We’ve crossed the Mexican border via land twice now and have found it to be non-eventful both times. The first time we crossed was through Mexicali as we were making our way down the Sea of Cortez to San Felipe. This time, with plans to travel to Ensenada on the West Coast, we opted for Tecate. We were in San Diego so Tijuana (or TJ as described by those who travel it a lot) might have been the obvious choice, but a few tips from other travelers caused us to choose Tecate, a little further East. First, Tijuana is known to be one of the busiest borders on pretty much every day of the week. Also, if you have business to take care of, in terms of Tourist Cards and TIPS (Temporary Import Permits) for your vehicles, Tecate offers a much more chill en
We’ve heard and read about nightmare crossings where people experienced long lines, corrupt border guards, additional searches or documentation requests that delayed them for hours. It may have just been bad luck (or a shiny new Mercedes Sprinter they were traveling in) but coming from a family that always seems to find that bad luck, I’d say our successes came from good preparation. Read on below for tips from our crossings as well as specific information about crossing the Tecate Border.
Tips for an Easy Mexican Border Crossing
- Cross early: The benefits of crossing the border early in the morning is having shorter lines to wait in and just like with any customer service, a fresh employee to help you out. Well, unless the border is open 24 hours and you’re getting an official at the tail end of his or her shift. In that case, good luck!
- Cross during the week: Just like anywhere else in the world, weekend traffic is heavier as people are off work and heading to fun places. The border is no different. If you have the option to cross during the week, make that a priority.
- Have all the required documentation ready: This means passports, vehicle registrations (for your rig and anything you may be towing), driver’s license and heck, throw in your gym card. The point is, be ready for whatever they may ask for. We wrote a great blog post about this after our last crossing at Mexicali called Tips for Driving from the US to Mexico. Check it out for a list of what documentation you’ll need for yourselves as well as for any pets you may be taking.
- Be kind: Maybe it’s just me because I like to talk to everyone, but I always make a point of getting personal with my border agent. I greet them and ask their name and make idle chit chat while they go about their business of rummaging through your stuff. This seems to help them loosen up and look at you as a person as opposed to another annoying tourist sabotaging their day.
- Be up front about what you have with you: If they ask you if you are carrying alcohol show them your stash. Unless you are bringing in cases of booze with the intent to sell it, they don’t care what you have, unless it’s guns or drugs. I’m not sure why anyone would stock up on booze before entering Mexico. Mexico is where you get the good stuff! Same goes for fruit and other items you’re not allowed to have when crossing the border. I presented my agent with my bag of cuties and he just smiled and said no problem.
- Speak the language: Now, if you don’t speak any Spanish, this may not work for you. But even if you know a few words, use them. Let them know you are trying. If anything, it will give them something to laugh at. I speak a decent amount of Spanish and usually always get the compliment that I speak very well, to which I tell them I need to practice and away we go in a back-and-forth conversation. My husband will probably say we could have crossed the border in half the time if I’d just keep my mouth shut.
Again, everything we’ve done above may just be luck and you could still get a crabby or dishonest agent, but I’d still suggest having all your ducks in a row before you reach the border. Ducks walking in a circle never get anywhere!
Crossing the Tecate Border
Tourist Cards & TIPS
Step #1: Park on the US side and walk through to do your paperwork:
- This is suggested because of the limited parking on the other side, and this is what we had planned to do since we’re traveling in a 27’ RV. But the moment we got close to the border to start looking for parking, we found ourselves literally in line at the border and no real place to park our rig anyway. So, we decided to take our chances for parking on the other side. And our agent, Miguel, was kind enough to let us drive around the block and move some cones to park right next to the Migración office. Let it be known that we weren’t even asked for our passports yet. This story could have been all about how to cross the border with no documentation at all!
Step #2: Find the Migración Office
- Walk through the entrance turntable (if that’s what it’s called) and follow the arrows on the pavement. The Migración office is on the other side of the street (up the stairs) so you’ll need to cross in front of other vehicles coming through the border. Pay no attention to the guy on the other side of the street dressed in camo with his AK47. If you look lost, he’ll gladly point you in the right direction, typically with a nod of his head, not with his gun.
