The Day I Was Almost Denied Entry to Canada (Don’t Be Like Me!)

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Toronto, September 2013

Toronto, September 2013

Ever wondered why I sound like a smartass when I give immigration advice? Well… that would be because I’ve made my share of mistakes when I first traveled back and forth between France and Canada.

I recently wrote a few tips about crossing the Canadian border smoothly. Now, I have to share my own horror story—a cautionary tale of what happens when you are not prepared.

Late 2003, after Feng and I traveled to Latin America, Australia and New Zealand, I came back to France for a few months. I had visited Canada once in 2002 at that point—this was before I immigrated to Canada.

In fall 2003, Feng and I decided to take another trip to Central America together. The plan was for me to fly to Canada, spend Thanksgiving with Feng in Ottawa, and then we would take the Greyhound from Ottawa to the US/Mexican border. Back then, the bus trip was only about $50, it was the cheapest way to get to Mexico (and the longest, most uncomfortable way possible as well, but that’s another story).

I bought my plane ticket to Canada: Paris-Toronto-Ottawa.

The trip was uneventful until we landed in Toronto. For some reason I can’t remember, I didn’t clear custom and immigration in Toronto. I was considered “in transit”—airport security requirements were still changing daily back then.

After waiting in transit for a few hours in Toronto, I boarded a late flight to Ottawa. When we landed at Macdonald-Cartier International Airport an hour later, I was the only one who had to clear immigration—all the other passengers on that short domestic flight had Canadian passports and most were executives or government employees.

They went through easily.

I didn’t.

I was stopped by a CBSA officer as soon as I stepped off the plane.

“What’s the purpose of your trip to Canada?”

“Leisure”, I replied. “I’m visiting the country.”

The officer flipped through my passport and noted I had been to Canada once, in 2002. He also arched an eyebrow when he saw all the stamps I had gotten during our previous trips.

“Why are you coming to Ottawa today?”

“I wanted to visit the national capital.”

He paused and looked at me suspiciously. Looking back, I can’t blame him. Most visitors land in Toronto or Montreal and bus or drive around the region or drive. Few people land directly in Ottawa, fewer on the last flight of the day.

“Do you know anyone in Ottawa?”

“… Mmmm… I have a friend there,” I admitted.

A “friend”. Feng and I were technically dating back then but I didn’t want to make a big deal of having a Canadian boyfriend. I was afraid the officer would assume I’d stay illegally.

“Where are you staying in Ottawa? At your friend’s place?”

“No,” I lied. “At the hostel.”

I didn’t want to drag Feng into this.

“And what are you going to do in Ottawa?”

“… Visit the city?” I said tentatively. “It’s Canada’s national capital!” I added with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

It was late and I had a long flight behind me. I couldn’t have sounded less convincing.

At this point, you are probably wondering why I didn’t tell the truth: yes, I had a Canadian boyfriend, I was going to meet him in Ottawa and in a week or so we would be taking the Greyhound to Mexico across the USA.

Well, I was afraid my travel plans would sound crazy. Remember, I was just 21 and I had little money. I didn’t want the officer to assume… assume what, exactly? No idea.

I was dumb.

I was doing exactly what you are not supposed to do—lie and dodge questions.

To add to my misery, the CBSA officer was “bilingual” and spoke to me in French. Problem was, I wasn’t too familiar with the local French accent and I couldn’t understand him well. I kept on asking him to repeat and it annoyed him visibly.

Eventually, after questioning me for what seemed hours but was more like twenty minutes, he let me go.

“You gotta be prepared when you go through immigration,” he warned me. “What kind of tourist doesn’t have a travel plan?”

He was right. I can’t blame him—my own stupidity.

As soon as I stepped out of the airport and after sharing my story with Feng who had been waiting for me in the empty arrival hall, I opened my passport and checked my immigration stamp. The officer had granted me the usual six-month stay as a tourist—phew! I was afraid for a second he would have scribbled something like “idiot didn’t seem to know what she was doing”.

I promised myself I would never be that clueless traveler ever again.

Don’t jeopardize your trip—be prepared to be questioned at immigration and be honest!

Got any border story to share?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

30 Comments

  1. Agreed, don’t mess with the CBSA. They do this job every single day and they can literally smell a lie.
    I had a rather positive experience once. My job required me to leave Canada for a few days when I didn’t have my PR card yet. Applying for a travel document was not an option as I was abroad for only a few days. So I decided to give it a try and returned to Canada without a PR card. As a German citizen, I don’t need a visa, so I could’ve said I’m a tourist, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my status before I even got the PR card. So, I told the officer what the situation was. He asked me if I have at least my IMM 5688 form (confirmation of permanent residence) which I didn’t because it said in bold letters “NOT VALID FOR TRAVEL”. So he told me that it is indeed not a valid travel document, yet it would prove my status which he can’t determine with the little information he’s got on his screen. He advised that next time I better have a PR card or at least this supporting document and that was it. He allowed me to enter.
    So yeah, honesty is the best policy :).

