Baja California also goes by the name of Baja California Norte Estado, meaning 'state.' And, despite its name implying that it's part of California, it's actually a Mexican state that only shares a border with the U.S. and its southern state, Baja California Sur, both of which make up the Baja California Peninsula. The northern half of the peninsula is known for Tijuana and its capital, Mexicali, and isn't nearly as densely inhabited as the rest of the country. However, it still remains a popular tourist destination thanks to its easy driving access from California - but this doesn't mean crossing the border is that simple.
Since the border does involve two countries, travelers who are interested in a getaway to any of Baja California's destinations must abide by laws on either side. What makes things slightly more confusing is that each country has its own laws for citizens, which means crossing the border to Baja will be a different experience than it is coming back.
Yes, You Do Need A Passport
As of June 1, 2009, the U.S. government requires all parties traveling back into the U.S. from (anywhere in) Mexico to have a passport. The easiest and more surefire thing to do is to apply for one; however, if you're crunched for time or just want an alternative, these things are also accepted at the border crossing: a passport card, an enhanced ID, SENTRI Pass, NEXUS, or FAST pass.
While these things are accepted, there's no telling how long visitors will remain at the crossing answering questions or whether or not they'll be asked to provide further proof of citizenship - so, when in doubt, just apply for a passport.
Can You Drive Your Own Car In Baja?
Another reason that a Baja California vacation is convenient for those who live in the southern half of California or the western part of Arizona is that they can take their own car. Luckily, licenses in the U.S. are also recognized in Mexico so there's no need to do any extra work prior to a road trip. However, there is a catch - those who are driving in Mexico, under no circumstances, should be without Mexican auto insurance. The penalty for not having this prior to crossing the border can even be jail time, and this is a strict law that Mexico requires in order for travelers to prove they're financially responsible for any accidents that happen within the country.
Any U.S. car insurance won't apply under Mexico's laws, even if one's travel insurance specifically states they're covered up to a certain number of miles after entering the country. Simply put, Mexico does not recognize auto insurance policies that are from other countries. If nothing else, those who plan on driving in Mexico must have liability-only insurance at the very minimum. For those who are planning to take a rental car, this makes things slightly easier since insurance can be arranged through the car rental company if the rental company permits usage outside of the U.S.
What Is A Tourist Permit?
This may seem like a lot of work but, in reality, it's no more work than if one was going to travel to any other country. Travelers heading to Mexico must obtain a tourist permit, which, as the name implies, permits them to be tourists in the country of Mexico. The permit in question is an FMM Tourist Permit, which stands for Forma Migratoria Multiple, and this is required for anyone entering Baja who's not a citizen of Mexico. In order to get this, there's a bit of a catch-22 - because a passport or passport card is required. Prior to September 2015, these tourist permits were only required for people who would be in Baja for less than 72 hours and were going no more than 20 kilometers out of range but now, it's required regardless of distance or vacation length.
There's good news, though - for those who are driving to Baja and are planning a vacation that's less than a week-long, this document can be obtained at the border crossing for free. Those who are planning a vacation that's longer than eight days will need to obtain a pain FMM Tourist Permit. The easiest way to do this is to go through the Discover Baja website and pay the $38 fee to obtain the permit, fill out the application, and then simply wait. When the permit comes back, it must then be stamped at the Mexico border crossing on the way into the country.