Why Are There So Many South Dakota License Plates in Mexico? The Answer Might Surprise You

When I first moved to Mexico, I noticed there were a lot of South Dakota license plates on passenger vehicles and RV’s here. They were literally everywhere.

I remember thinking that it was odd because less than one million people live in South Dakota.

The expat community where we live in Mexico is fairly social, so it didn’t take long until I met a few folks who had South Dakota license plates on their cars. After talking to them, I learned that none of them had ever lived in South Dakota.

That’s right, not a single one.

I was intrigued, so I set out to learn more about the whys and the hows of this trend.

The Expat Connection to South Dakota

Many expats choose to bring their car with them to Mexico and just keep the U.S. plates on it, especially in areas of the country that do not require temporary import permits (e.g. the Baja Peninsula).

This can create some logistical problems if your car is registered in a state with annual emissions and/or safety inspections, or in a state that you no longer want to maintain residency in because of tax reasons.

That’s where South Dakota comes in.

Like a bureaucratic super hero protecting Americans living abroad, South Dakota solves many of their problems in one fell swoop.

Take a look for yourself:

  • Non-residents can register vehicles (South Dakota has over 58,000 vehicles registered to out-of-state residents)
  • No VIN verifications
  • Registration and titling can be done by mail
  • No emissions or equipment safety testing
  • SD will mail your plates, registration stickers and title anywhere in the U.S
  • You don’t have to maintain U.S. insurance while your car is in Mexico
  • No requirement to get an SD driver’s license to register a vehicle

There are 66 counties in South Dakota but for some reason, the one that many expats choose to register their vehicle in is Clay County. A tiny county of less than 14,000 residents located in the southern part of the state.

According to an article by the Rapid City Journal, Clay County Treasurer Cathi Powell estimates that 90 percent of her county’s 7,241 vehicle registrants from outside the state are expats who spend much of their time in Mexico.

Let’s Wrap This Up

So, the next time you see one of your fellow expats in Mexico getting out of a car with South Dakota plates, don’t even bother to ask them any questions about that state because chances are pretty good that they’ve never even been there.

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

39 Comments on "Why Are There So Many South Dakota License Plates in Mexico? The Answer Might Surprise You"

  1. Dane Carley | April 17, 2018 at 8:19 am |

    We see a lot of SD plates in our area too (MN/ND) for the same reason. People use (or used if what I heard about them closing the loophole was accurate) to circumvent certain taxes in MN and ND.

  2. When you look at the private boats in the marina you will notice a large number registered in Delaware. For very much the same reason as the cars are from SD. However, the boats are very typically owned by Mexican nationals. Many boats even fly US flags!

    With the way most of the USA thinks about and treats Mexico/Mexicans I enjoy thinking about how many Americans would be willing to register their boat in Mex and fly a Mex flag off the stern in US waters. 🙂
    I guess if the money motivation was high enough many would do it.

    Champaign, IL
    (Soon to be Merida/Progreso)

  3. Linda Harris | April 17, 2018 at 8:21 am |

    Wow! Never knew that about SD. Renting a car in Mexico is the best way to go when down for the winter!

  4. Jane W Adams | April 17, 2018 at 8:33 am |

    How can you register a car in a state you don’t live in?

    • It’s incredible. It is the perfect environment to launder stolen cars and commit various types of title fraud. It’s a good thing that expats are all honest and wouldn’t do such a thing…lol.

  5. Karen Bickford | April 17, 2018 at 8:43 am |

    There’s always a work around I guess 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  6. Good morning Paul! I’m new to your blog and it’s fantastic. I have been binge reading for 4 days…ever since finding it. What a wealth of knowledge…thank you so much! Not only that I feel like I know you and have a friend in Mexico! I have vacationed in Mexico for years, but my last visit was 10 years ago. Much has changed and a lot I’ve never had to really know. Until now that is. I’m retiring and Mexico is my destination. Can hardly wait! Thanks again for taking the time to share all of your knowledge and experiences…you’ve saved me and a lot of others much grief in learning from our mistakes. Take care.

    • We’re glad to hear that you like it, Gayle. Thanks for following us and feel free to share our posts with your friends. We don’t advertise at all, so we rely on our readers to help spread the word about the site.

  7. Karen Venzke | April 17, 2018 at 8:46 am |

    Why wouldn’t people do that who own cars in another state?

