Vanlife Baja & mexico: A guide to Crossing the border + all required permits (FMM & TIP)
Bordering the southern USA for a whopping 2,000 miles, Mexico presents one of the best (and easiest) opportunities for Americans and Canadians to experience international vanlife— and yet so many travellers are intimidated by the permit process, the border crossing, and the perceived difficulty of driving their van through a foreign country.
There are definitely a few challenges, but almost all of these are due to a lack of comprehensive information online rather than actual red tape. With a little bit of planning & the help of this guide, you’ll find soon yourself in Mexico wondering why on earth you waited so long to experience this spectacular country!
This post describes general logistics for driving across the US-Mexico border, including required documents, Mexican auto insurance, validating your FMM at the border, circumventing the TIP weight restriction, and specific recommendations for crossing the border at Mexicali East!
Which US-Mexico border crossing is best?
There are 6 ports of entry between California, USA and Baja California, Mexico accessible to public vehicles, with the busiest being San Ysidro (the busiest land border in the entire world!) and the least trafficked being Andrade (about 15min from Yuma, Arizona, although the actual crossing is in California).
- Calexico West/Mexicali I (the original “downtown” border crossing into Mexicali)
- Calexico East/Mexicali II (considered to be the easier of the 2 Mexicali crossings)* issues TIPs
- Andrade/Los Algodones (the least trafficked of the border crossings into Baja)* maybe issues TIPs?
*there’s extremely mixed information online about which border crossings do or don’t issue TIPs, but we got ours at Mexicali East and we’ve heard from credible sources that Tecate and Otay Mesa (Tijuana) also process these permits. More info on Temporary Import Permits for your vehicle below!
We crossed at Calexico East/Mexicali II, which was incredibly quick and easy (literally not one person in front of us in ANY of the lines, including the offices we had to visit to get our tourist card and the Temporary Import Permit for our van). I would definitely recommend this port for a simple and quick border crossing to Baja!
When it comes to mainland Mexico, there are heaps of border crossings from Arizona, New Mexico & Texas (you can see the full list here).
The protocol is more or less the exact same as crossing from California into Baja (and all the information in this post still applies), but you’ll want to do some additional research to avoid entering into a dangerous part of the country— the majority of crime and violence in Mexico takes place within close proximity of the border and there are several ports considered to be a no-go for travellers.
Mexico Customs: what you can & can’t bring across the border
Since we were essentially crossing the US-Mexico border in our HOME, we meticulously scoured the Mexican government site to make sure that all the food, personal items, and booze we had in the van wouldn’t be confiscated at the border. Thankfully, the restrictions are pretty reasonable, but there are a few specific things that might be relevant to consider in your van.
- It’s worth noting that no one checked any of these limits when we crossed the border (and our plant even made it across without issue), but proceed at your own risk.
Ok to bring across the border
- Up to 3L of liquor or beer & 6L of wine PER PERSON
- Most packaged snacks (e.g. nuts, crackers, chips)
- Prescription medication in the original packaging (they didn’t check ours, but that’s no guarantee)
- A limit of 3 mobile phones, 2 cameras & 1 laptop per person
- Up to 3 cats or dogs (make sure to research additional requirements for travelling across the border with pets)
Not ok bring across the border
- Potted plants with soil (although no one said anything about our Queen Vic Agave, which was in full view)
- Sandwiches, pizza, etc with meat and/or dairy unless it’s in original sealed packaging
- Fresh meat of any kind
- The usual: no guns, weapons, illegal drugs
Required documents for the US-Mexico border crossing
In order to legally cross from the US into Mexico, you’ll need to prepare several important documents:
- Passport (interestingly, NO ONE asked to see our passports at the border, but we did need them when validating our FMM— which, again, no one asked to see at the border)
- Proof of Mexican Auto Insurance (more details below)
- Vehicle Registration (original & copy)
- Vehicle Title (copy) or Lien Agreement
- FMM Tourist Card (more details below)
- TIP Import Permit (not required for Baja; more details below)
- Before crossing the border, I’d recommend stopping at UPS or any location with printing/copying facilities to make several colour copies of your passport, driver licence, vehicle title (leave the original somewhere safe, do NOT bring it with you!), registration, auto insurance policy, and FMM.
- This is important for the crossing itself, but also handy for identification purposes while in Mexico— you can store your original passport, licence & registration somewhere safe and only produce them when 100% necessary (there are stories of officers holding your ID and forcing you to pay a bribe for its return).
How to get Mexican Auto Insurance
As a condition of entry to Mexico (the Baja Peninsula and/or mainland), you are required to obtain a Mexican auto insurance policy with a minimum of third-party liability coverage. We were pretty concerned about this (given how hard it was to find insurance for our converted van in the US!), but thankfully it ended up being incredibly simple online with Baja Bound!
Baja Bound have been recommended by heaps of vanlifers before us, and we can similarly attest that the policy is easy to get, extremely comprehensive for converted vans, and the customer service is EXCELLENT (one of the agents even called the border in Mexicali to ask questions on our behalf about the import permit!).
- For our 2019 Ram Promaster 159″ (insured at a value of $68,500), we paid $629USD for a 6-month campervan policy
- This includes coverage for physical damage (collision & natural disaster), total theft, partial theft & vandalism AND specifically covers all of the fixed components of our van build (like the solar panels, cabinetry, batteries, etc)
Check out this post for a super in-depth comparison of different Mexican auto insurance policies, pricing, and recommended coverage: VANLIFE BAJA & MEXICO: HOW TO GET THE BEST MEXICAN AUTO INSURANCE FOR A CONVERTED VAN OR CAMPER
How to get an FMM Tourist Card
Although no visa is required for US or Canadian citizens to visit Mexico, travellers do require a Tourist Card, called the Forma Migratoria Múltiple or FMM. This is for those travelling to Baja-only AND those travelling through mainland Mexico.
