Driving Guide

Mexico Driving Guide

Driving in Mexico gives you an unlimited way of enjoying this beautiful country. An international driving license is an addition to this. Experience your best travels through this guide.

2023-11-22 · 9min read

¡Bienvenido a México!

Mexico stands out as a central hub for tourism in Latin America, often serving as a launchpad for exploring neighboring countries.

Imagine unwinding on a beach, margarita in hand, as the sun dips below the horizon – a quintessential experience you might seek in this country.

Beyond the shores, you can trek across diverse mountain terrains, marvel at churches, savor the local cuisine, and sink your eyes into a trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Driving in Mexico, however, comes with its unique set of challenges. Many tourists, particularly those from the US and Europe, often ponder the safety of driving in the country.

Our Mexico road trip was the most challenging so far.

But we soon learnt that driving in Mexico is far from simple, especially in the less-visited regions away from the beaches of the Yucatán peninsula.

But the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca feel like very different countries. Motorways are few and far between. Narrow roads wind their way through the jungle-shrouded hills with potholes so large they could consume a whole car. Every junction has poorly marked speed bumps and locals hold up ropes and cut down trees to block your progress.

Paul and Mark, both travelers, share in their post Driving in Mexico - 10 Top Tips For Navigating Mexico's Roads, published on their Anywhere We Roam travel blog.

Seek Cultural Experiences in Mexico

However, exploring Mexico by car presents a unique opportunity to venture into off-the-beaten-path locations, often inaccessible by public transport.

I don’t think driving in Mexico is dangerous (at least in certain regions), as many would think, but there are some practical and common-sense rules that you need to follow.

Rent a car, get a map ( or a GPS) and explore, mingle with locals (they don’t bite, I assure you), and get a local guide at the ruins. Driving is indeed easy, and not at all dangerous.

Isabella Biava, a traveler who lived in Cancun, Mexico for 7 years, shares in her post, Driving in Mexico: All you Need to Know [2023], published on her Boundless Roads travel blog.

That's precisely why this driving guide has been created – to equip you with the knowledge and confidence to immerse yourself in Mexico's rich cultural experiences.

Let's Take a Closer Look at Mexico

Before diving deeper into Mexico's driving culture, here are some interesting facts about this country:

Geographic Location

Mexico, officially known as the United Mexican States, is situated in Central America. It borders the United States to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the south and west, and the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to the east. Guatemala and Belize border Mexico to the southeast. The country is part of the active "Pacific Ring of Fire," a region known for frequent seismic activity.

Mexico's territorial expanse, including various islands and archipelagos like the Tres Marías in the Pacific, spans nearly 2,000 square kilometers. The nation is composed of 31 states and the capital, Mexico City.

Language Diversity

Mexico's linguistic landscape reflects its ethnic diversity. The predominant language is Spanish, spoken by around 110 million people nationwide. Indigenous languages like Nahuatl are spoken by about 2 million people, primarily in Central Mexico.

English is also spoken by around 2 million individuals, making communication for English and Spanish speakers relatively convenient, especially for tourists.

Historical Background

Mexico's history is a complex blend of indigenous and Hispanic influences. Initially inhabited by the Olmecs, the region is renowned for the Mayan civilization, noted for its sophisticated architecture and urban development.

Like several other nations, Mexico experienced Spanish colonial rule. The movement towards independence was spearheaded by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest from Dolores, along with rebel leaders like Vincent Guerrero and Augustin de Iturbide, leading to the country's liberation from Spanish dominion.

Government Structure

Mexico is a federal republic divided into 31 states and the Federal District, located in Mexico City. The government operates under a constitutional division of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The president, who is also the head of state, government, and the military, is elected directly by the people for a single six-year term, known as a "sexenio."

International Driving Permit FAQs

The following are commonly asked questions about using an International Driver’s Permit in Mexico.

Who Can Apply For an International Driver's Permit?

Individuals with a valid driver's license are eligible for an International Driver's Permit. An IDP is a translation of your existing license, confirming your vehicle operation capability.

To apply for an IDP, you must first have a permanent driver's license from your home country; temporary or provisional licenses are not acceptable for IDP applications.

