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Every tourist must have an easily obtainable Mexican-government tourist card. Some nationalities also need to obtain visas. Because the regulations sometimes change, it’s wise to confirm them with a Mexican embassy or consulate before you go. The websites of some Mexican consulates, including the London consulate (portal.sre.gob.mx/conreinounido) and the Los Angeles consulate (www.sre.gob.mx/losangeles) give useful information on visas and similar matters. The rules are also summarized on the website of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM, National Migration Institute; www.inami.gob.mx).

Citizens of the US, Canada, EU countries, Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Norway and Switzerland are among those who do not need visas to enter Mexico as tourists. The list changes sometimes; check well ahead of travel with your local Mexican embassy or consulate. Visa procedures, for those who need them, can take several weeks and you may be required to apply in your country of residence or citizenship.

Non-US citizens passing (even in transit) through the US on the way to or from Mexico, or visiting Mexico from the US, should also check the passport and visa requirements for the US.

Tourist card & tourist fee

The Mexican tourist card – officially the forma migratoria para turista (FMT) – is a brief card document that you must fill out and get stamped by Mexican immigration when you enter Mexico, and keep till you leave. It’s available at official border crossings, international airports and ports, and often from airlines, travel agencies and Mexican consulates.

At the US–Mexico border you won’t usually be given one automatically – you have to ask for it. And at many crossings here you don’t have to get the card stamped at the actual border, as the INM has control points on the highways into the interior where it’s also possible to do it. But it’s preferable to get it done at the border itself, in case there are complications elsewhere.

One section of the card deals with the length of your stay in Mexico, and this section is filled out by the immigration officer. The maximum possible is 180 days, but immigration officers sometimes put a lower number (as little as 15 or 30 days in some cases) unless you tell them specifically what you need. It’s advisable to ask for more days than you think you’ll need, in case you are delayed or change your plans.

Though the tourist card itself is free of charge, it brings with it the obligation to pay the tourist fee of US$22, called the derecho para no inmigrante (DNI, nonimmigrant fee). The exact amount of the fee in pesos fluctuates with exchange rates. If you enter Mexico by air, the fee is included in your airfare. If you enter by land, you must pay the fee at a bank in Mexico at any time before you reenter the frontier zone on your way out of Mexico (or before you check in at an airport to fly out of Mexico). The frontier zone is the ­territory between the border itself and the INM’s control points on the highways leading into the Mexican interior (usually 20km to 30km from the border). Most Mexican border posts have on-the-spot bank offices where you can pay the DNI fee immediately. When you pay at a bank, your tourist card will be stamped to prove that you have paid.

Look after your tourist card because it may be checked when you leave the country. You can be fined for not having it.

Tourist cards (and fees) are not necessary for visits shorter than 72 hours within the frontier zones along Mexico’s northern and southern borders, but be sure to confirm ­details when you cross the border.

A tourist card only permits you to engage in what are considered to be tourist activities (including sports, health, artistic and cultural activities). If the purpose of your visit is to work (even as a volunteer), report or study, or to participate in humanitarian aid or human-rights observation, you may well need a visa. If you’re unsure, check with a Mexican ­embassy or consulate.