How to travel to and from Canada
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.
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.
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:
Mention that you bought your Canadian friend/relative a shirt that says "Go USA!". They usually find this pretty funny.
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.
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!"
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:
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.
Have someone in the car loudly declare "You know what? The metric system really makes so much more sense!"
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!"