Freight Shipping Cross-Border To and From Mexico: Your Ultimate Guide

It's safe to say that moving your freight into and out of Mexico over the road boasts its own set of unique challenges. 

To someone who hasn’t done it before, this process can seem complex and, frankly, a little daunting. What do you need to know? Who are the key players? What documents will you need? In this article, we’ll answer these questions so that you have a better grasp on the process of shipping to and from Mexico. 

Here at ATS, we've operated in the transportation industry for over six decades. During this time we’ve seen firsthand how the interconnected nature of our world translates into the landscape of freight transportation. We’ve sent more than 5,000 shipments to/from Mexico over the past year so we know what it takes to do so successfully. 

In this blog, we’ll break down exactly what you need to know starting with what type of service you need, and ending with how to make sure your shipment goes smoothly. At its conclusion, this blog will leave you with a better understanding of this process and each of the options available to you. 

What Type of Cross-Border Shipping Service Do You Need?

The first step on your journey to move freight into and out of Mexico is determining which type of cross-border service your situation requires. In making this decision, you have two service options. 

These services are:

Each of these services comes with a unique set of benefits and deterrents. It’s up to you, and your transportation provider, to select the best option for your business. 

The best providers will be able to evaluate your needs and leverage their experience to determine which service best meets your requirements. 

Semi truck parked in the trailer yard

What is Through-Trailer Service?

Through-trailer service moves your freight across the border and leaves it resting on the same trailer it was originally loaded on. Although cargo is still inspected and — in some cases — partially removed, this can be an excellent way to make sure that your freight doesn’t get damaged in the loading/unloading process of transload border services. 

Through-trailer service — and any cross-border service — is an exercise in communication and trust between parties. 

Often, with this service, your freight — although attached to the same trailer — isn’t hauled by the same driver. In actuality, there can be as many as three different drivers for your freight while it’s internationally transported.

Each of these drivers haul your freight for a specific stretch of its journey and are broken down as follows:

U.S.-Based Driver

The driver that began your freight’s transport and is employed by a carrier in the United States. This driver is only responsible for your freight up until it is placed in the hands of the crossing driver. 

Crossing Driver

These drivers are commonly tasked with getting your freight through customs and across the border. These drivers are well versed in the inner workings of the border-crossing process and are an integral piece of through-trailer service.   

Mexico-Based Driver

This driver is employed by the forwarding partner of your U.S.-based provider. It’s this driver’s job to receive your load from the crossing driver (often at a secure trailer yard near the border) and transport it safely to its final destination. 

Because each of these drivers undertakes a separate section of a shipment’s journey, having a competent method of central oversight is important. This is where having a good transportation partner with a demonstrated history of success comes in handy. 

When to Use Through-Trailer Service For Your Freight

Through-trailer service is best utilized when you have cargo that is either over-dimensional or if you have high-value cargo that you don’t want transloaded multiple times

Note, through-trailer service locks you into using only those drivers/carriers that have an interchange agreement — a contract allowing a trailer to change hands from one driver to another — between the U.S. and Mexico. This severely limits your shipment capabilities when compared to the versatility you get with its transloading counterpart.

As such, it can be difficult to find through-service capacity for your shipment — especially for more remote locations — on the Mexican side of the border when using this method for shipping your freight. 

If your freight needs to be moved with urgency to an easily accessible location within Mexico, through-trailer service is the way to go since the half/full day delay for transloading service is avoided


What is Transload Service?

Your second option in transporting your freight to/from Mexico is transload service (also commonly called cross-docking service). When using this type of cross-border service, your freight is transferred from one trailer to another after crossing the border. This is typically done in a secure trailer facility near the border which is dedicated to the transloading process.

Like through-trailer service, transload service is a collaborative effort forged between multiple parties: e.g., the Mexico-based driver, the border-crossing driver and the U.S.-based driver. 

For example:

If you need to move your freight from Phoenix, Ariz., to Mexico City, your freight will begin its journey on a trailer owned by a U.S.-based carrier. Near the border, your freight will be transported to a secure trailer facility. Once there, your cargo is shifted onto the trailer of the Mexico-based carrier partner of your transportation provider. This is the final resting place, the sweet sanctuary where your freight will be transported the rest of the way across the border and to its final destination

Note, this process is reversed if you need freight transportation services from Mexico to the U.S.

When to Use Transload Service For Your Freight

By transloading your freight, you are opening yourself up to a broader carrier network supplied by your provider's Mexico-based partner. As such, transloading gives you greater flexibility in both finances and timing. 

Often — when working with a smaller trucking company — your freight will be transloaded simply because your partner doesn’t have a large enough pool of trailers to make through-trailer service feasible for their business model. In these instances, the flexibility of trailer capacity transloading provides great value to both the shipper and carrier. 

That said, transloading is a great service for any pallet-based, easily unloadable freight that would be underserved by the rigidity of options presented by through-trailer service. Anytime you need to move freight to more remote sections of Mexico, transloading your freight onto the bed of a Mexico-based trailer is the best way to ensure its successful transit. 

Understand the differences and capabilities of Through-Trailer Service and Transloading (Cross-Docking) Service by downloading this free infographic!

Click here to download as a PDF.

The Role of Customs Brokers

Customs brokers — employed by the shipper— are charged with the responsibility of getting your shipment over the border per all governmental rules and regulations. This includes filling out any necessary paperwork and communicating with parties on both sides of the border.

As such, a customs broker is an integral piece in getting your shipment across the border safely and efficiently. All customs brokers need to be certified for adequacy by the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection before they can legally work with any shipper. 

Luckily for you, a reliable transportation provider with a demonstrated history of successful international transit will already have, and utilize, a certified customs broker they trust.

Although it’s the shipper’s duty to develop a partnership with the customs broker of their choosing, for those more inexperienced cross-border shippers, having a trusted U.S.-based provider can help with this. 

Another great place to begin your search for a customs broker is to look at the “find a broker” page on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) website. 

Oversized shipment in transloading yard

Documentation Needed

When shipping to Mexico, there are quite a few required documents that you will need to have to prepare your freight for successful transit. Although for the most part these documents will be arranged by your freight brokerage and the customs broker of their choosing, here is a list of the documents for you to reference:

Before you reach the border:

At the border:

  • DODA (customs clearance operations document)
  • Canceled Bond
  • Cargo Manifest

In Mexico:

  • Carta Porte 
  • Carta Porte signed by the receiver (to signify receipt)

Note: having these documents in order is not your responsibility alone. This is why having an experienced partner, with experienced partners, is important. Nothing is more disruptive to your shipping timelines than hangups at the border due to inadequate documentation and preparation. 

How to Make Sure Your Shipment to Mexico Goes Smoothly

To promote the successful transit of your freight into and out of Mexico, nothing is more important than finding a stable, experienced transportation partner who you trust. 

Let’s be honest, shipping freight internationally can be intimidating. For this reason, you should partner with a company that has the working knowledge and demonstrated history to get the job done. 

Communicate your shipping needs ahead of time (2-3 days) so that your provider has ample time to get all the pieces in place for your freight’s transit.   

Additionally, cargo coverage is important to understand when shipping freight across the border. Your cargo's coverage level will not follow it into Mexico, so you'll want to plan accordingly. 

For more information on how ATS can help you safely and efficiently move your cargo into and out of Mexico, request a quote

At the end of the day, we just want you to feel confident in the choices you make for your freight’s transport. That said, please reach out to us with any questions you may have. 

Tags: International Shipping, Transportation Solutions, International Shipping Documentation, Customs Clearance, Freight Brokerage

Jerry Ramirez

Written by Jerry Ramirez

Jerry joined ATS in 2003 and has served in various roles over the years, including time as a customer service manager in ATS’ Vans division. Now as an operations manager with ATS Logistics, Jerry works to develop employees and grow relationships with customers, focusing primarily on the specialized and heavy haul side of the business.

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