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 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?