9 Steps to Crossing the SoCal Mexican Border in Your Van

No trip to Southern California is complete without a visit to Baja, Mexico. Traveling to Baja is a fantastic experience for any van or RV lifer.  Baja offers visitors endless miles of beaches, excellent restaurants, wine tasting, off-roading, surfing, hiking, and much more.

What makes Baja particularly attractive is that you can find plenty of places on the beach or in the mountains where you can camp with amazing views. Along with the incredible views, the prices are much lower, and the food is out of this world.

To make your trip to Baja as stress-free and fun as possible, understanding what is required to enter Mexico is essential. Advanced planning will ensure you have all the proper documentation before arriving to make the border crossing a breeze. If you do not plan properly, your fun trip to Mexico can become a headache.

Crossing the border is very seamless and is accomplished by thousands of visitors every day. The nine steps listed below will help you have a seamless border crossing. You do not want to start your visit to Baja struggling to get across the border.

Below are the nine steps to take if you plan to take your Van or RV into Mexico. Follow these steps to guarantee an easy border crossing.

The nine steps are:

  1. Plan your Route.
  2. Obtain SENTRI/READY Lane PASS (Optional)
  3. Obtain Mexican Vehicle Insurance
  4. Obtain Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) (If Needed)
  5. Obtain Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM) online
  6. Obtain Visitor Health Insurance (Option)
  7. Drive across the Border
  8. Obtain Stamp for FMM
  9. Getting your Pet Inspected (If Needed)

Step 1: Plan Your Route

The first step is understanding where you want to go in Baja. If you have a clear understanding of where you want to go, you can plan your route more efficiently, choose the appropriate border crossing, and a better idea of where to stay.

It is good to understand where you want to visit within Baja, even if you plan on only going for the day. One of the keys to making any trip to Baja successful is understanding where you can park your van or RV. You do not want to leave your Van or RV alone in a sketchy part of town.

Tasks to complete in this step:

  • Determine which border crossing is best.
  • Where you are going
  • What is the best route to get there
  • Where you are staying

Step 2: Obtain SENTRI/READY Lane PASS (Optional)

Obtaining a SENTRI card from the US Customs and Border Protection Agency is optional, but it will help you cross back into the United States quicker.

The wait time to cross back into the US can sometimes reach more than 5 hours. If you have a SENTRI card, it can dramatically reduce your wait time from 5min to 2 hours. However, you can’t use the SENTRI lane in an RV or vehicle with a trailer and your vehicle must be registered with SENTRI. 

You can also use the READY Lane with a passport card. The READY Lane is much quicker than the regular lanes but slower than the SENTRI Lane. All you do is hold your passport card up to the reader when you enter the border crossing station. If all is fine, the border agent will usually wave you through.

If you plan on only visiting Baja once, it might not be worth the hassle of getting a SENTRI card. The time spent obtaining a SENTRI card will not make up for just one trip back across the border.

Understand that crossing the border sometimes takes a long time, so bring your patience, water, and a good attitude. Below is the website you need to know to obtain a SENTRI card.

Step 3: Obtain Mexican Vehicle Insurance

Obtaining Mexican auto insurance is MANDATORY. Your US-based auto insurance will not be accepted in Mexico along with any other means of auto insurance you have.

Having Mexican Auto Insurance is the Law

If you happen to get into an accident while in Mexico and do not have Mexican auto insurance, you will most likely end up in jail. The first thing you must do is obtained Mexican auto insurance before driving across the border.

Luckily, obtaining Mexican auto insurance is easy, quick, and purchased online.  It usually takes 10-minutes, and the application is easy to fill out.

You can also purchase Mexican auto insurance at places on the border. However, you will likely be paying more at these places.

If you are financing your car, you will most likely have to get permission to travel into Mexico from your finance company. It is a good idea to check with your finance company if they have special international travel requirements.

Many Mexican auto insurance companies require that you request an official letter of permission from your finance company to be carried with their Mexican insurance policy throughout your entire trip.

Most Mexican insurance companies will send your finance company your policy after purchase.

There are many Mexican auto insurance companies; below are the four I have used in the past.

Step 4: Obtain Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) (Optional)

You do not need a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) if you are just visiting the tourist zones (up to 16 miles from the border) or just traveling in Baja. If you plan to leave the tourist zones or Baja, you must have a TIP.

To obtain a TIP, you apply online at Banjercito! Banjercito’s online vehicle permit registration offers travelers to Mexico an easy way to get their TIP by mail (if time allows) or picking it up at a Banjercito branch.

Remember to apply for your TIP at least (10) ten days in advance. It is better to apply 30 days in advance because they will have to mail you a TIP sticker for your vehicle. You want to compensate for any shipping delays.

Bring your valid registration that shows your license plate numbers or the invoice/loan documents in your name. If you bring the invoice/loan documents, they should be less than three months old.

