Do I need a passport to visit Baja California?

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The simple answer for all visitors from the U.S. and for most visitors from Canada is No, you don’t need no pinche passport. Here at the border, we see people crossing all the time without one. Across the border, at Across the Border, Anna Cearley has been collecting up reports from readers whose experiences confirm what we say.

And yet people continue to ask and the Internet’s self-appointed experts continue to give the same mistaken answer. The confusion has been caused from what both governments have been telling us. The U.S. government puts up frightening-sounding websites like “” to talk about their “requirement” for “WHTI-compliant documents” and the Mexican government talks about enhancing security in order to continue the disastrous war on drugs. Nonetheless, people keep crossing into California and Baja California just as they have always been doing.

Those of us in The Real Tijuana cross the border, collectively, pretty much every day. We are Mexican citizens, U.S. citizens, and dual citizens. Our documentation varies but only the Mexican nationals among us use WHTI-compliant identification (laser visas and green cards) – the rest of us cross with expired U.S. passports, one of which is more than thirty years old. We have never been sent to Secondary for not being WHTI-compliant. We often see other people crossing with just a birth certificate.

Since the same questions have been cropping up over and over again, we thought it might be helpful to present a FAQ on the subject as it applies to our beat, the border between California and Baja California.

We do not intend to discourage the use of passports – we agree with the Mexican government that the passport is the “ideal international identity document” – but we disagree with irrational impediments to tourism and we are categorically opposed to any restriction on fronterizo culture. Since it is to the government’s benefit that its citizens carry passports, it behooves our governments to facilitate our access to this document. And yet both the Mexican and the U.S. governments place escalating burdens on the individual citizen instead.

The increasing difficulty and expense in obtaining a passport need not discourage people from visiting the other side of their own border. Take our poster boy as an example: Jack Turner has had bench warrant M909462 standing against him in San Diego County since 9 August 2006 and a desist order against him from the California Department of Corporations since 23 October 2007. He’s a real guy and that’s his real name. We know him. Whenever he talks some poor soul out of their life savings, he comes to the Tijuana red-light district to celebrate. He gets drunk. He gets very, very drunk. He loses his money, his identification, his consciousness. And yet the CBP keep letting him back into the country when he has literally nothing in his pockets and two outstanding judicial orders against him. The last time we saw him, he was at pedestrian Secondary in San Ysidro, in a wheel chair, bleeding and babbling incoherently. What does Jack say about all this? “Well, it helps that I’m a good Republican!”

The reason we made Jack Turner our poster boy is because he has the county of San Diego and the state of California looking for him and yet he continues to enter through San Ysidro using no identification whatsoever. We don’t agree with his lifestyle. We don’t agree with his ethics. We don’t agree with his politics. But consider this: if the San Ysidro Port of Entry continues to let Jack into the country without arresting him, why should you worry about your own crossing?

The San Ysidro Port of Entry in the background. Left, ordinary vehicular traffic from the Zona Río; right, SENTRI lanes; far right, pedestrians on the Rampa Xicoténcatl.

We thought we might answer some of the questions readers have been asking just to keep everything in one tidy place.

1 What can I expect when I cross the border into Baja California?
2 What can I expect when I cross the border into the U.S.?
3 What is Secondary Inspection?
4 Can they really keep me out of my own country for not being WHTI-compliant?
5 What is a WHTI-compliant document?
6 What is RFID?
7 What is a passport?
8 I need my passport in a hurry. Should I pay for expedited service?
9 Should I get a passport card instead of a passport?
10 Is Mexico requiring passports from North American tourists?
11 What are the possible repercussions of not having an FMM?
12 What’s this franja fronteriza?
13 Do I need a passport to fly from the Tijuana airport to Cancún?
14 My grandfather just died in Cuernavaca and I don’t have a passport.
15 I want to cross with my child but without the other parent.
16 I’ve heard that we don’t have any Constitutional rights at the border. Is that true?
17 Can anyone tell me if it’s easier to walk across? Or drive?

