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Driving in Mexico – A Helpful Guide for First Time Visitors

Driving in Mexico – A Helpful Guide for First Time Visitors

Driving in Mexico can seem daunting at first. Having lived here for three years, I can honestly say I was a little bit nervous at first (especially after seeing drivers in Mexico City!).

But if you’re from the US or you have some experience driving on the right side of the road in other countries, you’ll find driving in Mexico is pretty easy and straightforward.

Whether you’re just renting it for a day or two or you plan to go on a total Mexico road trip, having a car in some parts of the country can make your trip a lot easier.

Having a car to get around different parts of the country is a much more affordable way to explore the country than flying or taking inter-city buses.

It’s definitely the cheaper option if you are traveling with two or more people with rentals available for as little as $10 a day and gas prices sitting at about even with prices in the US at the moment (this may change post-election on July 1 if the Peso drops in value).

I’ve tried to answer the most commonly asked questions when it comes to driving in Mexico. If you still have some concerns after reading this post, feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to find the answer for you!


Is it Safe to Drive in Mexico?

Yes and no. It depends on where and when you’re driving. Just like there are parts of the US that you might avoid driving in at night when you’re alone, there are places in Mexico that you will want to avoid driving at night when you’re alone.

Driving in Mexico, in general, is perfectly safe and like I mentioned above, is one of the best ways to see the country.

A few tips I stick to when driving in Mexico are to avoid driving at night. If you are traveling between cities or other rural areas, stick to the daytime.

There is more traffic on the road during this time and should anything happen (like a breakdown), you’ll be in a much better position to get help.

driving in Mexico along the tree lined roads

Another thing I do whenever I’m going to be driving around Mexico is to seek advice on the route I’m taking.

I reach out to the amazing community of Mexico travelers on Facebook or other forums and I simply ask. People are more than happy to give their two-cents.

There is almost always someone who has done the trip recently and can tell you what the roads were like and if they felt safe during the journey. The best forums for this, in my opinion, are Facebook groups like Expats in Mexico or on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.

While you’re at it, it’s worth asking about how many gas stations are along the way (especially if you’ll be traveling through more rural areas for long periods of time).

Always make sure your phone is fully charged and that you have a charger that you can plug into your car to keep connected.

What to do in san cristobal de las casas

These tips are mostly for those that will be road-tripping around Mexico. If you are simply renting a car to enjoy the trip from Tijuana to Ensenada, from Cancun to Merida, or from Mexico City to Puebla, there’s really nothing to worry about.

Take the toll roads, keep cash on you, and enjoy the trip.

The only caveat to short trips is if you decide to rent a car in Chiapas or Oaxaca to explore some of the natural beauty without a tour guide.

While it’s not necessarily dangerous, it can be uncomfortable or difficult to pass on certain roads. Much of the land ownership is debated in this part of the country and if you don’t speak very good Spanish, you may find yourself turning around and struggling to reach your desired destination.

The biggest issue you’ll probably face while trying to visit the tourist areas of Chiapas is when children pull ropes across the road and ask for money in order to pass. These can be as frequent as every few hundred feet.

Many people say that you should simply not slow down. They will let go of the rope when they see that you are not slowing. Others say that you can slow and offer them something small – a few coins or food if you have it. 

Read: A Two Week Central Mexico Road Trip Itinerary

what to do in mexico city

Cuota Roads Vs Libre Roads

There are two main types of highways in Mexico – cuotas and libres. Cuotas are private toll roads and libres are free roads that tend to stop through towns, have the odd traffic light, and are generally not well-looked after (HUGE potholes).

There is a lot more pedestrian traffic and from other people’s stories, a lot of cattle and wild animals on the libre roads.

I always recommend taking the cuota roads, but especially if you need to drive after dark. In general, these are considered the safest option when traveling around the country and often there is no other option to get to your destination.

When I was driving in the Yucatan last year there were tons of cuota roads between Cancun and Merida and Merida and Chichen Itza.

They aren’t exactly cheap and can quickly add up when you are traveling long distances. If you’ve rented a car, it usually comes with a tag that you can use and then you can pay the fee once you return your vehicle.

Otherwise, you can usually pay with cash at every cuota road (at least the ones that I’ve driven on). Expect to pay anywhere between 25 and 200 Pesos to use the stretch of road, depending on how many miles it is. So keep plenty of cash on hand.

driving in mexico

Driving Your American Registered Vehicle in Mexico

While it is possible to drive your American or Canadian car over the border and use it in Mexico, it can be a bit of a pain and in the end, cost you just as much, if not more, than renting one once you cross the border.

