Crossing the Mexican Border—What’s Involved? Is it Safe?

by Renee on September 25, 2012

When we informed various friends we were heading to Mexico, predictably their response was some version of, “Wow, do you want to get shot?”

Eventually it got pretty annoying. After all, if we felt it were unsafe, we certainly wouldn’t bring our daughter here, would we?

Look, I get it. The drug war, kidnappings, violence, police corruption. These are the first things that come to mind when many think of Mexico.

Sure, those issues are problems, big ones, in certain areas. But trashing all of Mexico is like saying downtown Baltimore is the same as Carmel, CA, or Boulder, CO. It’s nonsensical. Besides, if tens of thousands of Canadian and American retirees head South of the Border every year, how bad can it be? Seriously. If the oldies can do it, so can we!

Yesterday we finally crossed the border and drove about 540 kms to our first stop in Hermosillo, SON.

Were we shot by narcos? Targeted by drug kingpins? Threatened by assault-rifle toting Federales? Pulled over by corrupt cops demanding bribes?

Not quite. Here’s how it went down.

On the advice of friends who’ve lived in Mexico for a couple years now, we used the sleepy Lukeville crossing, east of Nogales.

BORDER EVE

The night before we crossed, we stayed in Ajo, a one-horse town about half an hour north of the border.

 

BORDER MORNING: CROSSING BY 7 AM (OR AS WE LIKE TO CALL IT, 9:30 AM)

We were up at dawn, I swear.

But by the time we finished our juevos rancheros at Marcella’s Cafe, gassed up the car, scraped the bugs off the windshield, and interviewed Cesar at the market about that amazing chili-roasting contraption of his, we were a little behind schedule. Oh well. What else is new…

This machine produced one of the most phenomenal smells of my life.

 

YOU SAY YOU WANT TO LEAVE THE U.S? NOT SO FAST!

This was the line to exit the U.S.

What’s this, about eight cars ahead of us? Not bad. And this turned out to be the longest (read: the only) line we’d hit all day.

The U.S. agent was polite but intense. Freaky intense. Why were we going to Mexico?!? How long would we be gone?!? What would we be doing there?!? It was quite a grilling.

Let me tell  you, our family has crossed the U.S./Canada border (with U.S. passports) about 75 or 80 times, along with zillions of international borders throughout Asia, Europe and Turkey. I swear, nobody—and I mean NOBODY—makes me nearly wet my pants with fear like the U.S. border agents. I always feel like a naughty third grader being interviewed by the principal.

But evidently we didn’t fit whatever profile this guy was looking for, because finally he gave us a big toothy grin (once he relaxed, he looked more like a frat kid than a bastion of domestic security) and waved us on to the Mexican border.

CROSSING THE BORDER INTO SONOYTA, MEXICO, FINALLY!

A gate was down, but the person manning it just raised it and waved us through, no questions asked. I guess between the pod on the roof, the bikes on the back, and the Jack Russell in my lap, we didn’t fit any Mexican profiles either. Initially I thought that meant we’d cleared customs, but no. It turns out the customs office is about an hour down the road, just south of Pitiquito.

GETTING OUR TOURIST VISAS

For a moment we drove on down the road, but then I got nervous we’d missed the spot where we were supposed to get our FMM (6-month tourist) visas. Fearing eventual arrest and imprisonment, I made Mark turn around. We parked the car and popped into Soynota’s tiny immigration office.

The Sonoyta immigration office

All three of us had to go inside.

Other than a lone immigration agent, the office was empty. The agent helped us fill out our three visa forms and copied our documents for us. We paid him 26 USD each (a steal for a 6-month, renewable visa), he stamped the forms and our passports, and we were good to go. The whole process took 30 minutes exactly, and by 10:15, we were on our way.

We weren’t asked for Scout’s birth certificate, though Mark and I both had to sign her forms.

The most exciting part of the process was finding a flattened rattlesnake on the road by the office.