The pedestrian entrance to Tijuana.

What can I expect when I cross the border into Baja California?

You will most likely be trying to enter Tijuana, Tecate, or Mexicali. If you’re in a car, you’ll see what looks like a traffic signal that will give you either a green light or a red one. Green means proceed into Baja California; red means pull over to let a Customs agent look into your trunk. If you’re a pedestrian, just walk through the Customs pavilion unless an official signals to you to stop.

Normally you will not asked to produce any identification but it’s a good idea to carry your driver’s license or some other government-issued photo ID just in case.

What can I expect when I cross the border into the U.S.?

You will have a brief interview with a Customs and Border Protection agent. The agent will be looking to confirm your identity and your nationality and the agent will ask what you’re bringing in from Mexico. Sometimes the agent will merely glance at your ID; sometimes the agent will swipe it through a magstripe reader or type in some of its details at the computer terminal. If you’re an attractive young woman, your interview might take a little longer because a few of these guys (and gals) use their position to flirt.

The CBP is charged with making sure that the people it lets into the U.S. have a right to be there. They are also charged with making sure the people it allows to enter don’t bring in prohibited merchandise such as Cuban cigars, uncooked meat, or more than one’s fair share of pharmaceuticals. When you cross in a car, the CBP agent might rummage through your trunk or even open some luggage. When you enter on foot, your luggage will be X-rayed.

The San Ysidro Port of Entry allows you to cross in cars and busses and on foot. Cars queue up to present to an agent in one of twenty booths, after which they become the traffic of Interstate 5. Busses drop their passengers at a special entrance to the main building, where the passengers present themselves to a CBP agent and then enter the U.S. on foot. (Passengers heading farther north will reboard their bus once they leave the building.) Pedestrians come into the main building from the sidewalk known as Rampa Xicoténcatl, passing through a turnstile at the physical boundary of the two countries, then continuing on to the stiles within the main buidling, where they queue up to present themselves to a CBP agent.

Once cleared by the CBP agent, bus passengers and pedestrians place their luggage and handbags on a conveyor belt to be inspected by an X-ray machine. If your luggage is not a threat to national security, you may collect it as it leaves the X-ray machine and so exit the building. The public bathrooms to your right just before you exit the building have only recently been reopened for your comfort and convenience but, once you exit the building, you will not be allowed back in to use them.

The Otay Mesa, Tecate, and Mexicali ports of entry will behave similarly although they are not as foreboding as San Ysidro.

What is Secondary Inspection?

Whatever an interviewing agent can’t handle will get shunted to other CBP agents in a nearby area called Secondary. For the car lanes, Secondary most often is used to confirm new visas and to investigate smuggling. For the foot traffic, Secondary usually handles foreign nationals with hincky ID and U.S. citizens who have lost theirs.

Amongst all of us in The Real Tijuana and in all the years we’ve been crossing the border, we’ve only been sent to Secondary three times. (Once was to validate an Advance Parole visa. Once to pay the duty on a case of wine that Cetto swore was legal even though most of it had to be poured down a stainless-steel sink. Once because a four-month-old U.S. citizen had only a Tijuana birth certificate.) We don’t have sound statistics on how long Secondary takes; our own experiences in the car lanes took about forty-five minutes and what we have witnessed from others in the pedestrian lanes appears to be five to ten minutes.

The pedestrian entrance to San Ysidro.

Can they really keep me out of my own country for not being WHTI-compliant?

No, they can’t. Anna Cearley and two members of this blog have all asked agents of the Customs and Border Protection this question. Cearley’s informant was the local CBP press officer, who responded in writing using language very similar to that of the Final Rule at IV(B)(1). Our own blog’s informants were approached in San Ysidro’s pedestrian Secondary on two separate occasions and, although neither wanted to go on record with their answer, each said flatly that U.S. citizens must be allowed into their own country.

In case you were wondering, this Final Rule is the formal expression of how the departments of Homeland Security and State intend to apply WHTI; its full text is available in PDF. The pertinent passage (from the Federal Register at page 18388) reads: “U.S. citizens cannot be denied entry to the United States; however, the documents that this rule requires are designed to establish citizenship and identity. Travelers without WHTI-compliant documents who claim U.S. citizenship will undergo additional inspection and processing until the inspecting officer is satisfied that the traveler is a U.S. citizen, which could lead to lengthy delays.”

International law is unequivocal on this question. Articles 9, 13, and 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assert the inalienable human right for a person to be received into his or her native land. That means you as a human being, not you as someone with a WHTI-compliant travel document.

In case the UDHR wasn’t clear enough, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has supplied commentary. “In no case may a person be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his or her own country. The reference to the concept of arbitrariness in this context is intended to emphasize that it applies to all State action, legislative, administrative and judicial; it guarantees that even interference provided for by law should be in accordance with the provisions, aims and objectives of the Covenant and should be, in any event, reasonable in the particular circumstances. The Committee considers that there are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one's own country could be reasonable.”

What is a WHTI-compliant document?

WHTI is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a plan worked out between the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State in order to implement Title VII, Subtitle B (“Terrorist Travel and Effective Screening”) of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The IRTPA gave DHS a controversial (and most likely unconstitutional) mandate “to require a passport or other document, or combination of documents, deemed by the Secretary of Homeland Security to be sufficient to denote identity and citizenship, for all travel into the United States by United States citizens and by categories of individuals for whom documentation requirements have previously been waived”.

The DHS has thus taken the initiative by reviving the REAL ID Act in requiring RFID as an integral part of any and all WHTI-compliant documentation even though RFID is not mentioned in the enabling legislation. The actual text of WHTI does not appear to be available to ordinary citizens but the documents that comply with its requirements can be found on the site. These include documents issued by the departments of State and Homeland Security as well as the so-called enhanced driver’s license.

So now what’s RFID?

Radio-frequency identification is a technology so controversial that it has the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation making common cause with the tinfoil-hat crowd. Most of the state governments in the U.S. have refused on principle to make use of RFID in their driver’s licenses. It consists of an electronic transponder that supplies digital information when stimulated by a radio-frequency signal. The technology has been in use since the 1970s as a way of keeping track of cattle. People have joined the herd: they now carry RFID chips in the form of credit cards, “enhanced” driver’s licenses, U.S. visas, and (since 2007) U.S. passports.

Videos by BoingBoing TV and the Mythbusters have raised interesting privacy issues concerning RFID in general, the first one by demonstrating the ease with which RFID data can be pirated and the second in relating how their investigation of the technology was suppressed by their commercial sponsors. More to our point, the security geeks at Lookout reveal an exploit that permits terrorists to take advantage of RFID-enabled passports, “enhanced” driver’s licenses, and other products of the Rearing and Empowering America for Longevity against Acts of International Destruction (“REAL ID”) Act.

What is a passport?

According to Ambrose Bierce, it is a “document treacherously inflicted upon a citizen going abroad, exposing him as an alien and pointing him out for special reprobation and outrage.“ The Supreme Court defined it as “a document, which, from its nature and object, is addressed to foreign powers; purporting only to be a request, that the bearer of it may pass safely and freely; and is to be considered rather in the character of a political document, by which the bearer is recognized, in foreign countries, as an American citizen; and which, by usage and the law of nations, is received as evidence of the fact." But that was all before WHTI.

The passport was originally a letter of safe passage signed by a king. The earliest reference we have is Nehemiah 2:7–9, wherein the Persian king Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. From the time of the Old Testament to the nineteenth century, a passport was issued to anyone, regardless of nationality, who was working at the behest of the sovereign who issued it: in the twentieth century these came to be known as “diplomatic” or “special” passports.

Congress gave the president the authority to require passports of its own citizens only three times in the history of the United States: during the Civil War, during World War I, and during World War II. These were extraordinary, temporary measures that required both a congressional declaration of war and a presidential finding before they might be put into effect. In general, the passport was an unusual document – the Passport Office, which didn’t come into existence until 1902, exercised an absolute discretionary authority as to whom it would and would not issue one until 1958.