It is required by Mexican law that all drivers have car insurance. When you get to the border with your car, you’ll have to prove that you have insurance that is valid within Mexico.

In Mexico, U.S. and Canadian car insurance policies are not valid. You’ll need to get yourself international car insurance from an authorized Mexican auto insurance company.  BestMex is a good website to learn more about getting car insurance in Mexico.

Besides getting car insurance, you may also need to get a temporary import permit depending on where you’ll be driving your car in Mexico.

driving in mexico at night

If you will be staying within 20 kilometers of the border zone, then you don’t have to worry about it, but if you’re going to be heading to Cabo, Mexico City, Monterrey or anywhere else south of the border zone, then you need to purchase the permit.

You can learn more about getting a temporary import permit here. You can either purchase it online between 7 and 60 days before your trip, or you can get it when you arrive at the border (but this will significantly hold up your processing time so be prepared to wait).

It’s worth noting that Mexican speed limits are posted in Kilometers per hour, so be sure you’re following those numbers on your speedometer rules rather than the miles per hour numbers (I say this because I have made the mistake so many times).

driving in Mexico

Can I Use an American License to Drive in Mexico?

Yes. Mexico recognizes all driver’s licenses that are issued in English so you are free to drive in the country with a Canadian, British, EU, Australian, New Zealand, (etc…) license.

The only regulation that comes into place is if you are living in Mexico. If you will be getting temporary or permanent residency here in Mexico, technically you should be driving on a Mexican license.

How often this is actually enforced is a different story. However, if you plan on buying a car while you’re here, you’ll need a Mexican license.

driving in Mexico

How Do Mexicans Drive?

Mexican drivers vary across the country, just like in any place as large as Mexico. Mexico City drivers are manic, they drive quickly and rarely if ever use their indicators.

But drivers in the Yucatan are polite, drive the speed limit, use their blinkers, and don’t honk as soon as a light turns green.

My biggest advice is to simply pay attention. Check your mirrors constantly and never make assumptions about what other drivers are doing.

They may have their blinker on, but that doesn’t mean they’re turning. They may be braking near the curb, but that doesn’t mean they’re about to stop. Always be prepared for the unexpected around Mexican drivers.

driving in mexico with the windows down

Rules of the Road to Know

There aren’t really many “rules” of the road as it were, but there are a few things to be aware of that I’ve noticed over the years of driving in Mexico (or more often, being a passenger in the car when others are driving in Mexico).

People put their hazard lights on when they are possibly going to stop.

This is something I’ve noticed most in Mexico City. It’s basically telling the person behind you that you don’t know what the heck you’re doing and you may be looking to stop at some point.

People also pop their flashers on when they are coming to a sudden stop due to traffic. It’s a way to alert drivers behind you that everyone is braking.

You’ll notice a LOT of speed bumps in while you’re driving around Mexico. They’re called topes and you’ll either see signs that say topes or you’ll see yellow signs with two black bumps on them.

Both are letting you know that speed bumps are ahead. In most parts of Mexico, speed bumps are no joke. They are HUGE and you have to go very slowly over them. Some drivers even take them at a diagonal so that their bumpers don’t get smashed as they go over them.

Be cautious of potholes. They are prevalent in cities around Mexico or anywhere other than cuota roads really. They can be very deep and obviously going over one in a rental car could mean having a very bad day.

In some parts of the country, the highways are really just single-lane roads in either direction.

If you are behind a tractor-trailer or a slow-moving car, they may put on their left blinker to indicate that it’s safe for you to pass them. Of course, always take normal passing precautions and never do so when you cannot fully see the oncoming traffic.

driving in Mexico

Gas Stations

There only used to be one gas station company in Mexico, Pemex. It was government-owned and operated.

This year (2019), at least in Mexico City, most of the Pemex stations have been sold off to other companies like Shell and BP. It has meant a little bit more competition when it comes to pricing.

You don’t pump your own gas in Mexico. You pull up to the pump and tell the attendant how much you want and how you want to pay (efectivo is cash and tarjeta is card).

If you want to fill up, you can say, “llénalo, por favor.” Be sure to specify which type of fuel you want otherwise you may be left with the most expensive option.

It’s also the law that they tell you before they begin pumping that it’s on zero. It’s a way to prove that you are getting exactly what you are paying for. 

After they pump your gas you should give them a small tip (from what I’ve been told, this is the only way they make money, they don’t actually receive a wage). I usually give 10 Pesos if they’re filling up the tank and they clean the windscreen.

driving in mexico

Military Check Points

There are military checkpoints on major highways, outside of big cities, and near borders where you may be asked to pull over.

Usually, they are nice enough and they will ask for your license and proof of insurance.

