Since I was in Cancun this week, I thought that I might provide everyone with an idea about what is involved when you arrive.
Like all airport arrivals, you come off the jet bridge. You will need to have your Mexican immigration and customs forms completed as they check them as you come off the jet bridge (note that you must fill out the top and bottom of the immigration form). Head to immigration where it can be hit or miss on the length of the lines. The immigration officer will give you your passport back with the bottom of the immigration form torn off. Be sure not to lose this piece of paper as it will create a hassle on your departure (as I haven’t lost one yet, I’m not sure how serious but best to avoid). Then you’ll pass past the immigration desks to the back of the hall.
Turn right and head straight to baggage claim.
Once you pick up your bags, head opposite the baggage carousels to customs. There you will see a couple of lines with custom officers standing next to kiosks. They will take a look at your passport and customs form (you can tear the instruction page off the form and discard it or not) and have you press a button. If the light turns green, then you pass through without any further inspection. If the light turns red, then you will have to put your possessions through an x-ray machine and possibly a manual inspection.
Once through, automatic doors will open and you will enter the reception hall. Car rental desks will be directly in front of you and you turn right to walk through and exit.
You will pass by several taxi, shuttle, hotel and activity desks. Hopefully, you will have already arranged a transfer and can simply head outside.
Once outside, you will see all of the attendants for the transfer services holding up their signs with the brand of the company you booked through. Note that if you arrive in the evening, it is possible that this area may be closed and you will instead turn left before the exit doors and head towards another pick up area.
Once you meet your attendant, he or she will walk you down to the vehicle for your transfer. I have only used Amstar, but can tell you that the transfer vehicles are generally quite nice. Amstar offers wet clothes to wipe your face and hands as well as drinks for your ride (e.g., beer, soda, water).
Whether you are heading north for the Cancun hotel zone or South towards Riviera Maya, Playa del Carma, and Tulum, you can see that the highway is just about what you’d see in the US and the ride is quite comfortable.
As far as ride times, if you are heading to Cancun proper it is around 20 minutes. Otherwise, if you’re going to Riviera Maya your ride will be between 45 minutes (Playa del Carma) to an hour and 15 minutes (Tulum). The transfer will drop you off at your resort (which can either be direct if flying charter or multiple stops if taking a shared transfer). Note that the resorts maintain security so you will stop at their front gate while they check guest names. While it’s reassuring to know that the facilities are secure, this is mainly to ensure that the arriving guests do indeed have a reservation.
In any case, I hope that helps if you have not been. It is pretty easy and not much different than arriving at an US airport. Note that on your return you should plan for arriving at the Cancun airport two hours before your flight departure especially if checking baggage. The airport can be a bit like McCarren in Las Vegas where lines can get quite long; however, my suspicion is that the airport also likes to have you there early as a captive audience for the restaurants and shops before you leave.