Crossing the border.

LAST UPDATED ON 2005-December-05!


Long before you plan to cross the US/Canadian border, certainly before you begin to pack for the trip, you should visit the US and Canadian Customs websites to find out what's legal and what's not. You can also get hard copies of the various brochures by visiting local Customs offices (every large city has them), although that probably won't help you with the foreign country's regulations.

Several things are heavily controlled or definitely banned from crossing. Among them are the following. Note that this is by no means a complete list. If you have any questions or doubts you MUST call the Customs offices of the country you're travelling into ahead of time to ask for specific instructions.




Many people insist on bringing along large amounts of money in the form of traveller's cheques or even cash. This can be a big mistake. To use that cash or those cheques the bearer must accept whatever exchange rate the vendor offers, and these are always exorbitant. You lose a bundle by just buying a hamburger in a fast food restaurant! Even if you buy the foreign currency at the bank or a currency exchange, you're paying an inflated rate (often as much as 2% or more) because they aren't going to make the exchange without also making a profit.

Charge cards, however, work a little differently. Currently, you are given the same exchange rate offered TO your bank. Effectively, you're buying the foreign currency for the same price that your bank pays. You've just eliminated the expensive middle man!

If you're just taking a one day jaunt to the other side of Niagra Falls that might not be too important. But, if you're going to travel for any length of time in a foreign country, that small percentage can add up. For Canadians, two percent (a common surcharge levied by banks) of a $10,000 trip to Disneyland (reputedly a typical amount) is $200. That's a lot of greasy cheeseburgers!

All this is predicated on the assumption that you're going to pay off that credit card bill before you have to pay any interest on it. Otherwise, you have to add that interest in as the cost of doing business and it may actually cost you more than the higher, bank's exchange rate.

Obviously you must balance your ability to pay back the entire bill immediately, thus avoiding both a higher exchange rate as well as the added interest, against the convenience of being able to pay it back over an extended period of time in spite of the higher exchange rate and brutal interest levies. Your resources and your strategy are clearly the issue.


Several questions are almost always asked as you cross the border.

"How many people in your vehicle?"
You are usually not asked this unless the officer can't see clearly into your entire vehicle (e.g., as with a van, bus or motorhome).
"You're citizens of where?"
US and Canadian citizens seldom have to present any documentation. If they do, usually only a birth certificate, driver's license or both will suffice. But if you have a passport, do not hesitate to carry and display it to the Customs officer.

The only significant exception are people of Middle Eastern ancestry who may be asked to present further identification as a result of the 9/11 tragedy. (This sort of discrimination is reprehensible but often unavoidable. If you fall into this group you should either be prepared for it or change your travel plans.)

If you're not a Canadian or US citizen you will be required to present passports or other documentation and probably have to speak with an immigration officer. This situation is beyond the scope of this page. Seek help or advice elsewhere.

"You're residents of where?"
What city or geographic district do you live in or near?
"You're going where?" or "For what purpose?"
Tell them the most major city on your itinerary or "on business " or "on vacation" (for instance) to ... (the most major destination on your trip).
"Do you have any drugs?"
Say "No" or "Only prescription drugs" if appropriate. Do not be stupid enough to try to smuggle drugs across the border!
"Do you have any alcohol?"
If so, say so. This situation is beyond the scope of this page and you should seek advice or help elsewhere.
"Do you have any tobacco?"
If so, say so. This situation is beyond the scope of this page and you should seek advice or help elsewhere.
"Do you have anything to declare?" or "Are you bringing anything with you that you will not be bringing back as you return?"
This is the crux of the entire issue and will be discussed at length below.


Canadians have been using debit cards freely for about two decades now. In fact, few businesses will accept cheques any more and even fast food restaurants like Wendy's and McDonalds accept debit cards.

The USA is finally catching up to Canada! Slowly, more and more US merchants are beginning to accept debit cards, but not universally and usually with great suspicion and trepidation. On a recent trip to Michigan (Summer, 2003) it was noted that many businesses required photo ID before they'd accept a debit card! When many businesses were asked if they would accept debit cards they responded "No, but we take charge cards like VISA, Master Card or AMEX."

