In the U.S. if a policeman gives you a ticket, it is generally a very simple process. They give you the ticket and you can mail in your payment. The state keeps track of you on the computer, so if you do not pay, they will issue a warrant for your arrest. In Mexico it works a bit differently.
In Mexico if they gave you a ticket and just let you go, they would assume you’d never come back to pay it. Based on my experience down there, this is probably a very correct assumption. So to make sure you pay your fine, they will take your license until you come to the station to pay the fine.
Sounds simple enough, but keep in mind if you go to the police station, your license may still be with the policeman who gave you the ticket. This brings us to a discussion about bribes. Most people in the U.S. have heard about bribes in Mexico. In practice, Mexico is doing a very good job of getting rid of corruption in the police force. However there are still some police who may try to get a bribe from you.
Generally if the policeman wants a bribe, they will tell you about how much of a hassle it is going to be for you to go to the police station and how long it is going to take. They will go on for quite awhile about how inconvenient it is going to be and how much trouble you are going to be in. This is code language asking for a bribe. If you don’t want to bribe the police (which is illegal by the way), just insist that they go ahead and take your license to the police station so you can pay your fine.
The police can make things difficult for you by not taking the license to the station until they get off their shift. I’ve heard of people driving through Mexico who had to wait all day without going anywhere because the police were trying to make things difficult because they didn’t pay a bribe. The police chief kept calling the policemen who had the license telling them to come back in, but they didn’t until 9pm when they finished with their shift.
If you do want to pay a bribe (and I’m not suggesting that this is a good idea), you wait until they start telling you how much trouble it is going to be to go to the police station and you ask “Is there anything else we can do?” or better yet “Can I just pay you the fine and get my license now?” This can possibly get you off without temporarily losing your license, but you may end up paying a lot more than the normal amount of the fine. Sometimes you may end up paying just a fraction of what the fine would be.
If you want to try this, make sure you phrase it that you are paying them the fine. If you misunderstand and they really aren’t asking for a bribe, you may be talking to an honest policeman. Offering them a bribe is illegal, so it could get you in more trouble. Offering to pay them the fine directly helps keep you out of trouble.
Sometimes if they are trying to get a bribe, they will tell you that your fine is going to be much higher. If you go to the police station you will be charged the correct amount. In the better police stations, if you mention that you were told the fine would be for a higher amount, it will help them get rid of corrupt policemen.
If you don’t want to deal with paying bribes, but you also don’t want to be stuck all day in a little town waiting for your license to make it to the police station, there are a few things you can do. First of all you can get an international drivers license. You can get these in the U.S. at AAA. They cost around $20 with the photo. Technically they aren’t a legal drivers license without your real license, but you can start out by giving it to the police when they ask for your license instead of your real license.
They might ask to see your real license as well, but there is a pretty good chance that they will just take the international license. You’ll still probably want to get it back and if you have been given a ticket. I don’t suggest trying to get by without paying it. However, if someone is trying to cause trouble, you are much better off giving a copy of a license that you can replace at any AAA than your actual divers license.
I have also heard people suggest making a few laminated color photo copies of your state drivers license. That way if the police lose it or it never makes its way back to the police station, you aren’t stuck in a foreign country without a license.
I believe that your ticket serves as your drivers license if your real license has been taken by the police, but I don’t know how long it is valid.
This information is based on talking to a lot of people who have driven through Mexico and a brief personal encounter with the police. Laws change and any of this information could be outdated by the time you read it.