Getting our visas

It turned our that we could have gotten the visas at several points further down the highway, but when I enter a country for the first time, I don’t want to take any chances. I’m glad we got it done right away, for my own peace of mind.

GETTING OUR CAR-IMPORT STICKER

When you drive a car into Mexico, you need to get an import sticker, which mainly involves filing out a few forms, paying a fee,  and giving the authorities a 300USD deposit. You get this back when you return the sticker and drive the car back out of the country. It’s meant to keep people from selling their cars in Mexico.

Leave without returning that sticker and you won’t be able to drive another car into Mexico ever again.

We got the car import sticker from the shiny new Aduana (customs) building in Pitiquito, about an hour down highway. This was weird for me. I’m used to going through customs immediately upon entering a country. Not an hour down the road.

This is the customs side of the building.

You can’t miss the Aduana building. It’s big and new, and, looms up unmissably. We drove through the front, the customs area, which the customs agent in the booth informed us was a mistake. First we needed our car permits, so we had to circle around and go park at the back of the building.

Mark went inside and took care of the permits. The agent looked at Mark’s passport, his new visa, his driver’s license, and the title to our car. He wanted a copy of the title, but Mark didn’t have one, so the agent copied it himself. (Phew! He could have made us go get copies and come back.)

You can save yourself some time and order this sticker over the internet, as long as you do it a couple weeks in advance, to allow for mailing time. I tried, but the website wasn’t working, so we just did it the old fashioned way. In person. No bigs.

Anyone driving in Mexico is required to have Mexican auto insurance, which we bought online a few weeks ago. However the agent helping Mark didn’t mention it or ask to see paperwork.

Again, with no line at all, the process took 30 minutes, which seemed like 90 minutes, since Scout, Archie and I were  waiting in the boiling car. It was 107 outside!

At this point we were almost done.

THE LAST STEP: PASSING THROUGH MEXICAN CUSTOMS

Once we had our sticker, we drive around to the front of the building to pass though customs (again). We chose the “nothing to declare” lane, since all we had were our household goods. No other cars were there, so we drove right up to the gate.

When you drive through Mexican customs, one of two things will happen.

You can get a green light and the gate will rise. Or you can get a red light and an alarm. It’s random. If you get the red light, that means customs will look you over and search your car.

So the second time we drive through, after getting the sticker, we got the red light. Typical.

This is what I was hoping to avoid. Not because we’re smuggling anything, but because I REALLY didn’t want to spend an hour defending my small appliances, Archie’s paperwork, our homeschooling books or whatever to a border agent in the 107-degree heat.

Well, even though we got the red light, the agent (the same one we passed earlier and the only person on duty) just smiled and waved us through. Just like that. I guess it was too hot to pick through our car, or maybe we didn’t fit the profile, or whatever. All I know is I’ve never been so grateful in my life.

And with that, we we were done. All the Mexican officials we dealt with were polite and exceedingly helpful (in a taciturn sort of way).

Heading to Hermasillo over perfectly lovely roads.

The drive to Hermasillo was an easy one. The roads were smooth and no one bothered us. I wondered if we’d be stopped and hassled by cops fishing for the mordida (“the bite,” aka a bribe), because we really do stand out. With our pod and our bikes on the back, many Mexicans do double takes when we pass by.

Our friend, Alisa, who until recently lived in Mexico, confirmed later that that kind of thing doesn’t happen on the toll roads. In fact Alisa and her family she spent two years in Mexico tooling around in a big gringo minivan with American plates and were only ever stopped twice, both times on the same weekend in Acapulco. Good to know.

We were thrilled to have avoided mishaps and to arrive at our hotel before dark.

Our first day in Mexico was a total success and so much less stressful than I was expecting. But it was a long day, and our hotel was super comfortable, so we spent an extra day there, just playing in the pool, catching up on online tasks, and resting up for the rest of the drive.

