What to Know About Crossing the Land Border from the USA into Mexico

Land Cruiser in the desert in Baja, Mexico

Whether you're a snowbird looking to head south to Mexico for the winter or you're an experienced overlander driving the Pan American Highway, we're sharing all tht you need to know about driving across the land border from the United States into Mexico. As you might expect, there's a bit more to prepare for than your standard road trip. Navigating the international frontier with an RV or camper can be both exciting and daunting. Ensuring your travel preparations are tip-top and your compliance with Mexican regulations is crucial for an enjoyable and stress-free voyage.

Here's your comprehensive guide to crossing the border from the USA to Mexico in an RV or camper.

Driving to the Baja Peninsula vs. mainland Mexico

For travelers aiming to explore Mexico with their RVs, the Baja Peninsula presents a comparatively straightforward and hassle-free destination, mainly because it is designated as a "Free Zone." This special status means that adventurers driving into Baja do not require a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for their vehicles. This exemption not only simplifies the paperwork process significantly but also reduces the time spent at the border, making the beginning of your exploration into Mexico far smoother and more accessible. The ease of entering Baja, combined with its stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage, makes it an enticing option for many RV travelers looking to experience Mexico's beauty without the complexities involved in securing a T.I.P. for mainland travel.

Because we are driving through mainland Mexico after we drive Baja, we're going to give you all the information for snagging a T.I.P. at the border. Moving forward in this blog post, keep in mind that you do not need a T.I.P. if you're staying entirely in Baja. If you decide to change your mind and cross to mainland Mexico via the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlán, you can purchase a T.I.P. in La Paz prior to boarding the ferry.

What is the best land border to cross from the U.S.A. to Mexico?

When selecting the best land border to cross from the U.S.A. to Mexico, especially for those planning to visit Baja, entering via Mexicali is advisable over Tijuana due to Tijuana's reputation for having a notable presence of corrupt police officers. For RV travelers, it's particularly recommended to use the eastern Mexicali border crossing. This location is preferred because it is also where commercial trucks enter, meaning the border patrol there is more accustomed to inspecting larger vehicles, unlike the other border crossing into Mexicali that traditionally sees a higher volume of passenger cars. This insight can significantly ease your entry process, making it smoother and more secure for you and your RV.

Map showing the eastern land border entrance from the USA into Mexico in Mexicali.
The red circle indicates the eastern land border crossing from the USA to Mexico in Mexicali.

What paperwork do I need for my vehicle to enter Mexico?

Before you even home to begin driving the Pan American Highway and/or exploring Mexico's famously beautiful Baja Peninsula, you should have your essential vehicle paperwork squared away. Make a checklist and ensure you have everything that's required.

What's required for driving Baja: Current vehicle registration, Mexican vehicle insurance

What's required for driving mainland Mexico: Current vehicle registration, Mexican vehicle insurance, proof of vehicle insurance from your home country

Chris driving through the border crossing into Mexicali, Mexico
Chris driving through the border crossing into Mexicali, Mexico

Vehicle registration

Current and original registration documents for your RV or camper are absolutely essential for crossing the border. While you will not be asked to show these documents unless you are applying for a T.I.P., you should always keep your current registration in your vehicle anyways. Just be sure that your most up to date version is the one you have on hand.

Proof of insurance

While your American insurance won't cover you in Mexico, it's a pre-requisite for buying Mexican vehicle insurance. Be sure to have a physical copy of your home country's vehicle insurance on hand. You'll be able to purchase your Mexican vehicle insurance with a digital copy, but if you're applying for a T.I.P. for mainland Mexico you will need a physical copy of your vehicle insurance from your home country.

At any given time Mexican authorities may ask for proof of Mexican vehicle insurance (although they never did with us), so be sure to have both your Mexican vehicle proof of insurance and proof of vehicle insurance from your home country.

Ownership documentation

Keep in mind that the vehicle you are driving into Mexico must be registered in the name of at least one of the drivers or you must provide ownership documentation. If for some reason your vehicle is registered under a business name you must have legal proof that you are the business owner.

What identification and paperwork do I need to enter Mexico?

