Crossing the Border South into Mexico
October 2011 update
First things first: Most tourists do not need a passport and visa to enter Mexico and visit San Felipe, However, since June 2009, the U.S. Government requires you to have a PASSPORT or SENTRI card to re-enter the USA. see >>
People (US Citizens and US-resident aliens) who do not have the approved passport/WHTI document may spend hours in secondary inspection while the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement run identity and security checks on you.
The damage from the Easter 2010 earthquake at km 40 south of Mexicali is now fixed (October 2010). However, work continues on the upgrade of the highway to 4 lanes. Check for any updates under "Road Conditions". see ..>>
Virtually every visitor to San Felipe comes here by road. The most popular route from Southern California, Arizona and points north is to come via Interstate 8 (San Diego-Yuma) to El Centro and then head south on California Route 111 to Calexico where you cross the border into Mexicali continuing south to San Felipe (about 2 hours drive from Mexicali on Mexico route 5) - see "road conditions" to the left.
You can see simple maps of the route, including the main road through Mexicali and the street map of San Felipe by clicking on the "maps" button on the left. Check these pages to see the latest information on diversions caused by road construction!
Around 10% of the visitors arriving by car decide to go first to San Diego and then cross the border to Tijuana and take the scenic toll road to Ensenada. From Ensenada, there is a well maintained two lane highway that runs across the Baja peninsular and joins up with the Mexicali-San Felipe road about 30 miles north of town. See the map page to get a better understanding of the routes. While many people are afraid of going through Tijuana, there is little danger if you are heading to Ensenada because the road system guides you straight to the toll road without having to go into the city. Immediately on crossing the border from San Diego, follow the signs saying "Rosarito Cuota"
An interesting and very pleasant trip from the San Diego region to San Felipe can now be made by crossing the border at Tecate. This route completely bypasses the traffic jams of Mexicali and all the new road construction that is being undertaken in the capital city. For more information on this route see here.
For tips on returning to the United states, click on the "Returning to the US" button on the left. (When it comes to returning to the U.S. after your stay in San Felipe, be prepared to wait an hour or so in the border crossing lines - particularly on a Sunday afternoon. You can check U.S. Border wait times here .)
Visitors from other parts of Mexico will also almost always come through Mexicali and head south on Mexico route 5.
Crossing the border into Mexico
Crossing the border is extremely simple, there are currently no immigration checks entering Mexico for travel in the border region and you do not need a Mexican visa to visit San Felipe unless you plan an extended stay (see below). However, if you go into the interior of the country you will encounter vehicle importation and immigration checkpoints, but none of this happens on the trip to San Felipe.
The Mexican Government is now using high-technology entry lanes at all of the border crossings between the USA and Mexico. Each vehicle crossing into Mexico will be weighed and scanned by electronic devices to ensure that the vehicle is not bringing contraband into the country. Primarily this is aimed at smugglers of weapons and cash that are being funnelled to the drug cartels in Mexico. However, the new screening process will also catch all electronic goods coming into Mexico and you may have to pay duty on any devices uncovered.
You will seldom be asked to pull over for an inspection by the Customs authorities, the exception being vehicles that seem to be heavily loaded or hauling electric appliances. Do not bring your gun (or ammunition!) into Mexico - the Mexican government is very strict about bringing firearms into the country. If you are caught with a gun, your vehicle and everything in it will be confiscated and you will go to jail.
Buy Mexican insurance for your vehicle (there are links in our Business Section - Auto Insurance, for on-line purchases, or look for a link to the left or below on this page) by the day or year for your visit. At the very minimum, purchase liability coverage which will run around $8/day (much cheaper if you buy an annual policy - typically around $200). You can also stop in Calexico and pick up insurance before you cross into Mexico.
It is tempting to stop at one of the duty-free shops on the right-hand side of the road. There are good deals on liquor and tobacco products. Note that duty rates can be very high on some goods (from 50-600% of the retail value) so you need to stay alert to what people in Calexico, or other border cities advise. In particular, allowances on alcohol from the "duty-free" stores close to the border need to be checked every day. Mexican customs allowances and rates change very frequently!!
