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Getting into Mexico


Crossing into Mexico

Original by Gill Ediger, updated by David Ochel in March 2008

Below find practical information and tricks for getting into Mexico and having a good time at it.  This was originally prepared for cavers entering through Laredo, but is generally good for all Ports of Entry if you ignore the Laredo-specific details.

You are requested and encouraged to submit any information which will update or add to the information contained on this page to the webmaster.



OVERVIEW

US citizens and many other nationals (if in doubt, check!) don't need to apply for a visa upfront when visiting Mexico.  When entering Mexico via land and staying within a certain distance from the border (20 miles for less than three days), no further requirements for entering Mexico apply.  If you want to go further in, or travel by air, you will need to obtain a "Tourist Card".  If you bring your car, you need Mexican insurance and a car permit.

In general, it's a good idea to check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for current requirements on documents required for land or air travel.  The Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migracion provides some pages in English with document requirements for travel into Mexico.

In summary, until June 2009, U.S. Citizens only need a passport when traveling by air, otherwise a proof of citizenship (birth certificate, certificate of naturalization) in combination with a government-issued photo ID (driver's license) are fine.  Starting June 1, 2009 you will need a passport, passport case, or "enhanced drivers license" in any case!  Non-U.S. Citizens always need a passport, and depending on which country they come from they may need to apply for a visa in advance before entering Mexico.


CROSSING INTO MEXICO

Only passports, or birth certificates (originals, not Xerox copies!) in combination with a state-issued photo ID, will be accepted as proof of citizenship for obtaining Tourist Cards to visit Mexico.  Dogs are OK if you have the vet's vaccination receipt.


RETURNING TO THE UNITED STATES

Within its expiration period, you need to cancel your Tourist Card (and car permit, if you brought your car) in order to avoid fines (and potentially a lot of hassle obtaining a new car permit) when entering Mexico the next time.  Until recently, this had to be done at the border in Mexico.  Since the end of 2007, it has reportedly been possible to cancel car permits at the consulate in Austin.  Also, while it seemed to be the case that Mexico is not keeping track of the Tourist Cards they issue and whether they get canceled, there was at least one caver in fall 2007 who got fined a few bucks for not having canceled his last Tourist Card (obtained with a passport, not a birth certificate - the passport number seems to be what enables them to keep track of it) when applying for a new one.

To enter the United States when returning via land from Mexico, US citizens need a passport, or a birth certificate in combination with a picture ID.  Starting June 2009, also US citizens will need a passport (or, a passport card or "enhanced drivers license")!  All others always need a passport, and potentially a visa.


GETTING YOUR CAR INTO MEXICO

Driving in Mexico is nothing to be afraid of.  The roads are generally good and all fuel is now unleaded.  To obtain the Temporary Importation Permit (car permit) for your vehicle you will need:

  1. The clear title to your automobile, or the red title and a notarized letter from the lien holder (typically, your bank) stating that you have permission to take it to Mexico.  Also, proof of registration is sometimes cited as requirement, which is in fact the letter that you get mailed to you accompanying your windshield registration sticker - while there is definitely cases where the title was sufficient to obtain the car permit, there is at least one case reported where somebody got turned around at the border because of not having this letter.

  2. A major credit card (Visa or MasterCard work well, it seems American Express is no longer accepted) in the same name as the title, and ...

  3. A current driver's license in the same name and proof of citizenship (passport, birth certificate, ...).

You will need the originals as well as a set of copies (the latter to leave with the authorities).  Don't forget to bring copies, they'll make you go and find a copy machine if you don't have any.

Minor variations in the names, such as initials only are usually acceptable, but if there are major differences, don't expect to get the car in.  This is actually a very easy process if all of your papers are in order.  Don't be afraid.  There is a fee depending on the age of the vehicle which will be charged to your credit card, up to about $50.  They will also put a hold of up to $400 on you credit card which will eventually be charged as a fine if you don't cancel the car permit.  Trailers and motorcycles will need titles and tags of their own, and have the same requirements as a car.

