Driving to Mexico and Bringing a Car: The Plan and the Reality

This essay has to do with driving a car to Mexico, what kind of car can be imported to Mexico, getting a permanent resident visa, and safety tips for driving to Mexico, or The best-laid plans of mice and men/Often go awry (Robert Burns, 1785), in seven parts.

Part One:  Intention to Drive, March 17, 2013

For over two years we’ve been talking about driving our now ten-year old Honda CRV to Oaxaca.  Something has always tripped us up, gotten in the way, and postponed our plans.  Mostly, it’s because our casita wasn’t finished, we didn’t know how long we would stay for any one stretch, and neither of us had retired yet.  There were plenty of excuses, reasonable and otherwise.

And, we heard lots of tales from locals and expats — some of them true!  Mostly, we heard ‘ you can’t bring a car in unless it’s exactly ten years old.’ I breathed a sigh of relief as our car was aging in place.

Our godson is getting married in Oaxaca in two weeks.  Months ago, Stephen bought a round-trip plane ticket to attend, take vacation days, and return to North Carolina in time to resume his university teaching.   Life changes.  Since buying the plane ticket, he decided to retire at the end of June, wind down his private practice, and spend more time in Oaxaca.  He’s traveling by air, but planned to return to the U.S. on a one-way ticket.  

Bringing a car into Mexico is decidedly tricky.  There’s the driving part, of course.  Over the last six weeks, Stephen talked with our NC friends living in Mexico.  They recommended a driving route with a Nuevo Laredo border crossing.  Their advice goes something like this:  Sleep in Laredo, Texas.  Get up really early before dawn.  Drive across the border through the “no man’s land.”  Twenty miles in, present your papers at the check-point, then, drive without stopping until you are as far away as possible.

To prepare, the car got a twice over to make the journey, hopefully without a glitch.  Our mechanic says put the spare tire inside.  Stephen is leaving on Sunday.  It’s three days from North Carolina to the Mexican border.  Then one really LONG day with a very early morning start to San Miguel, two nights there to rest up, and another long driving day to Oaxaca.  Just in time for Semana Santa.  I can’t wait!  The car will be full of kitchen supplies that are impossible to get here.

Part Two: Surprises, March 20, 2013

Yesterday, we Skype again.  I’ve got two surprises for you, Stephen says.  I’m listening.  I got my visa, he says.  It’s a permanent resident visa.  (Link is to Mexican Embassy in Canada, where information in English is very clear.) This is great, I say.  I think, wow, that’s almost a miracle.  And, he says, you can apply for your visa in Mexico instead of the U.S. because I show enough money in my retirement fund to support you!  

Part Three:  Plan Interruptus?, March 20, 2013

Mexican immigration laws have changed.  There are no more FM-3 visas. Now, there are streamlined temporary resident visas and permanent resident visas.  There are also new regulations about bringing and keeping cars from the U.S. in Mexico.  To be legal, you must have the permanent resident visa and the car must be of a certain vintage, not too old and not too new.  Specifics?  Still more information to find out before Stephen leaves on Sunday!  Trigger:  I receive an email from friend Lynda who wants to know how we are bringing our car into Mexico.  Her’s has to leave, she says.  Something about the VIN number.  I remember our Honda has a VIN showing assembly in the United Kingdom.

Part Four:  The Panic Sets In, March 20, 2013, p.m.

I panic. I email with Lynda, again, who is here on a permanent resident visa but has to remove her car permanently, never to bring it back again.   I’m having a glass of wine with mutual friend Roberta on her patio.  I ask her if she knows why Lynda’s car has to exit. It’s made/assembled in Japan, Roberta says. (I’ve written before about how accidental getting information is here.)  I think, I wonder if that means my CRV assembled in the U.K., won’t be allowed in either.  I write Stephen and tell him to be on alert, we need to investigate.  He says contact Banjercito, the Mexican bank that handles all the car importation. I email them, hoping to get an answer in time.  Countdown: Three days to departure.

Part Five:  The Scoop, March 21, 2013, a.m.

Que milagro!  I got a reply in English this morning.  Here’s the scoop:

  1. Because of NAFTA, only cars manufactured/assembled in the USA or Canada are allowed to be imported to Mexico.
  2. No cars made in Japan, Great Britain or anywhere else in the world can be brought in — ever.
  3. It doesn’t matter what kind of visa you have.  What matters is the VIN (vehicle identification number) of the car.
  4. If you have a permanent resident visa, you must apply for a permanent importation license for the car which must be made in the U.S. or Canada.
  5. If you have a temporary resident visa, you can apply for a temporary import license, but the car has to also be made in the U.S. or Canada.
  6. If you have a permanent resident visa, you cannot apply for a temporary car import license.  You will be denied entry at the border.
  7. Thanks to Banjercito, and staff members Erik and Jose for this clear information.

