Border crossings can be a bit confusing, especially when it comes to this part of the world. Unlike the EU, crossing into another country in the Americas is a process… sometimes a quite lengthy one. As English speakers, who only know survival Spanish, crossing the Belize/Guatemala border added another layer of difficulty with the language barrier.
But that didn’t stop us from renting a car in Belize and making the trek to see the country’s Spanish-speaking neighbor, Guatemala.
Prior to doing so, I scoured the internet looking for information about the process, requirements, and the level of safety.
Is Guatemala Dangerous?
Let’s first address the safety issue because much of what I read online said not to cross into Guatemala unless on a guided tour because you would get run off the road and robbed by machete-wielding bandits.
Of course, every report of this type of violent, frightening occurrence was 5-10 years old. In fact, I couldn’t find any recent information or statistics on tourists becoming victims of a crime in eastern Guatemala, which leads me to believe there haven’t been any major incidents.
So here is our experience… We never felt anything other than completely safe in Guatemala. The roads are well maintained, the border agents and all the other people we encountered at the border were friendly. Even the intimidating, machine gun-carrying military men were nice enough. This is a rural, sparsely populated area of Guatemala. You aren’t going to cross through big cities with gangs and cartels. This area of Guatemala probably has a lower crime rate than your own hometown.
With that said, not all parts of Guatemala are safe, just as not all parts of the United States are safe. I wouldn’t recommend driving around Guatemala City at night, just as I wouldn’t recommend driving around Compton or parts of Detroit or even parts of Dallas at night. But if you are considering crossing the Belize/Guatemala border to visit Tikal, or the city of Flores, I don’t think you will be putting yourself in danger by doing so. If I had the least bit of concern for our safety, I would not have taken our beautiful, innocent toddler across the border. I am a way more cautious traveler now that I am a parent.
If you need more convincing, check out the blog Claire’s Footsteps. She has an excellent write up on staying safe while traveling in Guatemala.
So with that settled, let’s discuss the ins and outs of driving across the Guatemala border.
This is a step-by-step guide on how to cross the Belize/Guatemala border by car and what to expect.
Choose the right rental car agency:
It’s important to note that most rental car agencies in Belize do not allow you to take their vehicles across the Guatemala border. The exception is Crystal. This is the agency we used, and I found them extremely helpful. There is a $25 US fee if you are going to cross the Guatemala border because they have to fill out a bit more paperwork that you will surrender at the border. You can reserve your car and pay online and indicate in advance that you will take the car into Guatemala. They call it a Tikal permit, since most visitors crossing into eastern Guatemala are heading to Tikal. You may also want to read our advice for driving in Belize. Let me say, the reason most companies don’t allow cars across the Guatemala border is not because of safety. It is because Guatemala does not require or recognize car insurance, so in the event you are in an accident you would be responsible for the full cost of repairs. That’s a liability many companies just don’t want to chance.
You’re first stop when arriving at the border will be immigration. You can’t miss it. It’s a well-marked building on your left. Parking is located on your right. Park the car, and go inside the building. Walk up to the counter in the center of the building, where they’ll ask you a couple of questions. The representatives speak both English and Spanish on the Belizean side, so it’s a painless process. They will review your passports and hand them back. Here, you will pay your exit fee. As of 2016, the exit fee was 18.50 US per person. They accept either Belize or US dollars. The exchange rate is 2:1. Two Belize dollars equals one US dollar, so the math is easy. Proceed to the small window in the back of the building to get your passport stamped.
Outside the building, you will also find money changers. These are men who can exchange your currency. We exchanged $100 US dollars for Guatemalan quetzales. The rate is basically 7:1. Seven quetzales equals one US dollar. Of course, you may not get that exact rate from the money changers, but they did give us a decent exchange rate. I’ve heard you can haggle with the men to get a better rate, but I wasn’t going to haggle over a matter of a few dollars, so we accepted the rate they gave us and moved on. You will also find money exchangers on the other side of the Guatemala border. So you can exchange your money in either place.
