Tips For Visiting Our Neighbors – And Getting Back Home

Planning a trip to Canada or Mexico? There's plenty of fun riding at our neighbors to the north and south, but you'll need to be mindful that crossing U.S. borders is not quite as simple as it was before our heightened sense of national security.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, crossing U.S. borders has become a bit trickier.

One very important change that took effect in 2008 is the requirement for U.S. citizens to have a passport to re-enter the United States. A drivers license or birth certificate are no longer sufficient.

If you're crossing the border to do some off-road riding and you're hauling a trailer or driving a larger vehicle, you may face special scrutiny.

"Everybody and everything is being hit a little harder, especially if you've got a vehicle with a lot of space," said Steve Darling, a salesman with Inglis Cycle Center in London, Ontario, Canada. "Winnebagos, enclosed trailers — anything with a lot of cargo space is going to draw some attention.

Darling admitted, though, that the scrutiny is all for the best, and it usually goes pretty quickly. Be patient and try to have all your paperwork in order, in advance.

"Our customer base includes some from the states," he said. "Because of that, we know what the rules are when you cross the border."

Canada

Recently, Darling got some first-hand experience when he crossed the border with two bikes that were not registered.

"They stopped us, and they checked us out, going and coming back," he said. "It was pretty routine, it took about 20 to 25 minutes to get into the states, and about five to get out. Now, I am pulling an enclosed trailer, so they're going to ask what's in the trailer. I go across in a car and its nothing. If you go across with cargo space they're going to look at you."

His suggestion: Register the bikes before you cross borders.

"Off-roaders really should have a title, even if it's used strictly for off-road use," he said. "It's not impossible to get through (without the title), but it's really going to slow you down. Just bring all your receipts and information that shows where you bought it. The more documentation you have to prove your point, the better. So fill them full of information."

Darling also said large amounts of cash can raise suspicions.

"If you're going to carry (a lot of) cash, you need to claim that," he said. "We tell guys to bring certified checks or money orders (when making a major purchase)."

Another thing you may want to check is how well you know the person you're riding with.

"Don't bring a buddy who's got a criminal record," he said. "I knew one guy who had to leave his buddy at the border until he got back."

Lastly, Darling said to leave any firearms at home, especially handguns. Canadian laws do permit some hunting weapons, but Darling said there are procedures and forms you'll need to get beforehand. Handguns aren't allowed at all.

Mexico

South of the border in Mexico, things are a bit different. For example, most automobile and motorcycle insurance policies will cover you if you're riding in Canada, but Mexico requires that you carry a separate policy. To be sure, check your policy before you go.

Tim Morton, who runs Baja Bound Adventures, has been riding dirt bikes in Baja, Mexico, for 29 years. He said, "Before 9/11 things were so much more lax, now things are a lot tighter."

As far as driving or riding into Mexico, he said anything you ride on the street will need Mexican insurance. Oddly enough though, to ride a dirt bike in Mexico, you won't.

He said to basically look at it this way: if you cross the border riding something, you'll need insurance, but if you tow it in for off-road use, you won't.

He also mentioned that folks traveling deeper into Mexico might want to consider having plenty of cash for their trip. "Don't plan to use your credit cards," he said. "Unless you're staying in a big tourist town, most local places won't take them."

The quality of fuel in Mexico used to be an issue, Morton said, but not any more. "Pemex is the standard fuel in Mexico," he said. "And it's improved greatly over the last 10 or 15 years. It's about 90 octane, if you're lucky. But we run XRs and DRZs, and they'll run on just about anything."

He said if your bike has an octane issue you might want to buy octane booster, which is available at just about any automotive store in Mexico.

One other idiosyncrasy Morton mentioned while traveling on Mexican highways is the signal to pass. "If you come upon a car that signals left, that means it's OK to pass them on the left," he said. "Like if you're following a big semi and he turns on his left turn signal, it means he's looked ahead and it's clear for you to pass."

Obviously, Morton said extreme caution should be exercised, and this occurs mostly on narrow straight highways where there isn't anywhere the trucker or car driver can pull off.

Helpful Links

Mexico

  • For further information on traveling through Mexico visit the official Mexico Tourism Board's website at: www.visitmexico.com
  • For more information on Tim Morton's Baja Bound Adventures, visit his website at: www.bajaboundmoto.com, or call 1-888-664-BAJA (2252).

Canada

  • Canadian Tourism Commission, www.canadatourism.com/
  • The official website of the Canadian Tourism Commission at www.travelcanada.ca/ (Yes, similar names but two different sites.)
  • Some vacationers planning to enter Canada from the United States have been turned back at the border because of past criminal convictions. "In most cases, a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol is what trips up visitors," said Philip Lupul, consul and immigration program manager at the Canadian Consulate in Detroit. Traffic tickets are no problem, but other convictions may be, even if they are not felonies. If you have a concern, you can apply in advance of your trip for a permit to enter Canada. Visit the consulate's web site at www.detroit.gc.ca and look for information on "Persons who are inadmissible to Canada." The application costs about $100, Lupul said, but it prevents the risk of being delayed or turned away at the border.

U.S. Customs

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection website has tons of good information, including border crossing guides, travel advisories and more, at: cbp.gov/xp/cgov/home.xml.