As a rule, car permits can be issued for up to 180 days, at the discretion of the issuing official.  A lot of customs offices and consulates now do this by default, but you may want to explicitly ask for the six months if you plan to drive your car into Mexico more than once in the next half year.  You can obtain a car permit either:

  • At the Mexican customs office at or near the border in Mexico, at the time you are actually crossing into Mexico. Be aware that not all borders and/or customs offices are open 24 hours, and that there may be long waits before major holidays.
  • At a Mexican consulate or embassy in the United States, e.g., in Austin. You'll get it the day you go there, but especially before major holidays expect a long wait and get there early in the morning!
  • Online, if you order it a few weeks before you are planning on going and are able to scan in and email the required documentation to a specified email address.

Don't forget to buy insurance for your car!!  This can be done at some small insurance offices in the United States that are located close to the border in border towns, or online, for example via AAA's website, Mexpro or Insurance Consultants International.


DRIVING IN MEXICO

AA few things that might interest you:

  • If you are involved in an accident, you must call your insurance right away.  You have to stay on the scene and wait for an insurance agent to show up and assess the damage and settle the issue on the spot!
  • Traditionally, the Mexican police didn't have radar to measure your speed.  This won't stop them from stopping you if you are in front of them and they can stop your speed by looking at their speedometer.  Also, police officers with radar guns have been seen recently.
  • Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) are patrolling major high-ways every now and then and are available to offer road-side assistance to tourists.
  • The left turn signal used by a car driving on the right shoulder *may* indicate that it's safe to pass them.

GENERAL ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS AT CHECKPOINTS

You will be asked several questions at the Border and at various checkpoints, usually in Spanish, then (sometimes) in English. Playing dumb is sometimes advantageous, but it is OK to speak Spanish if you can, or to try if you can't.

Note that a couple of years ago, there was some tension between the Mexican government and foreign caving groups.  The word was that for explorationary caving (everything other than visiting a show cave, such as Bustamante), a research visa (FMT3) is required.  Some cavers, when traveling on a Tourist Card, prefer until today to tell officials that they are going camping, rock-climbing (explains the ropes), or come for similar tourist activities.  To our knowledge, this visa requirement has been lifted in recent years, and "sport caving" (as opposed to research, as in collecting biological samples, for example) does no longer require an FMT3.  In recent years, it also seems that none of the guys at military checkpoints really cared anyway, so you might as well be honest.  Being friendly and, if your car ends up being searched, explaining how and what for you use this weird gear in your car, instead of making up stories, usually gets you a long ways.


WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE BORDER

After waving at the border cameras and leaving the US, park at the Mexican border crossing and find the customs office. At some border crossings, customs officers will stop you and inspect your luggage first. They are usually a friendly bunch, looking for guns, drugs, TVs, electronic crap, explosives, and other contraband. At the customs office you will get in line, first for your tourist card, and then for your car papers, if you don't have any yet. Note that, even if you got all your paper work done at home already, you will still have to get your Tourist Card stamped. And if your Tourist Card is for longer than a weekend, you will have to pay for it at a bank office - there may be one in the building, but if not, you will have to find one of the banks that are listed on the back of the Tourist Card in one of the towns you come through on your way. You may have to go to various places in the building to complete paperwork. Most tourists there will speak English and Spanish, so if you get confused or feel lost, just ask anybody where you should go next. This whole process usually takes about an hour, or significantly longer if it's busy and/or a holiday is coming up. An inspector may walk you out to your car and put the car permit sticker on it, otherwise you will have to do that yourself.


CHECKPOINTS

There are usually one or two checkpoints behind the border. The Customs and Immigration Checkpoint is at a large building along the highway and marked by an obvious flashing red light and a sign with the word ADUANA on it. The first inspector will want to see your Tourist Cards & car permit. He may ask where you are going, etc. Answer the questions correctly. He may want to direct you to the next inspector who will want to look at your car papers and may ask more questions. He (or she) will then point at a signal light and tell you to drive through. Now comes the trick. If the light turns green, you are free to drive on. But if it buzzes and turns red you must pull over to the right and have your luggage inspected again. They may ask questions about guns and drugs and the usual stuff. When they are satisfied that you are not a smuggler or a terrorist, they will let you go on. Always be polite. Sometimes, you won't be stopped at all to answer questions and can just proceed to the signal lottery directly.