Your next stop in the process is fumigation. You’ll drive your car through what looks like a giant car wash where they will spray insecticide on it. On the other side of the drive-through stall, you’ll see a small building with a walk-up window. Park your car, go to the window and pay the fumigation fee. This is easy to miss, but don’t! The charge is minimal… about $2.50 US dollars. They’ll give you a receipt that you will need to present later in the process.
After you’ve paid your fumigation fee, leave your car parked and walk across to the immigration building. It is a large, open-air pavilion across the makeshift street from the small fumigation building. The first line you will stand in will say Entrada or Entrance.
Here they will stamp your passport and give you a small piece of paper that you MUST keep and present when exiting the country. I’ve heard there is an “unofficial” entrance charge of 20 quetzales (roughly $2.60) to cross the Guatemala border, but we didn’t have to pay this. Maybe the immigration agents were in a good mood that day. Be prepared to pay it just in case.
Rental car paperwork/payment/inspection
The next step is probably the longest one. After getting your entrance stamp, head directly to your left to turn in your rental car paperwork that the rental car company gave you. They will check the paperwork and passports, walk over to the vehicle to inspect it and check that the VIN number matches, then you will need to pay for a vehicle import permit. They will keep a copy of the paperwork. (The rental car company should have given your two copies, an original and a photocopy.) The vehicle permit costs approximately $21 US dollars or 160 quetzales. You will pay this at a separate window that is on the westernmost wall in the pavilion. After you pay your fee, you take the receipt back once again to the counter where you turned in your paperwork, and the agent will hand you a permit. You will likely have to show this at a military checkpoint down the road, so hold onto it or better yet, affix it to the inside of your window.
Congratulations! You can now officially leave no man’s land and enter Guatemala in your rental car! The process to cross the Guatemala border took us approximately 45 minutes. However, there were hardly any lines while we were there.
No Habla Espanol, and Need Help With the Translating?
There are children who speak very good English at the Guatemala border. They will likely be the first people to greet you after you drive through the fumigation stall. They work for tips and can translate everything for you and guide you through the process. We tipped them $5US, which actually probably saved us about 15 minutes, because the clerk at the window where we paid for our permit worked with the kids and allowed us to cut in line when they saw the children helping us. Do you need them? Probably not, but it was useful. I felt bad for the kids because I hate to see 9-14 year old children forced to work to help feed their families. It just shouldn’t be that way.
I will add that they are definitely more beneficial to you on the arrival into Guatemala then on the exit. The exit process is much easier. You can handle it on your own, even if you don’t speak Spanish.
Drive across the bridge (or don’t)
After you’ve gotten back into your car, there is a large bridge you cross to officially arrive in Guatemala. At the end of the bridge there are military guards who might stop you. They do not stop every car, but if you do happen to get stopped, they will likely ask for your permit then tell you there is a charge of anywhere between 20-50 quetzales ($2.60-$5.00 US) to pass. I’ve heard this is yet another big scam that most people just obligingly pay. Here is a secret we learned from the kids who helped us translate that will save you from having to deal with the military men.
Right before the bridge, make a right turn and then an immediate left. There is a small dirt road that runs adjacent to the bridge. There are little tiendas or outdoor shops along the narrow road. If you take that road instead, it immediately joins up with the highway after the bridge and you will bypass the checkpoint all together. You can see this in the video below.
There might be another military checkpoint later down the road where they did stop us and check our permit. They did not try to charge us to pass at that checkpoint. Here is a complete video guide to the process. You can also view it on our Youtube channel if you prefer.
Re-entering Belize from Guatemala
This process is not near as complicated as crossing the Guatemala border from Belize. When you arrive back at the border, go to the line that says Salida or Exit, hand them your passports and your little piece of paper they gave you when you entered.
You will then get your car sprayed down again. This costs $20 Belizean dollars or $10 US. You will pay that fee at the stall. You then walk into the opposite side of the Belize immigration building and proceed through customs. It’s fairly easy. There is a short form you fill out at the window. If you are not declaring anything that was purchased, they stamp your passports and you can carry on. You’ll drive your car one more time officially crossing back into Belize. A border patrol agent will stop you, ask you a couple of questions, check your passports and wave you through. Welcome back to Belize!