We arrive at our lovely hotel. Cool tile floors, a large swimming pool and they (tacitly) allow pets.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kirk September 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Great to you guys making good progress. Tell Mark I said hello…

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2 Jen December 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Good, we missed the deadline to have the permit mailed so we need to do it in person. Sounds like no big deal.

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3 Renee December 16, 2012 at 8:33 am

Jen, yes it is absolutely no problem. I recommend arriving early in the day, just to beat any lines. Where are you crossing?

Here’s a good FAQ from MexPro: http://www.mexpro.com/mexico/vehicle-import-permit-faqs.html

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4 Sheila Moon January 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Thank you for this information!

I will be traveling through Mexico and Central America in my mini van with my dog for six months. Many people are freaking out about how dangerous it is. It is nice to have some real-time, real people experience!

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5 Renee January 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Hi, Sheila. Thanks for stopping by. What a fantastic trip you have planned!

Mexico gets a bad rap in the media, that’s for sure. Of course you have to be mindful of your surroundings, like anywhere else in the world. But we’ve been enjoying Mexico very much and haven’t felt threatened at all. We love it here.

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6 Sheila Moon January 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Hi Renee,

I live in Oakland CA. I feel like I have seen it all!

Have you traveled all the way down the west coast of Mexico? That is my plan ~ unless there are sections that are really dodgy!

I am so excited! I don’t want to wait until April to head out!

Sheila

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7 Elizabeth September 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm

THanks for this! Very concise :)
Did you need to get a licence for your dog? Or did you have any problems getting him across the Mexican border and back?
Hoping to do this trip with my pooch, but nervous about crossing the border.

Thank you!

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8 Renee October 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Hi Elizabeth. A license, no, but a health-certificate yes. I totally hear you about crossing the border your first time, but it’s a very low key experience. You should get a health-certificate within 10 days of crossing into Mexico, but I can almost guarantee no one will look at it, even if you are red-lighted and get inspected by customs. Do get it though. :-) Which border crossing are you considering?

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9 Elizabeth October 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm

We’re driving down the coast from Vancouver :) I’m a little concerned about the Can/US border, with the dog (I’ve heard it’s harder to cross with a dog into the US) and the US border guards thinking I might just move to Mexico and not come back-ha! So San Diego border? Thank you for your reply and LOVE-ing your posts…keep it up, so inspiring :)))

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10 Mary Jean Inman October 9, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Thank you so much for this post! My husband and I along with our 3 children are preparing to take a sabbatical in southern Mexico and really want to drive down so that we can have a vehicle and bring our dog and what not. This alleviated some fears that friends and other research had given me. Can I ask where you departed from in the US? We are from Washington state but have family in Phoenix area so we will be departing from there, so I will need to find the best route from there. Thanks again for the info!

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11 Renee October 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Hi Mary Jean. We did the same thing…basically started in Washington and then drove to Phoenix. We crossed the border at Lukeville/Sonoyta and had a great experience. It’s small and sleepy…considerably less stressful than some of the larger crossings. I have no idea what your timeframe is, but if you are planning to take your time driving, you’ll need to get the dog’s health-certificate in Phoenix. That’s what we did and I can recommend an absolutely wonderful vet.

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12 Mary Jean Inman October 21, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Renee,

Thank you for getting back to me and for the border crossing info. We are moving forward with our plans for a long term sabbatical in Mexico. I am working on getting all of our kids their passports this week! We are excited, nervous, and a little overwhelmed with all the preparations that need to be made. However, we love adventure and can’t wait to make lifelong memories with our family. I have been sending my family to your blog to help waylay some of their fears about us leaving the country. I have a few more questions for you if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to give me your insight…

-What did you guys do about medical care and health insurance while you were there?
-I have read that the vehicle permit that you receive at the border is only good for six months. We are considering staying 6-12 months and am not sure what we need to do to make sure our permit doesn’t lapse while we are down there.
-While you were there did you have to keep your US auto insurance?
-Was it hard to find a rental that accepted pets?
-Is there anything that is hard to come by in Mexico that you would suggest we bring with us?
-Did you guys use the postal service while you were there? If so what was your experience?

