A First Timer’s Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico

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Rachel Off Duty: Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico

I still remember the wild thrill – and weirdness – of gazing back at the empty expanse of American soil from the busy Carretera Federal in Tijuana as we traced the edge of the US/Mexico border for the very first time.

Was that it? Had we made it? 

Despite the minor panic of not knowing which exit to take after making the crossing at San Ysidro into Tijuana (it happens to the best of us), the whole process of driving to Baja was… uneventful. Easy, even.

Not only was it my first time crossing this border, it was my first time in Mexico in general. I exhaled the anxiety I held in my chest and began replacing it with excitement for the weekend ahead, 3 full days of eating and beaching my way through Ensenada.

Fast forward dozens of border crossings and road trips to Baja since, I’m happy to report I still consider Baja an easy and rewarding international weekend getaway. From Los Angeles, where I live, the drive to northern Baja is usually 4 hours or less depending on border wait times. And, with its warm climate, delicious food, nice beaches, and spectacular sunsets, Baja usually makes any length of wait time at the border worthwhile. Except for this one time… more on that below. 

Of course, since a road trip to Baja California requires crossing the border and entering a different country, there are some special preparations you need to make, and things you need to know before you go, in order to make your the adventure as seamless as possible.

Read on for my guide covering everything you need to know for your first time driving to Baja from the US!

RELATED: 5 Things To Do For A Relaxing Weekend in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Driving to Baja, Mexico: Everything You Need to Know

Rachel Off Duty: Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico

What You Will Need to Drive to Mexico from the USA 

As easy as driving to Baja can be, you will still be entering a different country. Because of this, you’ll need to make sure you’ve done some preparation ahead of time. Here are some things you absolutely must bring with you in order to drive to Mexico from the USA. 

Passports

Yes, you do need to bring your passport with you! I actually get asked this question a lot, because when you live in Southern California, driving into Mexico can feel easier in some ways than driving to a neighboring state, like Arizona or Nevada. 

However, do not mistake proximity for ease – you will absolutely need to have a valid passport on you! They may not always check it when leaving the USA, but they almost always do when you return. Don’t be the person in the car who forgot it at home! 

As always, make sure your passport is valid for the duration of your time in Mexico and that it’s not expiring within 6 months of your trip.

Visas (Non-US and Canadian Citizens)

US citizens and Canadian citizens do not need a visa to travel to Mexico for stays shorter than 180 days.

However, if you are not a US or Canadian citizen, double check whether your nationality requires a visa to enter Mexico before you hit the road. 

A quick Google search should tell you whether or not a visa is needed. If you’re still unsure, I personally love using Intrepid Travel’s Visa & Entry Requirements checker. You just enter your passport country, your origin, your destination, and your vaccination status and it tells you everything you need to know!

Driver’s License

This one’s obvious, especially if you’re the driver. Most countries’ drivers licenses are valid and recognized in Mexico, so odds are you will not need an International Driver’s Permit. 

Just make sure to bring your license and take a picture / make a copy in case you need a backup!

Forma Migratoria Múltiple (FMM)

The Forma Migratoria Múltiple (Multiple Immigration Form) is a paper tourist card travelers need to obtain when traveling into Mexico. These forms are typically given to you when crossing through immigration after arriving by plane. However, when you cross into the country by land it is your responsibility to obtain one yourself either online ahead of time, or by stopping at a National Migration Institute (INM) office at the border. 

Even if you obtain one yourself online ahead of time, you do still need to print it and stop at the INM office to get the form stamped in order for it to be valid. This process should be quick! 

FMM forms cost around $40 USD to obtain when entering the country by land, unless your visit is less than 7 days. In that case, the FMM will be free.

Off Duty Take: Ok… full disclosure, I have never been asked for an FMM when road tripping to or from Baja. Is it possible that this form isn’t enforced? I’m still not sure. However, my official guidance is that it’s always better to be safe than sorry – so for your first road trip to Baja, make sure you get your FMM!

