Driving to Mexico from San Diego

Driving To Mexico From San Diego: Tijuana Border Crossings

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Are you looking for the best information about driving to Mexico from San Diego? Sounds good to me. Besides living in Mexico since 2009, I grew up in San Diego and spent a ton of time in Tijuana. 

The goal of this article is to share decades’ worth of experience driving into Mexico from San Diego, having a great time, and getting back into the United States as efficiently as possible. 

OUR PICK

Baja Bound Mexican Auto Insurance

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“Above and beyond” Mexican insurance coverage by people who actually drive across Mexico.

In addition to the legal requirements, crossing the Mexican border requires a change in the way that U.S. citizens think and drive. Tijuana is not one of the safest places to visit in Mexico and the driving culture is different from the United States. You don’t want to go around honking at people in Tijuana the same way that you might in Downtown San Diego.

I often tell people that the borderline is what prepared me to drive in Mexico City.

The first thing that I always tell friends crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time is to always buy Mexican auto insurance. Not only is it mandated by Mexican law, but it is the easiest way to keep yourself out of a Mexican jail in case there is a fender bender. I was a customer of Baja Bound for years before buying a Mexican-plated vehicle. 

Baja Bound Mexican auto insurance is the best option that I found. Fortunately, I never had to use my Mexican auto insurance. While researching Baja Bound in the expat forums I found plenty of people who did use their Baja Bound insurance and highly recommend their services. 

In addition to insurance and documentation, we are going to dive into rental car companies, choosing the best border crossing, and tips for driving in Mexico. 

Mexico Border Crossing Requirements

Last US exit driving to Mexico from San Diego

Much like the United States, Mexico requires drivers to carry certain documentation in order to operate a motor vehicle. Additionally, crossing an international border requires separate documentation. 

Documents you need to drive to Mexico from San Diego

  1. Valid Passport (passport book or passport card)
  2. Valid Driver’s License
  3. Vehicle Registration
  4. Mexico Auto Insurance
  5. FMM Tourist Card (Forma Migratoria Múltiple)
  6. Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (Only if leaving the free zone)
  7. Vehicle Title (only needed to retrieve impounded vehicles)

1. Valid Passport Book or Passport Card

Do I need a passport to travel to Mexico? Yes, adults over the age of 16 need a valid passport to enter Mexico legally.

Keep in mind that U.S. citizens can not be denied entry into the United States for not carrying a passport. However, it can take a really long time for border patrol to validate someone’s identity without proper ID during which time they will be detained. 

U.S. citizen children under the age of 16 may arrive by land presenting a birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a Naturalization Certificate. 

Crossing into a foreign country requires a valid passport. It is important to remember that Mexican customs officials and U.S. border patrol may ask for these documents. 

Mexico does not require that passports be valid for six months past the border crossing date. Passports must be valid for the entire length of stay in Mexico. If your passport is only valid for another five months but you are only driving to Mexico for the weekend, there is no problem. 

2. Valid Driver’s License

Driver’s licenses from all 50 U.S. states plus territories like Puerto Rico and Guam are legally accepted in Mexico. In fact, driver’s licenses that are written in a Latin-based alphabet (English, Spanish, French) are all valid as well. Driver’s licenses that are written in a different alphabet (Mandarin, Arabic, or Greek) will require an International Driving Permit. 

Remember, in Mexico, the date is not written like it is in the United States. In Mexico, the does is written DAY/MONTH/YEAR so police officers and rental car agencies may confuse the expiration dates that are written in the U.S.-style of MONTH/DAY/YEAR. 

3. Valid Vehicle Registration Document

Vehicle registration must be up to date while driving in Mexico. Expired registration is grounds for impound. Registration is not asked for when crossing the border but Mexican police regularly pull over vehicles with expired registration stickers. I know from first-hand experience. Getting a car out of impound is an expensive and time-consuming process. Do not let your registration expire while in Mexico. 

4. Mexico Automobile Insurance

Nobody wants to spend the weekend in a Mexican jail. Buying Mexican car insurance is the difference between making it back to work on Monday and having to call in because you are stuck in a TJ jail cell. It doesn’t require a bad accident either to be put under arrest. A minor fender bender with no insurance, that wasn’t your fault is all that it takes to land in hot water. 

Drivers are legally obligated to have third-party liability insurance from a Mexican company to drive in Mexico. 

U.S. auto insurance is not accepted in Mexico. Under certain circumstances, U.S. auto insurance companies may sell an upgrade that includes Mexican auto insurance from a Mexican partner company but this is not common.