Typically, you will also encounter a Military Checkpoint somewhere on the highway. Usually the only sign you will see is a red flashing light on top of a HUMV or a can of oil burning in the center of the road. Approach slowly and, if stopped, answer their questions, which are usually the same as everybody else has asked. Although they will have automatic rifles, don't be afraid, they aren't looking for you. They are looking primarily for guns and explosives. When they have looked at your luggage and asked 2 or 3 questions, they will let you go.


LOCATION SPECIFICS

Please be aware that this may change from time to time and we don't know how accurate the following statements still are!!

Laredo specifics:

  • If you cross at Laredo, use the Old Bridge (Bridge 1) and take a right at the end of the bridge.
  • Mentioning that you are going to Bustamante may help speed things up.
  • There are often traffic direction changes, so be flexible--the end results should always be the same.

If you cross at Columbia, your crossing will be faster and easier, but the offices usually close at 11 pm, sometimes earlier. Pass through the "Aduana" (Customs) covered lanes and go first to the "Migracion" office which is the 1st building on your right. Everyone should get Tourist Cards there. Then drive forward to the Aduana building for car papers. An inspector will then put a sticker on your car and you are free to go.

Eagle Pass (as of 02/2008):

  • In Eagle Pass, take Bridge 2 to avoid downtown Piedras Negras: Make a left after a bridge crossing railroad tracks in Eagle Pass, the signs will say that you are going to the border crossing for trucks.
  • The aduana building and customs inspection is 40-50 miles away from the border crossing, just follow highway 57 and you can't miss it.  This is where you'll get your Tourist Cards and car permits.

WHAT TO BRING AND - WHAT NOT TO BRING

You should purchase car INSURANCE in the US several days before leaving.  AAA offers Mexico insurance, even if you're not a member.  Some insurance companies will write you a Mexican policy over the phone if you already have your regular coverage with them.  Check with your company several days ahead of time since they will need to send you a copy of the policy by mail.  You should have it in your possession while in Mexico.

  • Minor children (under 18) traveling with only one parent should have a notarized affidavit from the other parent saying it's OK for them to be there.  Likewise, any minor children guests you bring will need affidavits from both of their parents.
  • FOOD and most other things can be bought in Mexico
  • If you require PRESCRIPTION MEDICATION, take it in the original container with the pharmacy label!
  • Take sun screen, a big hat, bug spray, long sleeves and long pants for extensive outdoor activity.

WHAT YOU DON'T NEED TO BRING

  • Guns of any sort (there are military checkpoints looking primarily for guns).
  • Fireworks.
  • Ghetto blasters or other electronic equipment (there are customs checkpoints looking for such items).
  • Suit cases (pack your stuff in duffels and back packs to avoid customs checks).
  • You can bring in a reasonable amount of beer, but don't load up like you're an importer. They don't like that. Besides, beer is cheaper in Mexico.
  • You can have a CB in your vehicle if it's permanently mounted.
  • Pesos are not necessary within the border area but are a little easier to deal with and should be carried into the interior. All businesses between Laredo and Bustamante will accept dollars.

JUDGEMENT

Cavers have been going to Mexico in large numbers for decades.  In that time cavers have come to be known to Border Officials on both sides as weird people, but not as troublemakers. As a result, border crossings have become relatively easy and we would like to maintain that reputation.Please be aware that the exercise of poor judgement such as smuggling and disrespect) will cause bad results for cavers making border crossings in the future. Border crossing is a fact of life and should be looked upon as another part of the fun and adventure.


MAPS

Download maps of:

Bustamante

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Laredo

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Columbia Area

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