Mexican Liability Insurance

Mexico requires all travelers to have an auto insurance policy that specifically covers incidentals in Mexico. Most (if not all) US policies, and your credit card policies, won’t be valid once you cross the border. Be sure to check with your existing insurance provider for a quote, or purchase Mexican auto insurance from a separate company to cover the days you’ll be visiting.

This is very important, because if you get in an accident while in Mexico and you do not have insurance, you may have a really difficult time going back to your home country until the incident is sorted out.

Here are a few places you can get your Mexican Liability Insurance policy online:

Vehicle Registration

You typically won’t need this unless you get in an accident. But, just like driving in your home country, make sure to keep a copy of your vehicle registration in your glove compartment in case of emergencies. 

Bring small bills in Mexican Pesos or USD and keep them handy when driving in Baja. Depending on where you’re traveling, you may want to take the toll roads to help you get to your destination more quickly. 

The toll roads in Baja are typically well maintained with less potholes and more scenic views, and I always use the toll roads myself when driving in Baja. 

Tolls will vary, but expect to pay between $2 – $8 USD each time.

Other Things I Recommend Bringing With You

Water and Snacks

Always have water and some snacks in the car with you whenever you cross the border. Because of the border’s long lines, you’ll be thankful to have something to munch on while you wait. 

You won’t have any trouble finding a gas station or Oxxo to pull over at for provisions when driving in Mexico’s border towns and cities. Just make sure to do so before you fall in line. 

While waiting in line, you may encounter vendors selling everything from churros and chips to bottles of water and more. Support these vendors and purchase snacks from them if you feel comfortable doing so.

Downloaded Maps

As a general rule of thumb, I always download a map of my road trip area whenever I travel. Depending on your mobile carrier, you will have coverage when road tripping in Baja, especially in the cities and towns, but there are also long stretches of remoteness where your service will be spotty at best. Additionally, the border areas are notoriously spotty. 

Download your maps to your phone ahead of time, if for nothing else, your peace of mind!

Other Entertainment

Border wait times are unpredictable, and there’s sadly no way around it. I always like to download a couple playlists, podcasts, and movies to my phone before driving to Baja. Watching a movie is such an easy hack to helping pass the time and keeping you focused on something other than how slow the line is moving! If you’re a book person and don’t get motion sickness, bringing a book or e-reader can also be a good idea. 

Emergency Bathroom Provisions

In all of my road trips to and from Baja, I’ve generally been able to time rest stops pretty well. Go to the bathroom right before falling in line at the border. Go again at the first gas station you see once you’ve crossed. 

But once, on a particularly hectic holiday weekend, we experienced a ridiculous wait time of over 10 hours stuck in our car. And let me tell you – there are no bathrooms to speak of once you’ve entered the line to cross the border back into the US. 

So what do you do? I think you know. Odds are, you won’t ever need to wait as long as we did, but it’s better to be prepared in case of emergency bathroom needs. I’d bring an empty water bottle or two, some toilet paper, an empty grocery bag for trash, hand sanitizer, and a sarong or towel to give you at least a tiny bit of privacy when doing what you gotta do 🙂 

On that fateful 10-hour drive, the water bottle definitely came in handy… more than once. 

Should You Bring Your Own Car or Rent When Driving to Baja?

Bringing your own car or renting a car is really up to your own personal preference. If you need to rent a car, there are some things you should know about ahead of time to help you plan accordingly. 

Renting a Car for Driving to Baja

In the US, not all rental car companies will allow you to take your vehicle across an international border, so be sure to check in advance with the company directly before booking.

Alternatively, you can rent a car at the Tijuana International Airport. Simply leave your car safely on the San Diego side of the airport and take the bridge over the border to the Tijuana side. From there, follow the signs for rental car companies and pick up your vehicle.

Driving Your Own Car to Baja

Depending on where you’re planning to go in Baja, I’d recommend taking a car that can handle bumpy roads. While the majority of the roads you come across will be paved and maintained, some pockets of Baja have dirt roads and potholes to maneuver. 

My old Chevy sedan was the perfect Baja road trip car. Now that I lease an electric car, I can also attest to the fact that Baja is surprisingly EV friendly! If you drive an EV, use these resources to help you map your charging stops while road tripping in Baja. 