Part Six:  A New Day, March 21, 2013

Stephen will be leaving the car at home and flying here, instead.  He arrives on Sunday night.  Everything we had intended to pack and bring by vehicle will need to be reapportioned between suitcases, distributed to family members to bring, or wait until the next time.  What to do with the car?  Quien sabe!  Maybe I’ll buy one in Mexico.

Part Seven: Footnote–Driving Safety, Forever

For you naysayers, my friend Merry drives back and forth regularly from Santa Fe to Oaxaca by herself.  Yes, I said ALONE.  I shared her advice with Stephen and I’ll post it here.

  • Don’t drive after dark
  • Take the cuotas – the toll roads — never side roads
  • Drive defensively and pay attention
  • Have your vehicle travel papers handy
  • Keep your driver’s license and passport within easy reach
  • Get a Mexican cell phone ($30 USD) at the border, load it up with minutes – at least 300 pesos of time
  • On the back of the Cuota ticket there will be an emergency phone number for the Green Hornets – like Triple A, they carry parts and are mechanics.  If you call, they will ask you to locate a  number closest to you painted on the highway pavement.  This is to identify your location in case you need help.
  • Buy the road guide to Mexico – called Mexico Tourist Road Atlas, Guia Roji.
  • If you get stopped by Federales,  immediately hand them your documentation, be patient, smile, let them do the talking.
  • It’s a stunning drive, very quieting, relax and enjoy.

12 Responses to Driving to Mexico and Bringing a Car: The Plan and the Reality

  1. Just a clarification, i just applied for my temporary visa and it is valid for 1 yr. It is the tourist visa that is valid for 6 months. I am trying to find an answer if i can keep my car in for the whole year or have to drive out if anyone knows?

    • I am not an expert. You need to contact Banco Ejercito that handles these questions for the legal, definitive answer. I am going go give you an educated guess at the answer: It probably depends on the VIN number which will tell you where the car was manufactured. It it was manufactured/assembled in the U.S. or Canada, then you can probably keep it in Mexico. Thank you, NAFTA and Bill Clinton! If it was made/assembled in any other country, you cannot keep it in Mexico no matter what kind of Visa you have.

  2. I think your friend Merry meant Green Angles, not Green Hornets. The Anegels don’t sting you.

  3. We had visited Oaxaca several times previously and decided to try driving as an alternative. So, we flew to Mexico City and rented a car there for a trip one year during a Day of the Dead visit. It really was an easy drive and the scenery was spectacular! We stopped for gas in a small town on the way and ended up having a delicious snack at the market going on in the plaza. The car also gave us many opportunities to explore on our own for the several days we were in Oaxaca … I loved the spontaneity it provided! Some of our friends (and people we spoke to in Oaxaca) thought we were crazy but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

    • Tracy, GREAT POST. Thank you. What a great experience and a tribute to driving in Mexico! -Norma

      • We got directions at our hotel and drove out to San San Agustín de Etla for the Muerteada during our Dia de los Muertos visit … what an amazing and authentic experience! And to top it all off, we had the most delicious tacos I’ve ever eaten: the meat cooked over an open fire in an alley way by incredibly friendly villagers who brought out chairs from their home and ran to the store to buy beer for us. There’s no way we would have experienced this if we hadn’t had a car to explore on our own.

  4. What a great story, Norma! It made me remember driving to Mexico from Santa Fe in the 1980′s. Things were sure different then. Mostly 2 lane roads and it was really hard to pass trucks and busses, also tractors with 4 or 5 people riding on them. Animals in the road. Little kids selling “chicles”.
    I could drive about 3 hours before I was exhausted!

    • Hi, Kate. Yes, a great memory — before NAFTA, before drugs and border patrol, when driving to Mexico was more hassle-free than it is today. Thanks for sharing this. Back to NC in late April. Hope to see you.

  5. Wow Norma – that’s one BIG saga. Yes, I know rules have changed since I drove in my Dodge Minivan in2008 on a FM3 and out 2011. It’s all totally different. So ex-pats who have had their cars here forever under the old system have illegal cars! You can’t drive them legally as their original registrations usually has expired and they aren’t allowed under the new rules. Who KNEW about this? Or who knew about ONLY American and Canadian made cars being importable. This is why I LOVE Mexico – the rules change ‘whenever’ and you’ll never get a straight answer easily. Hopefully this is the story. YES, buy your car in Mexico!

    • Sheri, thanks for the comment. Let me clarify. Expats who have their cars here under the old system — and who have permanent resident visas — can have their cars here permanently with an annual renewal IF their cars are either of U.S. or Canada manufacture. My understanding is that if you are here on a temporary resident visa, your car can stay here for six months, then you need to take it out of the country and bring it back in again — ONLY IF it is of U.S. or Canada manufacture. Temporary residents have a six month visa and must leave the country and re-enter at the end of six months — just like their cars.

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