When entering Mexico, besides the necessary vehicle paperwork, you'll need personal documentation for each traveler. Essential documents include a valid passport and a Mexican tourist card (FMM – Forma Migratoria Múltiple), which can be obtained online or at the border, and if staying longer than 7 days, you must pay a small fee for the F.M.M. We recommend just getting the F.M.M. at the border to save any confusion and to avoid the risk of having to pay for it twice (we talk more about how to get an F.M.M. here). The F.M.M. is essentially a visa on arrival so there is no need to apply for a visa ahead of time.

Note: Always verify Mexico's requirements for visitors from the country in which you hold a passport. I am in no way offering legal advice so do your research to ensure that you are meeting all of Mexico's requirements.

Two American passports
Our American passports that we needed to cross the border into Mexico

Preparing for the border inspection

A common border crossing procedure is a thorough inspection of your vehicle. To save time and confusion at the border there are a few things you can do ahead of time to make the process smooth and quick.

  • Keep windows open and clear: Ensure all items are tightly secured and don’t block any window views. We also recommend opening the blinds in your camper while you're crossing the border to remain transparent.
  • Dispose of any items that are not allowed to be brought into Mexico: Understand the list of items prohibited for importing into Mexico to avoid any unpleasant surprises. This includes firearms, certain medications, drones over 249 grams, extra fuel other than what is in your vehicles main tank, and agricultural products. Honestly, the agricultural products is what they are most lenient on. We expected them to take away our produce and possibly dog food but they did not. Just go in knowing that they might so we'd recommend not bringing too many of these products with you in case they do seize them.
  • Clean your camper: Before you cross the border into Mexico we highly recommend cleaning and organizing your vehicle. For us this looked like making sure all surfaces were swept and wiped down and cabinets were organized and easy to look through. This way border patrol was able to quickly and easily open the cabinets they wished to and could easily see if there was anything that was not allowed to enter the country.
  • Ensure your vehicle is in tip top shape: This is more for your peace of mind than something that Mexico requires. It's always a good idea to head into remote locations with a recent oil change, a full tank of fuel, and all vehicle fluids checked and topped off. If you are traveling in an RV, camper, or van we'd highly recommend topping off your fresh water tanks before crossing.

Step by step guide from driving across the land border from the USA to Mexico

This is a simplified 6 step process for crossing the border into Mexico with an RV. We tried to take as many notes as possible while we were crossing in hopes of saving you a headache when you try to cross. Just a heads up: the process is really easy assuming you have all of your paperwork in order.

How to drive to Mexico - step-by-step process
How to drive to Mexico - step-by-step process

Step 1: Purchase Mexican insurance for your vehicle

You’ll need to purchase Mexican auto insurance before crossing into Mexico. To purchase Mexican vehicle insurance you'll need your vehicle registration, drivers license, and proof of vehicle insurance from your home country.

  • Options and costs: You can buy insurance online or at a gas station near the border. If you wish to purchase your vehicle online ahead of time be sure to print out the proof of insurance to carry with you. The cost depends on the value and size of your RV.
  • Policy coverage: Both full coverage and liability coverage are available for purchase. However, if your vehicle is 25 years or older (like ours is) only liability coverage is available.

Our experience

Since we were entering via the eastern Mexicali border crossing we visited the Gastrak gas station before crossing. The station is pretty hard to miss if you follow the Google Maps directions or input the address into your own navigation system. There are signs all of the building saying things like, "MEXICO VEHICLE INSURANCE HERE!" Gastrak sells Sanborn insurance which is pretty standard in Mexico. We paid $174 USD for our insurance which covers us for two months. Insurance is sold by the day but can be extended later of if you decide to stay longer. You can extend the coverage online or by phone by visiting the website or calling the number of the insurance forms you receive when purchasing Sanborn insurance at Gastrak.

Gastrak address: 435 Menvielle Road, Calexico, CA 92231 | Google Maps

Note: If you plan to fill up on fuel at Gastrak do know that the gasoline prices are competitive to those in El Centro  and Calexico 15 minutes away, but only gasoline is available. Diesel users like ourselves should fill up in El Centro or Calexico before crossing the border.

