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Crossing the Border

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wonderlane

Remember when you only needed a driver’s license for trips to Canada, Mexico, and even Bermuda or the Caribbean? Things are more complicated nowadays. Rules for proof of citizenship upon re-entry into the United States have changed, and you have myriad documentation options. Here’s some guidance to help you plan for and make your border crossings with ease.


The best proof of citizenship is a passport—really. It works for travel by land, air, and sea—covering all the bases—and it’s valid for a good long while, making it a great investment. Die-hard road (or cruise) travelers have other options, including U.S. passport cards and enhanced driver’s licenses. These are more portable (think wallet size) and less expensive than passports but are only good for travel by land and sea and only throughout North America.

Other documentation includes permanent resident card/green cards, Native American Tribal Enrollment and ID cards, and U.S. Military ID cards. For information on documentation requirements and restrictions and passport applications, check with the U.S. Department of State.

Trusted Traveler Programs

Upon being pre-screened and accepted (i.e., deemed a low security risk) into one of the U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) Trusted Traveler Programs, you’re issued a card that lets you make border crossings more quickly via special lanes and kiosks. Some programs also speed up security at participating airports with special lines where you don’t have to take off your shoes or pull laptops or 3-1-1 toiletry bags from carry-ons.

Options include FAST Driver Programs for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Canada (North) and the U.S. and Mexico (South); NEXUS for land, air (at participating airports), and sea travel between the U.S. and Canada; and SENTRI for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Mexico. If you fly internationally beyond North America, look into the Global Entry Program.

Traveling with Kids

Your kids will need proof-of-citizenship documents, and, if they’re under age 18, you’ll need proof that they’re yours in the form of original or certified copies of birth certificates or adoption decrees. If only one of you is traveling with them, you’ll also need a letter of consent from the absent parent/guardian (for Mexico this must be original and notarized). In addition, divorced or widowed parents should have a copy of custody decrees or death certificates.

If you’re not the parents of any children traveling with you, you’ll need written permission from their parent(s) or guardian(s). The letter should include the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the parent(s) or guardian(s), and should identify a person who can confirm that the children aren’t being abducted. Minors traveling solo also need letters of parental/custodial consent and other documentation. Guidelines for these things vary in Mexico and Canada.

Traveling with Pets

American dogs and cats can get into Mexico with a health certificate signed by a registered veterinarian and issued within 72 hours of entry. They also need a certificate for rabies, distemper, hepatitis, pip, and leptospirosis, with all vaccinations administered at least 15 days before their arrival in Mexico and no more than one year prior. A small permit fee is charged at the time of entry.

To enter Canada, all American dogs and cats three months and older must have a current (within the last three years) rabies vaccination certificate, dated and signed by a veterinarian, identifying the pet and indicating the trade name of the licensed rabies vaccine, serial number, and duration of validity. In addition, the certificate must identify the animal by breed, age, sex, coloring, and any distinguishing marks. Animal tags aren’t accepted in lieu of this certificate. Sorry to all the pit bulls out there—you aren’t allowed into Ontario.

Entering Mexico

If you’re American or Canadian, you won’t need a tourist card for stays of up to 72 hours within Mexico’s tourism border zones, which are roughly 12 to 20 miles from border crossings, depending on the point of entry. If you plan to stay more than 72 hours in or travel outside these zones, get a tourist card from Mexican border authorities, consuls, or federal delegates. (These cards are distributed to passengers en route to Mexico by air.) You must present this card on departure from Mexico. Don’t lose it. It’s a real hassle if you do!

Driving in Mexico and Canada

According to the U.S. Department of State, you’ll need a temporary import permit or you risk having your car confiscated by Mexican customs. To get this, submit evidence of citizenship, a driver’s license, the car’s title and registration certificate, and a processing fee to either a Banjercito (Mexican Army Bank) branch at a Mexican port-of-entry customs office or to a Mexican consulate in the U.S.

Mexican law also requires posting a bond at a Banjercito to guarantee that you’ll leave Mexico with the car in a certain period of time—determined when you apply for the import permit. To recover this bond or avoid having it charged to a credit card, stop at Mexican customs on departure. Carry proof of car ownership: a current registration card or a letter of authorization from the finance/leasing company.

Mexican law also requires you to drive your own vehicle or be inside it when someone else is driving. You also must have Mexican auto insurance; you can buy short-term liability policies at the border.

Canada keeps it simple. To drive there you only need proof of vehicle ownership or documentation of its rental, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and automobile insurance. Most U.S. rental-car companies prohibit taking their cars into Mexico; some have restrictions on taking vehicles into Canada. Check with your company before doing so.

Wait Times, Customs, and Duties

The CBP has a handy list of estimated wait times at all land crossings. The CBP site is also the best source for current information on U.S. duty allowances and exemptions (including for duty-free purchases) and import/export declarations for and restrictions on food (especially produce and meat products), plants, wildlife, and other items. Check with Aduana México and the Canadian Border Services Agency for such guidelines on their sides of the border.

Currency Exchange

Rates are often more favorable at ATMs and branches of large banks than at currency exchange offices, hotels, and stores. Beware of the dynamic currency conversion (DCC): that is, when a credit card charge is converted into U.S. dollars at the point of purchase. There are extra fees—issued by credit card companies, issuing banks, or both—associated with such transactions. Merchants are supposed to, but don’t always, ask if you want DCC before processing payments. When in doubt, check. Or use American Express which doesn’t allow DCC.