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How to Cross the US/Canada Border Like a Pro

Simple secrets to a smooth border crossing.


a flatlay of cameras, a laptop, and a passport

When I first started traveling abroad, especially while traveling solo, the thing that made me the most nervous was crossing country borders on my own. I read dozens of pages about border crossing regulations, from both the Canadian and United States governments. I was properly terrified of being stopped and penalized because I tried to bring something with me that wasn’t allowed.


I promise you, it’s not nearly as scary or complicated as it seems. Let me break down the things you absolutely need to know for a smooth border crossing.



What the Border Control Actually Cares About


Truthfully, unless you’re some kind of felon, the only thing that Canada really cares about is that you aren’t trying to stay in Canada indefinitely. (If you’re relocating there permanently, that’s a whole other thing that I -unfortunately- cannot speak to. Yet, lol.) 


They’re going to ask for your passport. They’ll ask you where you’re traveling from, where you’re traveling to, and how long you’re planning to stay. They’ll likely ask where you’re staying as well, so have the name of your hotel or B&B on the tip of your tongue. It’s also a good idea to have your booking confirmation close at hand just in case, ideally a physical printout. I’ve done eight crossings and only been asked for this once, so they probably won’t ask, but it’s good to be prepared just in case.


When it comes to physical items you bring across the border with you, the list of rules is as long as my arm. But if you’re visiting Canada for a short vacation, there are only a few things they’re actually going to be curious about: food, alcohol, live animals, and weapons. 


Don’t be surprised if they ask you if you’re carrying guns. A lot of US travelers take hunting trips to Canada, so it’s a thing I get asked at the border fairly often. I can’t speak to live animals, because I’ve never crossed the border with a pet. But as for food and alcohol, I just generally try not to bring those with me. There’s plenty of food in Canada. You can buy it when you get there. But if you do bring anything with you, be sure to declare it at the border. Packaged stuff is less likely to be a problem than fresh items like meat or produce, so lean towards things like crackers and trail mix for your road trip snacks!


The Actual Border Crossing into Canada


For my travels, I tend to make the Canada border crossing at the Blue Water Bridge, crossing from eastern Michigan to western Ontario.  My experience here will specifically speak to this crossing point, but the mechanics will be the same no matter what port of call you use.


Before you leave on your trip: clean your car! Your car doesn’t need to be spotless, but a clean back seat will make your crossing much smoother. Part of border control’s job is to catch smugglers, and if your car is clean, they can see right away that you don’t have any weird stuff in there!


Step 1: Be prepared to wait in line. Two lines in fact! More on that in a moment, but make sure you plan time to wait in these lines into your travel itinerary. 


Step 2: Have your wallet ready. The first line you’ll wait in will be one approaching the toll booths for the bridge. Make sure you use the car lane, not the semi truck lane. It will be very obvious which is which! This is often the longest wait. Once you get through this part of the line, it’s smooth sailing. The toll is only a few dollars, and in recent years, payment has been credit or debit card only.


Step 3: Prepare to meet the Border Patrol. This is the most important step so don’t skip it! Once you cross the bridge, you’ll file into another line to go through customs. There will be several lanes, so pick one and stick with it. This is very important. If you start changing lanes, the border patrol will see your indecision on their overhead cameras and think you’re up to something. This didn’t happen to me personally, but I have a friend who once tried to change to a faster lane at the border, and border patrol ended up searching every last corner of her car because they thought she was nervous and smuggling something. Second, put your phone away. Cell phone use is not allowed at the crossing. Lastly, try to have your passport already in your hand as you pull up to your booth. They’ll appreciate the efficiency.


Step 4: Talk to the Border Patrol. Refer to the earlier steps for how this will go. Answer all their questions. Open your trunk if they want to see inside. (50/50 chance on whether they’ll ask, in my experience.) The patrol guards might look intimidating, but they’re just humans doing their jobs. They don’t want to give you trouble, because that just makes their job harder. Be cool, answer their questions, and you’ll be waved through in just a few minutes.


And you’re in Canada! Great job!


The Return


For most of the return process, you can apply all the same tips and tricks. Plan for lines at the bridge. Pick a lane and stay in it. Have your passport in your hand when you approach the booth. But here’s a handful of tips specifically for the return to the States.


If you bought anything in Canada, put it on the back seat on the driver's side, where the border patrol guard can see it through the door window. If they can see it all through the window they’re way less likely to ask you to open the car doors or trunk.


They’ll ask you if you have anything to declare. Similar to the first crossing, what they’re most curious about is things like food and alcohol. You can tell them about that cute sweater you bought or that book you got in the secondhand shop, but honestly they’re not super interested in that. But if you bought any food or alcohol items, do declare those. 


Whenever I’m in Canada, I stock up on a particular rhubarb-infused gin that isn’t shipped to the States, so I declare those bottles on my return. I’m up to four bottles without them raising eyebrows, so you can definitely bring some back without causing any issues. Just keep it within reason. Too much and they’ll start to worry that you’re distributing Canadian products in the States and that raises all sorts of tax issues. But four bottles is fine!


You can do this!


You can do this! I promise! It’s actually way easier than it looks. I would have killed for a guide like this when I first started crossing the border. Follow these tips and it'll be smooth sailing. You’ll feel like a badass when you navigate it all on your own.


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Love and Shenanigans,


Andi


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