- Pass the Banjercito (Bank) and walk up the stairs or ramp to the right. Make note of the bank as you’ll be going there next. Once inside, walk through the glass doors to the right and if there is no one sitting at the desk, stand there and look lost and someone will eventually come out to help you. The official will ask you (in Spanish) where you are planning to go and for how long. Now, if you do not know any Spanish, he’ll eventually see the glazed-over look in your eyes and will use his broken English with you. Offer your passports and he will provide you with immigration forms to fill out. Follow the instructions for the forms via the highlighted examples on the tables and give them back to him when you are finished. He’ll then provide you with some paperwork to take to the bank. Do you remember where that was?
Step #3: Head to the Banjercito to pay for your Visa (approx. $20 and good for up to 180 days)
- Take the paperwork the Migración office just gave you and head to the Banjercito, where you’ll pay for your visas. If no one is in the little kiosk, just wait. Eventually someone will come out. Make note of the hours of operation before crossing the border so you don’t wake up extra early only to find yourself waiting for them to open. The border itself is currently open 7 days a week from 5am-11pm, but the bank and office are open M-F from 8am -8pm, 10am-2pm on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. Once paid, collect your receipt.
Step #4: Take your receipt back to the Migración office, where they will collect your receipt and stamp your passports and visa paperwork.
Step #5: Make copies of all your documents
- Head back to the Banjercito again where they will tell you what document copies they need from you. Hint: It’s your passports, vehicle registrations and your newly stamped tourist visa. After reading this you can now skip the bank this time around and go straight to get copies by following the directions below.
- Follow the arrows to the exit and walk kitty corner across the street to La Pharmacia (Pharmacy) to make your copies. The office is located behind the little market and copies cost $0.25 each. Now, if I was managing this bank, I’d capitalize on this and offer to make copies right there for a twice the fee, but apparently banks aren’t in the copy-making business. TIP: Make several copies of all your documents ahead of time in the US and this process will go much quicker. The only copy you will need is your stamped tourist visa.
Step #6: You guesses it! Return to the Banjercito
- Once again, follow the arrows, cross the street, smile at the agent with the ak47 and deliver your copies to the bank. If it feels like you are going in circles, you are!If you don’t need a TIP for your vehicle (see TIP info below), the bank will just provide you with all your final copies of everything & you’re done. If you need a TIP, continue to the last step.
Step #7: Stay at the Banjercito & apply/pay for your TIP
- Complete the paperwork with your vehicle/RV information to apply for your TIP. I’m really not sure why this isn’t done at the same time as your visa. Maybe it would ruin all the fun of running around in circles.
- Collect the nice shiny decal to put in your windshield to show you are legal to drive in Mexico for an extended period of time.
Congratulations! You’re now legal!
Step #8: Make your way back through the exit terminal (same direction you went for your copies) and be on your way! I know that sounded like a lot, but I think the whole process took us 45 minutes and that included parking the RV. Granted, it was a slow time and we breezed right through, so I’m inclined to tell you to expect about an hour.
Visas and TIP Requirements
Tourist Visa / Visa Tourista / FMT/ Forma Migratoria Tourista
To the best of my knowledge, if you do not plan to spend any longer than a week in Baja, you do not need to go through the Visa process. Last time we came across to spend two weeks in San Felipe, we went through the border towing our pop up. We were told to park and make our way to “get stamped.” Well, seeing absolutely no parking available for a truck pulling a pop-up camper, we passed the office and had a little panic attack about what to do next. I immediately texted a contact in Baja to explain the situation, to which she said, “keep going.” And if we were ever asked how long we planned to stay in Baja, the answer is always one week.
TIP (Temorary Import Permit)
If you do not intend on heading to Mainland Mexico, you do not need a TIP for your vehicle. If you do plan to head to the mainland, a TIP for a regular vehicle will allow you to stay 180 days (6 months) and an RV allows you 10 years. Once purchased, you will have a decal to place to the left of your rearview mirror. The TIP is refundable when you leave Mexico but if you plan to re-enter Mexico with your RV in the next 10 years, you don’t need to go through the refund and payment process each time, only the last time you leave. However, if you plan to sell your RV in the US during the ten years, be sure and get your TIP back when you exit the border as you will need to have your RV with you in order to get your refund.
So, that was our border experience. No doubt, everyone has a different one. If you have any great advice, experiences to share or funny stories you’re not too embarrassed to talk about, please feel free to do so in the comments below. Afterall, the more information we all have, the easier traveling throughout Mexico will be! Really, I’m just looking for people to tell me crazy stories to make my experiences feel more normal. Help a girl out!