- 180-day validity (starting from the date it’s stamped at the border)
- single entry into Mexico
- As of Dec 2021, the FMM costs 594 pesos ($28USD) per person
When you fly into Mexico, these forms are provided on the plane and included in your fare, but for those driving across the land border, you’ll need to complete & pay for the FMM online (you can also do it at the border, but it might slow you down a bit) and then visit the INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración) office directly at the border to have your FMM stamped & validated.
Officers likely won’t check your FMM when you cross into Mexico, but it’s still a legal entry requirement and you MUST have this to get a TIP for your vehicle, which is even more important for travelling through Mexico legally (see below).
The easiest way to get your FMM:
- Fill out the FMM online with some basic personal info & passport details
- Pay the 594 pesos & print your receipt
- Print your FMM (it will be emailed to you immediately after payment)
- Visit the INM office directly at the border to have your FMM stamped & validated
- Keep your FMM handy throughout your travels in Mexico!
Be warned that it is NOT easy to spot the INM Office as you approach the border. Even though I had it pinned on a Google Map, which I was holding in my hand as we approached the border, we STILL missed it and had to reverse through a section of the frontera to get back to the office.
If you miss the turn for the office, just stop your vehicle and flag someone down to ask for help ASAP. Don’t expect anyone to speak English, but if you just say officina por la Forma Migratoria with a wild & confused look, that should get you to the right spot— thankfully, everyone was very helpful (as I’m sure this is not an uncommon problem due to the complete lack of signs).
How to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP)
Foreign-licensed vehicles are required to obtain a Temporary Import Permit before driving into Mexico, but it’s important to note that this permit is NOT required for those only driving within the Baja Peninsula (or within 20mi of the border).
If you’ll be crossing the border into mainland Mexico OR plan on taking the ferry from Baja to mainland Mexico (like us!), then you’ll need to get a TIP.
- 6-month validity for vehicles
- As of Dec 2021, costs 1200 pesos ($56USD)
- PLUS a deposit ($400 for vans newer than 2007) that will be refunded when you return your permit & depart Mexico
- If your vehicle is a motorhome: 10-year validity and NO deposit (read below to see how we got this for our van)
Although I’d recommend getting your FMM completed online before crossing, I actually think it’s better to get your TIP in-person at the border, since you’ll need to have staff sign off on registering your van/camper as a motorhome (more info on why this is SO important below).
Vehicle weight restriction (GVWR)
⚠️ A very important regulation to be aware of: TIPs are technically not issued to any non-motorhome vehicle whose GVWR exceeds 3.5 tons or 7,716lbs. This is obviously problematic for almost all converted vans (you can find your van’s GVWR on a sticker affixed to the driver’s door, as above)— which would mean vanlife isn’t possible beyond Baja, as this is the only part of Mexico that does not require a TIP.
But, of course, there’s a work-around! If you, like us, have a van above the GVWR restriction & therefore can’t get a TIP as a normal vehicle, the BEST course of action is to argue that your van IS a motorhome.
The fact that our van is registered as a commercial cargo vehicle in the US was no help, but after showing our interior to several officers multiple times and INSISTING that it is como una casa rodante (like a motorhome) con una cama grande, baño, cocina, agua, refrigador… we finally got permission to be listed as a motorhome, which not only meant that we were able to get our TIP and legally enter Mexico, but also that our TIP was issued for 10 years and requried no deposit— yay!!
The easiest way to get a TIP for a converted van:
- Bring your validated FMM (get it stamped immediately before this at the border), your passport, vehicle registration (original AND colour copy), and Mexican auto insurance policy to the Banjercito at the border
- Explain to the staff that you want to register your van as a motorhome (casa rodante)
- You’ll likely be asked to show your van to the staff (perhaps multiple people) to prove that it is, for this purpose, just like a motorhome
- They may send you across the way to a separate office to have someone sign off on this designation
- Return to the office and pay 1200 pesos for the permit (plus a deposit, ONLY if you’re not attempting to register as a motorhome)
- The staff will print AND email you a copy of the TIP, which you should keep handy for your travels through Mexico
- Remember to return your permit when you leave Mexico!
*Tips for crossing the US-Mexico border at Mexicali
- This particular border crossing spans between Calexico, CA and Mexicali, Baja Norte, but make SURE you navigate to Mexicali East (the original Mexicali West crossing is much busier, does not issue TIPs, and we’ve heard about several bad experiences).
- Ideally, you should have your FMM validated (at INM) and your TIP issued (at Banjercito) BEFORE passing through the border, but we missed the turn and did this step after the inspection. It worked fine in the end, but it was a bit stressful figuring out where to reverse, so definitely learn from our mistake— see the photo below for what the INM office looks like!
- Unless you have something to declare, drive into the “Nothing to Declare – Nada que Declarar” line and pull forward to trigger either a red or green light. This is what determines whether you’ll be subjected to a more intensive inspection or a very casual one (ours literally took 30sec). If you are flagged for a secondary inspection, you’ll pull forward and officers will thoroughly inspect the contents of your van, searching for contraband (mostly weapons and drugs) or other items that you failed to declare (merchanside, booze, etc). This can be pretty involved, so it helps to have a tidy van to minise work for the officer and expedite the process for yourself.
- Once the inspection is done, you’ll be sent on your way— and that’s literally it! No one even asked to see our passports (which we’ve heard from others, as well) and the whole experience was surprisingly smooth.
- Be aware that there are several military checkpoints along the highway as you travel down the peninsula. We haven’t yet been asked to show our paperwork, but you may well be, so keep a copy of your passport, auto insurance, TIP, and FMM handy in your vehicle.
Read more about vanlife in Mexico