Thanks again for all your help and sorry for bombarding you with questions! By the way what part of Washington are you from? We are from a small town called Colfax in Eastern Washington.

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13 Renee October 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Hi, Mary Jean. You bet, I’m always happy to help if I can. Here goes…

We have an expat-healthcare policy that covers us everywhere except expensive countries like the US and Canada. The policy includes a provision for emergency medical evacuation, which I think is critical for all travelers. Small things, like say strep throat, we pay for out of pocket here. There are several companies that also offer expat policies, or if you’d like, I can give you the name of a broker who specializes in expat health insurance.

If you’re coming down on the 6-month FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple) tourist visa, then yes, your car can only get a 6-month permit which must renewed at a border aduana office. Lake Chapala is far from the border, so be sure to factor that into your planning. If you don’t renew, you will forfeit your deposit and your car won’t have correct paperwork. We’ve done several border runs now and they really add up in terms of time and money.

No, we don’t keep our US auto insurance while we’re here in Mexico. We have Mexican insurance here (required) and then get a short-term US policy before we enter the states.

We rented the first house we looked at, which was pet friendly. I think every rental is different. In general I don’t think it’s a big problem, though you may find a house or two you like that doesn’t take pets. You can always try to negotiate a higher deposit, but keep in mind that here in Mexico deposits are rarely returned, regardless of how well you treated the house.

Hmm, what’s hard to come by in Mexico. I’d say any personal drugstore-type items…your favorite lotions or whatnot. You many not be able to find them here and if you do, they’re bound to be expensive. I find affordable, quality footwear hard to find. Birkenstocks that cost me $120 at home were $200 in Guadalajara. Clothes here at Lakeside are limited and of low-quality (Walmart, etc). Also I brought my wok and other various kitchen items that I use frequently. I will keep thinking about this one…

You know, I haven’t actually used the postal service here (Correos de Mexico). I’ve heard from friends that incoming packages are likely to disappear but have no 1st-hand experience with this phenomenon. There is a mailbox store here that does a weekly airmail flight to their address in Texas. So if you set up an account with them, you would have packages & mail flown to/from their TX address, and then they’d fly it to Guadalajara and get it to Lakeside privately.

We aren’t actually from Washington. My dad lives near Seattle, so when we drove down from Vancouver (BC), we popped in for a visit. :-)

I hope that helps!

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14 Mary Jean Inman October 29, 2013 at 11:06 am

Renee,

Once again thank you so much for all the great information! We are actually planning our trip to a town called San Pancho (on the coast between Mazatlan & Peurto Vallarta), it is (or so we have read) a sleepy little town that hasn’t been over commercialized. Exactly what we are looking for! A place to learn how to slow down, focus on what matters, and just enjoy or family and rest. We are still trying to decide whether we should bring our dog. He is a Great Dane so his size worries me a bit. I am wondering if he will make it harder for us to find a place to live and if it is ok to let your dog be loose (not in a fenced yard). He is a home body so I am not worried about him wandering off, just wondering what is acceptable. I know you have a little dog, but am wondering if you can give me any insight?

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15 Renee October 31, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Mary Jean, I’d be concerned about the dog getting stolen. Many people do let their pets wanders around, but not if they’re valued. Also I can imagine an unleashed Great Dane would make some people quite nervous.

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16 Tom Lovely November 21, 2013 at 9:17 am

Just a small correction. One doesn’t need to get auto insurance to travel in Mexico. It’s a good idea,however, because Mexico looks upon an auto accident as a felony if you are at fault. Could mean months in the hooska.

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17 Renee November 21, 2013 at 11:48 am

Tom, all drivers in Mexico are required to carry third-party liability insurance. We’re in agreement that if you cause an accident and don’t have insurance, you are totally and completely screwed.

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18 John November 25, 2013 at 12:56 am

Hey when you say “the title to the car” do you mean registration or the bill of sale?

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