What is the Mexico Free Zone?
For a day trip, an overnighter, or even a longer stay - visitors to certain areas of Mexico must obtain a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP) to drive their non-Mexican vehicles across the border.
However, some of the more popular tourist destinations lie within what's known as the Mexico Free Zone, or Mexico Free Border Zone - an area of the country that does not require a vehicle permit.
Why a Free Zone?
The 'Free zone' designation is short for 'Hassle-Free Zone,' but the area has many other names including Border Zone, Perimeter Zone, Liberated Zone, the Free Trade Zone, and 'Zona Libre' in Spanish.
The Mexico Free Zone was established to bolster trade and tourism in the country's border areas. At the time it was established, the Free Zone did not require travel permits (FMMs) for visitors, or Temporary Vehicle Import Permits (TIPs) for non-Mexican plated vehicles. This allowed travelers to save time and money when planning their Mexico trip. This was especially beneficial to frequent visitors from U.S. border states, as well as for travelers who had made last-minute travel plans, or were making quick trips to the country.
In 2015, Mexico began requiring FMM travel permits for all foreign visitors to Mexico, anywhere in Mexico, whether in the border areas or deep within the Republic. So now, the term 'Free Zone' only refers to the areas of Mexico where no TIP is required for non-Mexican plated vehicles.
As a result of the old Free Zone rules of not requiring an FMM or TIP until about 25 kilometers from the border, there are still some facilities inland where you can still obtain both your FMM and TIP, notably, KM21 south of Nogales (Aduanas in Agua Zarca, Sonora), and at Banjercito in Allende/Piedras Negras on Highway 57 at KM53.4. Additionally, you can buy your TIP in La Paz in southern Baja for the ferry crossing, but you absolutely must have gotten your FMM at the border. There is no place there for you to get one if you crossed at the northern border and failed to stop to purchase it.
Mexico Free Zone Perimeters
The Mexico Free Zone encompasses areas along Mexico's northern and southern borders states, typically 12 to 16 miles from the border (20 to 26 km). Also, the entire Baja peninsula, a large portion of Sonora, and Quintana Roo lie within the Free Zone.
Within the Mexico Free Zone, travel without a temporary importation permit (TIP) is permitted and unrestricted.
The Sonora zone is located northwest of Mexico Federal Highway Number 2, starting in Agua Prieta. It extends through Cananea, to where it intersects with Mexican Federal Highway 15 in Imuris. From Imuris, all the areas to the north and west of Mexico Federal Highway 15 are part of the Free Zone. Kilometer 98, southeast of Empalme, is where the Free Zone ends (see map).
Knowing where the zone ends is critical: Crossing out of the Free Zone without a vehicle permit is illegal and can lead to the confiscation of your vehicle. And, if your immigration paperwork is not in order, you could be escorted out of the country or taken to an immigration detention center until your condition of stay is sorted out. The fines involved for getting your vehicle out of impound are often more than the vehicle is worth.
What Do I Need to Travel in the Free Zone?
Within or outside the Mexico Free Zone, travelers to the country need to be aware of certain travel requirements.
A Valid Passport
All foreign visitors are required by law to have a valid passport, passport card, or proof of legal residency to travel anywhere in Mexico. It is possible you will not be asked to present it, but it is the law. Copies of your passport or passport card are not good enough. The authorities want to see the original document.
Note: A passport card is ONLY valid for land travel in the free border zone and not for travel to the territory of the Mexican Republic.
Mexico Tourist Permit (FMM)
All foreign visitors to Mexico must carry a Mexico visitors permit (Forma Migratoria Múltiple or FMM) regardless of where they travel, including within the Mexico Free Zone. To obtain the FMM permit, you will need a valid passport or passport card. If you arrive by land and leave within seven days of your arrival, there is no fee for the FMM permit.
Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP)
A TIP is not required for those driving foreign-plated vehicles in the Free Zone. However, if there is a chance you will drive your vehicle outside the Free Zone you will need to purchase a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit before you leave the border.
You cannot purchase a TIP in the interior of Mexico, except when leaving the Free Zone at Empalme, Sonora or at the ferry terminal in La Paz, Baja California Sur. You must have an FMM to obtain a TIP. You can only get the FMM at the border. If you show up at either of those locations with no FMM, you will be sent back to the border to get one.
To obtain a TIP, visit a Banjercito location at the border or apply online. Banjercito is the official issuing agency in Mexico, and the only place you can get a TIP.
Mexican Vehicle Insurance
If you plan to drive your car, truck, van, SUV, motorcycle, or motorhome across the border, even if you will be staying inside the Free Zone the entire time, you must have a valid, in-force vehicle insurance policy that includes Mexican liability insurance coverage. This coverage is mandatory and must be obtained from Mexico-based insurance companies, like those Mexpro uses.
Even if you have insurance in your home country, you must purchase Mexico car insurance. Mexican authorities do not recognize insurance from other countries.
Visit Mexpro for a free quote.
Current Driver's License
You will need a current driver's license if driving your foreign-plated vehicle in Mexico.
Mexican authorities often check to be sure you are the legal owner of the vehicle you are driving, and verify that the Vehicle Identification Numbers all match your paperwork. Mexican authorities may impound vehicles without current registration documents.
Customs (Aduanas) checkpoints exist in Mexico, and your TIP compliance could be checked at any time on your trip. Since it is illegal to travel outside the Free Zone without a TIP, your vehicle could be confiscated.
Remember, you cannot purchase a TIP in the interior of Mexico except, as mentioned above, at Empalme and the La Paz ferry terminal.
Quick Trips, Easy Decisions
If you are on the fence about where to travel in Mexico, you may want to consider the Free Zone for the ease of access, quick border crossings, and loads of fun!