Ready to drive in Mexico? Get your International Driver's Permit for Mexico on our website by choosing an appropriate IDP package. The essential requirements for your IDP application include:

  • A valid government-issued driver's license
  • A passport-sized photograph
  • A copy of your passport (if required)

When Should I Apply For An International Driver's Permit?

There's no specific time frame for applying for an IDP – you can do it anytime. Many travelers opt to apply several months before their international trips.

An IDP is beneficial even for short-term travel. Application processes, especially through the International Drivers’ Association, are swift, allowing you to download and print your IDP in just a couple of hours.

Does Mexico Require an International Driving Permit?

If your driver's license is not Spanish or English, acquiring an IDP is required for driving in Mexico. This applies to licenses issued in non-English languages like Japanese, Arabic, and Russian.

The IDP is a translation of your native license, which is crucial for driving in Mexico and other Latin American countries. For U.S. citizens, driving in Mexico is generally permitted without an IDP as long as the driver's license is in English.

Who Should Carry an IDP in Mexico?

Frequent travelers should always have an IDP while driving abroad, as it is beneficial for crossing borders. In Mexico, U.S. driver's licenses are commonly presented by foreign drivers.

Whether on a business trip, attending a corporate event, or on a more extended stay, an IDP can serve as a short-term driving document and a form of identification. This also applies to U.S. citizens driving in Mexico.

When Will I Use An International Driver's Permit in Mexico?

An IDP is exclusively for use while traveling abroad and cannot replace your national driver's license in your home country.

Always carry your original driver's license when driving in foreign countries. Renting a car in Mexico typically requires presenting your driver's license and IDP.

What is the Validity Period of an IDP?

The validity of your IDP depends on the chosen package. A three-year IDP suits those planning frequent trips abroad over three years. If less frequent travel is anticipated, a one-year IDP may suffice. Business travelers who often go abroad might find a three-year IDP more convenient

Car Rentals in Mexico

To ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey, it's essential to be well-informed about car rentals in Mexico. From choosing the right vehicle to understanding traffic laws and road etiquette, this guide provides comprehensive insights to enhance your driving experience.

Car Rental Considerations in Mexico

When selecting a car rental in Mexico, align your choice with your budget and vehicle preferences. Avoid spontaneous rentals at agency counters, as they tend to be more expensive.

Instead, opt for online booking to compare rates and secure the best deal. Ensure all fees, including compulsory insurance and service charges, are transparently included in the online quote to avoid unexpected costs at pick-up.

International rental agencies like Enterprise, Europcar, Budget, Avis, Hertz, Alamo, Thrifty, and Sixt operate in Mexico. Sunny Cars is another option, offering an all-inclusive rate covering insurance, full coverage, and taxes.

Required Documentation for Car Rental

When renting a car, you'll need to present several essential documents:

  • A valid driver's license
  • International Driver's Permit (especially for non-Spanish or non-English license holders)
  • Passport
  • A credit card for security deposits (some agencies may accept cash payments)

For online reservations, be prepared to provide digital copies of your driver’s license, IDP, and passport.

Types of Rental Vehicles Available

Mexican rental agencies offer a wide range of vehicles to suit different needs:

  • Mini cars, economy cars, and standard cars for budget-conscious travelers or small groups
  • Minivans, full-size SUVs, and vans for larger groups or long-distance travel
  • Luxury models like Jaguar F Type, Ford Mustang, and Mercedes-Benz G-Class for stylish business trips
  • All-terrain vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler for adventure seekers

The choice of vehicle should align with your travel requirements and preferences.

Cost of Renting a Car

Car rentals in Mexico are often more affordable than public transportation, with daily rates ranging from $5 to $11 and weekly rates around $74. This cost-efficiency makes it an attractive option for travelers.

Age Requirements for Renting a Car

The minimum legal age for driving in Mexico is 15 with parental supervision and 18 for unsupervised driving. However, renting a car requires at least 21, which may vary by agency and vehicle type.

Drivers aged 21-25 may incur a young driver fee, as may drivers over 65. Renters should have held their driver's license for a minimum of two years.

Car Insurance

Local car insurance is vital as foreign policies often don't apply in Mexico. Expect to pay for mandatory liability insurance, typically starting at $20 per day. This covers damages caused to others but not to yourself or the rental car

Additional Coverage Options

Consider supplemental coverage like the Supplemental Liability Insurance (SAI), which covers damages up to about $3,800, and the loss damage waiver, an agreement rather than an insurance policy, offering additional protection.

