Don’t Mess Up With CBSA—Tips for a Smooth Border Crossing to Canada

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Toronto, September 2013

Toronto, September 2013

Ever heard of Border Security? This Canadian documentary series airing on the National Geographic channel shadows Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers at the Vancouver International Airport as people pass through immigration and customs.

I find this series fascinating. You see travelers, both Canadians and foreign, trying to smuggle goods or getting in illegally. People lie, threaten, plaid ignorance, get angry, etc. as CBSA agents dig deeper to get to the bottom of things. Sitting in front of the TV, you can’t help thinking “man, these people are idiot! Don’t they know any better?”

Well, maybe not. Many people don’t know how to deal with border-crossing procedures. Many more still think they can lie and not get caught.

Remember: crossing borders is not a right but a privilege. And you must comply with a few requirements.

In Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency is the federal law enforcement agency responsible for border and immigration enforcement as well as customs services. Whether you drive fly or boat to Canada, you will have a chat with a CBSA officer—they work on the front lines, screening persons entering the country.

Most of the time, if you are prepared, getting your passport stamped will only take a few minute (plus waiting time, of course). But take this five-minute chat seriously as it can make or break your trip.

First, you will be asked to show your passport. Yes, you do need a passport to enter Canada. No, Canada is not part of the United States and while the rules may have been more relaxed once upon a time, you need a passport. Should I say it again? Carry your goddamn passport!

Make sure your passport is still valid and that it hasn’t been in the washing machine or chewed by your dog (or kid).

Don’t be an ass. Just don’t. I know you had a long trip and that you are dying to drink your first cup of Tim Hortons coffee, but just hold on for a few more minutes. Most CBSA officers are nice people but they can sound cold. Hey, they are doing their job—you will get a proper friendly Canadian greeting past customs. Don’t be confrontational. Take off your sunglasses, your headphones and leave your phone in your pocket. Stand up straight like if you were going to the principal’s office at school.

Good. Now you just have to answer a few questions, for instance:

  • Where do you come from?
  • What’s the purpose of your trip in Canada?
  • Where will you be staying in Canada?
  • How long will you be in Canada for?
  • Have you ever been in Canada?
  • Do you have family, friends or relatives in Canada?

Answer the questions directly and please, please, don’t crack jokes. Canadians do have a sense of humour but this is neither the time nor the place.

Note that residents returning to Canada have to answer a few questions too, including:

  • How long have you been traveling outside of Canada for?
  • Where have you been?
  • What was the purpose of your trip?
  • What are you bringing back to Canada?

Most of the time, that will be it. Your passport will be stamped and you will be on your way to pick up your luggages.

Occasionally, CBSA officers feel they need to dig deeper. One of the most common reasons for travelers to be grilled at the border is when CBSA officers don’t believe they are “just” tourists and feel they may overstay or stay illegally in Canada.

Remember that people can be denied entry to Canada for a number of reasons, including security, criminality, health, financial or non-compliance reasons.

A few tips regarding that:

You may be asked to prove that you can support yourself financially for the duration of your stay. Having a credit card or traveler checks can help convince a CBSA officer that you are prepared. Showing a travel itinerary and describing travel plans help too. And don’t make too much of having friends or family in Canada—it may play against you, officers may think you don’t have sufficient ties back home and that you won’t leave Canada.

Another concern is crossing the border with a DUI. The biggest surprise for most Americans is that they may be turned away at the Canadian border if they have any type of alcohol related offense. As a general rule, Canada does not allow persons with DUI’s to enter their country—be aware of it!

Always find out if you need a visa for Canada, and make sure you understand the restrictions of your visa or work permit. If you are coming with a visitor visa, don’t even think of saying you are looking for a job—you cannot work in Canada with a visitor visa.

Prepare for your arrival. If you are used to traveling and crossing border, you know the drill. If this is your first trip abroad (welcome to Canada!) there is no shame in gathering as much info as you can before arriving. Know what to expect once the plane lands—it will make you feel more confident.

For more info, you can check the following official info from the Government of Canada:

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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.

19 Comments

  1. I always get the fear when crossing the border, even though I know I have done nothing wrong and. I follow all the rules!! I like the way you think about it…crossing the border is a privilege, not a right 🙂

    • I think it comes from our European upbringing… well, I know it’s different for the UK but we weren’t used to border crossing in Europe. On a side note, UK border officers are tough! The last two times we were there, even as Canadian passport holders and bona fide tourists, we were questioned quite a bit. It was strange, I wasn’t expecting it.

