If you search the internet for the immigration procedures a U.S. citizen needs to follow when driving to Mexico, you’ll find many different answers. Most of them are outdated. Some of them apply in certain cases and not in others. Few of them are authoritative.
One common answer is that you don’t need a so-called “tourist card” if you’re traveling less than 25 kilometers from the border and staying less than 72 hours in Mexico. This “rule” even appears on the official Mexican tourism website, and it would seem to have applied to our recent visit to Mexicali. However, this information appears outdated — if it was ever correct at all — as there are media reports that at least one pedestrian border crossing is checking every non-Mexican national for a tourist card, even day-trippers. In one article I read, a Mexican immigration official suggested tourist cards have always been a legal requirement, even for short visits, but that the law goes largely unenforced.
I don’t want to put myself in a position where a law enforcement officer might whimsically decide to enforce a law that generally goes unenforced. Out of an abundance of caution — and out of an abundance of respect for the laws of the country I was about to visit — I decided we’d spend a few extra minutes on the way in and out of Mexico to obtain and return our tourist cards. The card is properly called a Forma Migratoria Múltiple, or FMM for short. It can be used for a number of immigration purposes, one of which is as a tourist card.
Finding the immigration offices was relatively easy. I had found the logo for the Mexican immigration service, Instituto Nacional de Migración, online before we left. When we crossed the border into San Luis Río Colorado, Kathryn had spotted the office before our rear bumper had left the United States.
Finding parking, on the other hand, was a bit more of a challenge. I rolled down the window, pulled up in front of the rather attractive female Aduana agent who waved us into Mexico — apparently the red-or-green light they usually use to signal a secondary inspection wasn’t working that day — and asked, “¿La migración?” She pointed at the office we’d already seen. My next question was, “¿El parking?” I’d suddenly become too tongue-tied to utter the only six-syllable Spanish word I actually know, estacionamiento. With a few hand gestures and some broken English, she made it clear we needed to drive around the block and park on the street.
If you’re expecting a cordoned-off area where you handle your immigration paperwork before you’re properly admitted to Mexico, you’re going to be in for a surprise. It’s basically the honor system and bienvenidos a México once Aduana is done with you.
Once we’d parked the car and found our way into the immigration office — after being prompted by a security guard to explain where we were going, since were heading north into an office everyone else was heading south from — we were in for our next surprise. Apparently nobody in this immigration office is required to speak the language of the country just a few meters away. Now, I didn’t expect to get through the weekend without having to test my lone year of high school Spanish, but I sort of expected an immigration officer at the border of the United States would be able at least to count to two in English. Alas, that was not the case.
I pressed on undeterred, miscommunicating our specific travel plans. I tried explaining we were staying less than seven days in Mexico — seven days being the cutoff for a free tourist card — but I couldn’t get the point across. Trying to state the date of our departure only made it worse; I had apparently lost the ability to count to 29 in Spanish.
Finally I resorted to what must have sounded like baby talk to someone listening in, saying something that in English would have been, “Right now, San Luis. Today, car to Mexicali. Tonight, Mexicali. Tomorrow, United States. Tomorrow night, in my house.” A bit crude, perhaps, but it worked, and the correct forms finally came out. Our short stay didn’t require us to pay a fee, which would have been a separate adventure at the Mexican military bank, Banjercito, in the office next door. We had our tourist cards and our passports stamped, and perhaps about fifteen minutes after initially crossing the border, we were lawful immigrants.
It’s worth noting the immigration officer didn’t try to send us on our way without a tourist card, even though it was additional work for her and no additional revenue for her country’s treasury. For our trip, at least, if the border formalities were optional, we weren’t given that impression in any official sense.
Compared to the entrance formalities, which themselves weren’t all that onerous, our exit formalities were a piece of cake. The hardest part was finding the immigration office in Los Algodones and a place to park. Like the U.S., Mexico doesn’t have exit checkpoints at most land crossings, so we drove as close as we could to the entry checkpoint, parked in what was probably not a legal spot, and walked inside the INM office there.
There was no English spoken here either, but I kept it simple. I held out my passport and tourist card and uttered a single word to the lone officer, “Salida,” the Spanish word for exit. He smiled, said something I didn’t comprehend, and led us to another office next door for our exit stamps. In spite of it being mid-afternoon, we were apparently the first foreigners to leave Mexico from Los Algodones that day; we had to wait while he set the date on the stamp.
While he was setting the date, I noticed the mostly empty parking lot on the other side of the office. In my now quite worldly Spanish I pointed and inquired, “¿Parking okay aquí?” I received another big smile and a “¡Sí!” in reply, so I know where I’ll park if I’m ever there again, either to enter or exit Mexico.
Our passports were stamped yet again, and we were relieved of our tourist cards, which were also stamped. Within a few minutes we had formally left Mexico — and were back again on the honor system as we drove further into Mexico to find the tail end of the long queue of cars waiting to cross the border northbound.
One final observation on what turned out to be a rather painless set of formalities in both directions: both immigration officers put the passport stamps right in the middle of unused pages, even though the stamp was small enough to fit in a corner. So after barely 30 hours in Mexico, we each came home with two fewer unused pages in our passports. It’s something to consider if you’re planning a later trip to a country that requires a minimum number of blank pages in your passport. If I learn a little more Spanish maybe next time I can ask them to put the stamp in a corner or to reuse a page.