, where you don´t necessarily need to come to a full stop before driving over them, however those are still pretty rare.
General conditions of Mexican roads
Expected quite bad road conditions on some of the free roads. I was actually positively surprised that most weren´t that bad! Sure, couple of portholes here and there but nothing major really.
Generally, most roads between cities and bigger towns are paved. Some more off the beaten path places might only have dirt roads, but most are quite well maintained too.
Getting stuck while on the road in Mexico
I only got stuck once (my car is a 4×4) on a real bad dirt road leading to a small coastal town in the middle of nowhere. Seems that the place is usally only reached by boat for a reason lol
After an hour or so of trying to get up the hill on a very washed out road with big holes, luckily some nice local teenagers came around and helped me. We put big stones over the washed out parts, so I was able to get up the hill after all!
I actually am a person that enjoys the thrill of bad dirt roads, so for the more cautious or scared drivers, this might be a bit more of a problem.
6. Prices to consider for driving in Mexico
We talked about prices for car rentals, insurance and toll roads already above but let´s recap down here of all prices you need to have in mind for your roadtrip in Mexico:
Car rental prices:
varies, but count with at least 50 USD per day
Temporary import permit price:
50 USD and 400 USD deposit
I paid around 200 USD for my full cover car insurance, valid for 6 months
Toll roads prices:
varies a lot but I would count on around 10 USD per hour of driving on toll roads in average. You can also check your approximate toll costs on the app TollGuru
while I was in the country, fuel prices were between 21-23 pesos per liter, so a bit more than one dollar per liter or 4 dollar per gallon
7. Other things that are good to know before driving in Mexico
3 lanes when there are only 2
One thing I learned during my first days on the road in Mexico is that even when there is only two lanes, it is used as if there were three. If there is a shoulder on the road and someone comes up behind you, you are (according to Mexican driving habits) expected to drive as far as possible on the shoulder. The car coming up behind you can get in front of you, even if there is another car coming from the other direction.
In the beginning I thought this was only some random crazy drivers doing that, but turns out it is a pretty common habit all over Mexico and actually works out quite well.
Sounds scary and will be scary the first times you experience it, specially if there is hardly and space between the three cars on the two-lane road, but you will eventually get used to it.
“Hoy no circula” in Mexico City
Personally, I do not have any experience with this, but been reading about it on a few occasions. In Mexico City there seem to be days where it is not allowed to drive with certain plates. They call it “Hoy No Circula” – if you plan in on driving in Mexico´s capital – definitely do some additional research on this topic before doing so.
Useful Apps and Facebook Groups while on the road in Mexico
If you are planning to drive in Mexico for an extended period and are looking for warnings, advice or anything like that, I suggest you download the app IOverlander for warnings, roadblocks, campspots etc. and join some facebook groups such as “On the Road in Mexico” and “Panamerican Travelers Association”.
That should cover the most important things you need to know before driving in Mexico. If you have any additions, let me know down in the comments. Also let me know, if you have any more specific questions about driving in Mexico.
I hope my blogpost was helpful to you and that you are now ready for the adventure “Driving in Mexico”.
Make sure to also check out some of my other blog posts for Mexico, such as: