How to travel to and from Canada

By Andrea Karim on 4 July 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) 12 comments
Photo: Paul Keleher

Getting to and from Canada is getting to be a real pain in the ass. I should know, since I cross the border several times a year to visit family and friends all over the Great White North.

The border has always given me the jitters. I've never tried to illegally take anything over the border, but I'm still always a bit freaked out by the process, especially since the guards are getting touchier and touchier as travel restrictions and passport rules get stricter.

Years ago, the way to get pulled over on the way into the US was to speak with a Russian accent. I know this, because my immigrant grandmother would do it every time. Despite being instructed to keep her mouth shut during the mild interrogation, she would always make a point to pipe up and say "I'm see-tee-sen United States of Amerrrrreeca." She'd look really proud, too. And then we'd get sent over to the border patrol office to prove that she was not, in fact, a Commie spy sent by the Canadians to social medicine or whatever.

Crossing into Canada has always been a comparatively easy experience. The guards often have some kind of cute Saskatchewan accent, they ask roughly 2.3 questions, and then they wave you on. Recently, they've been considerably snarkier, as evidenced by my family's recent hour-long diversion at the Blaine border, where we attempted in vain to convince a grouchy Canadian guard that my mother was not, in fact, actually a Canadian citizen. In any case, the Canadians are still vastly more accepting and less freaked out by their duties than the American border guards.

Want proof?

American guards now Google you.

Yup. If go get pulled aside for a random search, and the American guards are so inclined, they can just go ahead and Google your name, look at your web persona and records, and harrass you based on what you've said or done in the past. It happened to Andrew Feldmar, a Canadian psychotherapist who was trying to get to Seattle to visit some family back in April of this year.

Having written an article about using LSD as part of therapy apparently got Feldmar barred from entering the US. In his online writings, Feldmar admitted to having used LSD during the 1960s and 1970s (you know, a few years before the current President of the United States was snorting cocaine and driving around drunk as a skunk). Having discussed this online, Feldmar apparently is now a confessed criminal, and the US won't let him in.

NPR broached this subject as sort of a "Hey! Technology means that people know a lot about you! So be careful about what you say online!" angle, which I understand, but I feel sort of misses the point. Writing blogs or anything personal online is risky, because giving out personal information always makes you vulnerable, be it to vicious criticism, general scrutiny, or in this case, over-caffeinated border guards. That's the double-edged sword of the blogging world - you get to share experiences and advice with other people, but the flaws or mistakes that you divulge are easy for anyone to find.

I think about this often - I worry that I might have trouble traveling to China, given that I am highly critical of their current export crisis. But this isn't enough to keep my quiet - I'd rather not get into China (Taiwan will still have me, anyway, right?) than to silence my objections to what I see as unethical practices.

And Feldmar's situation is completely insane - the man dropped acid 40 years ago, along with half of the youth of the day. He has no criminal record, yet discussing his drug use online is enough to get the US government to ban him from visiting family.

Anyway, having crossed the border many times without major incident, here are my tips for getting back and forth between the US and Canada:

Don't even think of taking anything illegal across the border.

If you are going into Canada, don't take your fire arms. They don't like that. If you are crossing into the US, please smoke all of your weed beforehand. It'll make the experience more fun.

Be polite.

Not overly polite - you don't have to grin like an idiot. I'm sure the guards get a kick out of hearing your voice get all high-pitched as you use your telephone voice to sweettalk them, but don't bother. Speak loudly enough so that they can hear you.

Get your story straight.

Have one person do the talking unless the guard addresses someone else in the car. You don't have to tell them everywhere that you are going to go, but you should have some details. I once had a Canadian guard ask me the name of the street where my cousins live. It took me a minute to dregde this info out of my brain, because I always drove to my cousins' place by site - I just knew where to go without knowing the street names. If you are staying at a hotel, know the name. Have your reservation info printed out.

Bring your passport.

No, it's not required yet (and if you're a US citizen, it'll be months before you receive it, due to serious lack of foresight by our State Department), but this will not prevent guards on either side from getting all power-trippy and forcing you to pull over for a lecture from a broad-shouldered, stern border guard named Bertha. If you don't have your passport, make sure to bring every ounce of documentation that proves that you are who you are. Birth certificate, Social Security card/National ID, driver's license, state-issued ID, bills, whatever. Bring it all. You'll still experience much huffing and puffing by the border, but at least you'll likely be let into and out of the country.

Don't take pictures of anything.

We learned this on the hard way, when a guard started shrieking at my boyfriend to TURN OFF YOUR PHONE TURN IT OFF NOW NOW NOWNOWNOW! when my boyfriend (clearly a terrorist) tried to check his voicemail while waiting for the guards to inspect our car. They assumed that we were taking a digital photo to send to our terrorist friends. Keep your hands in site and don't do anything fun until you're across the border.

If you get Googled, deny deny deny.

OK, so it's possible that you've already discussed your illegal drug use online, posting photos of you with your crack pipe. Perhaps take these down from your blog beforetraveling? It's one thing to talk about drug use, but it's quite another to have photographic proof of you doing something illegal. Try to limit this kind of thing if you plan to cross the border frequently.

That said, you are allowed to lie online. People exaggerate all the time, and saying something in a blog is not the same thing as a written confession following an arrest, in which you've waived your Miranda rights. If you are not being investigated for a crime, you cannot be treated like a criminal. Just in case, it wouldn't hurt to keep your government representatives' phone numbers handy.

A little flattery can go a long way.

Things that have helped me win the affection of the US border patrol:

  1. Mention that you bought your Canadian friend/relative a shirt that says "Go USA!". They usually find this pretty funny.
  2. If you are an American, sigh dreamily and say, "Wow, it's good to be back home!" Nevermind if it doesn't make any sense since you're technically STILL in Canada.
  3. If you are a Canadian, tell them that you can't wait to catch an MBA/NFL game (try to get the season right, though). Say something like "We don't have anything like that in Canada!"
  4. When asked if you have anything to declare, say, "You know, I don't think that Canadian beer lives up to the hype. Gimme a Coors/Bud/favorite microbrew any day! Oh, like declare for customs? No, nothing."

Things that seem to help with Canadian border patrol:

  1. Ask them directions to the nearest Tim Horton's. Lick your lips and say that you haven't had a proper crueller (pronounced "crooler") in months.
  2. Have someone in the car loudly declare "You know what? The metric system really makes so much more sense!"
  3. Canadians heading home: When they ask if you have anything to declare, say "God save the Queen!" or "You're totally right about American beer! Blech!" Americans heading into Canada: "Yay! Canadian beer! We were getting tired of all that bottled water that passes for beer in America!"
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Guest's picture
Guest

I got a tee-shirt from Canada with an Inukshuk on it and the words "Canada Rocks Eh?" ;-)

My friend traveler, she took a picture at the customs area and the customs officer Peacock went through her digital camera and had her erase the picture of the sign "Welcome to America" (or was it to US?) and a few others she had taken in a different airport.

Here is an idea for an American tee: "American Democracy (read: Dictatorship)"

Bob B.'s picture
Bob B.

"Just in case, it wouldn't hurt to keep your government representatives' phone numbers handy."

Call (Senator) Ted Kennedy's office; he probably won't be able to do anything for you, but he'll certainly sympathize: He ended up on the TSA's "No Fly" list a couple years ago. If Shrub has the nerve to put JFK's little brother on the no-fly list, he's probaby not concerned about a call from some other congressman.

Guest's picture
Rob in Madrid

Excellent post, now you know how us Canadians have felt for years when ever we had to go states side!

Guest's picture
zoom

Terrific post, especially the cautionary stuff about the acid-dropping psychoanalyst. From now on I'm going to try not to blog while having flashbacks. You can't be too careful.

Andrea Karim's picture

I've always known how the Canadians feel about crossing the border - I get an earful from my relatives, who come down to our house every year for Canadian Thanksgiving!

Guest's picture
J. Jacob

The author, I think, got lucky, with the funny/lighthearted comments at the bottom.

I used to live in a border Canadian town, and used to cross the border everyday to work. Guards on both sides have no sense of humor.

Also, more tips:

1.Roll your window down, and put your vehicle in park in full view of the US border guard. Turn dome light on if at night. Both these things tend to relax the guard, like you have nothing to hide.

2. Make sure you tell your kids to keep quiet. If you are shopping, and try to lie about the amount, etc., I have had multiple guards ask the kids for verification. also, don't lie.

