New highways are tolled and can be expensive if you’re travelling long distances. Carreteras federales are non-tolled roads, but they tend to have higher levels of traffic and be of lower quality. In cities and towns, the quality of the roads varies greatly, but be ready for potholes, badly painted lines, and cobblestone streets.
When driving in Mexico always make sure that you have your licence, passport or other proof of identification, proof of insurance and tarjeta de circulación (vehicle registration) with you at all times. You cannot drive without these documents. The Mexican government is clamping down on Mexican police officers taking bribes from drivers who have been pulled over for one reason or another. You do not have to give your documents to the police, you can just show it to them. If police officers try to get a bribe from you, it is advisable to be polite, stay calm, and present the documents they are asking for. Don't participate in the cycle of corruption.
Petrol stations in Mexico are not self service. There will always be a gas pump attendant. You just have to tell them how much you want and what type of fuel you want. You can ask for fuel by the liter or according to price. So you can, say, pump $200 pesos and they will stop once the counter reaches that number. There are three types of fuel you can choose from; diesel, Magna, and Premium, so make sure you know what kind your car needs. You can pay in cash or with a credit card. If you choose to pay with a credit card, have them bring the card machine to you and process the transaction in front of you. It is customary to tip the attendants $5 or $10 pesos. If you plan on travelling long distances, make sure your tank is full, or else you might find yourself stranded without any fuel for miles.
Remember that driving in Mexico is hectic and unpredictable. Therefore, it can be dangerous. This is especially true for people who have never been behind the wheel here. You have to be very vigilant and drive defensively. Be aware that people rarely use indicators (some use their arms!), so you can’t always tell where they are headed. Lane lines are barely visible in some places and topes, or speed bumps, aren’t signaled properly. Potholes are almost everywhere, to a certain degree. Be very careful with these, as they can break your tires and the rim, as well as possibly destroy the undercarriage of your car and its suspension.
Always carry cash for toll roads! If you cannot pay, they might ask you to leave a valuable item as collateral while you find an ATM or a bank to take out money. It is a hassle and it’s best to be prepared. Tolls can range from $35 MXN to $300 MXN, depending on how new the highway is.
On highways, never stop for large objects on the road - they are almost always put there on purpose in order to get you to stop and subsequently rob you. Sometimes when passing through small towns, children will hold a line across the street so you stop and give them change. If you don’t stop they’ll move. Whenever you get in the car, lock your doors and do not linger in the area, especially in parking lots and dimly-lit streets. Finally, keep your windows up.
If your car breaks down, tolled roads have insurance or you can call the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels). They are the Mexican version of roadside assistance, but they are only available in the main highways. You can reach them by calling 078. If you’re driving a rental car, the company will most likely have a hotline you can call for help. If they have to tow your vehicle, it is normal to pay for fuel and tolls on the way.
If you get into a minor accident, it might go unnoticed since calling the insurance is a hassle and many people don’t even have it. This means that some people might just want to handle the situation personally or simply leave. If they do stay to resolve the issue, you both have to wait right there (yes in the middle of the street, if that’s the case) until the insurance representatives arrive. If your car is rented be especially careful because if the other party drives off you are liable for the damage.
In the case of a serious accident, contact the insurance company or the rental car agency, especially if the police are involved. If you think the situation is not being handled properly you can always contact your consulate or embassy for assistance.
Foreign auto insurance policies are not valid in Mexico. If you are uninsured and get into an accident, the authorities can arrest you and keep you in holding until the damages are paid for. This process can take a while, and if you don’t speak Spanish it will be an incredibly difficult matter to navigate. Don’t worry, Mexican car insurance is inexpensive and easy to purchase. You can get coverage online with almost any trusted car insurance company, like GEICO or Progressive. You can also purchase it at the border, but it will be more expensive.
If you are coming from the US, there is a 35km “free zone” within which you are exempt from having Mexican auto insurance.
In order to get car insurance in Mexico, the company you deal with will ask you many questions in order to provide the most accurate quote possible. While the questions may vary, the core information you will be asked for is:
- The value and model of your car.
- What limits you need.
- How long your stay in Mexico is.
- Where you’re driving to in Mexico.
- If any driver is under 21.
- If you are towing anything.
The company will cover you for bodily injury and property damage liability. Each Mexican state has different rules regarding accidents - particularly fatal ones. Therefore, most companies recommend drivers have a minimum of about $300,000 worth of third-party liability damage coverage.
Policies will be priced in packages either daily, on a six-month basis or annually. You can get quotes from ACE Seguros, EL Aguila, and Grupo Nacional Provincial, which are local auto insurance companies that are affiliated with AAA, Progressive, and GEICO.
If you are a Mexican resident, this insurance does not apply to you. This is only valid to those visiting Mexico on a tourist visa with a car or cars registered in another country.
You can acquire a driver's licence quite easily in Mexico. As long as you have your visa, a birth certificate, a valid passport, the exact payment due, and proof of address, you can issue your licence. Since 2014, those applying for a licence have to take an exam, but this can also depend on the state and the government module you go to. A few states allow you to get a driver’s licence with only a tourist visa, but if you don’t plan on staying longer than the duration of your visa, it's not really necessary. You need to pay the fee at a local bank and then take that receipt to the módulo (local office) nearest to you. Take the original and a copy of all documents. You will take the exam and once you pass you will receive your licence.
Licences need to be renewed every three years, and the permanent licence no longer exists. Foreigners will have to renew the licence every year. Learner’s permits can be issued from the age of 15 to 18, after taking a driving course that certifies you are ready.
The process for acquiring a driver’s licence for motorcycles is done separately, but involves many of the same documents and procedures.