In the past, it was possible for U.S. citizens to drive into Mexico or Canada using only a standard state-issued driver's license and birth certificate.
That has changed.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State jointly created the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a system designed to help the government keep a close eye on who is crossing U.S. borders.
Crossing the U.S.-Mexico Border
To cross the U.S.–Mexico border by land, drivers need the following:
• U.S. citizens: All citizens of the United States must present a valid passport when entering Mexican territory by any means of transportation. There are no exceptions for minors.
If entering Mexico by land, U.S. citizens must present a passport book or passport card and an entry permit called the Forma Migratoria Múltiple or FMM. Issued by Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Migración, the permit may be obtained by applying at the official government website.
Drivers must also ensure that their vehicles have valid proof of registration when crossing the border.
To drive beyond border zones, travelers need to apply for a vehicle permit through Banjercito, the government authority in charge of car permits. You can apply either at the border or in advance online. Fees apply.
A vehicle permit is not required in the Baja Peninsula.
If you have a U.S. passport card, you can save time by using one of the designated Ready Lanes to reenter the U.S. Simply display the passport card to the Ready Lane's RFID card readers and proceed to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.
For more information, go to the U.S. State Department's travel website.
• Canadian citizens must also present valid passports and FMM entry permits to drive into Mexico. Go to the Canadian government's travel website for more details.
Crossing the U.S.-Canada Border
• U.S. citizens entering Canada by land must carry proof of citizenship and identity. A valid U.S. passport, passport card, or NEXUS card, denoting membership in that Trusted Traveler Program, satisfies the requirement. Americans who are members of the FAST program, another Trusted Traveler system, may use those cards to enter Canada by land or sea, but not by air.
For more information, go to the State Department's travel site.
• Canadian citizens entering the U.S. by land must present one of these documents: a valid passport, a NEXUS or FAST card, a U.S.-approved enhanced driver’s license or enhanced identification card, or a Secure Certificate of Indian Status.
For more information, go to the Canadian government's official travel website.
In short: Get a passport if you plan to travel to Mexico or Canada from the U.S., whether by land, sea, or air.
Note that a passport book is required for flying into either country—passport cards will only work for driving or floating across borders. Passport cards are handy, however, for using the speedier Ready Lanes at land border crossings.
For help applying for or renewing a U.S. passport, follow our step-by-step guide.
Pictured at top: Peace Arch Border Crossing connecting British Columbia and Washington State