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

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 travellers, 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 idiots! 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 minutes (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 travelling 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 luggage.

Occasionally, CBSA officers feel they need to dig deeper. One of the most common reasons for travellers 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 traveller 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 offence. As a general rule, Canada does not allow persons with DUIs 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 travelling and crossing borders, 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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