Baja Bound is an agency that sells policies written by Chubb and HDI for foreign vehicles. These are two of the best Mexican insurance underwriters in the business. Baja Bound does not cover vehicles from Mexico but I used them for years before becoming a permanent resident and selling my California plated vehicle. My current policy is still with Chubb but I had better roadside assistance when I was with Baja Bound. 

There are liability-only and full coverage options. You can buy a policy for one day or up to one year. The year-long policy is the best deal. 

Check them out. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by all of the extras that are included in a full-coverage policy. 

5. FMM Tourist Card (Forma Migratoria Múltiple)

INM immigration office

Since 2015, all foreigners over the age of 2 years old need an FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) tourist card or a tourist visa. Nobody is going to stop you at the border when driving into Mexico and ask for your papers and tell you where to go. It is your responsibility to stop at the immigration office (Instituto Nacional de Migracion INM) and get your card. 

An FMM tourist card is free for visits less than 7 days and costs $575 pesos (~$35 US dollars) for visits up to six months. 

If you do not have an FMM tourist card or a tourist visa you are in the country illegally and subject to deportation. There are immigration checkpoints all over the country and plenty of stories of U.S. citizens being detained and deported. It is not a pleasant experience. 

Additionally, auto insurance is often invalid for people in the country illegally. 

There is a preauthorization form that you can pay for online but you still have to stop at Mexican immigration to get a stamp in your passport proving that you actually crossed the border on a specific date. 

The consensus in the expat forums is that it is better to apply for the FMM in person at the border on the day you are crossing because the system is not set up to make changes after the fact. An error will require the traveler to pay for the FMM a second time. 

6. Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP)

You only need to get a temporary vehicle importation permit if you will be traveling outside of the free zone. Border zones (20 km from the border), the entire Baja Peninsula, Quintana Roo, and part of Sonora DO NOT require a TIP. If you will be traveling to mainland Mexico, you need to get a permit to temporarily import your vehicle. This includes a deposit and a promise to remove the vehicle before the permit expires. 

If you are just driving down to Tijuana for the day, there is no need to get a TIP. 

7. Vehicle Title

Under most circumstances, drivers will not need their vehicle title. If for some reason your vehicle is impounded by the Mexican authorities you will need the title to retrieve it from the impound lot. 

There are some circumstances where a title may be needed to get a TIP but it is not that common. 

Driving to Mexico From San Diego: Best Border Crossings

US-Mexico border crossing

Choosing the best border crossing is usually about the destination rather than the starting point. San Diego County has three major ports of entry for vehicle traffic each with its own pros and cons. Additionally, travelers may choose to cross in Mexicali or Nogales if their road trip destination is further away from San Diego. 

The three main border crossings in San Diego County are:

  • El Chaparral (AKA San Ysidro Border Crossing)
  • Otay Mesa 
  • Tecate

San Ysidro Border Crossing

El Chaparral is the main Tijuana border crossing and one of the busiest land border crossings in the world. It is very easy to access the coastal toll roads to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada.

This is the border crossing that I use to go surfing in Baja California or to go shopping in Tijuana.

The San Ysidro crossing is connected to the blue line of the San Diego Trolley which goes all over the county. 

Crossing into Mexico at San Ysidro is usually easy in the morning and congested in the afternoon. Long lines can be expected crossing into the United States at San Ysidro 24/7. 

Tijuana is the largest city in Mexico (municipality, not metro region). Mexico City is a federal entity that functions more like a state than a city. Tijuana has a significantly larger population than Iztapalapa, the largest delegation in Mexico City. Traffic is insane during daylight hours. 

Getting back to the United States, there are multiple lanes of traffic designated for the borderline. The general lane of traffic for all border crossers is accessible from Downtown Tijuana. 

The Ready Lane moves along the north side of the Tijuana River and is accessible from the east side of town. It is for travelers with crossing documents that have RFID chips and the Ready Lane logo. 

The SENTRI lane is accessible from Blvd Padre Kino. SENTRI is a program that allows prescreened travelers to quickly cross between Mexico and the U.S. It takes a long time to get cleared for SENTRI so if this is your first time crossing, SENTRI is not the correct lane to be in. Do not use the SENTRI lane if you are not authorized to do so because it could result in a fine. 

Otay Mesa Border Crossing

Otay Mesa border crossing

Otay Mesa is mainly a commercial truck crossing on the east side of Tijuana. It is very close to the Tijuana International Airport. I used to use this crossing a lot coming and going from the Tijuana Airport before the Cross Border Xpress bridge was completed. 

Tecate Border Crossing

Tecate is a much smaller border crossing than San Ysidro or Otay Mesa. The wait times are significantly less than the other crossings in San Diego. Tecate is a great place to cross the border if your final destination is the popular tourist destination of Valle de Guadalupe. 

Mexicali Border Crossing

Mexicali is a great border crossing for those heading south in the State of Baja California. Highway 5 leads to San Felipe on the Gulf side of the peninsula. It is usually faster to cross in Mexicali and take Highway 5 if you are heading to Baja California Sur. 

Just watch out for cops in Mexicali. They have a reputation for pulling over travelers for questionable offenses.

Nogales Border Crossing

Nogales border crossing

Nogales is the best border crossing for travelers looking to quickly move from San Diego to mainland Mexico.

Interstate 8 from San Diego is much faster than Highway 2 from Tijuana. Additionally, there are some small towns in Sonora along Highway 2 that have some security problems like Caborca.

Highway 2 is a trafficking corridor that multinational criminal organizations frequently fight over. Nogales is a much better place to cross because of safety. 

Driving Across the Border to Mexico

Driving to Mexico from San Diego

Driving across the border into Mexico is actually pretty easy. You just need to remember to stop and get your FMM at the Mexican immigration office. 

San Ysidro is easily accessible from both the 5 and 805 freeways. Driving south on both freeways, you will see signs for “Last US Exit” and “Guns Illegal In Mexico”. 

Driving to Mexico from San Diego last US exit

Crossing at San Ysidro, there is a sharp right turn and a lot of speed bumps. The first guard booths are unmanned, just make sure to drive slowly. Then, there will be a sharp left-hand turn, and the lanes spread into about 20 gates. 

El Chaparral immigration office parking

If you need to stop and get an FMM tourist card you will make your way to the far right-hand side of traffic. Look for the huge flag and the signs that say “Auto Declaración.” You can park there and walk into the immigration office (Instituto Nacional de Migración or INM). 

Nothing to Declare vs Self-Declaration​

Travelers entering Mexico passing through the “Nothing to Declare” lines are subject to a red light or green light random search. Even if you stop at the self-declaration customs office or the immigration office you will drive through the red light/green light gates.

It has been a long time since I have gotten the red light and been sent to the secondary inspection area. They are not searching many vehicles that cross. In the few instances that I have been searched, the officers have always been professional. 

Even if you get a green light it is possible that the officials will want to talk to you. Follow the indications that the officials give you and don’t drive fast. Be respectful and stop at the crosswalks. 

Remember, guns and marijuana are illegal in Mexico. Do NOT bring them. 

If you are moving to Mexico or have huge quantities of alcohol, you will need to declare those items and pay a small import fee. The self-declaration customs office is on the far right side below the flag. You can’t miss the flag. 

Driving A Rental Car To Mexico From San Diego

Can I take a rental car to Mexico? Yes, you can but that will cost you extra because you need to buy a special insurance policy.

Not every rental car is eligible and you need to clear this with the rental car agency before you drive across the border.

Car rentals are usually not allowed out of the free zone. If you want to drive to Puerto Vallarta it would be best to rent a car in Mexico. 

Where To Next?

Turn offs after crossing the border

One of the reasons that El Chaparral is such a great place to cross is because you can quickly get to the toll road, Downtown Tijuana, and Zone Río. 

If you are heading to Playas de Tijuana, Rosarito, or Ensenada, you want to be in the right lanes and take the first exit. 

Playas de Tijuana turn off after crossing the border

Crossing Back To San Diego From Tijuana

Crossing back into the United States from Tijuana is the most challenging part of driving to Mexico from San Diego. The border lines can be brutal in Tijuana and choosing the wrong line can cost you hours of wait time or in the worst-case scenario, a US$5,000 fine.

Finding the end of the borderline is something that Google Maps is not able to do yet. If you look at Google Maps you will notice that each of the crossing lanes is marked much closer to the border than the line extends. I do not recommend attempting to cut the borderline because there are Tijuana transit police ticketing for that and it tends to anger the locals.

Make it a point to study the different borderlines and make a plan before getting in traffic. It is nearly impossible to do this while driving.

There are four different borderlines depending on the documents that you possess.

  • Regular (All Traffic) Lane
  • Ready Lane
  • Sentri/Global Entry Lane
  • Fast Lane (Medical Lane)

Regular Traffic or All Traffic Lanes

San Ysidro borderline

The Regular Traffic lanes may be used by all travelers authorized to enter the United States no matter what valid crossing documents they possess.

