Dos Olas has some opinions about the San Ysidro, California, border crossing.
This information is not official, nor is it guaranteed accurate (conditions and laws with respect to crossing the U.S./Mexico international border change daily). This commentary represents only the opinions of Dos Olas.
DON'T FORGET YOUR U.S. PASSPORT SO YOU CAN GET BACK IN TO THE U.S.!
Good general information regarding legal requirements and tips for traveling in Mexico can be found at the U.S. Department of State Website.
CROSSING INTO MEXICO:
At San Ysidro, the southbound Interstate 5 and 805 freeways terminate and merge at the border crossing into Mexico. Due to the U.S. not finishing its half of the border improvement projects, the old gates into Mexico have been closed and the merging traffic is made to make a hard right at the border to drive West in order to enter Mexico's new and expansive border crossing gates. Watch out at night; traffic is a mess, particularly during Friday evening. The Mexicans have a very efficient system to inspect vehicles: as you cross the border, each lane has a signal which lights up as each car crosses. If you get a green light, you have successfully crossed unless a border guard waives you over (particularly likely if you have a truck with a shell). If you get a red light, you must go to secondary inspection (revision). It is likely that if you are driving a pick-up with a shell that you will be waved into secondary regardless of whether you get a green light. Usually the Mexican officer will politely look in your windows (or, if tinted, want you to open your tailgate) and then send you on your way. As a general proposition, particularly if you are friendly and treat them with respect, these officers will be both polite and professional.
1. Where to go when you've crossed. If you are planning to drive around Tijuana, have a good map, follow the signs, and we wish you luck. Currently ,Tijuana is not particularly safe and is not a recommended destination for your average tourist - if you speak Spanish and are confident in your skills, have at it. If you want to go to South along the Pacific coast (Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, La Fonda, Ensenada), or even farther down, you want to take the toll road. (The free ("libre") road starts in Tijuana goes through La Gloria, and doesn't come out to the coast until Rosarito - and then dodges back inland at La Mission. Dos Olas does not recommend the free road from Tijuana to Rosarito - basically, it's slow, dangerous, and not scenic.)
All that having been said, how do you get to the toll road? Currently (it changes over the years due to construction, etcetera), after you cross through the gates, you need to get all the way over to the right exiting the inspection area. The very first right off ramp is a bridge that curves up and to the right; this bridge crosses over the Tijuana river/concrete channel and merges you directly on the road along the border fence that takes you to the toll road. (See our map.) Follow the signs which say "Playas de Tijuana" (most prevalent) "Rosarito" and/or "Ensenada" and/or "Toll Road" and/or "Cuota" (which means toll). The road will parallel the border fence (on your right), go up a long and very steep hill, go down the other side of this hill where you will split-off to the right at the bottom of the hill. The split will merge on to a road which goes through a canyon to the "Playas" section of Tijuana. As you approach Playas stay to the left and you will run right into the toll booths. The toll is about $2.60 depending on the price of the peso. There's another toll plaza at Rosarito and a final one at Ensenada.
2. Travel documents. You don't need travel documents to stay up to 3 days in Baja in the travel zone, and, quite frankly, it is highly unlikely you will ever be asked to produce a tourist visa if your vacation lasts longer unless you cross an official checkpoint (the only operating one that we know of is at Guererro Negro, 500 miles into Baja). HOWEVER, there are certainly no guarantees, Mexico has numerous travel requirements (see U.S. State Department Website), and a tourist visa is easily obtained at the border just before you cross -- instead of going through the gates, drive all the way over to the right (West) where the GIANT Mexican flag is and park in the parking lot there under the awning -- enter the building, get your visa, and then leave and go through the gates. The Mexican immigration office requires you to present your U.S. passport, fill out a visa form, get charged a nominal fee, and then get given your visa to be official.
3. Automobile insurance. Highly recommended because, without such insurance, in the event you are involved in an accident, you may get a trip to jail unless you prove you have the insurance. Mexican laws are very different from U.S. laws; accidents are considered quasi-criminal in that you may be charged with a crime/incarcerated unless you compensate the victim. Get insurance before you cross the border by exiting the I-5 or I-805 at San Ysidro Boulevard just before you get to the border. There are numerous drive-through insurance places who will provide you a policy at virtually the same daily rates - you only need to present your vehicle registration. When buying insurance, you may want to consider that your U.S. insurance policy may (you should check) provide comprehensive coverage up to 75 miles into Mexico and, depending where you intend to go, you can save some money if you buy Mexican liability only coverage and decline Mexican comprehensive coverage. If you have an accident in Mexico, always report it to the insurance company BEFORE you leave Mexico.
4. Do not carry guns, ammunition, knives or drugs into Mexico. Mexican laws are very strict about these things and if you violate those laws, you can expect big problems. You should not cross with materials or merchanise (such as lumber for construction) unless you comply with Mexican import laws (generally $400 total limit - so bring receipts). On occasion, Mexican officers have asked us whether we carried alcohol or cigarettes (why, we do not know, but we assumed they were looking for these items in quantity), so our advice is to pretend you're really crossing the border back into the U.S. and do not carrying anything to Mexico you may reasonably have a doubt about.
CROSSING INTO THE U.S. AT SAN YSIDRO.