    • Agreed! And thank you for sharing your experience, I almost did the same a few years ago but the “no valid for travel” mention on the document held me back and I waited for the PR card.

  2. 😀 T’as dû avoir peur qu’il ne retourne en France 😉 Ou bien visite à l’hôpital pour faire caca devant tout le monde au cas où tu avais été une mule 😉

    Depuis qu’on regarde “Douanes sous haute surveillance”, on déclare la bouffe qu’on a, à chaque fois 🙂 Et en parlant d’accent, nous un jour on arrive à Montréal, la fille des douanes était anglophone mais me parlait Français faque cool… mais elle comprenait à moitié ou genre pas bien ce que je lui disais… Je lui dis que j’avais des bonbons, du vin (la limite autorisée) pis du foie gras en can… Elle comprenait pas c’était quoi, je lui dis en Québécois (parce que je reprends vite mon accent là-bas) : “Ben, cé d’la bouffe!” “Quoi? De la boeuf?” “Non non pas du boeuf, de la bouffe…something you can eat!” 😀 Donc forcément elle me regardait croche pis j’ai dû faire un détour par ses collègues qui fouillent les valises pour leur montrer c’était quoi 😉 Le gars en avait rien à foutre, j’ai ouvert une valise (pis en fille super organisée je savais y’était où l’esti d’foie gras!) il a vu que c’était en can pis y m’a dit de repartir 😉 Est-ce parce qu’il s’en foutait ou parce que j’avais du monde au balcon, ça reste un mystère 😉 LOL

    • :lol:!

      J’ai toujours plein de questions sur la bouffe (et non, pas le boeuf :lol:) à Montréal, je pense qu’ils sont habitués aux maudits Français qui ramènent tout plein de choses. Mais c’est pas notre cas! Je n’ai jamais de nourriture. Par contre, la dernière fois, ils ont failli pas nous laisser passer avec le lait en poudre (formula) de Mark parce qu’on l’avait acheté en France (forcément, on revenait de France). Bizarre…!

      • Je pense que le foie gras passe en général. J’en ai apporté chez ma famille une fois pour noël. La première dame qui m’a questionnée ne savait pas ce que c’était et m’a envoyée voir un autre homme… Qui savait ce que c’était et qui s’en fichait. Mais c’était aussi en conserve sous vide. Pourtant c’était aux USA.

        We’ll be lost likely crossing the border next summer in a car, so I’ve enjoyed your advice, zhu!

        • I think sometime it really depends on the officer. Des amis français apportent toujours de la charcuterie et apparemment, jamais un problème pour eux.

          Crossing by land is pretty easy I find!

  3. I would have said exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reasons!

    Even when I couchsurf, I *never* say the word couchsurfing and I also never name my hosts, ever. I always say I’m staying at the hostel.

    I’ve been interrogated in Australia (2 hours), UK (2.5 hours), the USA (multiple times, varying from short to half an hour). I only ever name people I’m staying with if we’re close and we’ve discussed the travel plans and I warn them they may get a call.

    When Paulo visited me last year from Portugal and we were to travel together to the USA, I primed him for the questions he’d get asked at the US border. I told him to mention me, but NOT that we met through couchsurfing, but to keep it simple and say he met me in Porto, where I was on a birthday trip (which wasn’t a lie).

    What we were not prepared for was that the Canadians would phone ME from Pearson Airport and ask us the same questions, separately, upon his arrival (I still haven’t written out that story yet, maybe I can get him to do it.)

    Luckily we were already prepared for the Americans questioning us so we were synced on our answers, but when Canadian Border Services asked him my name, he got stuck at Gail… he couldn’t remember my last name! But he surprised them by rattling off my birthday without hesitation when they asked him, which backed up his story of how we met on my birthday.

    One of the (joke) reasons why we got married on my birthday this year — we knew he would never forget that date.

    • Wow, I’m surprised they actually called him! It’s easy to say the wrong thing too, even if you are a legitimate couple. I think I got our wedding date wrong once when questioned in LA. Ooops…!

      Couchsurfing is more mainstream now so I’m sure some officers would be okay with it. But why risk it? Saying you are staying at the hotel is probably safer.

      • They didn’t call him, he was standing there at Passport Control when they sent him to secondary for questioning. When the officer called me I was less than five minutes from Pearson. She had me on the phone and him in front of her, and she asked us the questions in turn.

