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Are Mexican Cars Legal in the US?

Published by Tamar Hela.

Are Mexican Cars Legal in the US?

Driving a car made in Mexico or having Mexican plate numbers in the US is not forbidden.

However, vehicles made in Mexico come with different safety features and design specs.

These cars will also have different emission controls. So, are Mexican cars even legal in the US?

There are rules regulating the ownership and operation of Mexican cars in the US. You can avoid getting into trouble with the authorities by learning what's allowed and what's not. Check out this guide to learn about the legality of your Mexican car in the US.


Overview of Mexican Cars in the US

Mexican cars are a common sight in the US, especially in border towns. You can usually recognize these cars by the Mexican plates.

Of course, they will have to follow the road rules of the US. For Mexican citizens or others with cars plated in Mexico, driving in the US requires meeting US Customs and Border Protection regulations. They must also follow safety requirements and emission standards.

Drivers must carry several documents. A Vehicle Title or any other proof of ownership is a must. Then, they must have valid Mexican insurance policies covering their stay in the US. However, the Mexican registration and license plate alone are insufficient to be used long-term in the US.

Cars must also meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Those staying permanently in the US must also pass the importation process. This means, meeting emission requirements and paying import fees.

Permanent residents or those with dual citizenship who want to bring their Mexican car to the US must undergo a thorough process. This often includes car modification to meet US standards.

In short, Mexican cars with Mexican plates are legal for temporary visits. But long-term or permanent use in the US requires more.

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Differences Between Mexican and US Vehicle Standards

The USA and Mexico have different regulations to ensure a vehicle's safety and environmental friendliness. The US has slightly more strict requirements when it comes to safety and emissions. And Mexican regulations, while comprehensive, don't always align with the ones in the US.

Some key differences lie in safety protocols, emissions controls, and the approval processes that vehicles must undergo before hitting the road.

Emissions standards

The Environmental Protection Agency has set the emission standards for all cars in the US. Individual states like California also have their own, sometimes stricter, regulations. However, these standards are focused on reducing the harmful pollutants from vehicle exhausts.

Emission requirements in the US and Mexico regulate:

  • Hydrocarbon Emissions
  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Particulate Matter

Mexican cars often require upgrades or additional controls to meet the much lower emission limit in the US, particularly in states that have tighter regulations. Cars from Mexico usually must undergo texting and receive certification to confirm their compliance with US standards.

Safety requirements

Safety requirements for vehicles in the United States go beyond the FMVSS. Additional safety features that may be required to be road-legal in the US—but not necessarily in Mexico—include:

  • Advanced airbag systems
  • Electronic stability control
  • Traction control systems
  • Comprehensive labeling for parts and potential hazards

All vehicle imports must be checked against these standards. Adapting a Mexican vehicle to comply can be an expensive process. It can also be technically challenging.


Insurance Policies for Mexican Cars in the US

One of the things US CBP officers will check at the border crossing is proof of Mexican insurance policies. Insurance is necessary as a form of self-protection. Also, US law dictates that all drivers carry liability insurance.

However, a Mexican insurance policy may not be enough to cover drivers fully in the US. There may be a need for an additional policy from a local insurance agency that recognizes Mexican license plates.

Mexican car plates must seek US insurance policies. Several US insurance companies offer short-term insurance specifically designed for Mexican vehicles. Coverage options will vary. At a minimum, the policy must cover basic liability (meeting state requirements). However, there are more comprehensive policies that cover collision and medical coverage.

Drivers of Mexican cars can get these policies online or from a specialty insurance broker.

Requirements for Driving a Mexican Car in the US

When a person drives a vehicle with Mexican license plates in the US, they must consider their length of stay and purpose of visit. Temporary visitors can typically use their Mexican-registered vehicles for tourism or short business trips without problem. They only need to bring the necessary documents like a passport or tourist visa.

But those intending to stay longer or become permanent US residents must import their car properly. This means, following the US guidelines for car importation. It involves meeting safety standards and obtaining appropriate US registration and insurance. It also means paying import fees and taxes.

Obtaining a US driver's license

For anyone planning to drive long-term in the US or become a permanent resident, getting a US driver's license is a must. Converting to a US driver's license may require identification, residency, and passing written and driving tests.

Other documents that may be required are birth certificates (for US citizens), green cards, and employment documents (for non-citizens). If they succeed in getting a US license, they may also have to pay for broader insurance coverage.

The validity of a Mexican driver's license

Mexican citizens driving in the US with Mexican license plates on a short-term basis must hold a valid Mexican driver's license. These licenses are recognized in the US, but the validity may vary by state. The Mexican citizens' length of stay will also influence its validity, Check with the local Department of Motor Vehicle for state-specific regulations.

