Recently the 100 ACRE FILMS team did a shoot in Mexicali, Mexico. Before going down, we asked a lot of questions about taking our video gear down across the border. What we found was a lot of different opinions – some saying we didn’t need to do anything, some saying we needed to get an ATA Carnet form, and others saying we just needed a homemade list of all our gear with serial numbers to show the border folks. What was the right thing to do? Well, honestly – we’re not sure. If you need to take your video gear down to Mexico, just keep our story in mind.
First, let’s go over a few things. To begin with, the US State Department’s website states the following about traveling to Mexico:
Personal Effects: Tourists are allowed to bring in personal effects duty-free. Per Mexican customs regulations, in addition to clothing, personal effects may include one camera…Tourists carrying such items, even if duty-free, should enter the “Merchandise to Declare” lane at the first customs checkpoint. Travelers should be prepared to pay any assessed duty on items in excess of these allowances. Failure to declare personal effects may result in the seizure of the items, plus the seizure of any vehicle in which the goods were transported for attempted smuggling. Recovery of a seized vehicle may involve payment of a substantial fine and attorney’s fees.
So, with that in mind, what should we do with one camera, tripod, 3 LED lights with stands, small monitor, cart, and cabling? Also, we’re not really tourists, so I don’t know if that really applies to our situation.
The next option was to purchase an ATA Carnet. Never heard of it? Well, you should. Basically, you pay a company to create a list of all the gear you’re taking across the border, then have both US and Mexico Customs sign off on it when crossing, and all should be well. We contacted Boomerang Carnets, created our list of 33 items, and sent it off to them. The next day they called and confirmed everything, and within 24 hours they had issued our Carnet form.
We should be all set, right? Riiiiiight.
We got to the Mexicali border crossing and met our Mexican contact on the US side. I told him that we’d need to stop at the US Customs office before heading across. He didn’t think that was necessary, but according to the Carnet form it is. When we got there, the agents made us wait for about 30 minutes while they sorted things out on their end. Then they wanted to see our gear, and the agent randomly selected things off our list to check. They then took us back inside and gave us a scare. He mentioned that to go across, the Mexican Customs would demand a Pedimento. What’s that you ask? We didn’t know either. It’s a form that Mexico requires on the importing of goods. And from what they said, it can be expensive. Our Mexican contact assured us that he could talk to the Mexican customs agents, and that we wouldn’t need one. And from what I’ve learned, it doesn’t seem like we’d need one anyway…it seems to pertain more to goods imported in to sell.
The US Customs signed off on our Carnet, told us to make sure we went through secondary when returning back to the US, and sent us on our way. That was the easy part of the day. Now it was time for the Mexico Customs officers.
We entered through the “Declaration” lane, our contact ahead of us in his car. As we watched him have a lengthy discussion with the Customs agent, we noticed a lot of head nodding and then head shaking. When the agent came to our car, he asked for my Carnet form and passport, and then disappeared into their office with them. Upon returning 15 minutes later, he informed me that this form wasn’t accepted at this crossing point – it was only accepted at the Tijuana crossing. That was 2 hours away – basically back where we started from. After asking him if there was anything they could do, he said to pull forward.
Then begin the 3 ½ hour wait. We were told that we’d have to wait for the supervisor to arrive before anything could be done. He didn’t arrive until 5…it was 3:30. We had to wait outside in the 90 degree heat, but at least we were able to find some shade. Occasionally someone would come out and ask some questions, then disappear again into the Customs office. During this time, we also got our temporary work visas.
Finally, after a lot of phone calls from our contact to his boss in Mexicali, phone calls from the boss to folks in the Mexicali Chamber of Commerce, and a look through my car to inspect the gear, they agreed to let us in with the Carnet form and not require a Pedimento. They made it very clear that we must return to their office before crossing back over. I assured them we would – I’d planned on doing that anyway since the Carnet form said we’d need to.
The delay set us back as we now had to spend the first morning of the shoot doing the walk through of the location instead of doing it the day before. Our second shoot day that was originally scheduled to be a half day now became a full day.
The shoot went well, and it was time to head home. We reported back to Mexican Customs, returned our temporary work visas, and waited as they handled our paperwork. While we did wait about an hour and a half, it went much smoother. The Customs agents remembered us, and were now better prepared. They asked to see every piece of gear on our Carnet list, and once inspected they went back inside their office and did all the paperwork. The frustrating thing was the head officer was using this time to train his staff on how to handle Carnet forms, and that really slowed things down.
After we got through that, it was on to the US side. We asked to go to secondary as instructed, and once there, they made us wait while they went and found the proper stamp for our form. They stamped it, and sent us on our way.
So what’s the big take-away from all this? Well, you can risk taking your gear to Mexico without the proper forms, and you may get through just fine. Our photographer (who drove separately) did just that with his gear. But if you want to protect yourself, getting the Carnet form is the best thing to do. Also, consider getting a production coordinator in Mexico to help you. They can help you navigate the system down there. There are a number of websites – bajafilm.com is one – that can provide information and help. Consult with them to see how they can help.
The most important thing is that you do your homework. Don’t just assume that things will be okay, or that you can just explain your situation and someone will understand. Make sure you have all the correct paperwork, and when dealing with the Customs officials (on both sides) be honest and courteous. That can go a long way in determining how your experience will be trying to cross.
If you have insight on crossing the border with video gear, we’d love to hear it.