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Crossing the Border to Mexico


   May 09

Crossing the Border to Mexico

I did cross the border from US to Mexico in Brownsville, TX- Matamoros border towns.

My fun day began early as I learned from the car insurance place previous day that earlier is better and the border crossing is open 24/7. I also learned early that simple things are no longer simple once you cross the border. It is a different country with different laws, culture and different behavior of people.

I set myself up to show up at the border crossing by 5:00 or earlier. Hotel – Super Motel 6 (can you imagine!) turned out to be pretty close so I reached the Veterans Bridge border crossing around 4:40 or so. The approach was blocked by barricades. I did not know what to do, but luckily a policeman showed up and explained that this crossing is closed for night. It opens at 6:00 AM. The other border crossing at the old bridge is open 24 hrs, so I should go there instead. Alright, no big deal. After little navigation I found the other bridge, paid my US exit fee of $2.50 and got to Mexico.

The immigration office was staffed by one person who was obviously bored. I filled up the immigration application and he directed me to another room to get the temporary car importation permit and pay for the visa. As I found out later to my dismay while checking my passport he also stamped it for entry exactly as he was supposed to do.

In other room I was greeted by a smiling dude who wanted to make copies of my documents. Well’ I had all others, but the Mexican immigration application. He made a copy and asked for a tip. Happy, that everything is working out fast and great, I gave a dollar and he directed me to the fee lady who was supposed to deal with vehicle import permit and collect money for the visa.

Not so great looking, but smiling and friendly I got really hopeful to get out on my way very soon. Before running my credit card she asked me to check with customs that the truck and my personal stuff in it is fine with them. The guy checked the truck and my stuff and did not find anything objectionable. The hit always comes when your hopes are at highest, don’t they. His boss intervened and explained that his office does not process people in transit, only tourists. He instructed me to go back to US and go the the Veterans Bridge border crossing that opens at 6:00 AM. The car permit lady was directed to cancel everything and send me on my way back. First lesson, don’t assume but check every detail.

On my way back I had to pay $2 Mexican exit fee despite my protests that I have not actually been in Mexico yet. The US customs officer interviewed me for a while, but let me go. Probably I wasn’t first of a kind. Back to the other bridge I came from, waiting 40 minutes. I paid the US exit fee second time and approached the Mexican border crossing. The building was lit, but empty.

After a while I found an officer, not at all friendly because I messed up his time alone and he had to deal with a annoying gringo. I explained why I am there and what I want. He checked my passport and asked where is the Mexican visa. I had no clue what he is talking about. Not a word in English he made it clear that there is an entry stamp in the passport from the other office and I must have a document, a visa to enter Mexico. When I told him in my very limited Spanish that everything was canceled, he insisted me going back the the other border crossing to get the canceled document. I asked how would he imagine it possible for me to do that and perhaps, instead he could call the other office and validate that the the visa was canceled. Frustrated with my stubborn presence he explained that the office for car import permits opens at 8:00 and that I should come back then.

I had nothing more to do but wait another 2 hours until the officers show up for work. In fact it was posted on the wall that they start at 8:00 AM. Reading the postings on the walls I also found out that I could have requested the temporary vehicle import permit on Internet or at any Mexican consulate. No-one else to blame but myself for not doing my homework properly. Make a note, in case you feel tempted to follow same route.

While waiting I also went through my paperwork from the other office and found a hardly readable scrambled piece of paper. Coming out from the office I thought to throw it away as everything was canceled. Lucky I didn’t. It did confirm to be the lost (or grossly misunderstood visa!).

Make a note, never throw away any papers given to you until you completely, certainly and for sure have exited the country in question. Even if it looks like a used toilet paper – keep it anyway.

Apparently, the only thing the other office could not process was the temporary vehicle import permit for people in transit. Now I knew that this is the permit I could have gotten from home already with no trouble whatsoever!

The permit folks did show up about at 8:00 and I was first in line. Once they got done with their morning cheer up session for 30 min or so all it took was about 15 minutes and all documents were done. Patience is a virtue in Central America. Unfortunately, patience is not my middle name. I realized then that I either need to find a way to adjust or I can not live there.

Next hurdle – customs. I was afraid that this is where the real trouble starts. After peeking into my loaded truck the young and very pretty started asking what is in each of these boxes and why are there so many of them. My explanation that I will be out 6 months and these are my personal stuff she countered with polite, but stern statement that regulations allow only clothes for transit people, not boxes of tools, weed whacker, computers and pots and pans. Yet, it was pretty clear that she did not feel like digging into all the boxes for next days or so to sort through if they contain something not allowed. There were simply too many of them. She called in her boss, obviously not certain what she should do. The solution that came down from higher up was simple – “push the can down the road”. The pretty and her boss (also beautiful) explained me that there will be another customs checkpoint down at the road, and that they will check all out and that I probably will have to pay hefty import taxes on this extensive load. Offering the list of items in Spanish I put together made the situation only worse as they found many things there they did not have regulations for and did not know whether they are allowed or not. Not so new behavior at all – better let someone else’s butt be on line. This left me in suspense what the tax bill is going to be, but I was relieved that they sent me finally out more than 4 hours late by my plan.

Lessons Learned
A definition: you are transiting Mexico if you do not intend to return through the same border crossing in opposite direction with the same vehicle within next 6 months. If that is your plan then on your visa application form’s destination box you must write “transmigrante”.
In all other scenarios you are a tourist and any bridge crossing is fine. For destination write any town near the Guatemala border and for address write “hotels”.
This is a very important distinction for them. Better do not attempt to fool them because you may well end up being the suffering party

Rules to Remember for Matamoros:

  • do not go to Matamoros’ old bridge if you are “transmigrante” and do not have the temporary importation permit for your vehicle.
  • plan to be at Veterans Bridge border crossing at 8:00 if you need vehicle importation permit and are “transmigrante” Mexico
  • Check with Mexican embassy what a “transmigrante” is allowed to have in their vehicle, confirm by a phone call and make sure to write down the phone number, position and the persons’ name you got this confirmation from.
  • Check rules and regulations at planning time and before embarking, as these tend to change frequently and without any notifications.
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