Remember that you are only allowed to bring one liter of alcohol back into the US when you return.
You don't need a visa to enter Mexico if you are going no further south than San Felipe and staying less than seven days. If you are staying longer or heading further south, or if you plan to enter into any sort of legal contract in San Felipe, you should get a tourist visa (called an FM-T) at the border. Neither the immigration office here in San Felipe nor the agents at the airport in San Felipe have authority to issue this document. You must stop at the immigration office on the right-hand side of the port-of-entry as you cross from downtown Calexico. An alternative is to go to the Mexican Consulate at 408 Heber Ave. in Calexico. If you are staying longer than six months or own or lease property in Mexico, you need to get an FM 3, the Mexican equivalent of a green card.
To enter Mexico and go south to the San Felipe region, no other paperwork is needed. Just be sure you have proof of vehicle ownership and citizenship for re-entry into the U.S.A. at the end of your visit.
Gasoline and Diesel Fuel
Fill up with gasoline or diesel in Calexico or Mexicali. Once you are south of the city of Mexicali there are no gasoline stations for 120 miles until you reach San Felipe. The Mexican Customs agents may seize any large tanks of gasoline you bring - be warned. The old stations at La Ventana (halfway to San Felipe) and at Three Poles by the Ensenada road junction no longer serve fuel. However, you can find snacks, beverages and primitive "comfort stations" there. The current price for regular unleaded gasoline in San Felipe is around $2.25 /US gallon equivalent. Diesel is around $2.50 per gallon.
We get a lot of questions about the quality of the fuel supply in Baja California. The grades of unleaded gasoline are 87 and 91 octane and, at least in the newer stations, generally as good as the products you can get in the USA. Of course, there is always concern about contamination, particularly in relation to water getting into the storage tanks. For this reason, many of our weekend visitors perfer to fill up just before crossing into Mexico to have enough fuel on hand to make it back across the border without having to buy the much cheaper Mexican gasoline. Obviously, if you are going to stay for a while, you will have little option but to refuel in San Felipe. Under these circumstances you might feel more comfortable just buying 5 gallons or so when you arrive in town so that any impurities are diluted to the maximum extent possible with known good gasoline already in your tank. Owners of new diesel vehicles that mandate using the ultra low sulfur fuel will be happy to know that Pemex officially says their fuel meets the requirements of the new engines. However, be careful where you buy your diesel as the regular "low sulfur" diesel is still supplied for agricultural and marine use. Again, most of our correspondents prefer to tank up in the USA and not buy fuel in Mexico because of the possibility of voiding their engine warranties.
The road to San Felipe is in good condition for a two lane highway and has relatively free-flowing traffic. Upgrades to the road to make it four-lane are in progress at the present and will continue through 2012 so check on "road conditions" in the menu at the left. On typical mid-week days the flow is rarely more than 50 vehicles/hour. Weekends may see peaks of 300/hour but everyone moves at (or well above) the 50mph speed limit. When you get to the outskirts of San Felipe (from El Dorado south) the volume increases dramatically and there are now accidents as old, slow, vehicles pull on to the main highway from side roads. Be very careful on this last stretch of road.
Maps of the border region, the road to San Felipe and a simple street map of the town may be found in the section "About San Felipe". Google maps is also available which will enable you to plan your route to San Felipe.
Your U.S. GSM cellphone (ATT/T-mobile) or international GSM/3G mobile is fully supported in Mexico and will work at most places on the journey down but there are some deadspots in the mountains. Be sure to call your service provider before leaving home to tell them to enable access in Mexico. For full details of using your cellphone and making emergency calls, see our page on telephones. The only CDMA service provider in Mexico is IUSACELL and they have very limited presence in Baja California and no service in San Felipe. If you have Verizon or Sprint service your phone may work in Mexicali and Tijuana and some of their phones can switch to GSM and work in San Felipe. Check with your company before coming to San Felipe - or rent a GSM phone from them.
