This Small Mistake Almost Landed Me in a Mexican Jail, Now I Always Read the Fine Print

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INSIDER SECRET:  Before you travel out of the country be sure you understand the visa requirements not only for getting into the country, but also for while you are in the country.

Visiting friends is one of my favorite reasons to travel. There’s nothing like having a local to stay with and show you around. Even a nice AirBnb doesn’t compare.

My first trip to Mexico was to visit a former co-worker living in Mexico City. The food was great and the people were friendly. But it was the fine print on my visa that got me.

When you’re in Mexico you should be enjoying the beaches, not worrying about the fine print on your visa

The Advantage of Having a Local on Your Side!

Travel can be a stressful experience, especially when you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the culture.  For those reasons, Mexico City was never on my bucket list. But I’m a frugal guy (some might say, miser). So I had developed a habit of visiting places where I could stay for free, and that meant staying with friends!

So I decided to visit a friend, Jorge. He made it easier to stay off the beaten path and avoid the crowds. I didn’t have to rely on online reviews to find the best restaurants. And Jorge negotiated deals for me at the markets I would never have gotten as a tourist!

This Is The One Thing All Travelers Need More Of
Knowing a local who knew the language & culture helped me get a sweet deal on this belt buckle with my first initial on It

After seeing the sites of Mexico City, we decided to relax on the beach.  So we booked bus tickets to Acapulco.

After a few days in the sun, we were on our way back to Jorge’s place when the bus was stopped at a checkpoint where immigration officials reviewed everyone’s paperwork to ensure we were in the country legally.

Always Read the Fine Print

At the time I was traveling to Mexico, US Citizens were given a 6-month tourist visa upon arrival. What I hadn’t realized was that you were required to carry the visa with you at all times!

When we left for Acapulco, I took a copy of my passport with me, but left my official passport and visa at Jorge’s house. I figured I wouldn’t I need it. And I know how absent-minded I can be, and didn’t want to lose it.

This Is The One Thing All Travelers Need More Of
Acapulco Is Home to Beautiful Sunsets and Friendly Immigration Officers

I was removed from the bus with another guy – a Canadian citizen with even less documentation than me. We were put into a van with half a dozen officers armed with assault rifles. I asked their translator if I would be able to leave if I could get my visa faxed over.  He shrugged his shoulders and let me know it was “up to his boss to decide.”

At this point, I thought I might be on the verge of drowning in a sea of bureaucracy. You can’t pay for this kind of experience!

My Friend’s Family Came to the Rescue

Surprisingly, it only took me ~8 hours to get back on the road! Jorge’s family was quick to fax my visa over. Then I signed some papers, written in Spanish, that I was told authorized my release.

I was on my way. But the Canadian guy who got taken in with me was definitely spending the night. He had been living in Mexico, working remotely, and stayed well beyond his visa’s expiration, didn’t have his passport, and to top it all off the Canadian Embassy was closed for a holiday.

Skipping the fine print isn’t as bad as completely ignoring all the rules and hoping you don’t get caught.

Later on, I found out that Jorge had spent most of his afternoon trying to bribe (unsuccessfully) an immigration officer to release me.  Did I mention the value of having friends who care?

Traveling usually involves some level of uncertainty.  But I’ve found that knowing a local can be invaluable.

What has your experience been with government bureaucracy abroad?

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Kelly
5 months ago

Hi Jason thank you for this great story. I’m a Canadian here in Mexico for vacation (just got here a few weeks ago) and just had the same thing happen to me yesterday, was walking around and got stopped by immigration and asked for my passport, I said I left it at the place I’m staying and they said we’re detaining you… I spent 6 hours dealing with it, family member had to bring my passport to the detention center and they finally let me go. Big lesson learned for me: Always carry my passport and migration card in Mexico. But the question I have for you is: After they let you go, did you have any other problems? or any problems leaving the country? Did they see something on your “file” about the incident?

Erika
6 months ago

I just got back from Mexico and travelled between states there without my passport on me. Going in, the federales tried giving me a fine for $3000 pesos. I knew it was BS tho, so I said I didn’t have it. He then tried to confiscate my drivers license and write me a ticket for $4000 pesos that I would have to drive to a town 4 hours away to pay in order to get my license back. Still, not my 1st time in Mexico, so I called BS again. After a long exchange of threats and such, he finally let me go for $500 pesos. No ticket. It went right in his pocket. Upon return, same hassle, but this time the car was thoroughly searched while we were detained. More threats, and then we were finally let go. I’ve been traveling throughout Mexico for 10 years and never had anything like this happen before. I 100% blame Trump for them being so viscous to Americans now! Build a wall and make them pay for it… thanks A-hole! You just ruined my favorite vacation destination for me!

John Smith
1 year ago

So, Mexico enforces its own immigration laws but the US can’t or shouldn’t? How does that make sense? Mexican officials are being blatantly hypocritical when they routinely criticize the US for merely enforcing its immigration laws.