    • They do.

    • I don’t know about other places but in our small town in CO the authorities watch and if they see the same car around for more than half a year and dropping kids off at school, going to PO etc they will want to know if you are a resident and if so you must have Co plates, this state is quite expensive compared to others

  8. That’s awesome! I guess we know where we’ll be registering our car! Thanks for the info.

  9. We see a lot of them here in Pheonix also, and I was just mentioning that to Amanda the other day. I thought they were mostly snowbirds, but now I’ll keep an eye out to notice if they are still around next month when most of them are gone. Great info!

  10. Julie Pinette | April 17, 2018 at 10:43 am |

    Thanks for all your work Paul keeping us informed. One small but necessary point you left out is that if you want to eliminate your state income tax and choose to be a resident of SD to take advantage of all the perks you listed you MUST drive or fly to SD, spend one night in SD with.proof and exchange your current drivers liscence for theirs to establish residency. It also means getting one of the local companies mail forwarding acounts. This way you have a legal address with them and they send your mail to wherever you are staying like Mexico. Hope that makes sense.

  11. South Dakota has long been a domicile of choice for fulltime RVers, along with Texas and Florida (no state income taxes). I imagine one of the mail forwarding services that service RV fulltimers is located in Clay County, and that’s why there are so many registrations located there.

    • The difference with Florida is that they require a physical VIN check to combat auto theft and title fraud.

  12. Ingrid C Royle | April 17, 2018 at 12:57 pm |


  13. Denise Bruff | April 17, 2018 at 2:33 pm |

    Paul, My husband and I really enjoy reading your posts. Where can I post a question that is not related to the license plates?

    • You can send it to us on the contact form but it might be a few days before we can answer. We’re in Cozumel right now.

  14. Wow! You just blew the whistle out loud for so many people; this is very unfortunate and has us concerned about your intentions? Are you trying to blow the whistle on those with SD plates? If not, can you pull the post? This is a topic that Ex-Pats talk about after they take the leap of faith, in private. And, you have to do in-person renewals if you have any other readers privately asking. I hope this blog is deleted, seriously.

    • Hi Lynn.

      When I read your comment earlier, I wrote a quick response but after reading it again, I felt that I needed to write a more detailed response.

      Just to be clear, I’m not acting as a “whistleblower” here. The information that I included in the article is not a secret. I even included a link to a very detailed article about it written by a newspaper based in South Dakota back in March.

      That article was picked up by the Associated Press and multiple newspapers from coast to coast in the U.S. published some version of the original story.

      There are also multiple blogs containing detailed information about how to get South Dakota plates by mail.

      By the way, renewals do not have to be done in person in SD. The owners of those 58,000+ vehicles spread all over North America are not driving back to SD every year to get a new sticker.

      And don’t worry, South Dakota won’t be changing the system anytime soon — they’re making way too much money to do anything like that.


  15. I hope your comments don’t screw things up for the folks who have enjoyed being able to live in Mexico in peace without the hassles of beaurocratic red tape, some things are better left alone.

    • This blog won’t affect that — no worries. It’s not illegal and it’s not a secret.

      South Dakota makes a lot of revenue off of registering out-of-state vehicles and there haven’t announced any plans to stop the practice.

  16. We got SD plates for our vehicles (truck, SUV & motorcycle) in 2008, it’s perfectly legal…

  17. Walton Fisher | April 19, 2018 at 3:29 pm |

    I’ve had SD plates for 5 years. No problems in Mexico at all. I chat with the lady who answers the phone in the County Clerk’s office (Clay County) when I give her my credit card info. She always asks about the weather since my Suburban get re-registered in Feb. Cold as Hell in SD.

    I was pulled over for making the mistake of answering my phone while driving. Big no no here. The motorcycle cop was holding by Atlanta drivers license and just talking. He had lived in CA previously and enjoying using his English. I told him I was from San Francisco – small world. Then he looked at my front plate which is from SD. He said GA, SD, CA – and Mexican Residente Temporal visa, I will not even ask Senor. Adios. When he handed my license back I handed him a “consideration”.

  18. Paul,

    Thank you for your time and dedication to helping all of us who are transitioning to Mexico with all your articles, it’s awesome! I am from Florida as well, and I want to have my car there in Quintana Roo for a while before getting permanent residency, and then deal with getting rid of the vehicle after that. In comparing what South Dakota requires for car registration and what Florida does, can you elaborate any more about this bullet point you listed?