With the advent of the first Prohibition, the concept of the passport started to change. The U.S. began tentatively to require passports from all visitors of particular nationalities in 1918, making the requirement permanent in 1921. European countries followed suit if only in retaliation to this restriction. In his memoirs of that era, Albert Jay Nock complained derisively of the recent tendency within northern European countries to require passports of its visitors.

Up until 1958, then, the U.S. passport had been an international identity document issued to a privileged minority for the purpose of assisting them in their travels abroad. Within our own lifetime we’ve seen it come to serve as an international identity document enabling all people to visit foreign countries, yet even today a passport is not needed for travel in many places.

Now we hear that U.S. citizens are expected to produce a passport in order to enter their own country. This is a novel development. What we are witnessing with IRTPA and WHTI is an attempt to change the essential purpose of the passport from a document of privilege to one of necessity. In a true democracy, such an important change would be made only after a plebiscite.

Form F, the first border-crosser card, issued in 1918 to a married couple on the request of the mayor of Tecate.

Here on the border between Baja California and California, the passport has been almost unheard of. Until 1940, with a few exceptions, people from both sides of the border crossed without any identification whatsoever. In 1891, a store ran its business directly on the line, half of it in Tijuana and the other half in Tia Juana (now called San Ysidro) while a Mexican customs agent worked in the middle. “The Border Patrol of the Immigration Service was not established until 1924” writes Carey McWilliams in North from Mexico. “Prior to 1924 the border could be crossed, in either direction, at almost any point between Brownsville and San Diego, with the greatest of ease.” The venerable Rebeca Barrera Flores, nicknamed “Tijuana’s mom”, recalls her childhood years in the 1930s: “Our elementary school was where the Plaza de las Américas shopping center is today. We went to school without any ID at all. Our bus used to cross the border every day without ever being stopped by anyone.”

In 1918, as part of the war effort, Mexican citizens in the border zone started to receive a simple identification card issued for free by the U.S. government; according to Ricardo Romero Aceves, the use of such cards was made permanent in 1940. Those “local passports” or “border-crosser cards” had no expiration date. Around 1990, the Border Patrol quietly began confiscating them and directing the surprised fronterizos to the U.S. Consulate, where they might apply for a new border-crosser card good for ten years. And then, in 2001, the border-crosser card was discontinued. Mexican fronterizos now have to purchase a “laser visa” in order to visit friends and family north of the border: this costs more than two hundred dollars, most local residents don’t qualify for it, and they don’t get their money back when their applications are denied.

To this day, U.S. citizens crossing into Baja California do so without impediment: they produce their driver’s license only when an official requests it, usually to receive a traffic ticket. The increasing inequity in the treatment of fronterizos north of the border and those south of the border has created a great deal of resentment among those who remember the way things used to be.

I need my passport in a hurry. Should I pay for expedited service?

We don’t recommend it. Published reports and our own informants have all said that the only thing to get expedited is the shipping. Both the National Passport Information Service, which is a call center operated by for-profit companies, and the “passport acceptance facilities” in post offices and public libraries, which have been staffed by volunteers working on commission for VitalChek, have been known to talk applicants into buying “upgraded services” that were never performed.

The call center’s scam has been to offer expedited service for sixty dollars extra which turned out to be nothing more than delivery by FedEx. This has become the subject of a class-action lawsuit. VitalChek is an Internet-based agency for obtaining copies of customers’ vital records from the various governmental repositories throughout the United States. Its volunteers in the acceptance facilities have convinced applicants to pay another sixty-dollar fee for VitalChek’s “birth certificate search”, purportedly to make sure the applicant is submitting a certified birth certificate and not an uncertified certificate. VitalChek’s service, when it works, is unnecessarily expensive; when it does not work, it is infuriating, as you can see from the comments in Ripoff Report. You can get your birth certificate yourself online more quickly and cheaply by applying at the appropriate governmental website.

If you really are in a hurry for your passport, your best be will be to visit the nearest Passport Agency, which is still part of the State Department.

The passport card, formerly known as the PASS (People Access Security Service) card.

Should I get a passport card instead of a passport?

That’s up to you. The passport card is being offered as a simpler, less expensive alternative to the passport (currently $55 versus $135) but its use is restricted to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. It is not used for air travel even to those places. And it involves the same amount of bumf as a regular passport. We know people who have purchased both a passport card and a real passport. We also know people who have neither.

Is Mexico requiring passports from North American tourists?

As far as casual visits to northern Baja go, everyone continues to enter without producing any identification whatsoever. Even visitors from the Faroe Islands.

In February 2010 a bit of confusion arose from reports by the news media in which Felipe Calderón, on the pretext of stemming the flow of assault weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, announced that Mexico would begin requiring passports from residents of the U.S. and Canada in four weeks’ time. The local tourist industry responded with predictable outrage. Francisco Javier Reynoso Nuño, the local head of the INM (Immigration), and Óscar Escobedo Carignan, the state’s secretary of tourism, then made several joint announcements on television to correct this confusion. Reynoso and Escobedo cited article 42 of the Ley General de Población to distinguish between local visitors (those staying within the franja fronteriza or making port for fewer than three days) and tourists (those who go beyond the franja fronteriza or who stay longer than three days).


What really happened was a major overhaul of the immigration system, published on 29 January 2010 to take effect on 30 April. Among the changes was the disappearance of the FMT (the so-called tourist visa): it and several similar forms were collected into a single document, the FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple). The FMM is intended to document all classes of non-immigrants including the local visitor. It calls for the traveler’s passport number although the online version of the FMM allows for several alternative means of identification.

In practice, according to an INM duty officer at the Tijuana border, people visiting northern Baja enter as they always have done. If they want to go past Maneadero, they’ll need to get an FMM as a local visitor at no charge. If they want to stay longer than three days but fewer than one hundred eighty days, they’ll need to get an FMM as a tourist for Mex$262 (about US$22).

For some unspecified reason, local-visitor FMMs are not being required of local visitors north of Maneadero nor do they seem to be required of those making port anywhere for fewer than three days.

What are the possible repercussions of not having an FMM past the three-day limit or outside the franja fronteriza?

Visitors who arrive by land can, for all practical purposes, stay well beyond their three-day limit because there is no record of when they entered Mexico. Visitors who cross the checkpoint at Maneadero will either be issued a local-visitor FMM on the spot or be turned back to Ensenada to get one. If the checkpoint is unmanned, the visitors will most likely be unaware that they just passed through it and probably won’t encounter INM until they cross into Baja California Sur at Guerrero Negro … at which time they may as well plead ignorance.

Arrivals by sea are more formalized. Cruise ships will make the FMM available to passengers if it is needed and the harbormaster assists those arriving in pleasure craft.

The INM duty officer we interviewed felt that the FMM is being used primarily for statistical purposes and that any irregularities by a bona-fide tourist would be treated lightly. What the INM does take seriously is an immigrant masquerading as a tourist – an undocumented resident who annoys his neighbors will be deported and told not to return for five years, for example, and a U.S. citizen found working in Baja illegally will be fined and deported while his employer, if he has one, will also be fined.

If you need a tourist FMM, your best bet will be to get it as soon as you enter the country because the INM offices at the ports of entry are designed to facilitate tourism. Otherwise, the INM offices throughout the state can be found through this link.

What’s this franja fronteriza?

Between Ensenada, Baja California, and Los Angeles, California, on the west and between Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Brownsville, Texas, on the east there has existed an area of fluid population called the franja fronteriza – a swath of land along both sides of the border wherein the same families have resided for centuries. As an example, both the Argüello and Olvera families, who owned the land that became Tijuana, were living in Los Angeles on 11 July 1889, when Tijuana was formally constituted as a suburb of Ensenada.