Gastrak station just before the Mexical border that sells Sanborn's vehicle insurance for Mexico
Gastrak station just before the Mexical border that sells Sanborn's vehicle insurance for Mexico

Step 2: Cross the border via the car line

Border crossings often have two different lines for vehicles entering the country: a commercial truck line and a car line. As an RV, even if you're oversized you should still enter via that car line since you are not a commercial vehicle.

Our experience

It took us ~5 minutes to wait in line before we made it to the inspection station. It was a really quick line for cars!

Step 3: Have your vehicle inspected

As soon as you cross the border into Mexico you'll be waved into a parking space by border patrol where you will be asked to put your vehicle in park and unlock the door to the camper portion of your vehicle. The border patrol officer is allowed to spend as long as necessary inspecting your vehicle so be patient and accommodating by being on hand to unlock any compartments and doors they ask to see inside of.

Our experience

The vehicle inspector was in and out of our camper in under a minute. Our understanding is that this was abnormally fast, perhaps because everything was clean and organized? I don't know. But for whatever reason they didn't confiscate anything or find anything of interest so they passed us through almost immediately. The officer then inspected our vehicle spoke little to no English but he was polite and professional. We unlocked the back of the camper, he went inside, opened a lot of the cabinets, then gave us the green light to go. Easy peasy!

Step 4: Secure your F.M.M. in the immigration office at the border

As soon as you finish your vehicle inspection you should head straight to the immigration office to secure your F.M.M. (Forma Migratoria Múltiple). As your leaving the inspection area you'll start to head towards Mexico but take your first right into another parking lot alongside some office buildings. It's very easy to miss the right turn so just know that as soon as you're done with inspection, turn right! The immigration office is the one that is under the same roof as the main vehicle inspection area. Park your vehicle in the lot and walk over to immigration. You'll know you're in the right place by the mirror like windows on the outside and the security guard that will open the door for you as you walk up. When in doubt just ask "Immigration?"

The room you enter into is mostly just an empty lobby type room with a counter and a bell on the desk on the right side of the lobby. Ring the bell which will let them know you are there to apply for your F.M.M. Most people in the office didn't appear to speak English but the gentleman who worked the F.M.M. desk spoke perfect English.

To apply for your F.M.M. you will need your passport. The form is quick to fill out and mostly includes questions like your name, passport number, home country, how you're entering the country (land or air), where you are planning to visit (final destination in Mexico), and reason for visit (tourism, work, etc.).

A tourist F.M.M. is generally for 180 days and cost us $717 pesos per person (~$43 USD per person).  If you are staying in Mexico seven days or less then your F.M.M. will be free. You can pay for your F.M.M. via credit card (we paid with a Visa) or in Mexican Pesos. We've been told that sometimes they request cash instead of card but we didn't have any issue with using a card (just make sure you notify your credit card company that you will be traveling abroad or your card might get declined!). Just to be safe, it's always a good idea to convert your currency into Mexican Pesos before crossing the border.

Note: You can apply for your F.M.M. online in advance before ever crossing the border. However, we've heard that unless you print out a physical copy of the receipt for the F.M.M. you will possibly be asked to pay the fee again. There was absolutely no line for the F.M.M. when we crossed the border around 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. We were in and out of the office in a matter of about 5 minutes. Super easy! We'd recommend just applying for it in person to save any confusion.

looking north towards immigration office facing the USA while standing outside the Banjército office
This photo was taken after the vehicle inspection process looking north towards the USA while standing outside the Banjército office. Note the mirror like windows on the immigration office.

Our experience

There was absolutely no line for the F.M.M. when we crossed the border around 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. We were in and out of the office in a matter of about 5 minutes. Super easy! We'd recommend just applying for it in person to save any confusion.

Step 5: Secure a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for your vehicle

As we mentioned earlier, you only need a T.I.P (Temporary Import Permit) if you are traveling to mainland Mexico. If you are only visiting the Baja Peninsula you can skip this step.

A T.I.P. can be acquired online or in-person at the Banjército office at the border. If you plan to apply online in advance, know that the process should be completed between 60 and 7 days before you plan to cross the border into Mexico. Do not save this until the week of departure if you plan to apply online.

Applying in person was a pretty straightforward process. The Banjército office is at the far right end of the office building next door to the immigration office. It's a very small waiting room with just a few chairs and the office stayed busy the whole time we were there. There were two officials working different windows so they moved us through pretty quickly. As long as you have your paperwork in order, this should be a very smooth process.

When you apply for your T.I.P. you should bring your vehicle registration, proof of vehicle insurance from your home country, and payment method (Mexican Pesos or credit card). Be sure to ask for a receipt for your T.I.P. Technically most of your payment for your Mexican T.I.P. is a deposit that you should get back as you leave Mexico and close out your T.I.P. The cost of the T.I.P is ~$50 USD + the deposit that is determined based on the year of your vehicle.

This photo was taken from the parking lot where you park to get your F.M.M. and T.I.P. The photo is facing north towards the USA border.
This photo was taken from the parking lot where you park to get your F.M.M. and T.I.P. The photo is facing north towards the USA border.

Our experience

We had all of our paperwork ready to go so the process went really smoothly for us. One of the two agents at the Banjército desk spoke wonderful English and helped us through everything. Our T.I.P. granted our vehicle access into Mexico for up to 10 years (which is far longer than we need!) and the deposit cost us $949 pesos (~$57 USD). The only confusing part about the process is that we were never charged a deposit for our T.I.P. We were expecting to have to put ~$200 deposit down along with our $57 USD fee, but they never charged us for that. Not sure why, but that was our experience.

Important note: When you leave Mexico and are unsure if or when you will be returning to Mexico by land, close out the T.I.P. upon departure! If for some reason you sell the vehicle and/or try to enter Mexico in a different vehicle later on, you will not be able to get another T.I.P. because it'll appear to the government that you might have left and/or sold the vehicle in Mexico which is exactly what they are trying to avoid by issuing T.I.P.'s.

Step 6: Enjoy Mexico!

That's all! Once you have cleared inspection, been issued an F.M.M. and T.I.P. (if you are visiting the mainland) you're ready to go. Drive safe and enjoy Mexico!

Chris and Sara after crossing into Mexico to begin the Pan American Highway
Us just after we finished the process and were officially in Mexico!

Understand and respect border formalities

Border crossings can be unpredictable. Go prepared by keeping in mind these four tips when crossing the land border between Mexico and the USA.

  • Patience is key: Be prepared for long waits, especially during peak travel times.
  • Respect the law: Stay on the right side of the customs and immigration officials; certain common sense behavior, such as respecting authority figures and not taking photographs, can ease the process.
  • Be polite: Greet the officials with a smile and a Spanish 'hello.' Even if you don't speak a lot of Spanish it goes a long ways and shows respect by at least attempting to say hello in their language.
  • Zero tolerance for prohibitions: Understand there are zero-tolerance policies for prohibited substances such as drugs, firearms, extra fuel canisters, and certain drones. A clean, organized vehicle will also expedite the inspection.

Learn and respect Mexican driving laws

Driving in Mexico is similar to driving in the USA but does come with a few differences.

  • Speed limits: Be aware of varying speed limits in different regions and road types. Speed limits change often and quickly so always stay alert! Speed traps are very often a thing in Mexico so always abide by the speed limit. If for some reason you are pulled over and given a ticket when you think you were not speeding, there's a good chance the officer is trying to scam you. In these instances it's always advised to say you'll go pay the ticket at the station vs. paying the officer on the spot like he or she says to do. Generally if you say you're going to go to the station to pay and ask for a piece of paper to take to the office with you, they'll change their minds and wave you along.
  • Speed signs are in kilometers: While yes, most of the world does work on the metric system, as Americans we're still using imperial system. If you're an American like us, keep in mind that everything will be in kilometers including speed signs which are in kilometers per hour.
  • Drive on the correct side of the road: Mexico drives on the same side of the road as the USA (the right side of the road). If you're coming from somewhere such as the UK or Australia, be extra alert since everything will be opposite for you.
  • Mandatory safety equipment: Vehicles are required to have reflector vests, a reflective triangle, and seat belts for all occupants.
  • Insurance policy: Keep your Mexican insurance policy document handy; digital or physical copies are acceptable once you are across the border.
Roadway in the Yucatán Peninsula
Roadway in the Yucatán Peninsula


What is a T.I.P. (Temporary Import Permit)?

A Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) is a document issued by the government allowing foreign vehicles to the country for a specific period. It's crucial for visitors planning to drive their vehicles beyond the Baja Peninsula. The T.I.P. ensures that the vehicle will leave Mexico within the permitted timeframe and is not intended for permanent import.

What is an F.M.M.?

An F.M.M. (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) is essentially a tourist permit necessary for all foreign travelers who wish to enter Mexico by land or by air. This permit is proof of your legal temporary immigration status into Mexico. The cost of an F.M.M. can vary slightly depending on the exchange rate but typically ~$40 USD per person. It’s valid for a single entry and allows you to stay in Mexico for up to 180 days. An F.M.M. is free if your trip to Mexico is seven days or less.

How much does a T.I.P. cost for a vehicle entering Mexico?

The cost of a Temporary Import Permit (T.I.P.) for a vehicle entering Mexico varies depending on the type of vehicle and the duration of stay. Generally, for most passenger vehicles, the cost is approximately $49 USD for the permit, plus a deposit that ranges from $200 to $400 USD, depending on the vehicle's model year. The deposit is refundable upon exiting Mexico with the vehicle before the T.I.P. expires. It's essential to check the most current fees on the Banjército website or contact them directly, as prices and policies may change.

Do I need a visa to enter Mexico?

Citizens of many countries, including the USA, Canada, and most European countries, do not need a visa to enter Mexico for tourism, business, or transit purposes for stays of up to 180 days. Instead, they require an F.M.M. (Forma Migratoria Múltiple), which serves as a tourist permit. However, visitors from some countries may need to apply for a visa before arrival, so it's crucial to check Mexico's visa requirements based on your nationality before planning your trip.

What is the best land border to cross into Mexico in an RV?

Choosing the best land border to cross into Mexico in an RV depends on various factors, including the ease of navigation, border crossing facilities, and the destinations within Mexico you plan to visit. Among the several options, the eastern border into Mexicali stands out as a preferred choice for RV travelers. This crossing is known for its straightforward access, relatively less congestion compared to other borders, and better facilities to accommodate larger vehicles like RVs. Additionally, Mexicali provides a smooth transition into Mexico, with clear signage and easy access to essential services right after crossing.

What side of the road do they drive on in Mexico?

In Mexico, vehicles drive on the right side of the road, just as they do in the United States. This aligns with the driving norms of most countries in the Americas.

Do I need a I.D.P. (International Driving Permit) for Mexico?

If you're an American citizen your license will work in Mexico. In fact, Mexico recognizes many different country's licenses as long as they are in English. Always verify Mexico's requirements for your home country. It never hurts to travel with a T.I.P. as an additional form of driving identification. You can purchase an I.D.P. at AAA in the USA for an annual fee.

Final thoughts

Venturing into Mexico by road can be an exhilarating experience, offering a unique perspective on its vibrant culture, breathtaking landscapes, and the warmth of its people. With the proper documentation like the T.I.P. and F.M.M., an understanding of local driving laws, and awareness of safety precautions, travelers can enjoy a seamless and enriching road trip. Whether it’s navigating through bustling cities, exploring serene coastal towns, or adventuring into the heart of Mexico's majestic countryside, driving in Mexico invites an unparalleled sense of freedom and adventure. Remember, preparation is key to ensuring a memorable and hassle-free journey across the Mexican border. Safe travels, and enjoy every mile of your Mexican road trip adventure!

Like this article? Check out these other Mexico travel guides!

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Hi! We're Chris and Sara a husband and wife video making, storytelling, travel loving duo with a passion for sharing travel tips, tricks, and inspiration with others.
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