Travelers transit the U.S.-Canada border by land about 70 million times every year in each direction, and most of them cross the boundary without problem. Still, the experience can intimidate someone who is not used to it, and there are new requirements taking effect this year. Starting in June, you will need more than an ordinary driver’s license and a birth certificate to reenter the U.S.
Nobody is certain how many border hoppers travel in recreational vehicles. Their numbers may range in the hundreds of thousands. For them the process can be especially daunting, because they carry their households on their backs.
Adding to the complexity, while rules governing movement into each country are similar, they are not identical. So, no matter what one’s country of origin, requirements on the outbound trip will be different from those on the return.
In some respects, entering Canada in an RV is simpler for an American than returning to the United States.
“An RV is not treated any differently than any other vehicle arriving at the border,” said Faith St. John, communications manager for Canada Border Services. “Officers simply examine the contents of an RV’s drawers and closets rather than the contents of suitcases contained in the trunk of a car.”
One place in an RV that doesn’t exist in the trunk of a car, however, is the kitchen.
“Issues concerning food . . . can be complex,” St. John said. “One simple solution is . . . to cross the border without any perishables. Dry goods and a few staple items are generally fine to take across, but fresh food such as vegetables, fruit, dairy and meats, have potential restrictions and are best acquired once across the border.”
RVers who eschew simplicity, however, will find that Canadian Customs takes a relatively liberal attitude toward many fresh food products that originate in the United States. With certain items, however, such as meat and produce, they must originate in the United States and not simply have been purchased there.
For persons traveling in the opposite direction, the issue is complicated. Food products from Canada are described as “a moving target.”
“We need to know what is it, where is it coming from, is it in season or not and what is its intended use?” said Charles Cunningham, agriculture supervisor for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the border crossing at Blaine, Washington. If you can convince U.S. border officials that a fruit or vegetable originated in Canada or the United States, you’ll often be allowed to bring it in, Cunningham said. With some, however—fresh corn is one example— it depends on where in Canada it was grown and where in the United States it is going.
A dairy product that originated in Canada or the United States can enter the United States, but if it’s from Europe it may be prohibited.
The meat of lambs and goats from Canada is prohibited, but other Canadian meats are allowed. Pet food, including dog kibbles, must be in its original packaging for inspection. If not, Customs probably will seize it
Both Canada and the United States allow adults to import small quantities of alcohol and tobacco.
While Canada may be easy-going about many food items, do not bring firewood. Canada discourages carrying firewood even from one area to another within the country, concerned that it can introduce invasive alien species to new areas. If you wish to enjoy a campfire, Canadian authorities ask that you buy firewood on site, burn it there and—if some remains unused—leave it there. Crossing into the United States with firewood can be difficult, too. Hardwoods are prohibited. Softwoods may be allowed, but you will have to wait while officials inspect it for bugs.
New U.S. Rules
What kind of personal documentation do you need to visit Canada? If you are a U.S. citizen, you don’t need a passport, but you do need proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or naturalization papers, as well as a photo ID. If you are traveling with children, you must carry equivalent documents for them, minus the photo ID. If you are not the parent or legal guardian of the children, you should have written permission from the parent or guardian who authorizes the trip.
It’s a little trickier coming into the United States, which has implemented new requirements in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The privilege of entering the United States on the basis of an oral declaration of U.S. or Canadian citizenship ended on Jan. 31, 2008 when travelers were required to show a government-issued photo ID along with proof of citizenship such as an original birth certificate or a certified copy of one.
Effective June 1 this year, admission requirements for adults to the United States grow even tighter, requiring an “approved” document. For a U.S. Citizen, such a document will consist of a passport, a passport card, a valid “trusted traveler program” card such as FAST or NEXUS, an enhanced driver’s license, a military ID with official travel orders or a U.S. Merchant Marine Document for those traveling on maritime business.
For a Canadian citizen, approved documents will be the same except for military and Merchant Marine documents.
U.S. and Canadian citizens younger than 16 still will be able to present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
An enhanced driver’s license specifies both identity and citizenship, and contains security features to help prevent counterfeiting. Washington State has begun to issue such licenses for U.S. citizens who reside there. Arizona, Vermont and New York are developing them.
Unlike the United States, Canada has no current plans to tighten its entrance requirements this year.
Pets and Guns
If your dog or your cat travels with you, carry proof that it is up to date with rabies vaccinations.
Persons traveling with weapons may face special problems at the border. Canada does not recognize a person’s right to carry a weapon—not even pepper spray—for defense against people. A spray may be transported into Canada only if the traveler can make a case that it is intended for animals. For firearms, a traveler must be able to establish what Canada recognizes as a legitimate need for a weapon, such as for hunting or for an organized competition. In some cases, a traveler must apply for authorization in advance. Details are available on the Canadian government’s website.
St. John, the Canadian Border Services communications manager, offered this advice: “When you arrive at the border, declare your firearm to the border services officer, provide any documents required, and answer all questions truthfully.
“If you have declared a firearm but cannot meet the import requirements, or you do not have the proper documents, the border services officer may allow you to export the firearm from Canada,” she said. “At his or her discretion, the border services officer may detain the firearm, issue you a receipt and allow you a reasonable amount of time to present the correct documents . . .If you did not declare the firearm, we will seize it, and you may face criminal charges.”
Crossing into the U.S. with a weapon is not a problem if you can demonstrate that you took it out of the country in the first place. The easiest way to do so is to register the weapon and related equipment at any Customs and Border Protection office before leaving the United States. It’s not a bad idea to register newer foreign-made cameras and computers this way as well, so officials do not think you bought them in Canada.
Bob Mottram is a retired journalist and a freelance writer who lives in Anacortes, Washington. He is author of In Search of America’s Heartbeat: Twelve Months on the Road ($15.95), a personal memoir about fulltime RVing written for RVers. His book is available at the usual places and at his website, www.rvacrosstheusa.com.
If you plan to cross the U.S.-Canada border, it’s a good idea first to check a few of the websites the two nations maintain for travelers.
For U.S. border information, visit www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg
For Canadian border information, visit www.cbsa.gc.ca/publications/pub/rc4161-eng.html. The Canada Boarder Services Agency also recommends these websites:
For traveling to Canada, www.goingtocanada.gc.ca
For admissibility and required identification, www.cbsa.gc.ca/security-securite/admiss-eng.html
For visiting Canada, http://188.8.131.52/requirements/steps4.aspx
For camping in Canada, http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport 1738.html
For importing and exporting firearms and other weapons, www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/publications/pub/bsf5044-eng.html