3. When divulging purchases on your return journey, usually best to give a ballpark number, instead of details. E.g. $50 instead of a dvd player. Some items trigger automatic GST (Canadian) payments.

That's all for now.

Guest's picture
S.W.

Firstly I just want to say you enter into any country by PRIVILEGE not right! (Unless it’s your own.) Keep this in mind when traveling to other countries. This will help you a lot. It is your responsibility to know your rights, and there laws. Pleading ignorance does not get you out of trouble. Not every country is like your own and just because you can do something in your country does not mean it is legal in another.

DO NOT TELL JOKES!!!!!!

As you may think your original and funny, you have to keep in mind that s/he has already probably heard the joke before. So when you have someone tell you the same joke for the multiple times would you think it’s funny? (They do have a sense of humor)

DO NOT ASK FOR DIRECTIONS!!!!!!!
Let the Officer ask his questions first. When he appears to be done then ask, but not before. It will appear as if you are trying to divert attention away from the purpose of your trip. The Officers are not always looking for terrorist. There are many other things they have to look out for, so if you think your are being questioned because of terrorism think again. It could be that you fit the profile of a wanted person. Lets face it Canada is a Source Country for drugs, so if you think that the US officers are only looking for terrorists please open your eyes. They have to deal with immigration laws, trade laws, criminal laws, and so on. They don't just try to keep the terrorists out but also try to protect the economy and your social well being.

S.S. Cards DO NOT CUT IT!!!!!
When you cross you want a Drivers License (WITH YOUR PICTURE) and a birth certificate. You could get in without these however do not be surprised if you get sent to immigration. You NEED PROOF OF CITIZENSHIP, the only thing that does this is your Birth Certificate or passport. SO AS YOU MAY NOT NEED YOUR PASSPORT NOW, you still need to prove you were born from either country (Canada, U.S.).

Lastly but not least...
Keep in mind that you may think you’re the only one crossing the border that day however the guards deal with literally hundreds of people in an hour, asking the same questions over and over and over again. SO if the guard seems edgy don't think he is being a prick to you for whatever reason, but think maybe he just dealt with someone that was a criminal, or s/he was just screamed at for some unknown reason. If he was joking the entire time do you think he will catch the bad stuff when it does reach his booth? Or do you want the guard that is paying attention and is asking you one or two more question then you’re used to, so that s/he feels satisfied with letting you go down the road? Your rights are limited at the border and please keep that in mind. If you have nothing to hide just let them look, don’t be a smart ass, don’t complain, don’t even thank them. Just accept it. Like I said before keep in mind you cross international borders by privilege not right, and accept the consequences with that.

Oh and for heaven sakes do not tell jokes, you’re not funny! lol

Andrea Karim's picture

Believe it or not, some border guards appreciate a joke or two. Also, in case you didn't notice, the majority of this post was about the 'non-joking' side of how to cross the border. Humor, however, has gotten me through a number of times, faster than the times where I just sit there with a terrified look on my face.

As usual with rabid commentors, I have to ask, did you read the post? If so, I'd love it if you could go back and point out where I said that social security cards were enough for proof of citizenship. Thanks.

However, we'll take most of your 'sugustions' to heart.

Julie Rains's picture

Well I wasn't sure if we weren't supposed to follow the suggestions above or below the post.

My husband and I were treated to a few questions on the way to Canada from Minnesota and a wave-back-in to the USA many years ago when we made a cross-border visit on Canada Day. We are hoping to make a similar trip sometime in the next year or so, and I wondered how things had changed. At any rate, thanks for the tips from someone who has made the trip many times recently (Andrea).

Andrea Karim's picture

The thing that makes the trip smooth as peanut butter is having your passport. Without that, you're pretty much asking to be harrassed. :)

Guest's picture
Barbara

This of course is a really late post, but I'm traveling to Canada tomorrow and still don't have my ICP card (here's hoping the overnight guy shows up before I leave for work tonight!).

What's an ICP card? Well, it's the Canadian version of our insurance cards, and according to my insurance company, is now required for any US citizen who is driving their personal car into the country. And to make it worse, an email or a faxed copy is no longer accepted. My insurance company has gone above and beyond to try and get a hardcopy to me by tomorrow morning, but take warning! You must request one at least one week in advance from your company before traveling.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hey, Barbara,

I hadn't heard anything of the sort, and have never been asked to show insurance at the border - let us know how it turns out?