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As soon as the station wagon rounded the corner and the US Customs booth came into view, my mother would look over her shoulder and hiss, “Pretend you’re sleeping!” In the back seat, me and my sisters would stop bickering and go limp, dramatically lolling our tongues. By the time we rolled up to the window, though, we’d all have arranged ourselves in a much more realistic facsimile of slumber which we’d hold until we were through the border and well on our way to the gas station or the outlet mall.

It may have been an outsized reaction to border-crossing stress — the worst thing we were muling back into Canada was government cheese — but my mum knew that kids can be chatty, and the best way to avoid trouble was if we were unconscious.

Even now, decades later, I find myself in a Pavlovian yawn at the Passport Control wicket, but getting through the US-Canada border with the least hassle really comes down to these four things:

1. Your story

Have it straight. Border officials don’t like uncertainty, so it’s your job to make sure they don’t have to deal with it. This means having a short and easy answer — and supporting documentation — for the following questions, at least:

  • Where are traveling to/from?
  • How long were you/will you be there?
  • Where are/were you staying?
  • What is/was the purpose for your trip?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • Did you work while you were away?
  • How do you support yourself?
  • When is the last time you were in the country?
  • What did you bring back (food, gifts)?

Answer the questions as asked and don’t volunteer unnecessary details.

If you have a job (writer, for example) that you could do while traveling, be prepared to answer questions about whether your trip is work-related. It’s also important to have a short, easy answer for the typical followup: “What do you write?” Despite the steady increase of freelance workers in Canada and the States, not having a boss still raises suspicions. Dampen them with easy-to-understand language. “I write for magazines” works better than “I’m a creative nonfiction writer.”

Border guards commonly ask about prior trips, so it’s a good idea to flip through your passport and refresh your memory with your visa stamps before you get to the wicket.

Before 2009, American and Canadian citizens could cross the border with only a driver’s license or other official picture ID. Not so anymore; now all travelers must have a valid passport. To make sure your crossing goes smoothly, check that the name on your passport exactly matches the name on all other documentation, and that if there are any discrepancies, you have supporting documentation. For example, if your name has changed because you’ve gotten married, travel with a copy of your marriage license. Additionally, if you’re traveling with children, and both parents are not present, have a note from the missing parent(s).

Officials are big on itineraries. Even if you don’t need it for your own use, prepare and print out a document with flight information, hotel addresses, and tickets to events. If you’ll be staying with friends, include their address and contact information.

2. Your appearance

Even before you reach the wicket you’re making an impression. To avoid hassle, dress simply. Be white. Do not wear a hijab or a taqiyah (the cap worn by some observant Muslim men). Fit one gender norm only.

I’m kidding…sort of.

No matter who you are, it’s a good idea to be well-groomed and tidy. Do not wear sunglasses or approach with earphones in. If you’re crossing in your car, turn off the radio.

3. Your cargo

Everyone who passes through the US-Canada border is searched cursorily. Travelers empty their pockets, take off their shoes and belts, and run their bags through an X-ray machine. Although cargo rules differ depending on your mode of transport, you’ll face the least hassle if you adhere to the strictest guidelines, so pack as if you’re traveling by air and leave the sharp objects at home.

If you’re searched by border control guards, you’ll want to be sure there’s nothing verboten in your luggage. Drugs, undeclared purchases, and “obscene materials” (as defined by the country you’re entering) will get you detained, but also pay attention to your camera, cell phone, and laptop. Border control can confiscate this equipment and mine your data. Pirated music or movies, incriminating texts on your phone, or sexytime vacation photos can land you in trouble. Your best bet is to travel with “clean” devices. Back up your data to external storage and cross the border with empty memory cards.

If you’ve been cross-border shopping, keep the tags on your purchases and have your receipts bundled and ready for inspection. Familiarize yourself with the duty limits.

4. Your demeanor

Never lose your temper.

When you first approach, greet the border official with a smile. If they ask how you are, respond and return the question. Say please and thank you.

If you’re detained, you’ll be asked stupid questions, boggling questions, offensive questions, and the same questions. It’s crucial that you maintain a polite and calm demeanor during this process. If you lose your temper, you’ll be held for longer and the search process will likely become more invasive.

    1 US or Canadian citizens can also cross with a NEXUS card. NEXUS is a program to speed up the crossing process for frequent travelers who have been pre-screened as low risk. The application document requires personal information including full name and citizenship status, residence and employment history for the previous five years, and your criminal history. It costs $50 to apply for a 5-year pass.

Border Crossing Guides


About The Author

Keph Senett

Keph Senett is a Canadian writer who's currently in transit. She’s a blogger who writes about travel, soccer/football, human rights, LGBT and gender issues, world politics, community, culture and her own folly.

  • Pega Ren

    It was so much simpler then: “Kids: Sleep!” Splendid, informative article.

  • Michael John Kellough

    Appearance really does count. I was travelling so much that I eventually cut my hair because I was so fed up with the hassle.

  • Steffie Labrador

    I had a tremendous hassle the last time I crossed the small part of Canada that you have to cross to get from Haines to Alaska. I was retired for a few years before I returned to Alaska after having lived in Fiji for a year and a half and then in Pullman, WA for a year. The border patrol person wanted to know why I chose to live in Pullman for a year. I myself am not really certain why I did this. It was sort of a default decision, not well thought out. When I didn’t have a detailed straight answer for this, the patrol officer attacked me and then I also got angry. What did something I had done three years prior have to do with me crossing a barren narrow part of Canada when I had lived most of my life in Alaska and said I was returning to Alaska to live there where I had lived for 30 years. I was 59, totally gray-haired and not a threat to anyone. What gives them the right to be so ridiculous and rude? I have been in Russia several times and the border guards were less demanding.

  • Kim Yates

    When you can’t sleep through Customs, then just say you’re shopping. Even if it’s true that you’re meeting your cousin the priest who you haven’t seen in 20 years to go eat Tim Bits in Canada Place while he waits to go be a chaplain on his cruise ship. And maybe don’t say you’re an unemployed college student if you’re driving a sporty red car (even though you got it when you were employed). Oh, and practice NOT crying under pressure if everything makes you burst into tears.

  • Gr8 Travel Tips

    4 excellent points! If you are polite, have nothing to hide, then crossing is usually a breeze!

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