The following documents and information must be submitted:

  • Original/ photocopy of Passport.
  • Original/ photocopy of Driver’s License issued outside of Mexico.
  • Your Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM)
  • The original and duplicate of Bill of Sale, Deed to Property and Vehicle Registration issued by a foreign authority in the applicant’s name. Also, if the title is in the name of a spouse, child, or parent, you must present a birth certificate or marriage license.
  • If the vehicle is leased, bring the lease contract and a notarized letter of consent from the leasing company.
  • If the vehicle is financed, bring the credit contract and a notarized letter of consent from the lien-holder.
  • If you are driving a company car, bring a notarized letter of consent confirming employment and authorizing the employee to import the vehicle into Mexico.
  • Certificate of a canceled import permit for any prior temporary import permits.
  • Provide proof of provisional Mexican auto insurance for your Van or RV.

It will cost you about $52 to obtain a TIP, and it is suitable for (10) ten years. Just make sure you return your TIP when you travel back into the United States.

In addition to the TIP cost, vehicle owners must also make a refundable deposit of $400 USD for vehicles manufactured in 2007 and newer, $300 for vehicles produced between 2001 and 2006, and $200 for those older than 2001.

A trailer is included in your TIP if you can prove ownership. The number of towed vehicles allowed (this includes non-street legal: motorcycles, quads, vehicles, as well as jet skis) is (3) three.

Obtaining a TIP is a simple process if you have the required documentation. Just make sure you are prepared.

Step 5: Obtain Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM) online

To obtain a Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM), you apply online at the address below.

The application process takes about 5 minutes, costs around $33 ($638 peso) , and is valid for 180 days. The FMM must be stamped within 30 days of attaining it, or it becomes invalid. Once approved, the FMM form can be printed out. I recommend making multiple copies of your FMM.

More FMM Tourist Card Facts:

  • Online fee: $638 pesos – approximately U.S. $33 per person
  • The fee may be paid by Visa or Mastercard only (credit or debit card)
  • Valid when entering these states by land: Baja California (Norte), Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas
  • Requires a valid passport or passport card
  • The FMM is free if your trip is 7 days or less and you are traveling by land
  • Take the FMM form to an INM office upon crossing into Mexico for the official stamp

Remember: The printed FMM form will need to be officially stamped by an INM official at the border to be valid. 

Remember: Print a copy of your receipt. The immigration official will ask to see it. 

Step 6: Obtain Traveler Health Insurance (Optional)

I always obtained travelers health insurance before I go to Mexico. Although I have US health insurance, if something does happen, the Mexican health industry is more likely to take your travelers health insurance quicker than your US-based health insurance.

Travelers seeking medical attention in Mexico will be asked upfront to show proof of insurance and give the facility a credit card number. Those without health insurance coverage may be required to pay before receiving medical attention.

I highly recommend getting travelers health insurance before heading into Mexico.

Finding a Travel Health Insurance Provider

The U.S. Department of State has a list of health insurance providers for travelers on their website.  This is an excellent place to start when researching providers.

Website: US State Department

Step 7: Drive Across the Border

Now that you have completed the six steps above, it is time for the big day; to start your Baja adventure.

There are five main border crossings. These are San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico, and Andrade.  If you plan your route correctly, you will understand which one is best for you.

Tip: If you plan on crossing back into the US from the San Ysidro port of entry and the vehicle line is long, there is usually less of a wait at the Otay Mesa port of entry.

Always make sure you check the US Customs and Border Protection website a few days before you cross the border for notices. Occasionally, a port of entry can be shut down, knowing this will save you the time and aggravation of driving to another border crossing at the last minute.

The actual act of driving across the border is relatively easy. Most likely, if you are in a Van or RV, you will be asked to pull aside and be inspected by Mexican customs officials. Politely pull-aside, stop in the stall they point to and follow their directions.

The inspection typically takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. They usually are looking for fruits, vegetables, and firearm contraband. Just be polite, patient, and follow their orders.

Do Not Bring Weapons into Mexico

Step 8: Obtain Stamp for FMM

The hardest part of any border crossing is obtaining the stamp for your FMM. The reality is, the hardest part is finding a parking spot once you cross the border.

Most border crossings will have a small parking lot available once you cross. However, these parking lots fill up quickly, and they might be full when you arrive. That will force you to find another parking spot on the streets, which is difficult in a large van or RV.

Your FMM is stamped in the immigration office right at the border. There are signs that point you in the right direction.

It is always good to understand if the parking lot is full, where are you going to park. I recommend you study Google Maps on where additional parking can be found, so you are not aimlessly driving around to find parking.

Step 9: Getting your Pet Inspected (If Needed)

A lot of Van and RV lifers are traveling with their pets. There is no special documentation needed to bring your pet into Mexico.  The following are the requirements for bringing dogs and cats into Mexico. Ensure you check US Department of Agriculture for any changes to this list.

Upon arrival to Mexico with the pet dog(s) and/or cat(s) in a clean cage(s)/carrier(s), travelers must visit the Mexican Animal and Plant Health Inspection Office (OISA), to contact the official personnel working with SENASICA. The official personnel will verify the following:

  • That the dog(s) and/or cat(s) does/do not present signs of infectious and contagious diseases.
  • The animal(s) is/are free of ectoparasites
  • The animal(s) does/do not present fresh wounds or wounds in a healing process.

Conclusion

Any adventure to Southern California is not complete without a trip to Baja, California. Baja is full of adventure and one of my favorite places. If you planned appropriately, your trip to Baja will be pleasant and rewarding. I wish you the best of luck in your adventures, and I hope you have as much fun in Baja as I do.

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