Canadians travelling to the USA should be cautious not to assume that their Interac card would be accepted everywhere and without question as in Canada. One must expect inconveniences and minor vexations when travelling in third world countries. (It's a joke! It's a joke! But they deserve the ribbing.)


This is the second place (after the citizenship part) where people most often get into trouble.

If you're leaving your home country and entering a foreign country (e.g., Americans crossing into Canada), the Customs officers usually expect to get a "No" answer because you've not been anywhere yet. However, if you really are taking a gift to Aunt Josey in Moose Jaw, by all means tell Customs! You'll almost certainly not be bothered over trivial gifts, and more expensive items will only be considered by Customs if they're expensive enough to make all the paperwork worth the bother. In any circumstances, paying a few dollars duty is by far preferable to suffering the embarrassment, penalties and delay if you're caught trying to smuggle something across the border.

However, as you return to your home country from abroad, the Customs officers fully expect that you'll be bringing souvenirs or merchandise back with you. (Cross border shopping by Canadians is legendary because the Canadian market apparently is incapable of accommodating the scope and depth of products available in the USA.) If you declare that you are not bringing anything back they immediately get suspicious and pull you over for a search. At a minimum, always buy some small, inexpensive curios or other items and declare them as you return, even if you've only been out of the country a few hours. Such a trivial effort on your part can save you several hours and a lot of inconvenience at the border.


(Credit: Kevin Bacon as Valentine McKee in the movie Tremors.)

As we tour the USA, we collect receipts for everything that we purchase. Usually this is no problem as we use our charge cards or debit cards (see the sidebars) as much as possible while travelling and automatically are given a receipt. In other circumstances we are certain to ask for a receipt if one isn't offered. All such receipts are kept in a special, large envelope reserved specifically for this purpose.

As we approach the border, Marguerite goes through these receipts and itemizes those that contain products or goods that we are taking back with us. A sample itemisation might look something like this.
Wal-Mart (Houston, TX) $25.87
Catherine's Dress Shop (Dallas, TX) $134.43
From's Shell Service (Wayland, OK) $257.86
K-Mart (Denver, CO) $87.54
Figworth's Emporium (Cheyenne, WY) $34.52
TOTAL $540.22

Note that we're neither itemising WHAT we're bringing back nor the TOTAL that we spent at each place of business. We're only itemizing the BUSINESSES where we spent the money and the PORTION of the receipt that we're claiming. For instance, the amount spent at Wal-Mart was actually significantly larger than what we're claiming because we purchased food there that was subsequently consumed on the trip. It is not being imported into Canada and therefore isn't listed.

Each of the listed receipts is attached to our master list for future reference. And on each receipt those items that we are claiming as being brought into Canada are circled or otherwise highlighted for future reference.

Lastly, relatively trivial items that have been used, were purchased as used or that are partly consumed are not listed. There are exceptions to this, however. Our teenaged grandson's partly eaten bag of potato chips (purchased in Great Falls) will be of little interest to Customs Canada, but the new tires that we had to buy in Wayland, OK must be declared even though we already have 1,000 kilometres on them. Customs will not allow us to ignore such big ticket items. Too much duty is at stake.


While the example we've given here is for Canadian residents returning home from a vacation in the USA, travelling in the other direction involves almost an identical sequence of events. The direction you're travelling is relatively unimportant and the fundamental concepts are the same.


In answer to the Customs Officer's question we say "Yes." At that point they almost always ask either "What?" or "How much?" We then respond by presenting the list as shown above. The officer does a quick mental conversion to Canadian dollars, divides by the number of people in our vehicle and makes a value judgement about whether to pursue recovery of taxes and duty on our importations.

Because we were out of the country for more than 48 hours and because of the statutory exemptions per person, we seldom have to pay duty or taxes. On the rare occasion that we do, the actual duty and taxes are relatively minimal. The most we've ever had to pay (except when importing a motorhome) was about CDN $35.00. Take our advice: Avoid a lot of grief, embarrassment and possible heavy fines and/or imprisonment, not to mention the legal costs and time wasted at the border, by claiming everything up front and getting on with your life.



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Copyright © 2004, Stanley A. Schultz and Marguerite J. Schultz.
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This page was initially created on 2004-January-05.
The last revision occurred on 2005-December-05.