Mexican Daylight Saving - A Tale Of Two Nations

Mexico is a big country. To misquote Douglas Adams, you might think it's a long way down to the chemist's - or even the next city over - but that's peanuts compared to Mexico. It's just shy of 2,000 miles from northwest to southeast tips, and about 1,200 miles across at the border with the USA.

That's a lot of territory. And a lot of time zones... as I've travelled through the country over the last year or so, I’ve discovered that time in Mexico runs a little differently to what I’m used to in the UK. Some aspects are fairly standard, if a little quirky. Some are more ethereal; some are just silly.

In a future post, I'll give my (less serious) thoughts on the daily and irregular rhythms I've come across in Mexican life.

For now, let's start with the basics.

Mexican Time Zones - The Facts

As noted above, Mexico is a big place. Big enough to have 4 time zones (see below):

From right to left, Quintana Roo clocks in at 5 hours behind UTC. Officially, it’s called Zona Sureste. If you come from the US or Canada, you’ll recognise this as Eastern.

The bulk of the country - including Mexico City and Guadalajara - is 6 hours behind UTC. Zona Centro - or Central.

The rest runs at UTC -7 (Zona Pacifico / Mountain Time), apart from the lone state of Baja California, which runs at UTC -8 - Zona Noroeste, which is the same as Pacific Time. (Pacific Zone in Mexico is not the same as Pacific Time in the US).

Due to Mexico’s strong interdependence on the US economy, the zone boundaries strongly correlate to the same lines north of the border. Nowhere is this more obviously demonstrated than the way Mexico handles daylight saving time.

Daylight Saving - What Genius Thought Up That Monstrosity?

Although we can tend to think of DST as having been around forever, in fact it’s a relatively recent idea - and far from universally adopted. We can blame the British/New Zealand scientist George Hudson who came up with the concept at the end of the 19th century.

Since then, many countries and regions have implemented, maintained, tweaked, and often finally abandoned the practice.

The basic idea of daylight saving is this: by setting the clocks an hour forward, everyone gets up earlier and finishes work earlier. This means we have more daylight available at the end of the day, when we’re most able to enjoy it. Other arguments in favour of DST suggest energy consumption and road accidents are reduced; it’s fair to say the evidence is, at best, arguable.

It isn’t such a good idea in winter, as it means getting up when it’s often really dark (depressingly, miserably so - there's a reason the Scottish have a reputation for grumpiness). There’s a good chance that at the end of the day, it’s still going to be dark. For this reason, most countries apply it during the summer months only.

Neither does it make much sense in high latitude countries; the difference between winter and summer is so extreme, that people are used to operating where clock time and daylight are often miles away from what we’re used to in more temperate latitudes. (I was in Iceland for Christmas one year. It was pitch black until about 1130, and dark again by 1530).

Similarly, in the tropics, there’s so little variation between summer and winter that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to change the clocks.

As someone growing up in Scotland, daylight saving (we just called it ‘summer time’) was a natural part of the turn of the seasons. I learned that our cousins across the water called autumn ‘fall’ (‘Spring forward…’). It didn’t occur to me till I was older that it was, of course, an entirely human invention. All those years of faffing about resetting clocks, watches, and the rest were a ritual, ruining my day because someone, somewhere (I’m looking at you, Hudson) thought it would improve our lives.


IT Support Staff always look forward to the clocks changing...

Younger readers, thankfully, will never have to experience the nightmare of programming a video recorder - changing the time twice a year was only marginally simpler. And seriously, who changes the clock on the car dashboard? Isn’t it easier just to wait a few months till it’s correct again?

When I started working in IT, I really understood what a pain in the ass it was. In most companies with public platforms or web sites (and in 2020, that’s pretty much all of them), twice a year the support guys get asked to cover overtime ‘just in case any funnies happen’ during the clock change.

Databases, for instance, get confused by the idea that you can record an event at (say) 0200, and then 20 minutes ‘later’ record another event at 0120 - an hour ‘earlier’. If you've ever been awake after a few malt whiskys during the changeover, you may be able to sympathise 😉

And that's to say nothing of the missed calls and appointments, and the general grumpiness everyone feels getting in to work an hour early every spring for a few days.

Long story short: I’ve gone from considering it part of the natural flow of the year, to seeing it as a man-made ballache. There’s little real benefit to be had, and plenty of downsides. And it seems I’m not alone:

Countries/entities using DST (blue in the north, orange in the south). Countries in dark grey have never used daylight saving. Countries in light grey did, at some point, but have abandoned the practice. I’m with these guys 🙂 (Image credit: UnaitxuGV/Wikimedia)

Daylight Saving in Mexico

So what’s the deal with summer time in Mexico? Well, it’s… complicated. As noted above, it's all to do with the close working relationship with its giant neighbour to the north.

DST in Mexico. A great example of how time zones (and daylight saving) are constructed concepts, balancing geography with political and practical expediency

Baja California - including Baja California Sur, which wasn’t granted statehood until 1974 - first adopted DST in 1942. This was to align with the clocks in California, with which the Baja peninsula has long had close ties.

It wasn’t until 1996 that Mexico adopted DST at federal level. 2 years later, Sonora abandoned DST entirely, in order to stay on the same clock time as its northern partner Arizona.

The move to DST wasn’t completely smooth. In particular, towns and cities along the US border were frustrated by being out of sync with their partner businesses across the frontier. In Mexico, DST starts on the first Sunday of April, and ends on the last Sunday of October. In the US, it runs from the second Sunday in March, and ends on the first Sunday in November.

So in 2009, in what I consider a typically ingenious Mexican solution, the federal government legislated to allow towns and municipalities - within 20km of the border - to adopt the same start and end dates as the US. So for the northernmost 12 miles of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, for 5-6 weeks of the year it’s more important to be in sync with the US than the rest of the state.

Since 1942, Baja California has operated on the same DST schedule as California. In a sense, it’s always operated on ‘border DST’. (Baja California Sur observes the standard federal DST schedule).

Finally, just for giggles, Quintana Roo stopped observing DST in 2015. At the same time, it moved from CST to EST (UTC -6 to UTC -5). Quintana Roo therefore has a unique (but consistent!) time within the United Mexican States.

I honestly think life would be much easier all round if we just did away with daylight saving time altogether.

Who's with me? 😉

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