        Anything that involves the internet raises a flag at Passport Control. When I have foreigners in my car and we cross to the U.S., I make sure we get our stories straight before we reach the border because it can be very problematic if anyone doesn’t answer the officer right away. They seem to lose all patience if you don’t answer quickly, and god help you if English isn’t your first language because they have even less patience for that… I’ve seen them yell at people for no reason other than the person asking them for clarification on a question.

        • Ah, I see!

          Yep, same experience, seeing officers getting frustrated with people who couldn’t express themselves well enough in English to give precise answers. Detroit is one of my worst memories for that… we were crossing by land and we all had to get off the bus and sit at the immigration office, waiting to be questioned one by one. The officers did NOT have a sense of humour. A lot of folks were crossing to watch a baseball game (I was new here, can’t remember what game exactly but it was a big deal apparently… the World Series maybe? That was in 2003) and some were new to border crossing. It took hours to clear everyone.

          • Detroit has got to be the WORST of all the border crossings.

            I want to tell them, “Hellooooo, you should be BEGGING Canadians to go to Detroit, not the other way around!”

            (Also, totally avoid Queenston-Lewiston in the Niagara Region. It’s the commercial border and they’re big jerks. The best for that area is Rainbow Bridge.)

          • This one my one and only experience in Detroit and I’ve been avoiding that border crossing ever since! Agreed on the NIagara Fall crossing.

  4. I’ve been watching Border Security ever since you mentioned it in one of your recent posts – it’s so addictive!

    I haven’t had a Canadian passport since 2005. Every time I land in Montreal I go though the line for foreign visitors. I start to sweat as soon as I take that left turn with my landing card in my hand. I don’t know if I legally have to travel with a Canadian passport (like US citizens) and my heart is pounding when I see the officer leafing though my passport and looking at the entry stamps for Canada. I’ve been asked if I’ve been to Canada before (despite the stamps in my passport) and who I will be visiting. I always just reply, “Yes, and I’m visiting friends.” I never offer more than what they ask for and always look them in the eye while I’m talking. I don’t move around and just stand still. I’ve only been caught out once as being a “fake” foreigner by a CBSA agent and he didn’t say anything about travelling with another passport. Instead he was really friendly and said, “Welcome home!”. It really is a strange feeling for me going though Canadian immigration as a foreigner but also an eye-opening experience as to how immigration works at a Canadian aiport.

    Now that you’re Canadian and you get to “turn right” do they ask you any questions about food (besides Mark’s milk) when you pass through? When I land in Europe sometimes the agent doesn’t even nod his head as the whole process is so fast. Is that what it’s like when you “go right”? How about when you have a PR card? Do they ask you extra questions? I’m just really curious about this.

    I’m off to watch another episode!

    • I am the opposite: I’ve been traveling with a Canadian passport since 2009 (my French passport expired and it’s a lot of hassle to renew it abroad). And yes, even with a Canadian passport, I am asked about importing food. That’s only in Montreal though, I find going through Toronto is easier.

      It was super strange when I first travel to France with my Canadian passport and got a Nantes Aéroport stamp! 😆 We are never questioned in Europe, except when landing in the UK where officers seem to be more strict. Oh, once in Amsterdam the officer wondered why I was using my EU passport, I had to explain that it expired, etc.

      I’d rather we all travel with a Canadian passport (Feng obviously doesn’t have a French passport). It’s easier, we are all in the same lineup.

  5. Kiwi-en-Jersey on

    I always dread UK border security.

    I used to live in France (student from New Zealand) and my (now ex) boyfriend, a UK citizen, lived in the UK. I would visit one weekend a month. Every time without fail I would get asked a multitude of questions including the purpose of my visit (seeing a friend), how I met my friend, my friends job etc. etc. One officer suggested I should have a visitors visa due to my frequent visits. This baffled me because as a NZer I can visit the UK for 6 months at a time, and they could see I always went back to France after a few days.

    Fast-foward to trying to enter Jersey (Channel Islands) after a weekend in France with a 2 year UK working holiday visa (which entitled me to work in Jersey) the immigration officers questioned me and my ex-boyfriend extensively about my plans and his plans for when my visa expired (it still had 1 year validity).

    Now I am a Jersey work-permit holder and have leave to remain in Jersey while the permit is valid. I don’t get questioned anymore by UK immigration, but I always get questioned getting back on the plane when returning to the UK by overseas officers. I guess Jersey is not well known and they need to check that my papers are legit.

    • I feel your pain because I always get questioned when landing in the UK with a Canadian passport… and I have nothing to hide! It’s just that flying to London and then to my hometown in France is sometime cheaper than flying through Charles-de-Gaulle in Paris (I hate this airport anyway). I was surprised to see how “tough” the officers were in the UK with a Canadian passport holder… and a legitimate tourist!

