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:
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.
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 ...
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
Please be aware that this may change from time to time and we don't know how
accurate the following statements still are!!
- 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
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
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
WHAT YOU DON'T NEED TO BRING
Guns of any sort (there are military checkpoints looking primarily for guns).
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.
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
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
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