Pick-Up Points for Rentals

Conveniently, most airports in Mexico double as pick-up and drop-off locations for rental cars, including Acapulco, Cancun, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana, and more. Additionally, major towns and cities often have rental car facilities

Understanding Traffic Laws in Mexico

As a traveler, you must familiarize yourself with local traffic laws and regulations, as adherence can significantly enhance your experience and help you avoid unnecessary fines and penalties.

Driving in Mexico offers convenience, allowing you to explore at your own pace, often more efficiently and economically than using public transport.

However, it can differ significantly from driving in the US or Europe, so preparation is key for safety and enjoyment. Adhering to local driving norms and legal requirements is essential, especially for foreign drivers

Take note of the following when driving in Mexico:

  • Minimum driving age: 15 years with parental supervision.
  • Independent driving: 18 years with a valid license and proper documentation.
  • Car rental: Minimum 21 years old with at least two years of driving experience. Drivers under 25 years old may have to pay a young driver surcharge.

Speed Limits and Driving Etiquette

To avoid getting pulled over by the traffic authorities, take note of the following speed limits in different areas:

  • Residential areas: 10 kph speed limit.
  • Main roads: Maximum of 70 kph.
  • Urban areas (vias locales): 40 kph limit.
  • Near schools, hospitals, and pedestrian zones: Up to 20 kph.
  • Major highways in cities: 90-100 Kph.
  • Approaching or leaving towns/cities: 100 Kph.

Driving slower allows for a more enjoyable exploration of Mexico. Slowing down is common in remote areas because pedestrians often use highways.

Avoid Distracted Driving

With unexpected road occurrences like pedestrian crossings and motorbikes, staying focused while driving is crucial. Distracted driving, such as texting or calling, can lead to accidents and traffic disruptions.

Essential Documents for Driving

Foreign drivers should always carry essential documents, including:

  • Valid driver’s license
  • Passport
  • An International Driver’s Permit (IDP), is particularly important if you're not fluent in Spanish. It helps communicate with local officials who may not understand English or other languages.
  • Vehicle registration documents (if driving a personal vehicle)

In Mexico, an IDP can be essential, especially in remote areas where English may not be widely understood. Carrying these documents ensures smooth interactions with authorities and prevents potential fines.

Preparing for Driving in Mexico

Before starting your journey in Mexico, ensure you're well-rested and sober, particularly for long drives.

  • If you have vision problems, don't forget your prescription glasses.
  • Carry all necessary documents like your driver's license, IDP, passport, visa, car registration, and proof of insurance.
  • For border crossings in your vehicle, a temporary importation permit is essential.
  • Check your vehicle thoroughly - oil, tire pressure, coolant, and battery, and ensure you have a functional spare tire.
  • For safer travel, choose daylight driving since nighttime driving in Mexico can be hazardous due to poor lighting and potential road hazards like livestock or speed bumps.

Driving Practices in Mexico

While on the road, stay alert to road signs and adhere to speed limits.

  • Keep car doors locked and windows up.
  • Mexican roads can be unpredictable with vehicles not following lane discipline.
  • At intersections lacking signs, proceed with caution, checking both directions.
  • Maintain low music volumes to stay alert and avoid using your mobile phone while driving. Opt for toll roads ('cuotas') for enhanced safety and road conditions.

Post-Driving Measures

Choose parking spots wisely, prioritizing secure locations like covered parking lots or busy areas near commercial centers. Avoid parking in areas marked with a crossed letter “E” indicating "no parking," and steer clear of narrow or isolated streets if leaving your car for extended periods.

Below are directions you must take when driving in Mexico.

  • Overtaking: Always overtake on the left. Ensure it's safe and legal before attempting to overtake.
  • Merging in Traffic: Check both sides before merging to avoid collisions.
  • Roundabouts: Familiarize yourself with roundabouts, particularly in areas like Cancun. If unsure, don't hesitate to ask locals for help.

Understanding Mexican Traffic Road Signs

Heed the following traffic road signs while driving:

  • Warning Signs: Often red or yellow, these signs indicate potential road dangers.
  • Information Signs: Provide details about the road and what lies ahead.
  • Mandatory Road Signs: Must be strictly followed, indicating specific actions like the direction of passage.
  • Priority Road Signs: Clarify right of way and precedence on roads.
  • Prohibitory Signs: Restrict certain vehicle types or maneuvers.