Unfortunately, recent circumstances and policies have made crossing into the U.S. (particularly at the San Ysidro point of entry) a big hassle. Three hour waits are common because the streets of Tijuana were not designed to absorb the traffic jams caused by U.S. border-crossing wait times. The advice we give here is not dubious, but we admit circumstances change all of the time. The only truly solid recommendation that we can give is to get a SENTRI card so you can use the SENTRI crossing lane (its illegal to use this lane without the card) or to get a U.S. passport card and use the Ready Lane. Both these lanes are tricky to find at San Ysidro so we don't even attempt to point out how to do it.
1. How to get to U.S. Border from Toll Road. Generally, follow the signs (for San Diego/Interstate 5).
Specifically, after leaving the last toll plaza, drive up through the canyon, which opens out into a valley where the road crosses a bridge over the road you need to San Diego. Immediately across the bridge, you may exit from the right lane to an off-ramp which makes a 270 degree right turn down to under the bridge onto the road to San Diego -- this off-ramp is marked for San Diego/Interstate 5. At the bottom of the ramp, you will have a difficult merge through cross traffic to get on to the road to San Diego. Merge left. Remain in the left lane up the steep hill, over the hill, down the other side of the hill (you will see the U.S. border on your left). Move to the right lane and just drive until you hit a split off to the right with prominent signs for San Diego/Interstate 5 Freeway, after which split you will hit a traffic light. (See our map.) If it is a busy day, you will end up in a line of traffic trying to turn left at this light to get in line for the border. The Mexican police try to regulate this intersection which is often gridlocked. Turn left at the light and get over to the second lane from the right when you turn, positioning yourself to pass under the sign for San Diego.
Just after this intersection will be Mexican police regulating traffic into the border line; you will usually see concrete barriers with a police officer using a stretch of yellow caution tape to grant access to the line. The line basically starts on the right and curves up and around to the right onto the bridge (under which you have just driven) that goes over the Tijuana River to the border. Once you are through the tape, you are in line and will end up at the border.
If there are too many people in line, you will be unlucky and the officer will force you to continue down the road with all the other overflow traffic. Do not panic if this happens to you (although it is not considered unusual to politely attempt to resist this event or to ask the officer for assistance and try to beg your way into the line at this point). If you have to keep driving, simply merge to the right and then merge across a island onto the parallel frontage road on the right (you have a couple opportunities to merge, so remain calm). At this point, your goal is to turn right, drive through to the next major street, and then turn right again on that street (2 right turns in order to reverse your direction back to the border). That major street (Paseo De Los Heroes) becomes the border line which enters the bridge to the border from a different point. You may attempt your first right turn at any time; however the police often have blocked of the ends of the first couple of streets so you can't turn onto Paseo De Los Heroes. Accordingly, the best place to make your first right turn is just before you go underneath the next bridge across the river (Avenida Independencia). This turn will take you to a roundabout ("glorietta") where you simply make your second right turn onto Paseo De Los Heroes. When you are on Paseo De Los Heroes, stay in the left two lanes and you will end up on the bridge and then at the border.
ALTERNATE ROUTE: After leaving the last toll plaza, drive up through the canyon, which opens out into a valley where the road crosses a bridge over the road you need to San Diego. Immediately across the bridge, DO NOT exit from the right lane on the off-ramp which is marked for San Diego/Interstate 5. Instead, keep driving straight up the hill and continue to drive on this road as it winds down the other side of the hill (past the grave yards) and straight through the middle of Tijuana. As it goes down the other side of the hill into Tijuana, it will turn into a 4 lane, one-way street (known as Segunda or Benito Juarez avenue) that eventually terminates at the border line. After this road becomes 4 lanes, stay in the left 2 lanes which lanes will become the border line.
2. Which lane is fastest? We used to believe the right lane was fastest but we don't currently have an opinion..
3. What do you need to cross? All you need to know is at https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/3618/~/u.s.-citizens---documents-needed-to-enter-the-united-states-and%2For-to-travel. Don't forget about your pets - your dog must have a certificate for a rabies vaccination within the last 30 days (although our experience is that older proof of rabies vaccination has been acceptable). (See U.S.D.A. and CDC websites.)
4. What can you bring across? We think that the U.S. government does not even know what is illegal to bring back from Mexico. True story: we were made to discard a small piece of driftwood (which could just as well have landed on a U.S. beach) because it was an "agricultural product." Accordingly, we recommend not bringing any types of food back - particularly fruits, vegetables, flowers or meats. It is illegal to bring meat - even processed meats or canned products containing meat, but usually cheese or baked goods are allowed - go figure. Usually a $200 or $800 duty-free personal exemption applies to stuff you buy and bring back. There is no single place where all of this information is provided on-line, but see the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for what you can bring back and exemptions. Adults may import one liter (33.8 fluid oz.) of alcohol (not Absinthe - that's illegal) each (one small bottle of wine or about 3 beers). If you honestly declare stuff and it is not illegal, you should have no problem. If you get sent to secondary inspection, the officer at the border gate will write a note to the secondary inspection officers explaining of what you are suspected, and will then direct you into secondary inspection. When you drive into secondary inspection, they will x-ray your entire vehicle (with you in it, unless you let an officer drive it through the machine). You may expect searches from both an agriculture department inspector looking for fruit, etc. (usually in your cooler) and a search from border protection officers. They have the right to search everything in your car, INCLUDING any computers you may have, such as laptops (U.S. v. Arnold, 9th Circuit, 2008), so don't get feisty. Also note that you are on camera, so they watch you a while to see how nervous you get before they search you.