Driving down to Mexico? What you need to know about Visas, Foreign-Plated Cars and more

Mexico’s reformed immigration law enacted in 2012 changed the rules concerning the import of foreign-plated vehicles.  For temporary visitors (tourists) and temporary residents, procedures remain straightforward; however, a significant change is that permanent residents are no longer allowed to drive a foreign-plated car into Mexico using a Temporary Import Permit (TIP).  Here are the details:

Get your vehicle permits at the border

With the exceptions for the states of Sonora and the Baja Peninsula (see notes below) if you plan to drive a foreign-plated vehicle beyond the ~35 km “free zone” you will need a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and you must get this at the border. They are not available at Mexico’s interior checkpoints.

Visitors entering Mexico using FMM (visitor permit)

If you are visiting Mexico on a tourist/visitor permit, you can import your foreign-plated vehicle to Mexico, but you must export it again before the permit expiresFMM permits last for a maximum of 180 days (about 6 months) and cannot be renewed or extended beyond this time period.

Entering Mexico with a Residente Temporal permit

Holders of Residente Temporal (with or without work privileges) and Residente Temporal Estudiante may import their car to Mexico using a Temporary Import Permit (TIP).  The vehicle will remain legal in Mexico for so long as the resident permit remains current.

Entering Mexico with a Residente Permanente permit

If you are carrying a Residente Permanente permit, you will not be allowed to bring your foreign-plated car into Mexico on a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) – whether the resident permit is for non-lucrative or lucrative purposes. However, you can go through a process to permanently import the car.  If you want to formally import your car, we recommend you hire a customs agent to do this. (The rules and complex depending on the vehicle type, its age, etc.)

Expats with Permanent Residency status and cars in Mexico

If you have a foreign plated car in Mexico now, and you have an (old) FM2 or if you change your immigration status from Residente Temporal to Residente Permanente you will need to make some choices about what do to with your foreign-plated vehicle, for example:

Export the car permanently – Take the car out of Mexico (crossing the border into the US or Belize) – see also “Safe Return” procedure, below.

Export and then re-import the car using a Customs Broker – If you want to keep your car, there is a process to legally import the car by paying the relevant duties and import taxes. You’ll need a customs broker to assist you with this process. The name of the person with the Residente Permanente permit will need to have clear title to the vehicle (no liens or encumbrances; and no leased vehicles) – see also “Safe Return” procedure, below.

Export the car and sell it to a person with a Residente Temporal permit – If you know a foreigner with a Residente Temporal permit who wants to buy your car, you can export it, sell it to them, and they can re-import it using their Residente Temporal permit.

Export the car by sea – In some circumstances, export of your car on a sea vessel might be a viable option. You’ll need a customs broker to help you with the process. As a rule of thumb, shipping fees to the US range from $1,000-$1,500, which might be worth it especially if your vehicle is particularly valuable.

If your vehicle is currently “illegal” (or will become illegal when you switch from Residente Temporal to Residente Permanente), and you want to take the car out of the country, you can apply for a “Retorno Seguro” permit from SAT, which gives you five days to drive the car out of the country (to the USA or to Belize).

Rules for Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur

Sonora Free ZoneSonora: There is no need for a vehicle permit if you plan to use your car within the State of Sonora’s “Free Zone” which includes the popular cities of Agua Prieta, Bahia de Kino, Caborca, Guaymas, Hermosillo, Magdalena, Nogales, Puerto Peñasco, San Carlos, and Santa Ana (green area on map, click/tap here for full size version). If you plan to travel outside of the Free Zone and remain within the state you can get a “Sonora Only” permit.

Baja Peninsula: Foreign-plated vehicles driven into the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur do not require an import permit.  Your US or Canadian car plates must be valid and any stickers must be kept current while the vehicle is on the Baja peninsula. If you take your car from La Paz to the Mexican mainland (by ferry) you will become subject to the car import rules described above.

Entry and exit ports

When your foreign-plated vehicle has a TIP, you don’t necessarily have to exit Mexico through the same port you entered.  For example, you can import the car at the US border and export it through Belize, or you could enter through Nogales and exit through Laredo, etc.

Lost, stolen, or abandoned foreign-plated vehicles

If you abandon your foreign-plated car in Mexico, you’ll have to pay Aduana (Mexican Customs) 40% tax on the car’s value. This rule was brought-in some while ago to discourage foreigners from abandoning or selling their foreign-plated cars and telling Mexican Customs they were lost or stolen.

There is an established process in place that prevents someone who has legitimately had their vehicle stolen (or suffered a total loss of the vehicle in an accident) from having to pay the fee. Proper documentation will be required to get the TIP canceled, so a police report has to be filed, plus special forms have to be filed with the Mexican Customs office, and the help of a Mexican Notary Public is needed to formalize all the paperwork to cancel the TIP of a stolen car.

While the authorities cannot prevent you from leaving if you don’t pay the tax, failure to do so will forfeit your rights to import any other foreign-plated vehicle to Mexico in future. If you want to dispose of your car, there is a procedure whereby you can “donate” it to Mexican Customs; you can find more information about that here on the Mexican SAT web site.

Source: Mexperience

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