    “You don’t have to maintain U.S. insurance while your car is in Mexico”

    Since I am already set in having residency in Florida and don’t have to worry about vin checks, etc…I was going to cancel my FL car insurance once I arrive in Mexico. But will proof of Mexican car insurance be enough for Florida not to suspend my license, vehicle plate and registration which online is what they say is state law and is what they have to do? Just a note: South Dakota’s DMV website states holding liability insurance is a state law as well, but doesn’t seem as abrasive as Florida’s law. Thanks!

    • As soon as you cancel your U.S. car insurance, notification will be sent to the DHSMV and they will mail you a notice requesting proof of insurance. Since the Mexican insurance will not be valid in Florida (and that is the point of the law) it is unlikely that they will accept it. However, maybe the clerk doesn’t think about it to hard and let’s it slip through — anything is possible 🙂

      If they don’t accept it, they will suspend your driver’s license and put a “seize tag” notice in the system for your vehicle.

      When I was a deputy sheriff and I ran a tag with this notice, my computer screen would give me a notice in red.

      In SD, you only have to have it while the vehicle is in the US and it’s not tied to your DL. They are much more lenient. The information about the insurance requirement comes from several expats who have SD plates.

      • If they do accept your Mexican car insurance, let me know. That information would be useful for other people.

  19. Thank you for the response! I will probably forego tempting the Florida DHSMV and finding out after the fact that they suspend/seize my information. I will look into the SD options and also ask a rep. in FL if there are compromises that are made….I appreciate it!

  20. You do nave to return to SD every 5 years after you obtain your registration and drivers license. Spend one night with proof It’s a wonderful state and I love being a SD resident.

    • Thanks for the tip, Joell. That will apply to those folks getting SD residency, not just plates.

  21. I’m a ‘SouDak’ myself living in Baja, and like everyone else, I’ve never been there and don’t plan on it either! Keep on posting – love the accurate info! P.S. The gals at Clay County are the BEST!

  22. love your IMN explanation. I went through it and made the mistake of entering Mx once before I moved there and I had a real big problem. But I worked it out. I am interested in Clay County registration and went on the sites you gave but I Don’t see a price of the registration. Do I need to call them or am I missing the page somewhere? Thank you for your explanation.

  23. Benny J Robinson | July 8, 2018 at 8:04 pm |

    At one time years ago, Alabama was a non title state (not sure if it still is). As a retired highway patrolman, I’ve picked up numerous stolen cars with Alabama license plates.

  24. Paul, you mentioned that TIPs aren’t required in Baja, and I believe that applies in parts of Sonora as well. I’ve run across a few comments around the web that Quintana Roo is a similar “free zone” where a TIP is not required and that permanent residents may continue to own and operate foreign plated cars here (but they can’t be driven out of the state).

    Can you please confirm or refute this? If not immediately, perhaps with your superior knowledge of both the law and Spanish, you could add this to your growing list of things to research, and post a follow up article sometime?

    • Q-Roo Paul | July 9, 2018 at 6:38 am |

      The belief that a temporary import permit is not required in Quintana Roo comes strictly from the fact that the state of Quintana Roo is designated as a border region (región fronteriza) by SAT for the purposes of many import laws and the accompanying taxes. Here is the definition that I am referring to:

      Región fronteriza
      Los estados de Baja California, Baja California Sur, Quintana Roo y la región parcial de Sonora; la franja fronteriza sur colindante con Guatemala y los municipios de Caborca, Sonora, Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas, y Salina Cruz, Oaxaca.

      The problem is that when it comes to the temporary and permanent importation of cars to Mexico, all of the supporting documentation, laws and regulations make a very clear distinction that the “special terms” — meaning no need for a TIP — only apply to the franja o región fronteriza norte del país (northern border strip and region).

      A few months ago, a friend of ours was driving on 307 through Playa del Carmen when he was stopped by a federal police officer. The officer was threatening to two his car for having an expired TIP sticker.

      My friend called his lawyer who spoke to the officer — to no avail, at least at first — and the lawyer followed it up by sending a document to my friend’s phone citing a law that says that it is not necessary to get separate permission from SAT to extend the TIP once you have received permission from INM to remain in the country beyond the date of the tip.

      This is on my very extensive list of possible future blog topics.

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