      What are you doing in Jersey? I’m a bit lost… what’s the jurisdiction there? I.e. how come you need a separate permit?

      On a side note, I backpacked in NZ in 2003 and completely fell in love with the country and the people. One of the best places on earth, seriously. Where are you from exactly?

  6. Kiwi-en-Jersey on

    Jersey it’s own country, and is according to wiki: “a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with its own financial, legal and judicial systems, and the power of self-determination.”

    I find it all quite confusing – when I pass through UK border security elsewhere in the UK the travel onwards to Jersey is considered domestic, so it is part of the UK in that respect.

    I moved to Jersey after studying in Clermont-Ferrand to met up with my (ex) boyfriend when he got a job there. I worked a bit while searching for a job in my field (geology), I happened upon the company I work for now and 1.5 years on I am still working in my dream job based in Jersey and travelling around eastern Europe and the middle east.

    I am from Tauranga in New Zealand. Going back there in Dec for Christmas – can’t wait!

    • Thank you for the update! You’d think as a European I would know about all these islands… 😆 I am familiar with Guernesey (I think this is where Victor Hugo was in exile if I remember correctly) but Jersey not so much.

      I’m very happy to hear you are working in your dream job! Funny eh? You had to travel quite a bit to find it 😉

      Lucky you, going back home for Christmas! I haven’t visited Tauranga, went straight to Rotorua.

  7. I always get a ton of questions at the airport when I return to Canada for a visit. I mean, they can’t really deny me entry considering I have a Canadian passport, but I find it funny that they seem almost “suspicious” of why this Canadian might be visiting…Canada! lol

    On the other hand, whenever I come back to France, I get my passport stamped at immigration in Roissy, and more often than not, the police officer at the little window barely looks at me or my passport. I always come back into France without a return ticket (not that they would ask or care to know), and not once have I been asked to show my resident card. They’re just like, “Come on into France! We don’t need to see any documents or anything!” One time, they even forgot to stamp my passport, and when it came time to renew my carte de séjour, I had to go all the way back to Roissy with my boarding card stub (good thing I had kept it!) to get the stamp. It helped that Max came with me and he’s a cop, so they were able to “pull some strings” and get me the stamp relatively easily…

    • French immigration at Roissy is very lax I find. They barely glance at passports… the last time, they didn’t even have the machine to “read” them, they just had a quick look and “bonjour”.

      I always find it strange to be questioned upon returning to Canada with a Canadian passport. Back when my French passport was still valid (and I was no longer living in France) no one ever asked me a thing in France!

  8. Great story ! Going through customs always made nervous because they ask so many questions and all i want to say back to them is “None of your business”, but then i remember it is part of their job. Though last time i traveled with a friend of mine to Ivory Coast, the border custom only spoke French and i had to translate for her, but he got so irate that she did not speak French, and he kept making snide comments to her in French and i kept telling him it was not here fault and she is just a tourist, but it did not seem to help. It took us awhile before he handed her passport back.

  9. My first time crossing the border was a mess. I was 19 and crossing the land boarder by a bus heading from Seattle to Vancouver. I had just flown in from Cleveland, Ohio and had spent over 14 hours in transit so far and was crossing the border for the first time EVER (and by myself no less) and I was tired and a little overwhelmed. I get off the bus and go to talk to the guy…

    “What’s your purpose in Canada?”

    “Uhm, leisure?”

    “Not an acceptable answer.”

    “Uhm…I’m visiting family….” I was actually going to visit my long distance boyfriend for the first time but I was really embarrassed.

    “For?”

    “…Family stuff? Visiting?”

    They let me through, probably because I was young and they could tell I wasn’t a threat, just a really scared kid. Still, I was terrified they’d detain me or something. On the contrary going back to the US, while a lot more luggage searching the interview was easier. “Why were you in canada?” “Visiting family” “Got anything to declare?” “No” “Coolio.”

    • Oh, I feel for you because I was in the exact same position! I was always shy to say I was visiting Feng, my boyfriend (now husband) at the time. It thought it sounded… stupid.

      I find that people who are scared at the border aren’t usually getting into trouble. Those who think they have the right to cross are the ones who end up detained or sent back home because of their attitude.

  10. John A Canuck on

    I’m convinced the function of border control is just to intimidate and bully random people, because it is completely ineffective to ask anyone anything, either they have papers or they don’t, either the dogs and x-rays detect things or they don’t. The innocent are frightened, and criminals are good liars. By definition they can only catch honest people.

    Working under the table in Canada isn’t viable, and you can’t get access to services without documents… yet we’re harassing visitors for not having detailed enough plans? Is it illegal to just wing it? Do all tourist need to be the organized sightseeing type? And worse, one random low paid employee is judge and jury.

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