Right of Way and Overtaking Laws

In Mexico, the right of way isn't always granted, especially when vehicle size varies significantly. In mountainous regions, uphill traffic typically has the right of way. When overtaking, do so cautiously and be mindful of drivers who may turn without signaling.

Driving Side

In Mexico, driving is on the right-hand side of the road. This is particularly important for drivers from countries where left-hand driving is the norm, like the UK.

“Hassle-Free Zone” Explained

The “Free Zone” near the US-Mexico border is where vehicle importation rules are relaxed. This zone extends 20-26 kilometers from the border and does not require a temporary vehicle importation permit.

The Driving Etiquette in Mexico

Driving in Mexico offers an enriching way to explore the country, but it comes with its unique set of challenges. Many tourists, particularly those from the US and Europe, often ponder the safety of driving in Mexico.

This guide aims to shed light on the differences in driving etiquette in Mexico and how to adapt to them.

Car Breakdown

Experiencing a car breakdown in Mexico can be daunting, especially during the early stages of your trip. Here's what you should do:

1. Safely Pull Over: If your car starts malfunctioning, don't panic. Gradually reduce your
speed and pull over safely using your hazard lights. If you're on a highway, aim for an
emergency bay or a safe space on the roadside.

2. Safety First When Exiting: Check your surroundings carefully before leaving the car.
Move to a safe spot away from traffic if you can still drive the car.

3. Signal for Help: Use a hazard sign or a warning triangle to alert other drivers and help
roadside assistance locate you.

4. Contact Your Rental Provider: If you're in a rental car, inform your provider
immediately for assistance.

5. Seek Help From Locals: In emergencies, don't hesitate to ask for help from locals.
Most Mexicans are friendly and willing to assist, especially if you attempt to
communicate in Spanish.

Police Stops

Being stopped by the police in Mexico is a common experience for tourists. Remain calm and respectful, and be ready to present the following documents:

  • Driver’s license
  • Proof of Insurance
  • International Driver’s Permit
  • Passport (if requested)

Asking Directions

While a road map is helpful, sometimes you'll need local insights to navigate Mexico. Here are a few useful Spanish phrases to help you ask for directions:

  • Disculpa (informal) - Excuse me
  • Disculpe (formal) - Excuse me
  • Señor - Sir
  • Señora - Ma’am
  • Señorita - Miss
  • Joven - Young man
  • Buenos días - Good morning
  • Buenas tardes - Good afternoon
  • Buenas noches - Good evening
  • ¿Hablas inglés? - Do you speak English?
  • no entiendo - I don’t understand
  • ¿Puede ayudarme? - Can you help me? -
  • ¿Donde está/están…? - Where is/are…?
  • ¿A qué distancia? - How far?
  • ¿Dónde hay una gasolinera? – Where is a gas station?
  • ¿Dónde hay una farmacia? – Where is a drugstore?
  • ¿Cómo llego a la plaza? – How do I get to the main square?
  • ¿Qué tan lejos está el centro comercial? – How far is the shopping center?
  • ¿Hay algún(a) [supermercado] cerca de aquí? – Is there any [supermarket] around here?
  • Estoy perdido – I’m lost
  • Busco la gasolinera más cercana – I’m looking for the closest gas station
  • Estoy buscando un cajero automático - I’m looking for an ATM
  • ¿Cómo llego al parque? - How do I get to the park?
  • ¿Sabes si está por aquí el centro comercial? - Do you know if the mall is around here?
  • ¿Hay un hospital cerca de aquí? - Is there a hospital around here?
  • ¿Cuál es la mejor forma de ir a…? - What is the best way to go to…?
  • ¿Qué tan lejos está el/la… del/de la…? - How far is the… from the…?

Handling Checkpoints

Military checkpoints in Mexico can be intimidating, but they are generally safe. When stopped:

  • Be polite and cooperative.
  • Expect vehicle inspections.
  • Be ready to communicate in basic Spanish or use hand gestures.
  • Present your documents if requested.

Driving Conditions in Mexico

Driving in Mexico offers an engaging experience, blending modern road infrastructure with the challenges of local traffic. The country's well-developed roads and expressways facilitate travel between major cities, but drivers can also explore daily Mexican life along the less formal 'libre' roads.