  2. Je ne sais pas si c’est la même chose ou senblable, nous on regarde “Douanes sous haute surveillance”, je crois que c’est le même principe que l’émission que tu décris mais ça se passe en Australie 🙂 Les douanes cherchent ceux qui passent de la drogue mais aussi ceux qui font passer de la “nourriture interdite” sous peine d’amende 🙂 Moi aussi j’aime bien regarder ça, et je me dis que si un jour on va en Australie on a tout intérêt à montrer pattes blanches! 🙂

  3. “Crossing borders is a privilege, not a right?”

    Really?

    I would suggest re-reading (or perhaps just reading) the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states clearly that leaving and returning to your country is a basic human right. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says the same thing.

    These are not privileges that are earned or granted, these are rights that are ours at birth.

    • From a philosophical point of view, you’re right. And for the record, I’m pro immigration and I support the free movement of people. Yet, you can be turned away at the border. This was the point of the article–don’t come quoting the UN Declaration (which, again, I support fully), just meet the requirements and use common sense 🙂

  4. Zhu, you’re an idiot. I have never read this much rubbish coming from just one person. I don’t know what nazi country you grew up in, but for me crossing a border is a right and not a privilege. I think its time for you to wake up.

    • I would love to argue with you but I doubt it’s gonna be constructive if you call me an idiot. To answer your question, I grew up in France. Since you used the world “rubbish”, I’m guessing you are either British, either from one of the Commonwealth countries. Nice to meet you.

      You can argue all you want, crossing borders in the 21st century is not a right. I wish it was. See, I’m one of these persons who support free trade and the free movements of people. Unfortunately, borders in some areas of the world are barriers. And I think it’s wrong to start getting excited and arguing about your rights at the border. My point is, you can protest all you want, petition, but when you are about to cross, if you want to do so smoothly, you have to make concessions.

      If you want to argue, I’m here. If you were just spitting your hate on the web. move on and have a nice life.

  5. Pure and simple. You can leave and return to your country of citizenship freely because you enter your country by right. You DO NOT enter a country of which you are not a permanent resident or citizen by right, when you arrive at the border you are making an application for entry into that country, which can be denied. Immigration laws can be difficult to understand, but all countries are essentially the same when it comes to visiting foreign nationals.

  6. you really are an idiot zhu.. entering my own country is a RIGHT. accept this and move on. maybe travelers are not ok with being drilled with 101 questions such as where did you get the money to pay for your trip, or what is your brothers name. its completely ridiculous. if we have nothing illegal, and doing nothing illegal then this scumbag border agents should mind their own business and fight real crime

    • If you knew me you’d understand that I’m not necessarily okay with that either and I do believe we should all be able to move freely from one country to another. The reality is different. I don’t want to be that person advising people to get adversarial and defensive because in my experience, you won’t win and you will get in troubles.

      I’m a traveler, I’ve crossed dozens of borders by foot, by plane, by bus, by train. I’ve also seen a guy shot in front of me because he tried to force his way in.

      Don’t be that guy.

      And calling me an idiot was completely unecessary.

  7. Hi Zhu

    Quick question

    back in January I tried flying from LA to Edmonton but I had a stop in Calgary in which thier CBSA sent me to Secondary by “random selection”. It was my first time ever travelling internationally and it really made me upset because they asked really personal questions, as if they were purposely trying to fimd any sliver of a reason to deny me. I had all my documents and I have never done wrong. I yold them everything and it didn’t help that I hadn’t slept in 50 hours due to the travelling. After 25 minutes of questioning I was told to sit on the bench. After a couple hours I ended up having a panic attack because I felt like I was going to be jailed. In which I practically was. They detained me, read me my rights and took me to a hospital, where I was promised that it would be paid for (it wasn’t, but that’s another story). I was checkout out by psychiatrists and got no sleep (btw it was -40 and they confiscated my jacket). Afterwards I was put in the Calgary Remand Centre, where I was held for the day and finally sent back. (They allowed me to “Ask to leave”).

    I plan on trying again, this time, to Victoria and I’m hoping for a better experience. But my question is: How do I answer “Have you been in Canada?” due to my past experience? I wasn’t let in, but I wasn’t really “denied” either. Any advice?

    • I have no idea, I’m not an immigration lawyer, it wouldn’t be right for me to advise you. You should communicate with officials in this case if you don’t want to be denied entry again.

  8. CBSA guys are one of the rudest & most power tripping guys you will meet. They are extremely unprofessional, aggressive & get a perverse pleasure out of harassing travellers. Sadly they cannot be touched & are above the law. Don’t bother filing a complaint, nothing will come of it.

    Canadians are nice & decent people. But not the CBSA idiots & morons working at our borders and airports. So as a Canadian, I apologize on behalf of all the people who have had the displeasure of dealing with these bunch of tools.

    • I can’t say I had terrible experiences with CBSA. It really depends on the agent and on your own attitude I’d say. Same goes with US border officials. I had terrible experiences and great ones.

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