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Driving in Mexico

Mexican roads may seem a daunting challenge for the uninitiated. But, if you're going to integrate into Mexican life and enjoy all of its beauty and culture, you'll want to get behind the wheel. Before you venture onto Mexico's highways or bustling city streets, it's essential to familiarize yourself with local regulations, insurance and licensing laws, and common misconceptions about driving in Mexico.

Licence validity

Valid driving licences from most countries are legal in Mexico, including UK, EU, Canadian and US licenses. However, you may be required to purchase an International Driving Permit if your license is not printed in English. This will allow you to drive in Mexico for two year after it is issued. After this, you will need to get a Mexican licence.

The process for obtaining a Mexican driving licence is similar from state to state. You'll usually need:

  • The fee (MX$900 / USD 43)
  • Your passport and valid visa
  • Any document that confirms your residential address
  • To pass an eye test and verify your blood type
  • To complete a theoretical and practical test.

Expats with a valid license from their country of origin will not be required to take a new test. However, you will need to provide all other required information, including medical records with your blood type.

If you have any queries about how long your particular country's license is valid in Mexico, or how to obtain a license, contact your nearest embassy before your departure.

Car insurance

Before driving in Mexico, it’s essential that you have car insurance underwritten by local insurance companies licensed in the country.

In the unfortunate event of a traffic accident, there are some things to remember. In Mexico, you're often considered guilty until proven innocent. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be to blame, but you may be detained by the police until they verify that you can pay damages. Always have your insurance details on hand, consider installing dash cameras and be sure to contact the police if you have any disputes with other road users.

Driving a foreign car in Mexico

If you're planning to import a car from your home country and are staying in Mexico for a fixed period, you'll need to apply for a Vehicle Temporary Import license from Banjercito – the only official place to purchase one. Temporary permits will last for the duration of your visa.

If you are relocating permanently, you must hire a customs agent (agente aduanal) to legalize the import of your car. The agent will ensure that the import complies with local law and is formally registered. Fees vary depending on the age of your vehicle and may be up to 20% of the value of your car, although Mexico has trade agreements with many countries and economic regions –including the US and Canada, the UK, Japan and Europe – that mean this fee is waived. You will also need to pay value added tax based on your vehicle’s value as determined by customs. This is set at 16% (2021).

Driving a US car in Mexico

If you are moving from the US, you do not need a temporary import licence if you keep your vehicle within the Mexico Free Zone, which encompasses around 16 miles inland of the US borders (and the entire Baja Peninsula). If you are moving further away from the border or want to travel across the country, you will need to secure a permit or import your vehicle.

How to drive safely in Mexico

Mexico has a laid-back culture, and arguably this is on display in people’s casual driving habits. But, while this style of driving may seem a bit reckless to outsiders, it makes perfect sense once you understand its internal logic. According to a study by the World Health Organisation, driving in Mexico causes 13.1 deaths per 100,00 people each year, which is in the same range as the US (12.4 per 100,000). However, deaths due to driving are much lower in countries such as Canada, the UK and across Europe.

Typically, experienced drivers will have no problems adapting to travelling in Mexico, but there are some things you should remain aware of to ensure safer journeys.

Learn the rules, regulations, and laws.

Driving in Mexico requires more than just a valid licence and some extra cash for tolls. Rules and regulations are enforced and they may be different to those in your home country. There are laws in place against driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, driving without insurance and driving without a seatbelt. Driving at night is also prohibited in some urban areas – part of a scheme called hoy no circula

Laws vary depending on the Mexican state you’re visiting. It’s always good to check for any differences on local government websites before heading off.

It may also help to learn the local road signs and enough  Spanish to identify words like "Alto", which means "Stop".

Police in some areas of Mexico are known to ask for a bribe (mordida) in exchange for waiving fees or other punishments. Paying a bribe is illegal. Instead, you should request your ticket and to make a complaint.

Legal driving age

The legal age to drive a car in Mexico is 18 years old. However, at the age of 15, you’re allowed to drive under parental supervision and at 16 you can drive solo if you have parental permission

Cuota vs Libra

You'll find two different types of highway throughout the country: Cuota and Libra.

Cuotas are toll roads that provide fast access between major cities. These motorways are well-maintained and regularly patrolled by police, making them the safest choice for both you and your car.

Libre roads make for a slower route, stretching on for longer distances and tending to link up less populated areas along the journey. While it may not always be possible to use Cuotas, most people would recommend avoiding Libres where possible. There's much less funding for these roads, so expect potholes and uneven surfaces. They tend to have more wild animals crossing them, especially at night.

Road quality and weather

Although Mexican roads are not up-to-par with the US or Canada, they are generally passable for most cars. Still, it's wise to consider road conditions before setting off. Sticking to Cuotas (tolled highways) is usually preferred.

Heavy rain during the monsoon season often affects paved roads throughout Baja California Sur, while landslides may result after heavy rainfall along highways near mountainous regions. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and reports.

While gas stations are much more common in built-up regions, rural areas offer less choice when filling your tank. Always ensure that your vehicle has enough gas and water before you set off, and make sure to fill up regularly if your journey is long.

What to do when you break down

If you find yourself experiencing car trouble on the Mexican Cuotas, The Green Angels, or Angeles Verdes, should be your first port of call. The government employs these service mechanics under the national roadside assistance program. Known for their distinctive green trucks, they monitor toll roads to assist visitors experiencing car troubles. The Green Angels are bilingual and can provide you with various services, including towing free of charge.

If you're renting a vehicle, be sure to have your rental company's contact information before you set off. In the event of a breakdown, they'll be able to provide assistance as quickly as possible or send out a mechanic if necessary. And, if you're not fluent in Spanish, they should be able to translate for you should you need assistance contacting a towing company.

However, if you break down on a Libra or back-road in a private vehicle, you'll need to contact someone for roadside assistance. Motorists should always exercise extreme care if approached by people they did not call for.

Travelling around Mexico

Monitor each state's status

Though the Mexican government is dedicated to fighting crime,  there are particular areas that expats should avoid where possible. Driving to Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, for example, is generally considered risky due to the drug trade activity in the area. Driving through rural regions after dark also poses potential risk.

However, while some areas, like Zacatecas and Morelas, remain more dangerous than others due to crime rates, sticking to major cities and toll roads will help mitigate any risks.

If you're from the United States, you may want to visit the Mexico Travel Advisory page before setting off – especially if you're a government employee who faces restrictions.

If you're going to explore the cultures and heritage of Mexico and immerse yourself into Mexican living, you need to drive. And, with the proper preparation, you'll enjoy a headache-free adventure – arrange the correct paperwork, understand the laws, plan your journeys, and pay attention to your surroundings.

Driving on new roads is only a small part of relocation. Find out more about life as an expat in Mexico.

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