South of the border


With all the hoopla, presidential speeches, congressional investigations and political posturing about illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States, I thought I might take a quick look at the hoops American tourists are expected to jump through when crossing the border in the other direction.

American tourists traveling south usually bring lots of money to spend in Mexico on everything from hotels and gasoline to enchiladas, sombreros and tours. In fact, U.S. citizens are the biggest contributors to the country’s tourism industry.

So, it would seem reasonable that Mexico would welcome tourists from the north with open arms and treat them like the well-heeled guests most of them are. One would think the Mexican government would strive to make it as easy as possible to separate the gringo tourists from their dollars.

But that is not the case.

In fact, Mexico imposes strict immigration rules on American tourists both on entry and on departure. This is true whether the visitor arrives by air or by automobile. Travelers arriving by plane must fill out tourist cards and keep them with them throughout their stay. Woe to the visitor who loses a tourist card: The bureaucratic proceedings can test anyone’s patience.

After fielding numerous questions about the need for tourist cards, passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, letters from absent parents, car registrations and so on, I went to the U.S. Department of State for specifics. They have issued some tips and instructions. According to the U.S. Department of State Web site:

U.S. citizens do not require a visa or a tourist card for tourist stays of 72 hours or less within “the border zone,” defined as an area between 20 to 30 kilometers of the border with the U.S., depending on the location. U.S. citizens traveling as tourists beyond the border zone or entering Mexico by air must pay a fee to obtain a tourist card, also known as an FM-T, available from Mexican consulates, Mexican border crossing points, Mexican tourism offices, airports within the border zone and most airlines serving Mexico. The fee for the tourist card is generally included in the price of a plane ticket for travelers arriving by air.

The tourist card is issued upon presentation of proof of citizenship, such as a U.S. passport or a U.S. birth certificate, plus a photo I.D., such as a driver’s license. Tourist cards are issued for up to 90 days with a single entry, or if you present proof of sufficient funds, for 180 days with multiple entries.

Upon entering Mexico, retain and safeguard the traveler’s copy of your tourist card so you may surrender it to Mexican immigration when you depart. You must leave Mexico before your tourist card expires or you are subject to a fine. A tourist card for less than 180 days may be revalidated in Mexico by the Mexican immigration service (Instituto Nacional de Migración.)

Motorists must run an even more daunting gauntlet if they care to drive more than about 15 miles from the border. Again, the State Department outlines the requirements:

Tourists wishing to travel beyond the border zone with their car must obtain a temporary import permit or risk having their car confiscated by Mexican customs officials. To acquire a permit, one must submit evidence of citizenship, title for the car, a car registration certificate and a driver’s license to a Banjercito branch located at a Mexican Customs office at the port of entry, and pay a processing fee. Mexican law also requires the posting of a bond at a Banjercito office to guarantee the departure of the car from Mexico within a time period determined at the time of the application. For this purpose, American Express, Visa or MasterCard credit card holders will be asked to provide credit card information; others will need to make a cash deposit of between $200 and $400, depending on the age of the car. In order to recover this bond or avoid credit card charges, travelers must return to any Mexican Customs office immediately prior to departing Mexico. Disregard any advice, official or unofficial, that vehicle permits can be obtained at checkpoints in the interior of Mexico. Avoid individuals outside vehicle permit offices offering to obtain the permits without waiting in line. If the proper permit cannot be obtained at the Banjercito branch at the port of entry, do not proceed to the interior where travelers may be incarcerated, fined and/or have their vehicle seized at immigration/customs checkpoints. For further information, inquire with Mexican Customs offices about appropriate vehicle permits.

Nor should you relax once admitted to the tourist-friendly country of Mexico. Instead, you should heed the following advice:

[Y]ou are encouraged to register with the Department of State. The web page for Americans to register with us is

You can register your entire itinerary on the web site. Alternately, after you have arrived in Mexico, you can register at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City or one of the U.S. consulates.

Registration takes only a few moments, and it may be invaluable in case of an emergency.

Other useful precautions are:

* Leave a detailed itinerary and the numbers of your passport or other citizenship documents with a friend or relative in the United States.

* Bring either a U.S. passport or a certified copy of your birth certificate and current, valid photo identification.

* Carry your photo identification and the name of a person to contact with you in the event of serious illness or other emergency.

* Keep photocopies of your airline or other tickets and your list of traveler’s checks with you in a separate location from the originals and leave copies with someone at home.

* Leave things like unnecessary credit cards and expensive jewelry at home.

* Bring travelers checks, not cash.

* Use a money belt or concealed pouch for passport, cash and other valuables.

* Do not bring firearms or ammunition into Mexico without written permission from the Mexican government.

Presumably, the State Department has good reasons for making these suggestions.

Finally, for any parent traveling with a child without the other parent in attendance, the State Department has these words of warning:

In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated procedures at entry and exit points, including requiring documentary evidence of relationship and permission of the parent(s) or legal guardian not present for the child’s travel. Parents of minor children (under 18 years old) should carefully document legal custody prior to traveling to Mexico. If a minor child is traveling with only one parent, the absent parent should provide notarized consent. If only one parent has legal custody, that parent should be prepared to provide such evidence to airlines and Mexican authorities. In cases in which a minor child is traveling to Mexico alone or in someone else’s company, both parents (or the sole, documented custodial parent) should provide notarized consent. If a child traveling to Mexico has a different last name from the mother and/or father, the parents should be prepared to provide evidence to airlines and Mexican authorities, such as a birth certificate or adoption decree, to prove that they are indeed the parents. Mexican entry regulations require Spanish translations of all legal documents, including notarized consent decrees and court agreements. Enforcement of this provision is not always consistent, however, and English-language documents are almost always sufficient.

The bottom line is this: Obeying the law and following proper border procedures when traveling from the United States to Mexico and back can be a hassle. (Getting back into your own country, legally, requires much of this same identification.) So, go prepared and be aware that the rules are constantly changing.

Buen viaje.

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