Living or visiting San Diego has many advantages. The weather, food, and people (of course) are world class. But another great aspect of San Diego is its close proximity to Mexico and in particular, Tijuana. Getting to/from Mexico used to be much simpler back in the day when you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border. However, times and policies have changed so it was about time I went down to see what the process is now.
Walking across the border from San Diego to Tijuana is incredibly simple and takes minutes. Once you’re in Mexico, you’ll be able to just follow the signs to get around and walking back to the US is an even simpler process (especially if you have Sentri or Global Entry).
San Ysidro Border
San Ysidro is a border community that is the right on the US/Mexico border. It’s literally the last exit off the 5 freeway before you drive into Mexico. Know that the 805 and the 5 freeway merge into the same freeway there so it doesn’t matter which freeway you take as long as you’re going south. The last exit is Camino de la Plaza but if you get confused, you can keep an eye out for the outlet mall in San Ysidro that is off the same freeway exit.
San Ysidro is the common land crossing you’ll encounter. There is another crossing at Otay Mesa which is about 15 minutes east of San Ysidro. Although that crossing could be faster, it’s also further from the downtown area of Tijuana so the average tourist or visitor won’t have much need to go through that crossing.
Once you exit the freeway, you’ll want to find a place to park. There are tons of parking lots near the border and prices will range depending on the day and distance from the border. I parked at Border Station Parking (you can find the link HERE) and it’s right off the Camino de la Plaza exit. When you exit the freeway, you’ll make a right onto Camino de la Plaza and then an immediate right against since the lot borders the freeway exit and Camino de la Plaza. The parking was $18 for 10 hours on Fridays thru Sundays.
You’ll use your credit card to get into the lot and it’ll act as your ticket to make sure you remember which card you use to access the lot. From the lot, you’ll walk across the street and as you start to walk across the bridge, you’ll see a pedestrian bridge. Take that down and it’ll spit you out right next to the San Ysidro trolley stop.
If you don’t want to drive, you can also take the trolley Blue Line all the way down until the end of the line at the San Ysidro trolley stop. Depending on where you get on, you may have to switch lines but considering the trolley map isn’t that extensive, it’s really simple to navigate. From downtown San Diego, the trolley will take about 45 mins to get to the border. The only drawbacks are that it does take a while to get to the border with all the stops and you’ll have to make sure you know when you intend to come back across since the trolley stops running around 1am.
If you park elsewhere and you’re on the other side of the freeway, you can just follow the trolley tracks or just look for the giant McDonalds. It’ll pretty much be the last thing you see before you start walking toward the Mexican border.
Walking across the border is simple and I believe the agents there are so used to day trippers that I wasn’t even asked to fill out an immigration form or anything. I’ve heard that’s not the normal operating procedure so I don’t know what was going on. I just presented my passport and was asked where I was going. From there, my passport wasn’t even stamped and I just walked on through. If you have a backpack or anything, it’ll have to go through x ray machine but if not, you can keep right on walking.
As you walk out of the secure area, you’ll be surrounded by “taxi” drivers or certainly people offering you to drive you. Also at the very end, you’ll see a row of green and white taxis all calling out to you to give you a ride. Just ignore them. Actually, as you walk out of the secure area, walk to your right. You’ll cross a bridge and as you cross, you’ll see the car lanes to get back into the US. When you’re ready to cross back across, you’ll cross back at that spot to walk back so just keep that in mind. Once you walk over the bridge, you can find a less busy corner to grab an Uber.
Most of the touristy parts of TJ are really close to the border so it really shouldn’t cost that much. I took an Uber a number of times and none of the trips cost me over $80 pesos (about $4 USD). If you really wanted, you don’t really have to rely on Uber too much because everything is so close to each other that it is walkable but if the Uber is that cheap, I really didn’t feel the need to skimp on the ride.
Getting back across
Once you’ve had your fill of Tijuana, it’s time to head back across the border. When looking for a drop off point on Uber, I typed in Linea Sentri San Ysidro and it came up. Any driver should know exactly where you’re headed and there’s even a separate drop off point that Ubers and taxis will take you (it’s a point as far as they can go without getting caught in the major line of cars driving across).
As you walk toward the border, you’ll see the massive number of car lanes to your left who are in line to drive across the border and a row of shops on your right who are trying to get the last bits of pesos from you before you leave. At the end of the walkway is a gate/fence where you’ll just have to flash your passport, global entry card, etc. to pass.
You’ll then walk down a massive corridor with signs on pointing you the right line. If you have Sentri, you’ll see the sign down the right side while everyone else will be in line to the left. From there, you’ll have to go through immigration as if you were at an airport and present your passport or Sentri/Global Entry Card.
Remember that this is a land crossing so just because you have Global Entry does not mean you can automatically use the Sentri lane. You need to present your Global Entry CARD to the officer so they can swipe it into the system. If you don’t have the card with you, you won’t be able to use the Sentri line and will have to use the same line as everyone else. Unlike an airport crossing where Global Entry members can use the kiosk to get through, land crossings require you to have your card so make sure you to bring that with you if you don’t want to wait in line.
One thing to note. The crossing will probably take seconds (and you may even be the only person) depending on the time you cross back. Speaking to the border agent, he said the busiest time for the crossing is around 6am which makes sense since that’s when everyone who as in TJ to drink and party would be headed back home and across. So, depending on when you expect to come back across, you may be in for a long wait at the border.
Getting to Tijuana from San Diego is really simple and if you have the time when visiting, you might want to really consider. Even if you don’t have a car, as long as you can get to a trolley stop, you’ll have an easy (though time consuming) way of getting to the border. However, if you just want to go to walk around, get some street tacos, and do some quick shopping, this is an easy way to do it. I honestly can’t think of an easier border to cross where immigration checks are conducted. Just know that like any touristy town, if you do decide to remain in the touristy areas of Tijuana, you’ll pay the touristy prices so you’ll want to deviate a little off the main drag. However, go for the day and check out the town. The street tacos and the TJ hotdogs are worth the time for a trip south.