Border Crossing Entry Points

There are a couple different border crossing locations to choose from when driving to Baja from the US. Ultimately, you can use any of them depending on where you’re coming from, where you’re going, and what the wait times look like. 

  • San Ysidro/Tijuana: This is the main border crossing that feeds directly into Tijuana. While San Ysidro has the most lanes and is the more convenient route if you’re coming from California, it’s also typically more congested, being surrounded on both sides by the largest international border cities in the world. Tens of thousands of people cross using this border entry every single day. In my experience, you can expect minimal congestion going southbound into Mexico but wait times of anywhere from one to eight hours returning to the US depending on the day. As a personal preference, I mostly use San Ysidro to enter Mexico, but never to reenter the US.
  • Otay Mesa: The second border crossing in Tijuana, Otay Mesa is said to be quicker to cross and less congested than San Ysidro. However, I have not used it myself. 
  • Tecate: Tecate is a much smaller border crossing than San Ysidro and as a result, generally experiences less congestion. At most, I’ve waited four hours here but usually it’s closer to one or two. Tecate is my preferred border crossing, and during the day the drive from the border back into San Diego is gorgeous. Keep in mind that at night, the drive is windy and dark for nearly 30 miles. It’s totally doable (I do it all the time) but it’s best to know what to expect ahead of time. 
  • Calexico/Mexicali: Another smaller border crossing located in the upper northeastern corner of Baja Norte, Calexico/Mexicali is said to be one of the more straightforward and least congested crossings available to those looking to road trip into Baja. At the time of writing, I have not yet used this border crossing as it’s a bit too far east for my needs. 

Tips for Making Border Crossing As Painless as Possible

No matter how you slice it, driving across a land border in North America isn’t the most fun way to pass your time. This is especially true on the border between the US and Mexico. However, there are many ways to make it as painless as possible! Keep these tips in mind when driving to and from Baja.

  • Time Your Baja Road Trip During Non-Peak Hours: The time of day you leave can dramatically impact the experience you have at the border. When I went to Ensenada for Labor Day weekend, I drove back to Los Angeles at lunchtime on Labor Day, and it took nearly 11 hours to get through the border alone. But, when I drove back to Los Angeles after a recent trip to Valle de Guadalupe, crossing the border took me a mere 25 minutes. Try to plan the time you arrive at the border to be during non-peak hours (avoiding rush hours or daylight hours on popular holiday weekends). Leave at night or before dawn if you can when traveling on weekends, or at off-peak times during weekdays if you can afford to, and you’ll save tons of unnecessary time and stress.
  • Check the US Border Patrol Site: For real-time updates on opening hours and current wait times at the border. You can use this resource to compare borders and identify the most ideal time to make your way there.
  • Choose the Right Lanes: Some entry ports will have multiple lane options to choose from. It’s important that you get in the right line from the very beginning, because you might not be able to change later on. I have heard horror stories of road trippers getting sent back for trying to get through expedited lines without the right documentation, which can be an absolute nightmare.
    • Regular / General (All Traffic) Lanes: The most common lanes and typically the ones with the longest wait time. These lanes accept the most forms of documentation which is why they are popular. I recommend using this lane if not everyone in your car has the right documentation for other lanes. 
    • Ready Lanes: A lane specifically for RFID-enabled identity cards. Only use this lane if you and everyone in your car have a Passport card, SENTRI/Global Entry card, green card, or border crossing card. California’s Real ID drivers license as well as regular passports are not valid here. 
    • SENTRI/Global Entry Lanes: A lane specifically for those with SENTRI/Global Entry. You need to formally apply for Global Entry and complete an interview screening, and the process can take anywhere from weeks to several months. Make sure your car is registered to your SENTRI/Global Entry profile and that everyone traveling with you in your car has SENTRI/GLobal Entry before trying to use this lane. 
    • FastLane: A ‘medical’ lane with ultra-expedited crossing time available to US and Canadian travelers coming to Baja who patronize specific hotels or visit specific medical offices while in Mexico. You can obtain a fast pass only by meeting the requirements set by the hotel or medical office in question. Find a full list of hotels and medical offices here.
  • Declare What You Bought in Baja: Like traveling through an airport, you must declare what you are bringing back into the US after traveling in Mexico when crossing a land border. Generally you are exempt for up to $800 per person or up to $1,600 per couple. However, I have had to declare my wine when bringing bottles back from Valle de Guadalupe in the past. So now, I always just proactively declare them when driving back to the US. The rule of thumb here is no more than 2 bottles of wine per person before you need to declare and pay a duty on them. 