Flying in to San Felipe
Although San Felipe has an airport (symbol SFE) there are no commercial flights here. Visitors travelling from distant locations in the USA, Mexico or internationally will want to fly into a major airport. The closest ones are San Diego (SAN) in California, and Mexicali (MXL) and Tijuana (TIJ) in Baja California. Imperial airport (IPL) in El Centro does have commuter service to Los Angeles and Phoenix where connections to all major intercontinental carriers can be made.
If you are flying into San Diego, you can rent a car there and drive to San Felipe. See "flying" in the left-hand sidebar for rental car agencies that allow their vehicles to be taken to Mexico (check with the agency and be aware that you will have to sign up for their Mexican insurance package which could add another $20-30/day to the cost !) or you can take a bus to Tijuana and then catch a bus that will bring you to San Felipe (either via Ensenada or via Mexicali) - see the "bus" section in the left-hand navigation bar.
Visitors from Mexico and Latin America can fly to Mexico City or Guadalajara and connect to flights to Mexicali. Again a rental car or bus service will bring you to San Felipe.
The current exchange rate is about 13 pesos/dollar U.S. at most businesses in San Felipe, but dollars are accepted everywhere and it is not necessary to exchange currency before crossing into Mexico. Banks and ATM machines in San Felipe will allow you to use your debit card to take up to about $300 US dollars worth of Mexican currency from your account each day. Expect to have a transaction fee imposed - perhaps $5- by the bank you withdraw from, in addition to a new fee on foreign transactions imposed by your home banking institution. The new fees, around 3%, will also apply for any charge you make to your credit card.
There are two banks in town, BBBV/Bancomer and Banamex. A revolution has occurred in dealing with foreigners in San Felipe. Bancomer has opened a new "preferred customer unit" on Chetumal just south of the Glorietta. This branch specializes in dealing with international clients and you will be able to open an account there with identification (drivers license or passport) and proof that you have a residence in San Felipe (an electricity or water bill). You will be able to write dollar checks on a US bank for the initial and future deposits, though the funds will not be available for two weeks. These new accounts are not subject to the humiliating taxes and regulations that regular Mexican bank accounts are subject to. Be sure that you understand what the monthly fees and individual transaction fees are when you sign up. While small, these fees can be extremely irritating to people who are used to the system in the USA where banks encourage and reward you for not using tellers and requesting paper statements.
Accounts are available in either Mexican pesos or US dollars and you will receive an international debit card with an embedded smart chip that allows you to make ATM withdrawls or merchandise purchases world-wide. If you are primarily interested in paying local bills and property taxes, you will want the peso account. If you are considering investing in some of the available options that BBVA offers, a dollar account might better suit your needs. Many people open both - be aware of the required minimum balance that you must maintain in each account. Bancomer can also arrange for your telephone and utility bills to be paid automatically from the account, for example, if you are away from town for the summer, and this service can start the month following your establishing the account. Minimum balances of $300 dollars or 3000 pesos must be maintained and there are some other nominal fees if you make lots of withdrawls in a day. A convenient feature is that Bancomer will also set you up with free internet banking to allow you to pay bills or monitor your transactions.
One of the exceptionally useful features of this new Bancomer banking unit is that you can call or email a bilingual representative in the branch and get help with any problems. I witnessed this happening when I went to open an account with them and was impressed with the way the calls were handled. Another invaluable feature is that you get to use a "preferred customer" line when you need to make a withdrawl or deposit at the teller windows. I would highly recommend that you stop in at the bank and chat with the private banking department. Lic. Gabriella Flores is the person to see - she is a pleasure to deal with and can assist with even the most complex transactions involving your investment strategies in Mexico. Telephone for an appointment with her at 577-2224 ext 13.
(Updated October 25 2011)