See the US Customs & Border Protection border wait times for an estimate of the length of the lines to cross back from Mexico into the USA.
Vehicle insurance for the trip back can be bought at many stores and agencies in town (for example, at the Linda Bilyeu agency at El Capitan Motel).
The Mexicali-to-Calexico Crossing Route
The majority of travelers return north by retracing their route to Mexicali. Head north from San Felipe to Mexicali (about two and a half hours drive) and you have the option to take either the downtown Mexicali port of entry, which puts you in downtown Calexico, or the "new" east crossing out towards the Mexicali airport that connects to California Route 98 east of Calexico.
For the downtown route, head directly north through Mexicali on Calzada Benito Juarez until you hit the border fence. Turn left and proceed on to the port of entry. Note that the extreme left hand lane is for traffic that is going into downtown Mexicali and also for cars holding SENTRI passes for fast border crossings. Expect a typical wait time during the mid-morning through mid-afternoon hours of 45-90 minutes in the regular lanes and 10 to 30 minutes in the SENTRI lane. This crossing is open 24 hours a day. (SENTRI till midnight)
To reach the east crossing, head north into Mexicali and at the road just before the border fence (Argentina), turn right. The "new" crossing is 6 miles east of Mexicali. Follow Avenida Argentina (one way eastbound - see our Mexicali map) and you will see the tent-like structures of the port of entry on your left hand side as you get out into open country. This crossing is only open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and you will emerge on Route 98 east of Calexico. A new road also runs north from the crossing to join with Interstate 8 so you can avoid going back into Calexico. Check the border wait times by calling the numbers listed below. Expect a typical wait time of 30-60 minutes at mid-day.
A SENTRI lane at this port of entry opened in late 2010. It uses the extreme left hand lane heading towards the border. In addition, on Sundays, the US government is opening the truck crossing lanes for passenger vehicle use. Those new lanes are accessed from the extreme right-hand lanes driving north towards the border.
For recorded traffic crossing information for the two Mexicali- Calexico crossing, you can dial while on the road 001-760-768-2383 on your cellphone and hear recorded information in both English and Spanish from the US Customs and Border Agency that is updated every hour. If you are fluent in Spanish you can also call a Mexicali number 700-7000 and hear information that is updated every 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the announcers tend to speak colloquial Spanish and slur their words, making it difficult for a foreigner to understand.
You can take back to the States $400 worth of goods per person, plus one liter of liquor per month (this includes beer, which only amounts to about 3 cans). Uncooked meats and many fruits are not permitted into the U.S. However, hand-crafted, artistic works, are allowed in duty-free aslong as you are not shipping commercial quantities.
Alternate border crossing points - Tijuana and Tecate
Other options exist, however, which allow you to see more of the beautiful countryside of this peninsula. For example, you may decide to take the road to Ensenada and use the toll road to Tijuana, from which you can cross to San Diego. Check with us or the tourist office for latest conditions of the road and for maps and discount coupons you can use on the Pacific coast of Baja. Note that the border wait time to cross into California from either the downtown Tijuana-San Ysidro, or the Otay Mesa port of entry can be very long, especially on weekends. Allow two hours for the crossing in your travel planning. Both the San Ysidro and the Otay Mesa crossing points have SENTRI lanes for people with authorised passes. If you decide to return to the US via the Tijuana crossings, the phone numbers for the traffic lines are: San Ysidro 001-619-690-8999 Otay Mesa 001-619-671-8999
Another very pleasant return route is to cross at Tecate. Head to Mexicali and take the Libramiento (east-west toll road at about km 13 south of the city). See more details about the highway to Tecate, Tijuana and San Diego on this page. Take this fast and well-maintained toll road up La Rumorosa and enjoy the view.You will pass by one of the water pumping stations and pipelines that sends the Colorado river water to the Rodriguez reservoir outside Tijuana. Pull off at one of the scenic overlooks and take in the vista of the Mexicali and Imperial valleys.
The old city of Tecate is a beautiful place to stop for a meal at one of the restaurants on the tree-lined square in the middle of town. It also gives you the opportunity to buy wonderful fresh bread and pastries at a local bakery or pick up some of the interesting art works and souvenirs in the local shops. The Tecate crossing to California is only a two lane port-of-entry (open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.) but the traffic moves through rapidly. There is no SENTRI lane at Tecate. Note that this border crossing road can only be accessed on the East side of town. When you are coming in from Mexicali,you will come to the road before entering the downtown section of Tecate. If you drive into Tecate to shop or dine, you will have to retrace your path a little to reach the border road. (See a map here and here).
On very hot days it is definitely more pleasant to avoid the long waits in the lines at Mexicali where car radiators frequently reach the boiling point, along with the tempers of the drivers. Tecate, up in the hills, is a wonderful breath of fresh air. If you have a couple of hours to spare, consider taking a tour of the great Tecate brewery and see how the delicious liquid is prepared.(see also this update on the crossing to California). You can telephone to the border crossing station in Tecate to find out what the wait time is by dialing (from Mexico) 001-619-938-8300.
Sentri Lanes at the border
At various ports of entry between Mexico and the USA, the Customs and Border agency has established fast crossing lanes for vehicles and passengers that have enrolled in the SENTRI program. The fast lanes typically allow vehicles to cross into the US with a delay of 5-10 minutes, though during rush hour there can also be quite a backup.
To obtain a SENTRI pass, see the following US Government website..>> Applicants must complete an extensive background check with interview, and the vehicle must be brought to a designated border crossing point for checking and installation of the electronic passcard. The card will be automatically read as you approach the border in a special lane. Sentri lanes are present at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and Calexico East and West in California, San Luis (AZ), Nogalez (AZ), and El Paso, Hidalgo, Laredo and Brownsville in Texas. Note that only the people that have been screened for the designated vehicle are allowed to use the special lane. If you have passengers that are not enrolled in the plan you must use the regular crossing lanes at the border. Currently, the fee for a SENTRI pass is about $122/person, is valid for 5 years and you must appear at a designated enrollment center. A family enrollment plan costs about $260 US dollars and is valid for five years. Frequent border crossers should enroll in this plan. Unfortunately, it is difficult for people from distant places (Snowbirds, for example) to enroll because of the requirememts for in-person interviews that can only be conducted at the border stations of Otay Mesa in San Diego and Calexico. For details and enrollment forms look here.