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Driving in Mexico: Facts You'll Need to Know to Stay Within the Law

Now that you’re a permanent resident, you’ll need transportation. Driving in Mexico means being familiar with Mexico’s traffic laws as well as obtaining a Mexican driver’s license, insurance, and proper documentation for your car are essential steps. But, what do you need to know to do all of that?

Driving a car is the same no matter where you go, thought the side you sit on may change if you vist overseas destinations. The rules of the road and requirements, however, can be very different.

A Look at Traffic Rules and Regulations in Mexico

Depending on your country of origin, the traffic rules and regulations in Mexico can be familiar or entirely new. In Mexico, as in the U. S. and Canada, drivers drive on the right side of the road. Other nationals, like the citizens of the United Kingdom or Australia, drive on the left and will need to adjust to the change.

When driving in Mexico, know the traffic rules and regulations and submit documentation before you drive this quiet road

Image CC by SA 4.0, judgeflora, by via Wikimedia Commons

When driving, carry enough pesos for the toll roads. Mexico has four-lane interstate and inter-city toll roads. These toll roads are modern and well maintained. If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s a good idea to use the toll roads whenever possible. Generally, tolls in Mexico are more expensive than U.S. roads. Unfortunately, Mexican toll booths do not accept U.S. currency.

When driving in Mexico, note that speed limits are posted in kilometers

Be careful not to think in miles per hour. City driving is limited to 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph). Outside of cities, the limit is 80 kph (50 mph). On the toll highways, you can drive 110 kph (70 mph). Remember to watch out for speed bumps (topes). Topes are on toll roads and non-toll routes. If you approach a tope at too high a speed, you risk damaging your car.

Here is what to expect on a non-toll road

Taking one of the smaller, non-toll roads, called ascarreteros ferales, will increase your travel time. Be ready to encounter potholes and other types of road damage. These roads are seldom repaired. In addition, you might find yourself trailing a herd of livestock with no way to pass, so enjoy the view.

It’s best to avoid night diving in Mexico

Night driving in Mexico can be dangerous. Limited or no streetlights make cyclists and pedestrians hard to see. Few wear reflective material. These are safety precautions common in the U.S.and some other countries, but not in Mexico. If you must travel at night, it’s safer to use the toll roads.

Roadblocks and checkpoints are common

Due to police efforts to control the flow of drugs, you’ll encounter checkpoints if you’re driving south. Police may search your car. Officers are also allowed to ask for your car registration, driver’s license, and insurance papers, so be sure you have them ready.

Be alert when city driving in Mexico

City traffic can cause hours of delay. When driving in the city, remain alert to drivers making sudden maneuvers. Mexican drivers rarely signal when changing lanes or before making turns,.Taking taxis or public transportation is a reasonable alternative. Take the time to learn traffic signs. Here is one example:

Know the laws when driving in Mexico

  • Drivers and all passengers must use seat belts
  • Only hands-free cell phone usage is legal.
  • The legal limit for blood alcohol is .08 percent

Mexico has a roadside assistance service, Angeles Verdes (Green Angels). Arriving in green trucks, the drivers offer simple repairs like flat tires fixes. Other than parts and gas, their services are free.

Mexican gas stations still employ attendants

When driving in Mexico, you'll encounter Pemex Gas Stations

Image CC by SA 3.0, by infrogmation, via Wikimedia Commons

Pemex is a familiar brand of gas in Mexico. Years ago, U.S. attendants pumped your gas and washed your windows. In Mexico, they still do. Keep in mind these men earn very little pay. They’ll expect a tip. If you happen to be traveling a long distance, check a map to make sure you know how far it is to the next station.

When to Submit Documentation

Be ready to submit documents like proof of insurance, documents of ownership, permits, and your driver’s license. Because of U.S. laws, Americans are used to keeping them in the car. But, nationals of other countries, the U.K. for example, may be accustomed to leaving these documents at home.

To import your car, submit documentation

It is possible to import your car if you are in Mexico to work or study and your stay is less than 180 days (Residente Temporal). You must submit documentation, however. You can apply for an import permit for one vehicle. When applying for an import permit, you’ll need a passport, Mexican visa or tourist card, proof of vehicle ownership, and a valid driver’s license with a photo.

When you’ll need a Mexican driver’s license

If you’re a new resident, you’ll need a Mexican drivers’ license. The minimum age is 18. Teenagers may apply for a special license that allows them to drive under the supervision of an adult. This is similar to the learner’s permit in the U.S. Be aware that with your teenager in the driver’s seat, the police may do a roadside check to verify his or her age and license.

IDPs and drivers license of country of origin

Rather than a Mexican driver’s license, some residents apply for an international Drivers Permit. IDPs were a result of the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Check with your local DMV to make sure IDP’s are accepted in your state. You must apply for an IDP within six months of residency. Along with the drivers license of your country of origin, carry your IDP with you in your car.

Mexican drivers license: is there a written exam or a driving exam?

Drivers’ license requirements vary in Mexico from state to state. Some states require only a blood test. In other states, you must take a written exam, a driving exam, and have a medical examination. Contact your local department of motor vehicles. They will tell you what documents to bring and the steps to take when applying for a driver’s license. If you do not speak Spanish or you are uncertain that you know enough to take the test, ask if you can take the test in English or use a translator.

Mexican plates

As stated earlier, bringing your own car with you across the border is possible only if you are in Mexico to work or study and your stay is less than 180 days (Residente Temporal). If you’re a Residente Permanente, you’ll need Mexican plates. If the police stop you, and you lack a Mexican drivers license or the necessary owner’s documents, you’ll be fined and your vehicle may be impounded. Car registration laws are strictly enforced in Mexico. The Mexican police are allowed to search your car.

Buying a car in Mexico: what kind of car?

When buying a car in Mexico, remember that potholes, other road problems, and speed bumps can damage your car. A solidly built used car is a better choice than a lighter-framed vehicle.

Buying Mexican insurance

Mexican insurance is available for purchase online or in U.S. border towns. Previous U.S. or Canadian insurance is not valid in Mexico. In case of an accident, the authorities will determine fault. Until damages are paid, you may be jailed, especially if there are serious injuries or deaths. Purchasing an insurance policy from a Mexican company provides some level of protection.

If you plan to do little driving in Mexico, consider renting a car

There are many car rental companies in Mexico. Request an automatic if you’re not comfortable using a manual transmission. Unfortunately, insurance for the rental car adds considerable cost to the rental agreement. Before you leave with the vehicle, remember to check the car for any signs of damage (take a photo). Insist that the rental agency acknowledge and verify it before you take possession.

In the event of a traffic accident

In the event of a traffic accident, your insurance company will send an assessor. After rental company assessors determine blame, you will be allowed to leave. You can wait for them to provide a replacement car. If you are at fault or said to be at fault, you will be taken to jail unless you negotiate an immediate cash settlement.

Why Knowing Mexico’s Traffic Rules and Regulations is Important

Relocating to another country can be stressful. Regardless of your driver’s license of country of origin, there will be differences between driving in Mexico and driving in your home country. Lastly, know the laws when driving in Mexico, have your documents in order, and you’ll enjoy your new life in this lovely country.


Featured image: CC by SA 3.0, by :Jujutacular, via Wikimedia 

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