Ren
Reply to  John Smith
1 year ago

Because this is the United States of America, land of the free. We don’t have federal agents boarding buses and asking for papers. We’re different.

YoLaViajera
1 year ago

A little more context would have been helpful for people to to understand why Mexican officials would stop a local bus and check for passengers’ legal status, which is not a very common occurrence. Right now, there’s a Central American humanitarian crisis happening. Records numbers of Central American migrants are fleeing extreme drug violence and poverty in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. As they migrate north by whatever means necessary (walking, buses, etc.), they’re crossing the entire length of Mexico to reach the U.S. border. Therefore, Mexican authorities are conducting more searches than usual. So, yeah, bring your passport everywhere…

Talchinsky
1 year ago

The US requires the same of its legal residents (and probably tourists too…?); but they don’t require the same of it’s citizens. It makes no sense and it ends up being rather racist. Only people who look and sound different are asked to present documentation. And a lack of documentation is usually interpreted as a person being undocumented (and then they go to jail or are deported). There are many cases of US citizens (usually ones with foreign accents) being deported because they weren’t carrying their documentation with them – the documentation that they were not required to carry because they were US citizens! I think everyone should be required to carry documents at all times or nobody.

Andrew Wan
Reply to  Talchinsky
1 year ago

Interesting point you bring up. I’d think that most people would at least have their state driver’s license when they leave the house which would prove legal residency (but correct me if I’m wrong here: I just figured you have to provide proof of residency to get a state driver’s license).

Talchinsky
Reply to  Andrew Wan
1 year ago

Yes, I’d agree that most people carry their drivers license with them. But, it’s not a federal document, it doesn’t always prove residency (depending on the State it was issued in), not everyone has a driver’s license, and again, we are not legally required to have a driver’s license or to carry one with us at all times. My friend’s grandfather was deported to Mexico when he was 12 because he didn’t speak English or have any documents on him! He was a US citizen born in US though.

vdude83
Reply to  Talchinsky
1 year ago

how could they deport him since he was born in the USA and has no citizenship status with the other countries? Unless, and i have know someone with this experience, that they have a non-reported secondary citizenship, then committed a crime in the US, then th US citizenship could potentially be revoked and deportation is possible.

Andrew Wan
Reply to  Talchinsky
1 year ago

Ugh, I’m sorry to hear about that deportation. That seriously sounds awful.

I really don’t know about the legalities of this stuff, so thanks for weighing in.

Boonie
1 year ago

I’m surprised they didn’t take the bribe. Jorge is a lifetime friend!

Mark jones
1 year ago

What Visa do you get entering Mexico besides the stamp on your passport and the litter piece of paper that you turn in upon leaving Mexico?

Stanley
Reply to  Jason Stauffer
1 year ago

I think you’re supposed to keep the COPY somewhere safe so you can get a replacement more easily. A copy is worthless for any other purpose!

So, you should have left the COPY at Jorge’s!!

The original has all sorts of security features.

Mark
1 year ago

Interesting story…I’m surprised Mexico has such strict laws on undocumented visitors!

Stanley
Reply to  Mark
1 year ago

You think Mexico is strict, try RUSSIA!!!

Andrew Wan
Reply to  Mark
1 year ago

Yep, surprised me too. Good lesson for anyone looking to travel to Mexico!

Sri
1 year ago

thats no fine print, thats common sense (when travelling far away from one spot).

Andrew Wan
Reply to  Sri
1 year ago

Life happens, things get hectic, sometimes we overlook things, etc etc.

I could see myself totally making the same mistake and only carrying a copy of my passport with me, rather than the original.

Stanley
Reply to  Andrew Wan
1 year ago

How can you overlook the law in virtually every other country? It’s not a mistake to forget your passport and visa.

Would you leave your credit card behind and try to use a copy?

How about a copy of currency?

clyn6
Reply to  Sri
1 year ago

I am glad you posted this story! I thought I only needed the documents when I exited the country. That is going to be a real hassle to carry that stuff around. When I go on an excursion there is usually no where to secure your stuff so I bring very little. Sounds like I am going to need to buy a waterproof case big enough for the passport and wear it around my neck when I leave for excursions. I have a waterproof Cali case for my cell phone, with just enough room for a credit card and a little cash. Crud, not happy to hear this. But I sure as heck do not want to be hauled off to a Mexican jail! Yikes! I wonder if they are much less likely to stop you if your are with a tour group or in a main tourist area like the Cancun hotel zone. I have taken the public bus to a snorkel excursion while in Cancun. I had my drivers license in my Cali case for my cell phone, but never dreamed I would need the tourist visa card. I like the idea of carrying a printed copy of the passport. I usually do have a copy that I keep in my carry on bag. I wonder if I had a photo on my cell phone of the visitor visa card if that would be acceptable. Maybe I will try that…

Stanley
Reply to  clyn6
1 year ago

Gamble at your own risk.