The thought of driving from the U.S. into Mexico inspires fear and anxiety in many would-be travelers. In fact, it’s enough to make a lot of folks stay home. Especially when you add the stress of driving or towing a large RV, and making that crossing at San Ysidro, the world’s busiest land border crossing.
That’s a shame, because Baja California Norte, just over the border from San Diego, has so much to offer RVers. The border crossing is not bad, especially if you know what to expect.
We’ll go into places to stay and things to do in Baja in future articles, but know that gorgeous beachfront or wine country RVing awaits not far over the border from San Diego. And while Baja prices are rising just like everywhere else, it’s still FAR more affordable than similar experiences in the U.S.
No wonder so many snowbird RVers are flocking to Baja to roost! I’ve even met several who decided to sell the RV and stay after getting a taste of the laid-back Baja beach life.
What to expect when crossing the San Ysidro border into Mexico in an RV
When approaching the border at San Ysidro while driving or towing an RV, stay in the far right lane and follow the signs for those who have “something to declare.”
RVers and pets will be asked to leave the vehicle for an inspection. The RV will be sent through a large X-ray machine that scans the entire vehicle.
An immigration guard may or may not ask to also personally inspect the inside as well. If they do, it is usually quick and perfunctory, but they can inspect closer should they choose, just as U.S. Homeland Security can when re-entering the states.
You will likely be asked to show your RV registration, and they may want to match it to the VIN numbers on your RV.
There are rarely lines or long waits going into Mexico.
Next stop: Immigration
Once your RV has passed inspection, you will be guided to park in order to get your FMM or temporary visitor’s card, required of all visitors. They cost about $30 and are good for up to 6 months. If you plan to stay under seven days, the FMM card is free.
You can order and pay for your FMM card online or you can apply and pay at the border. Either way, you still need to stop at the border immigration office to get the card validated. You’ll find the immigration office in the blue “Aduanas” building on the right.
Where to go after crossing the border
Lest you get caught in the narrow crowded streets of downtown Tijuana, and trust me you do NOT want to do this in an RV, stay to the extreme right when exiting the border area. You will be veering immediately right as you follow clearly marked signs for Playas de Tijuana, Rosarito and/or Ensenada.
This route will take you on a wide road skirting the edges of the Tijuana slums and along the beach border where parts of the controversial border wall remain on full display.
Follow signs for Rosarito or Ensenada “Cuota.”
Cuota refers to the well-maintained toll road that runs along the coast from the border to Ensenada. This is a preferred route that, in theory, will be free of Baja’s infamous potholes.
Once you leave Tijuana it also offers breathtaking ocean views. Take care to keep your eyes on the road!
You will encounter three tolls between the border and Ensenada, each about $2.40.
A little-known benefit of the Mexican toll roads is that towing and roadside assistance is included if you break down, so hold on to your toll receipts.
Is driving in Baja safe?
Generally speaking, yes. Especially on well-traveled and well-maintained routes like the toll roads. I will go more into specific driving and safety concerns in a future article, along with what to expect if you get stopped by the police. But for the most part, if you drive carefully and safely, you will be fine.
One caveat, however. I would avoid driving at night.
This has always been the case in remote areas of Baja, but when I first moved to Ensenada five years ago, I never hesitated to drive the toll roads from the border at night. Lately, however, as the world gets more desperate in a post-pandemic economy, there have been increased reports from gringos and Mexican nationals alike about carjackings late at night and in the very early hours of the morning. Why chance it? Drive during the day when the roads are busier.
What to expect when crossing the San Ysidro border out of Mexico in an RV
There are no special RV lines when leaving Mexico. U.S. Homeland Security will probably ask to look in your RV, but they don’t always.
Be aware that border waits getting out of Mexico can be horrendous if you go at the wrong time. Avoid leaving on Sundays or after a holiday, if possible. Waits of six hours or more are not uncommon at those times.
If you hit the border at about 10-11 a.m. most weekdays it will take an hour or less. But border wait times are always a crapshoot. The local websites and radio stations that report border waits times are always off, often as much as an hour or more.
Necessary documentation for RVing in Baja
Baja is exempt from the requirement of a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) for your RV, so unlike on much of the Mexican mainland, you need not worry about this. However, you will need:
- Special vehicle and RV insurance for driving in Mexico; your U.S. policy will not cover you. You can buy insurance at the border before crossing, but especially with an RV, it is easier to do so online. Baja Bound is a popular choice.