Do You Need Global Entry or SENTRI When Driving to Baja?

If you plan to road trip to and from Baja frequently, it could be worthwhile to apply for one of the Customs and Border Patrol’s Trusted Traveler Programs for pre-approved, low-risk travelers – Global Entry and SENTRI. Doing so allows you expedited reentry into the US through special lanes at select border crossing locations. 

Now, do you need Global Entry or SENTRI when driving to Baja? The short answer is, honestly, no. I personally have Global Entry and I find it to be more useful for air travel than driving to Baja. I haven’t used my Global Entry at the land border yet as I almost always use the Tecate border to reenter the US (Tecate doesn’t have a dedicated Global Entry lane). Ultimately, it depends on which land border you plan to use and whether Global Entry or SENTRI can benefit your overall lifestyle. If you travel a lot, both on land and by plane, it’s worth having.

  • Global Entry: Global Entry is a Trusted Traveler Program designed for frequent international travelers and offers expedited customs processing at airports. It comes with TSA Pre-Check and SENTRI Lane access and is the best overall program for US citizens and legal residents. 
  • SENTRI: SENTRI is a Trusted Traveler Program specifically designed for expediting land border crossings between the US and Mexico, along with certain airports and seaports.

Compare requirements, prices, and find the link to apply to both programs on the CBP Trusted Traveler Program website

IMPORTANT: If you plan to use a Global Entry/SENTRI lane, make sure your car is registered to your profile and that everyone in your car has the same clearance as you. Otherwise, you may be fined, sent to the back of the line, or have your Global Entry/SENTRI privileges temporarily revoked.

Where to Go in Baja, Mexico

Baja California is actually a long peninsula made up of two Mexican states – Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. A road trip to Baja Norte is quicker and easy to do if you only have a couple days or a long weekend. On the flip side, road trip down to Baja Sur only if you have at least two weeks to spare!

Road Trip Destinations in Baja California Norte

Rachel Off Duty: How to Drive to Baja California
Tijuana

Tijuana is the biggest city in Baja. Sitting right on the opposite side of the border from San Diego, it’s pretty mind-blowing how starkly different the two cities are from one another. Tijuana is buzzing and active and admittedly a bit chaotic. It also has had the unfortunate luck of being marked as one of the most dangerous cities to visit, but during the day (my only experience with the city), it’s alive with good food and friendly people. In my opinion, it’s a great quick-hit introduction to Mexico if it’s your first time in the country, and a good way to acclimate before you make your way a bit further south.

Tecate

The other border crossing option, Tecate, is a significantly smaller town (compared to Tijuana). It has a cute, though rugged, downtown area that feels calm and intriguing – the kind of place where you might find an ultra-local tacos al pastor stand perched on the sidewalk in front of a hip coffee shop serving pour over and cocoa-dusted cafe de olla. Outside of Tecate, the surrounding terrain is beautiful. Rolling hills and rocky mountains that remind me of Joshua Tree and the dramatic desert landscapes in inland California.

Ensenada

About an hour to an hour and a half south of the Tijuana border, Ensenada is a fairly large coastal city with a super laidback vibe to it. Like Tecate, I felt like I could easily find a good mix of old and new here, with authentic eateries and mom & pop shops along with newer cafes and breweries throughout the city.

  • Read up on my tips for visiting Ensenada here
Valle de Guadalupe

Inland of Ensenada by about 30 minutes, and easily accessible from both Tijuana and Tecate’s border crossings, Valle de Guadalupe is Baja’s wine region. Here, you’ll find rolling hills, wineries that rival many of the ones in California, and some absolutely mind-blowing, fresh BajaMed food. 