I’ve never had a bad experience and often we simply get waved passed these without ever being asked to stop, but I have heard stories of people driving in American cars with American license plates and being given a hard time or told to turn around because they can’t go that way (even though all of the other traffic is going that way).

In these cases, they’re usually looking for a bribe of 100-200 Pesos. It’s up to you whether you feel this is a good idea or not.

uber in mexico city

Renting a Car in Mexico

Renting a car in Mexico is pretty simple. If you use websites like Expedia or booking.com, be aware that you are not being quoted the full price.

That is the price of the rental without insurance. You won’t know what the insurance fee is unless you call ahead. This can sometimes be double or even triple the day rate that you’re quoted. I’ve had this shock before and it is not nice.

So instead of booking on third-party websites, the biggest tip I can give you for renting a car in Mexico is to go directly to the car rental company’s websites and compare prices that way.

Every major airport and big city has Enterprise, Thrifty, Budget, and National. The price that you’re quoted on their website will include insurance. If you’re still unsure, you can always call. They can always connect you to someone who speaks English.

Another important thing to note about renting a car in Mexico is that the low prices that are quoted are usually for manual cars. If you can’t drive a stick shift, make sure you choose an automatic vehicle when you are booking. They usually charge slightly more per day for automatic cars.

If you are traveling across the border from San Diego and are thinking about renting a car in the US, I highly recommend simply taking an Uber to the border and walking across to Tijuana.

Renting a car in the US that you will be taking into Mexico will cost a whole lot more money and will require a ton more paperwork. Save yourself the hassle and rent from Tijuana.

You can always pick it up in one location and drop it off in another (for an added fee of course).

I’ve written a full post about renting a car in Mexico which you can read here.

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What if You Break Down While Driving in Mexico?

Have no fear, the Green Angels are here! The green angels are basically roadside assistance that you can call from anywhere in Mexico. They only service major highways though, so if you break down in a random place, they won’t be able to help.

You can call the Green Angels from a cell phone or a payphone by dialing 078. It’s a 24/hour hotline so they can always assist you.

Their services are free, you simply pay for whatever gas or tolls you go through once you’re sitting in the front with them. The only caveat being, well, you need to have a basic level of Spanish if you want to communicate with them.

That being said, if you are driving a rental car, the company you rent from will no doubt have a hotline that you can call if you break down.

Major companies like Enterprise and Budget have their own breakdown service that they’ll send to help you and obviously someone on the end of that telephone line will speak English.

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Driving in Mexico - everything you need to know about taking a car across the border, renting a car in Mexico, driving in the Yucatan, driving in Mexico City and more.

Brenda

Tuesday 7th of September 2021

We are driving thru to manzanillo and need help finding place to stay in mazatlan with secure parking for one night

Ashley

Monday 1st of March 2021

Is it safe to drive a new car like a Jeep Wrangler or can that be dangerous or risky due to crime?

Pack

Thursday 12th of August 2021

My wife and I recently drove our new Jeep to San Carlos Sonora Mexico. We still had temporary paper permit plates. We hadn’t received our permanent car plates. We had no problems at all. Just the normal precautions always lock your car , car alarm if you have one, I also use a car club locking the steering wheel.

Taj

Saturday 10th of October 2020

Hi, thanks for the information. What do you think are the safest places to drive through the border when driving in through Texas?

Laura Bronner

Wednesday 14th of October 2020

I believe Loredo is the most popular border crossing from Texas, but check out the Facebook group "On the Road in Mexico" - they are a wealth of knowledge for that sort of thing.

G M

Monday 20th of April 2020

Hi Laura,

My wife and I are moving to Puebla to attend graduate school this August. The programs will last a year and a half. We are super excited for our time in Mexico! Do you think it is safe to have our car with a Pennsylvania plate throughout that time? Getting a TIP and renewing it twice would be much cheaper than leasing a car for that amount of time, I'd assume. What are your thoughts?

Thank you so much.

Laura Bronner

Tuesday 21st of April 2020

Hey! Sorry I don't really know the best answer to this question since I didn't bring a car over at any point from the US. The best groups to ask these questions in are the expat groups on Facebook. They're always super helpful and there's usually several people who have tried to do this very thing. These are the best groups I've found https://www.facebook.com/groups/1053886741400839 and https://www.facebook.com/groups/expatslivinginmexico/ Hope that helps!

Boris

Thursday 27th of February 2020

Thank you Laura Great article I am retiree and planning to take driving trip from NJ to Mexico and since I don't have exact time to come back I might spend up to few months driving there. From your experience, should I expect some problems with US license plates vs rental plates? In your opinion, does it make sense to do so? Thank you in advace