However, congestion is a typical feature, notably in Mexico City, where heavy traffic is the norm. In 2019, Mexico had over 50 million vehicles on its roads, marking a 26.6% increase from 2015. This surge highlights the importance of understanding local driving behaviors and safety considerations

Traffic and Safety

Mexican driving can be unpredictable, with local drivers often lax about lane changes, turn signals, and other regulations. This can be challenging for foreigners accustomed to more controlled driving practices. Safety is paramount, and drivers should be prepared for unforeseen condition

Accident Dynamics

Minor traffic incidents are frequent in Mexico, and it's rare for authorities to be called for minor accidents. Many local drivers lack insurance, so hit-and-run scenarios are quite common. In such cases, rental car drivers without full coverage may be liable for damages.

Vehicle Preferences

Mexicans often favor smaller, affordable vehicles, including pick-up trucks. Popular brands include Nissan, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, and Kia, with Honda, Ford, Toyota, and Mazda also commonly used. This contrasts with the North American preference for larger vehicles.

Road Types and Conditions

To ensure your journey is as smooth as it is memorable, understanding the different road types and conditions is key.

Toll Roads

Toll roads ('cuotas') in Mexico offer a safer and more efficient driving experience but come at a cost, ranging from $2.50 to $15 for passenger cars, varying by highway section. These roads are well-maintained and provide a reliable option for long-distance travel.

'Libre' Roads

Alternatively, Mexico's 'libre' (free) roads offer a less expensive but often more challenging driving experience. These roads typically have two lanes and may not be as well maintained as toll roads, with common issues like potholes and inadequate drainage.

Drivers may encounter flooding or muddy conditions during heavy rains, mainly on dirt roads.

Precautions and Advice

  • Stay Alert: Given the unpredictable driving habits in Mexico, stay vigilant, significantly when changing lanes or at intersections.
  • Prepare for Varied Conditions: Roads can range from modern expressways to more challenging rural paths. Be ready for sudden changes in road quality.
  • Consider Vehicle Type: Depending on your route, a four-wheel-drive vehicle might be a wise choice, especially for off-road or rural travel.
  • Understand Local Behavior: Familiarize yourself with common practices and road etiquette to navigate safely and confidently.

Top Destinations in Mexico

Mexico, a top global destination, draws visitors from around the globe with its diverse attractions. Delve into what makes Mexico a favored travel choice and explore the activities available in its premier locations.


This "7"-shaped barrier island in Southeastern Mexico is a paradise for beach lovers, golf enthusiasts, and nightlife seekers. Known for some of the world’s finest beaches, Cancun offers stunning sandy shores, captivating sea views, and rich Mayan cultural experiences. Driving in Cancun enhances the excitement for travelers.

Cancún is one of the most budget-friendly Western vacation spots, particularly if you opt for a cruise.

Cabo San Lucas

The heart of Baja Peninsula's party scene, Los Cabos stands alongside Cancun as a prime Mexican beach destination. The region, stretching from Cabo San Lucas to San José del Cabo, boasts luxurious resorts, top-notch golf courses, and crystalline waters perfect for diving and snorkeling.

Mexico City

Steeped in history from Aztec times to the Spanish conquest, Mexico City offers a rich tapestry of cultural experiences. Driving here opens doors to numerous activities.

Mexico City’s culinary scene with authentic street food delights like tacos, tamales, and quesadillas.


Known for its vibrant indigenous culture and colonial architecture, Oaxaca is a treasure trove of art, cuisine, and traditions. Explore the historic city center, visit archaeological sites, and indulge in the diverse flavors of Oaxacan cuisine, renowned for its mole and mezcal.

Playa del Carmen

Nestled along the Caribbean Sea, Playa del Carmen is a coastal gem known for its pristine beaches, vibrant nightlife, and proximity to the iconic Mayan ruins of Tulum. Explore the bustling Fifth Avenue, relax on the sandy shores, or embark on underwater adventures in the nearby cenotes.

Get an IDP to Explore Mexico

Secure an International Driving Permit for a journey through Mexico's stunning beaches, historic ruins, and rich cultural experiences! With careful planning and a cautious approach, driving in Mexico can be a rewarding part of your travel experience.


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