The franja fronteriza is a borderland where one culture slowly turns into another. Carey McWilliams describes it historically and in depth in his excellent book, North from Mexico. Our franja differs from the many other borderlands around the world in a couple of significant ways. One is that our region is much larger because the War of 1846–7 dropped an international border halfway into Mexican territory. Another difference is that fronterizos elsewhere in the world tend to be multilingual while the majority of those in our border zone can carry on a fluent conversation in only one language. In other words, Alsatians tend to be equal parts French and German while fronterizos around here are either more gringo or more Mexican in their makeup.

The area does not have a single definition. Scholars such as Milton Jamail and Héctor Lim identify our franja fronteriza broadly one hundred miles in both directions. There are de facto checkpoints about fifty miles north of the border (for example, at San Onofre on Interstate 5) and about twenty-five kilometers south (such as the one on Carretera 14 in Sonora). Both countries maintain a statutory definition for their part of the franja: Mexico’s is predicated on customs duties and includes the first twenty kilometers inside its border as well as the entire Baja California peninsula and part of the state of Sonora. The United States maintains an area twenty-five miles deep (except in Arizona, where it’s seventy-five miles deep) in which it suspends the Fourth Amendment in order to enforce its immigration policies. Most fronterizos have family and friends on both sides.

The franja fronteriza, as far as tourists to Baja are concerned, ends at Maneadero (south of Ensenada, just past the turn-off for Punta Banda), after which point they will need a local-visitor FMM. The franja fronteriza, as far as tourists’ cars are concerned, is the entire peninsula – temporary importation permits are not used in either of the two states. The distinction between people and cars is historical, the one coming from immigration law and the other coming from customs law.

I want to fly from the Tijuana airport to Cancún. Do I need a passport?

The General Abelardo Rodríguez Airport (TIJ) is an international airport and follows international security protocols. It appears that you will need a passport, although an alternative form of identification might be acceptable. The question is beyond the scope of this blog. Your airline will have the definitive answer because they’re required by law to make sure you have the right documentation before you board the plane. They keep up with the changing regulations and will always err on the side of caution. You might also consider making your arrangements through a travel agency for the personal attentions such agencies can give you in this regard.

My grandfather just died in Cuernavaca. I need to fly there immediately but I don’t have a passport. What should I do?

This is another question that falls beyond the scope of our blog. Consulates have been known to issue special travel visas under the rubric of “bereavement” or “compassionate travel”. Check with the Mexican consulate nearest you. You might also check with the U.S. consulate nearest your destination. Airlines have been known to offer discounts and other accommodation for this purpose.

Even the shamefully repressive IRTPA anticipates the need for bereavement travel when it acknowledges at §7209(c)(2): “the President may *** waive documentary requirements for United States citizens departing from or entering, or attempting to depart from or enter, the United States *** (B) in the case of an unforeseen emergency in individual cases; or (C) in the case of humanitarian or national interest reasons in individual cases.”

I want to cross with my child but without the other parent.

Along the border and crossing by land, you should not have any problem. Babes in arms cross without their fathers all the time. Junior-high-school students cross on their own every school day. We don’t know of anyone who uses a notarized letter of permission nor do we know of an instance where the CBP asked to see one.

Beyond the border, visitors under the age of eighteen (or fifteen or sixteen or nineteen, depending on the particular regulation) are dealt with slightly differently from adults. On one hand, the government does not expect younger citizens to have acquired official photo IDs and so it contents itself with certified birth certificates and other forms of non-photo ID. On the other hand, the government is also obligated to enforce the custody rights of both parents and so requires notarized permission from both parents when one or both is not accompanying the minor. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City addresses these questions briefly in its extensive FAQ.

The transportation industry has been deputized into the immigration business. Were a passenger to be rejected by any immigration officer, the carrier would be obligated by law to return that passenger to his or her point of origin. As a consequence, you may expect the transportation industry to be even more restrictive than the CBP. If you plan to travel by air, don’t ask us – ask your airline.


I’ve heard that we don’t have any Constitutional rights at the border. Is that true?

Relax. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you will enter the United States. They let our poster boy in, don’t they?