  • Read up on my tips for visiting Valle de Guadalupe here

Road Trip Destinations in Baja California Sur

Rachel Off Duty: How to Drive to Baja California
Los Cabos

Without a doubt the most popular place to go in all of Baja California, Los Cabos sits at the southern tip of the peninsula and is famous for its beaches, party scene, marine life, and resorts. However, it can be a great wellness destination as well if you know where to look.

  • Read up on my tips for visiting Los Cabos here
Todos Santos

Todos Santos is an hour up the coast from Cabo San Lucas, and is ideal for those seeking cultural immersion and relaxation without the crowds. It’s also a Pueblo Mágico, meaning it has been designated by the Mexican government as a town that offers cultural richness, historical relevance, incredible cuisine, impeccable artistry, and / or great hospitality. 

La Paz

Like Los Cabos, La Paz is a must for marine lovers. Just under 100 miles north of Los Cabos, here, it’s all about beachside living. La Paz is well known for its ample opportunities for snorkeling and diving with sea lions, whale sharks, and mobula rays.

Loreto

Around six hours north of Los Cabos, Loreto is a more remote but absolutely stunning place to add to any Baja road trip. Like Todos Santos, Loreto is another Pueblo Mágico designated for its scenic landscapes and magical remote location adjacent to the Sea of Cortez. 

Mulege

Known for its freshwater oasis, Mulege is a gorgeous small town in the northern part of Baja California Sur. However, it will take more than 8 hours to get there from Los Cabos if road tripping north.

Is Driving to Mexico Safe? 

Baja Mexico often gets a bad reputation when it comes to travel and in particular, road trips. Despite Baja’s isolation from mainland Mexico, the occasional incident can still occur and I’d be lying if I didn’t call this out when providing guidance for road tripping to Baja. 

Personally, I have had no bad experiences driving to Baja. I usually drive only during the day, stick to toll roads, and stay in places where my presence isn’t an anomaly. Like anywhere, I always just recommend doing your research, remaining vigilant, and not doing anything dumb. It’s also useful to read up on common tourist ‘tricks’ (like police stops and extortion) that are always a risk when driving in Mexico so you know how to navigate them if they occur. 

Some safety resources for Baja road tripping to check out:

There are risks everywhere we travel, but Baja is no stranger to tourism and road trippers, and I have always found that the destination is well worth the journey. In fact, I love visiting Baja so much, I’m road tripping there to have my wedding 🙂

Where in Baja are you planning to road trip to? What other questions do you have that I didn’t answer in this guide? What tips would you add from your own experiences? Share below in the comments! 

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Rachel Off Duty: A First Timer’s Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico
Rachel Off Duty: A First Timer’s Road Trip Guide for Driving to Baja, Mexico

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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12 Responses

  1. Great post! Some of the unpaved roads in Valle de Guadalupe do get unpassable in rainy season. Only rainy in December and January here;)

  2. Hi, thanks for the great content. Curious how do you cross from the San Diego side of the Tijuana airport to the Mexican side of the airport, to rent a car? It looks like the CBX bridge requires that everyone using the bridge needs to be flying through the Tijuana airport – I would just be looking to cross to Mexico side so i can rent a car in Mexico Thanks!

    1. Hi Jas! Unfortunately, you need to have a flight in order to use CBX. You should be able to find a rental car company in San Diego that allows you to drive into Mexico (will likely vary from dealer to dealer, and you may need to pay for additional insurances). Hope that helps!

  3. Hello, I am wondering if the roads would be safe to drive from Tecate to Ensenada with a pull behind trailer and if you know of anywhere to safely camp down there? Looking to add it to our road trip in a couple weeks.

    1. I’m curious to hear how your experience was! While many people camp all over the place in Baja, I always recommend looking for verified and / or privately owned camping areas. These will be your safest bet.

      For more tips and to hear from other people who might’ve camped in the areas you’re looking to visit, I always recommend joining Talk Baja on Facebook. They’ve also recently started a new Facebook page specifically dedicated to safe camping in Baja.

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