Here’s what you need to know about local laws, illegal activities and staying out of trouble in Mexico.
Car rental laws
Firstly, to rent a car in Mexico, you’ll need either an international driver’s licence or a valid driver’s licence in a language that uses the Roman alphabet (this one).
To drive legally in Mexico, you’ll also need to have Mexican liability insurance. Some car rental companies will pressure you to buy it from them, which is illegal, but the best you can do is argue with them – they’re not obliged to do business with you. Some US credit cards offer their cardholders free collision damage waiver, but most Mexican car rental companies won’t honour it.
If you’re involved in a serious accident, wait for the police and have your insurance ready. But for minor fender-benders, Mexicans will usually settle up in cash on the side of the road. If it’s your fault, offer a few hundred pesos (if you don’t have full insurance, you’ll have to pay for it later); if it’s not, it’s up to you to ask for money or call your insurance company.
Be aware that in remote areas, even on main roads, you may come across unofficial roadblocks manned by locals looking for toll money. Use the official cuota – toll – roads wherever possible.
In terms of driving culture, the most important thing to remember is overtaking. You drive on the right and pass on the left, but on many one-lane highways in Mexico, especially the newer toll roads, there’s a wide shoulder on either side divided by a broken white line. If someone wants to pass you, move over to the middle of the shoulder to let them pass.
The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, and while it’s not illegal for passengers of legal age to drink in a vehicle, it’s illegal to drink on the street, and visitors can be fined or imprisoned for public intoxication.
Driving under the influence is, of course, a criminal offence in Mexico. And the Mexican authorities use DUI checkpoints to enforce the law. Rental cars carrying foreigners to party-hearty tourist spots are often stopped.
When a car is stopped at a checkpoint, the driver is breathalysed. If they fail the test – if their BAC (blood alcohol concentration) is over 0.08 in most states, but only half that in Aguascalientes, Chiapas, Estado de México (including Mexico City), Hidalgo, Jalisco, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Veracruz – they can be jailed for up to 36 hours, fined up to $2,500 and banned from future entry into the country if they’ve been convicted of drunk driving in the past 10 years.
The government likes to keep things “tranquilo” in the run-up to elections and referenda, both state and federal. Where it is applied, the ley seca, or dry law (which until 2007 was enforced nationally – it is now up to the authorities of each state to decide whether or not to apply it), bans the sale of alcohol for up to 48 hours on the day before an election and throughout election day. Very occasionally, the law has been used to ensure calm during religious holidays.
Drugs in Mexico
Trafficking in prohibited drugs and possessing more than the legal amount for personal use are federal offences, and convicted offenders who are not eligible for bail face prison sentences of up to 25 years. It’s not uncommon for foreigners charged with drug offences to be detained for up to two years before a verdict is reached.
In 2009, the Mexican government passed a law decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs for “personal and immediate use” – defined as up to half a gram of cocaine, five grams of marijuana, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 0.015 milligrams of LSD.
If you need to take prescription drugs while in Mexico, make sure you have the necessary paperwork (doctor’s letter or prescription), but be aware that some drugs that are legal in your home country may not be legal in Mexico, and you may be arrested for entering the country with a controlled substance. Over-the-counter medicines containing stimulants such as codeine and pseudoephedrine, found in Actifed, Sudafed and Vicks inhalers, are prohibited.
LGBTQ+ Laws in Mexico
As of 2022, 19 out of 32 states have approved a law allowing anyone to change their legal documents to match their chosen name and gender identity; and a bill banning the pseudoscientific practice of conversion therapy, with penalties of up to 12 years in prison for anyone practicing or promoting it, was passed by the Mexican Senate in October.
However, political protection and social convention are two different things. Public policy in Mexico is heterogeneous in the sense that, despite rulings by the country’s Supreme Court requiring equal legal, social and political recognition of gender and sexual minorities, many states and entities do not enact legislation to this effect. The enforcement of a binary gender model continues to pathologise transgender people, exposing them to stigma and violence – data collected in 2017 for the Global Attitudes Towards Transgender People survey found that the country is second only to Brazil in the number of known killings of transgender people worldwide. To find out more, read our article by our LGBTQ+ expert Ed Salvato.
What is a Mordida?
If you are renting a car, do yourself a favour and avoid speeding, running red lights, using a mobile phone or any other traffic offence or the local police will stop you and give you a ticket. Remain calm and respectful at all times. If you are given a fine, ask the officer to take you to the local police station to pay it legally. However, you may be asked for a mordida.
Police corruption remains a problem. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but uniformed officers still invite tourists to bribe their way out of trumped-up charges. These bribes – mordidas (literally ‘bites’) – are best dealt with calmly. Ask for identification and make sure you take down the officer’s name, badge and patrol car number.