Customs and Border Protection is made up of federal employees who have to meet basic minimum standards of behavior as defined by common decency and international law. Even so, they do not use search warrants, they do not mirandize their prisoners, they hold their prisoners incommunicado, and they do not offer their prisoners access to legal counsel. “The border’s a no-man’s land” said one CBP agent.

Let’s not say that there are no Constitutional rights at the border, only that the Amendments are being respected selectively. There was no writ of habeas corpus for the U.S. citizen who felt it necessary to urinate on the floor of the Customs building, splashing his precious bodily fluid onto the shoes of a Mexican woman nearby: a CBP agent summarily ordered this fellow to mop up his mess using his own shirt and starting with the woman’s shoes, after which the agent conducted the incontinent citizen to the back of a two-hour-long line. The Pre-Paid Legal Program’s attorneys will not help its subscribers until they clear the ports of entry. And, yes, it is true that Immigration once strip-searched the Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara’s sister, right down to body-cavity probes.

At the time of his sister’s strip-search, His Eminence was not any sort of bishop. At that time he was a parish priest in Tijuana. Okay, not just any parish priest, he was the father confessor to most of the Arellano-Félix family, including Jorge Hank Rhon. What Immigration did to doña Ana María was not nice but, under the circumstances, it was understandable – her brother’s associates had gotten her profiled.

The CBP is bureaucratic, unwieldy, and inept. No surprises there, it’s a governmental agency with no real accountability. But they are not likely to strip-search you unless you fit a smuggler profile and they’re not likely to cause you any other trouble unless your appearance or behavior puts you into some other high-risk category.

Our CBP agents classify the world into three groups: citizens, Mexicans, and OTMs (other than Mexicans), so the more you look like a citizen, the more easily you will cross the border. And the best way to look like a citizen is to dress and talk, well, like a middle-aged WASP. One of this blog’s friends, a third-generation Chinese-American, was required by an Immigration officer to name the high school that she graduated from thirty years before. She was accompanied by two Anglos who merely held up their driver’s licenses. Their CBP agent was a recent immigrant from the Philippines (to judge by his thick accent) and our friend felt that she was being victimized for an ancient Oriental feud. Filipino informants have corroborated our “Chinese” friend’s basic suspicion: they report that speaking Tagalog works like a secret handshake with the many Filipino CBP agents at the San Diego ports of entry.

Perhaps the best way to understand the CBP presence at the border is to read about Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo recruited students from Stanford University to pretend to be inmates and guards of a make-believe prison in the basement of the psychology building. The student prisoners acquired either passive or activist personalities and the student guards became accommodating, impassive, or sadistic. These students accepted their roles so well that Zimbardo had to terminate the experiment early in order to avert a violent prison break. As a border-crosser, you are advised to be passive until you clear the pavilion (at which time you’re welcome to report any abuse to Washington D.C.) and, if it’s within your power, avoid the sadistic guards in favor of the accommodating or impassive ones. Complaints can be filed on line and they can be phoned in to 1-877-227-5511.

At least two guards in the San Ysidro Port of Entry work very hard to achieve an efficient flow of travelers. Whenever they’re in the pedestrian area you’ll see a lot of jostling as frequent crossers try to get into their lane. One of these guards is kind and distributes candy to the children on holidays, speaking Spanish with a broad gringo accent; the other hates Mexico, insists that everyone speak English to him, but takes his job seriously in any event. We tease them both mercilessly about how their efficiency is going to cost them their jobs.

Most of the guards you’re likely to meet believe that they’re working for their immediate supervisor and not for the U.S. people in general, so they will be less concerned about efficiency and more concerned with dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Even so, they’re not going to want to send you to Secondary without good reason.

And then there are the sadists. They will concoct any excuse to annoy. Pancho, one of the members of this blog, was bringing two miniature bottles of tequila (100ml total) to a collector and the bully at the border said one bottle was the maximum. (For California residents, one liter per month is the limit.) Pancho said “Okay, send me to Secondary.” The bully just stared at Pancho. Pancho remained friendly but impassive. “Send me to Secondary,” said Pancho again, “let me pay whatever duty I need to pay for these gifts.” The bully stared some more and then said “Don’t do this again. Have a nice day.”