It's even better if Mexican drivers driving in the US with Mexican plats have an International Driving Permit. This is in addition to a Mexican driver's license. Having an international permit will allow better interaction with law enforcement and various car services.

Issues with Mexican cars in border areas

Border towns between the US and Mexico often see a great number of Mexican vehicles on the streets. It's quite common for Mexican border town residents from Tijuana or Baja California to travel to US border towns for work. These Mexican vehicles have become a part of the border town landscape.

While driving in these communities, drivers must abide by local traffic laws. But occasionally, there are challenges in border areas. Some of these challenges include:

  • Heightened scrutiny from law enforcement. Mexican vehicles are subject to more frequent stops and checks. They are often attributed to safety and emissions concerns.
  • Issues regarding insurance claims. If Mexican drivers don't secure a policy from a US insurer that adequately provides coverage for incidents in the US, they can get into trouble.
  • Miscommunication issues. Language barriers can also pose a problem for Mexican car drivers. Their understanding of the US legal system in particular may also come into question.
  • Missing legal documents. Drivers of Mexican-plated cars may not carry ALL of the necessary documents to drive legally in the US. If they forget to bring the necessary paperwork, they can also get into trouble.

To avoid these issues, Mexican drivers must be fully equipped with the necessary legal documents. They must also understand the requirements of US standards. And also, they must comply with local laws. With these things in their arsenal, they can overcome even a language barrier.


Driving Mexican Cars for Permanent Residents and Dual Citizenship in the US

People with permanent resident status or dual citizenship between Mexico and the US are special cases when it comes to driving Mexican-plated cars in the US. The rules for them are distinct, with an additional layer. Check them out below.

Driving Mexican cars for permanent residents

US permanent residents, or Green Card holders, have the right to live and work in the US indefinitely. With this status comes certain considerations regarding vehicle registration and operation.

It's perfectly legal for permanent residents to drive Mexican-registered vehicles temporarily in the US. But they are expected to eventually register their cars with their state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

What the need to register:

  • Documentation: Permanent residents should carry their Green Card and driver's license for identification and proof of legal status when driving.
  • Vehicle registration: A Green Card holder planning to stay in the US and use a Mexican car long-term must register the vehicle in the state of residence. They are subject to emissions and safety regulations.
  • Insurance: A policy from a US-licensed insurance agency providing coverage in the United States is mandatory.

Dual citizenship and Mexican car ownership

Dual citizens of Mexico and the United States enjoy the liberties and responsibilities of citizenship in both countries. They must follow similar protocols as other drivers but with some added flexibility:

  • Border crossings: They can enter and exit each country relatively freely. But they still have to comply with each nation's vehicle import-export laws.
  • Vehicle standards compliance: Vehicles driven in the US must meet all relevant FMVSS, along with state-specific emissions and safety criteria.
  • Registration options: Dual citizens can register their Mexican cars in their US home state if they decide to keep the car mostly in the US. Yet, they also maintain the privilege of owning and operating a vehicle in Mexico.

The table below summarizes the expectations for permanent residents and dual citizens driving Mexican-registered vehicles in the US:


Permanent Residents

Dual Citizens

Valid License



Proof of Legal Status

Green Card

Citizenship Documentation

State Vehicle Registration

Required for long-term use

Choice of U.S. or Mexican

Compliance with Safety Standards



U.S.-compliant Insurance Policy




Driving a Mexican car in the US is legal. The drivers must of course comply with US regulations, including safety and emissions standards. They must also have a US insurance policy to cover for liability and all the necessary documents, including identification, proof of vehicle ownership, and a valid driver's license. That said, Green Card holders and dual citizens of the US and Mexico have more flexibility when it comes to driving Mexican-plated cars in the US.

A1 Auto Transport, on the other hand, can help you ship your car from Mexico to the US. International car shipping is one of our areas of expertise. If you plan to move somewhere in the US that's not a border town and need some assistance, get in touch with us. Receive a free quote and start shipping.

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Tamar Hela is one of our featured writers at A-1 Auto Transport, researching everything from AI auto shipments out of China to what paperwork is required to move long distance. We can safely say she's become well versed in all things shipping and logistics while making the information easy to digest and understandable. 

Tamar has been a copywriter for over 16 years and was trained in the 7-Figure Copywriting Accelerator course through American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). She's also an incredibly seasoned copyeditor, having previously been the Chief Editor and Publishing Director for Cosby Media Productions, based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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