We've reached a tipping point in Baja tourism; people have finally started to discover that Baja is there, it's safe, and it's chock full of things to do. Unfortunately, this means that the lines to cross back are longer than ever. People over at Baja Nomad have reported four-, five- and even six-hour crossing times as CBP works feverishly to add more capacity to the world's busiest border checkpoint and as the U.S. issues heightened security directives due to people who want to blow us up.
It will get better, and soon; the ongoing project, which also involved moving the Mexico-bound checkpoint a third of a mile to the west, will result in a maximum capacity of 64 cars at a time at San Ysidro when they're done, but unfortunately during construction, the lines just keep getting longer and longer. It's the sort of thing that could cause even the hardiest Baja traveler to stay NOB (that's North of the Border).
This week, Tijuana Sí! is going to take a break from food and drink coverage and talk about how to get across the border in the most expeditious way possible. This information was correct and current as of the date of publication, but there's construction everywhere and they have switched which side the Ready Lanes are on more than once. That is to say, your mileage--or kilometrage--may vary.
PREDICTING YOUR TIME
Customs and Border Patrol updates the estimated border wait times on their website once an hour. My experience has been that once the wait ticks over the 2-hour mark, it tends to be a half-hour off. Telnor has a site with live-streaming cameras, but no wait times. Here are the mobile sites:
San Ysidro: http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/portList.asp?action=port&n=250401 Otay Mesa: http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/portList.asp?action=port&n=250601 Tecate: http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/portList.asp?action=port&n=250501 Calexico West: http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/portList.asp?action=port&n=250302 Calexico East: http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/portList.asp?action=port&n=250301 Telnor: http://www.telnor.com/betagaritas
If you don't have mobile data roaming in Mexico or don't want to use it, you can call an automated line at each border crossing. Data is updated once an hour (usually) and is given first in English, then in Spanish. The Calexico recording is done with a computer and is very hard to understand with any but the highest quality cell signal.
San Ysidro: +1 (619) 690-8999 Otay Mesa: +1 (619) 671-8999 Tecate: +1 (619) 938-8300, press 1, then press 1 Calexico (both crossings): +1 (760) 768-2383
In addition, Telnor has Spanish-only recordings that tend to be updated a little more frequently. It's extremely rapid Spanish and the audio can be fritzy, so only call if you speak Spanish fluently. There's no recording for Tecate.
Tijuana (both crossings): +52 (664) 700-7000 Mexicali (both crossings): +52 (686) 700-7000
Note that driving time from the San Ysidro line to the Otay Mesa line is 20-30 minutes; from the San Ysidro line to Tecate is nearly an hour; from Otay Mesa to Tecate is about 30 minutes. Driving time between Calexico West and Calexico East is about 15 minutes.
SAN YSIDRO READY LANES
If you have an RFID card--a passport card, a resident alien (green) card, a border crosser's card (or laser visa), an enhanced driver's license from Washington, Michigan, New York or Vermont (with a flag on it), or any kind of trusted traveler card (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST), you can use the Ready Lanes, which are much quicker; you flash your card at the sign that says "POINT CARD HERE", and by the time you get to the booth, the CBP officer has all of your information. It doesn't sound like it would save much time, but waits are rarely more than two hours for the Ready Lane.
If all you have is a passport book--even one with the little RFID symbol on it--you can't use Ready Lane.
To get to the Ready Lane from downtown Tijuana, head south on Revolución and make a left on 10th/Juan Sarabia, which will change names to Ave. Independencia at the first traffic circle. At the third traffic circle, which features a statue of a man holding a feather pen, make a left (go three quarters of the way around), then follow signs for the Ready Lane. OTAY MESA OR TECATE?
Even at the worst, busiest times, waits at Otay Mesa rarely exceed two hours. Compare that to four hours on a Sunday afternoon at San Ysidro and you'll see it's worth the slog through Tijuana's burgeoning suburbs to Otay Mesa.
Otay Mesa is about eight miles east of the main San Ysidro crossing in Nueva Tijuana; Tecate is about 30 miles east of the San Ysidro crossing and requires you to come back on California Highway 94, which is a non-freeway highway that goes through the mountains. You'll hear old-time Baja veterans talk about the ease of crossing at Tecate; it used to be a hidden secret. Now, on weekends, wait times are usually about two hours because there are only two booths at Tecate.
If you have a SENTRI card and your car is registered, you know you're good to go through the SENTRI line as long as you're not towing anything and don't have an unreasonable amount of stuff, the idea being that they don't need to sift through your crap to see that you're telling the truth about what you're bringing back.
What most people don't know, though, is that Global Entry and NEXUS (the global and Canadian trusted traveler programs) participants can ride as passengers in SENTRI lanes, and can use the SENTRI pedestrian crossings at each border checkpoint. So if you can use the automated kiosks when you fly in from abroad and you're with a SENTRI cardholder, you don't have to get out and walk across.
GETTING TO OTAY MESA
Take either the toll road or the free road to just south of Rosarito (near Fox Baja and Popotla) and get off on Corredor 2000 (there's a 25 peso or $2.25 toll if you're on the toll road). It's 25 miles into eastern Tijuana, which will gradually look more and more developed. Be careful of people running across the road! Follow specific directions below.
FROM DOWNTOWN TIJUANA
Get on the Vía Rápida Poniente and head south. Exit for San Diego / Garita de Otay and loop around onto Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas. Following signs for GARITA DE OTAY will lead you onto the Ready Lane directions below; if you have a regular passport book, just keep to the right once you turn at El Negro Durazo and you'll end up in the correct lanes. GENERAL LANES Passport books (with or without the RFID chip)
Once you exit Blvd. 2000, you'll be on Blvd. Industrial headed into eastern Tijuana. It'll start off quite empty and desert-like and gradually turn into a congested boulevard. You'll be on this road for 5 miles.
You'll go underneath a passenger bridge with a Panasonic advertisement on it, and start to see signs. You'll then turn right at a sign for "GARITA DE OTAY / VEHÍCULOS LÍGEROS" and make your way along Blvd. de los Aztecas to the border.
READY LANE Passport cards, green cards, Global Entry cards, and Laser Visas/border crosser cards.
Continue along Blvd. Industrial (called Blvd. Padilla on Google Maps) toward AEROPUERTO / C. CAMIONERA. Follow signs for the airport; you'll exit right onto Vía de la Juventud Oriente. As you continue toward the border, you'll see a sign that says SAN DIEGO. El Negro Durazo, a popular seafood restaurant, will be on your right. Turn right onto Alejandro Humboldt, and then it will curve left and turn into the left lanes of Blvd. de los Aztecas. Keep left.
SENTRI SENTRI-registered cars only; each passenger in the car must have a SENTRI, NEXUS or Global Entry card.
After you go under the Panasonic advertisement bridge, you'll see a sign for BLVD. BELLAS ARTES / ZONA INDUSTRIAL. Turn right at the next light (onto Alfonso Vidal Planas), then turn left at the second light onto Bellas Artes. You'll go a little ways and you'll see an overpass in front of you with a red-signed car wash. You want to turn into the road just before the car wash (it will look like you're turning onto the wrong side of a divided highway--you're not). There's a SENTRI sign above the roadway. You'll be separated from the standard lanes.
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Do not drop off passengers (and their belongings) while in line; if a CBP officer sees you do it, they can confiscate your SENTRI card and kick you out of the program.
ONCE YOU CROSS
Once you cross to the U.S., you'll be on the 905 freeway; the 805 freeway is 5 miles away and the 5 freeway is 8 miles away, on a brand-new, empty freeway.