With all the millions of crossings each year, some horror stories are bound to arise. These stories do not represent the average experience and they are not likely to happen to you. So long as you stay out of the drug business and don’t pee on the floor, your worst problem will be nothing more than the occasional sadist. Bullies are nothing more than cowards with a badge: they will back down as soon as they understand that you’re not afraid of them. Just do your best Obi-wan Kenobi impersonation and say to them “you know, in all the years that I’ve been crossing this border, no one has ever tried that with me.”

Can anyone tell me if it’s easier to walk across? Or drive? I’m wondering if I should even bother with a rental car.

Son, you asked these questions while Anna Cearley was trying to talk about passports. It looks like you’re too dim to be trusted with an automobile, so you’d better walk across. This entry is also about passports. The various means of transportation have their own entries in The Real Tijuana.

Updated August 2018

The days of a friendly, cross-cultural border region have come to an end. Both the US and Mexican federal governments have been pressuring tourists into carrying current a passport by inconveniencing them for using other forms of identification. While it’s still true that you don’t need to have a passport for a quick visit, the authorities for both countries are trying their damnedest to make you wish that you did.

All pedestrians entering Tijuana, whether through Puerta Este or PedWest, now must identify themselves to an agent of the INM (the Mexican immigration authority) and fill out an FMM. Without a passport or passport card, the tourist is sent to a room where his or her fingerprints are taken and stored digitally, then admonished to get with the program before being allowed into Mexico “just this once”. FMMs are free to excursionists (those who stay no more than seven days); anyone staying longer is charged the tourist visa fee of Mx$533 (approximately US$30).

The INM agents at the border come from Mexico City, so they are by nature officious and unsympathetic to the people of the border region. In that they have a lot in common with their CBP counterparts: neither group puts much store in bilingualism or hospitality. They tend to be better educated and less racist than their US counterparts, but their job is to keep the world safe from Garbage Pail Kids paraphernalia just as surely as their counterparts have to keep out Kinder eggs, murderers, rapists, and maybe some good people.

When entering Tijuana as a pedestrian or as a passenger of the cross-border shuttle, you will be asked to declare the number of days you plan on staying. If you tell them three days or less, you will save yourself the hassle of buying a tourist visa (in cash, pesos only) at the nearest branch of the Banjercito bank.

People entering Tijuana in their own automobiles are not subjected to this process. They just drive into the country as they have always done. They can also stop voluntarily at the Customs complex to apply for a tourist visa if they need one.

Although the officials at the border don’t ask for evidence of liability insurance, motorists are legally obligated to carry a valid policy written by a Mexican insurance company. Many such policies can be purchased through companies on the Internet; the one we’ve liked best so far is Mexico Insurance Online, not only because of their low prices but also for their extra services such as around-the-clock access to English-speaking Mexican attorneys by telephone – invaluable in the event of an accident – and for their advocacy on behalf of their policyholders before the Mexican insurance companies whose policies they sell.


BeatriceBlue said...

This was posted in 2010. I need to get my teeth fixed, so wondering if it still applies in 2014? Thank you!

The Real Tijuana said...

The biggest change since 2010 has been how we enter Mexico; entry into the U.S. is pretty much as described here in spite of the various experiments by the CBP to slow down and speed up the lines.

Mexico closed its pedestrian entrance about a year ago in order to expand the port of entry. The new pedestrian entrance will be a few hundred yards west of the old one. In the meantime, pedestrians are entering through what will become the auxiliary or eastern pedestrian entrance, which is behind the McDonalds.

Since your purpose is to fix your teeth, you might get in touch with Club Medico USA. They negotiate with the doctors and dentists in their network to guarantee the lowest prices for their members and they have bilingual guides available to get their members safely to and from the border. They told us that members have crossed using driver's licences. Contact them at