- If you are bringing a pet, you will need a health certificate from your vet showing they have had all their shots. I have never actually been asked for this, but a border guard could ask, so I always make sure to have it with me.
Border crossing and Baja driving tips and practicalities
- Guns (except with special permits) and medical marijuana are not allowed into Mexico.
- The toll roads and most businesses will accept dollars or pesos. However, you will get a better deal with pesos.
- While many businesses accept credit cards, it’s not nearly as prevalent as in the U.S. Carry some cash.
- Watch out for potholes—they are everywhere and can be treacherous.
- Watch out for “topes” or speed bumps. They can show up on Mexican roads seemingly out of nowhere.
- Watch out for hidden stop signs, especially at night—they are small and are not illuminated or even reflective.
- Watch for livestock and pedestrians on the roads. This happens even on the highways from time to time.
- If there is a slow-moving vehicle in front of you with their left turn signal on, they are not indicating an intention to turn left. They are indicating that you should pass them. With an RV you may or may not choose to do so.
- The plentiful “micro buses,” privately owned public transportation vehicles, tend to be operated by particularly aggressive drivers. Give them a wide berth and take your time.
There is an app for your phone called BWT (Border Wait Times) produced by the US Gov’t. that is available. It tells the current times at both north and south border crossings.
There is a FB group specially for RVers who want to go to Mexico. (1) RV’ing in Mexico | Groups | Facebook We will be in Mazatlan for three months next year, including the solar eclipse that goes right over our RV Park in April.
I haven’t driven in Baja in 20 years but the toll roads south of Nogales want pesos
No US dollars
One caveat to the “no TIP required” – if you are going to leave your RV (motor home, 5th wheel or trailer) in storage in Baja, you are now required to obtain a TIP for it. Also, if you happen to be travelling with a golf cart or boat over 14.7 feet, you will need a TIP for those (and I believe you will need to use a customs broker for the golf cart TIP).
Last time I went to Tiajuana, I was escorted back to the USA and told to never come back again. That was in ’79. I wasn’t RVing…I was NAVYing.
Spent 12 winters crossing at Mexicali. Did all paperwork online; arrived at gate at 6am, when it opens; parked right in front of the office; got FMM stamped; on the way in 15-20min, even IF they inspected our MH. Leaving Mex. IS a crapshoot. Although our worst was maybe 2hrs. Usual was 1 hr.
FYI- Had an officer tell me if he caught us ANYWHERE in Mexico without a current FMM, he could make us immediately return to the border to obtain one.
Credit Cards – Used one the first year. Got double charged at a restaurant. Never used a card again. Better deals/math with pesos.
US Consulate has a Mexico travel advisory currently at Level 3. Level 3 is the recommendation to reconsider travel. This includes the Baja. Do your own research on this and evaluate your risk tolerance from there. As Cheri says, travel during daylight hours, it’s good advice.
It’s not the border patrol that works the border crossing into the USA, ok?
It’s the dept of Homeland security.
The border patrol works the border towns and along the entire Mexico/ USA boundary except established border crossings.
Also, the lines going into Mexico are usually very long too but unlike the lines going into the US, they move very quickly.
If the traffic is a mile long going into Mexico, you will cross in about 30 minutes, as oppose to the return trip.
A mile long of traffic going into the USA means many hours
I have lived in Baja for 5 years, and I have NEVER encountered a long line going in.
I am not saying it can’t happen, but a line going in is extemely rare.
Just showed my wife the picture of cars at the border and said” lets go to Mexico ” . Can’t print what she said.
This is so helpful. My stress level is lower because the basics of “stay to the right to avoid an RV tour of Tijuana” and what to do in advance are exactly the sorts of things I worry about. Following and looking forward to the future articles you mentioned. Maybe sometime you could talk specifically about mature women RVing solo in Baja…Or anywhere else.
several FB pages for this exact issue…TalkBaja, BajaVisitor, etc…they are quite helpful
My first wife was of Mexican descent. Her family liked to boast that they were “Mexicans from Texas, not Mexico”. I guess that was important. My wife and I were visiting my family in San Diego and they insisted we head over to Tijuana. This was around 1973. Getting into Mexico was no problem as I recall. BUT, when it came time to come back to the US, it was a different story. They wanted me to prove that I wasn’t stealing one of their pretty young girls. Did we have our marriage license with us? Right. Who carries THAT with them? I think it took almost an hour to get out of there, wife in tow. I’m surprised they didn’t ask for a ‘tip’. NEVER going back!