This is often called the international borderline because non-US citizens oftentimes do not have RFID-enabled Ready Lane documents that US citizens have.

The Regular (All Traffic) borderline usually has the longest wait times. There are two approaches, one from the west and one from the east, that merge together over the Tijuana River.

Many travelers coming from the coastal toll road and Playas de Tijuana use the regular traffic lane because it is easy to enter from that direction.

When entering the borderline from Downtown Tijuana, make sure you are left of the second cement divider. The middle lane, with cement dividers on each side, is for Fast Lane/Medical Lane users only. You must be one lane to the left of the Fast Lane/Medical Lane.

Additionally, all travelers can access the San Ysidro border crossing from the east along Paseo de los Heroes. This borderline is complicated at rush hour because it extends down Paseo de los Heroes and then turns at the first Glorieta. I use this border crossing at night but do not use it during rush hour because I can never find the end of the line. If anyone can direct me to the end of the line, I would love to include it in this article.

Ready Lane

The Ready Lane is for travelers who possess crossing documents with an RFID chip. When they are a couple of cars back from the crossing gate, they wave their crossing documents at an RFID chip reader so that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can start processing their crossing.

Ready Lane border line in Tijuana

There are Ready Lanes at many border crossings because they speed up the process. CBP has some of the most advanced databases in the world and I can guarantee you they are looking at more than your name and picture. Giving that database an extra couple of minutes to process the pertinent information greatly speeds up the Ready Lane borderline.

Crossing documents must have the PASS System logo on the back of the crossing document. The most common crossing documents are passport cards, US visa cards, US green cards, and SENTRI cards. Check the full list of identification documents that qualify on the US Customs and Border Patrol Website.

Travelers who use the Ready Lane but do not have the correct crossing documents risk being fined.

The Ready Lane is the left two lanes of Av. Alfonso Bustamante Labistida which parallels the Tijuana River on the north side. The line moves fast but is really long. Do not try and cut into the line in the Zona Ría District because there are Tijuana transit police ticketing drivers for doing so.

Recently, I have been entering the Ready Lane near the Puente de las Americas. It isn’t likely that the Ready Lane will be backed up beyond this point. I crossed at rush hour last year after not crossing for many years. I was amazed at how long the line has become.

The Ready Lane moves faster than the All Traffic Lane but there is still a significant wait most of the day.

SENTRI/Global Entry Lane

SENTRI is the creme de la creme of crossing documents. It has a tedious preapproval process that can take over a year to get an interview but is well worth the effort.

Check the CBP webpage for details about who can use the SENTRI lanes in Tijuana. There are additional Trusted Traveler Program members that may use the lanes but they need to register their vehicles with CBP prior to crossing.

The SENTRI lane wait times are insignificant compared to the other borderlines. If you plan on crossing the border on a regular basis you need to get going on your SENTRI application now.

DO NOT use the SENTRI Lane if you do not have the correct documents or you are risking a hefty fine. Once you get up to the gate there is no way to turn around or reverse out of there.

Fast Lane (AKA Medical Lane)

There is a tourism initiative that a number of businesses in Mexico participate in to allow travelers to cut the line on a one-time basis.

The idea is that patients seeking medical treatment don’t want to wait in a long borderline after having a medical procedure. There is a checkpoint on the Paseo de los Heroes borderline that allows travelers with the Fast Pass to cut the line.

Check the list of businesses that are a part of the program.

Driving To Mexico From San Diego: FAQ

These are the most commonly asked questions about driving to Mexico from San Diego.

Is Tijuana Safe?

No, Tijuana is not safe but driving is safer than walking. You need to take some basic precautions when visiting Tijuana.

Make it a point to avoid honking at people in Tijuana. You never know who is in the other vehicle and what they are up to.

I often compare Tijuana to the safest places to visit in Mexico. There are some major differences. The border region often has security problems. Make sure to plan ahead.

Final Thoughts On Driving to Mexico From San Diego

Driving to San Diego from Tijuana

It is really easy to drive to Mexico from San Diego. The most important things to remember are to get insurance before you leave and to stop and get an FMM tourist card at the border. These are non-negotiable. The United States has made immigration a huge topic in Mexico and the same rules apply to Central American migrants apply to North American tourists. 

If it is possible, try to avoid the Friday afternoon rush hour. Traffic is crazy from the San Diego Airport all the way down to the border. If you must travel on a Friday afternoon, make sure to get an early start. The best time to cross into Mexico from San Diego is early in the day. 

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