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Border Crossing: Navigating the U.S.-Canada Border

4 min read

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By Mara Cortez

Learn information about crossing the border from the U.S. to Canada and back. Explore necessary documents and rules about transporting items through customs.

The divide between the U.S. and Canada spans over 5,500 miles. In fact, it’s the longest international border in the world. Thirteen states touch the border on the U.S. side, and eight provinces and territories on the Canadian side.

Prior to the late 2000s, entering and exiting Canada from the U.S. required no more than photo ID. However, as of 2007, passports or passport cards have been required to cross the border on both sides. Before approaching the border and going through customs, it’s important to know all of the rules and regulations regarding lawful border crossing.

What Documents Do You Need to Cross the Border?

To legally cross the border in Canada, Americans need to present a valid U.S. passport, a valid U.S. passport card or NEXUS card. Passport cards are only permissible for land travel; for air travel, a passport is required for anyone without a NEXUS card. Passports must remain valid for at least three months beyond the date of entry.

American citizens or permanent residents crossing into Canada do not need a visa to visit but may need a work visa depending on employment plans.

What Is a NEXUS Card?

A NEXUS card is an alternative form of ID managed through a joint effort by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Canada Border Services Agency. The Trusted Traveler program allows low-risk individuals who cross the border frequently to bypass some of the traditional challenges in border crossings. Anyone who has been a permanent resident or citizen of the U.S., Canada or Mexico for longer than three years is permitted to apply for a NEXUS card.

NEXUS cards can be used in place of a passport when traveling to Canada by land, sea or air. Not all land crossings have NEXUS lanes — this is generally reserved for the major entry points. When entering or exiting Canada by air, NEXUS cards can be used for custom declarations at participating airports. NEXUS members are automatically eligible for the Global Entry program and TSA PreCheck. This can be managed using the TSA Global Entry login.

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Setting Up a Global Entry Account

To apply for Global Entry, all users will be required to set up a Trusted Traveler Programs (TTP) account and pay the $100 fee. Once an application is completed and submitted, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reviews the information. After a preliminary acceptance, applicants visit a Global Entry Enrollment Center for an interview. Applicants should bring a passport and other form of photo ID to the interview.

What Information Do You Need to Provide at Customs?

The information needed at customs can vary based on land or air travel.

Land Travel

As with most international travel, travelers moving between the U.S. and Canada by land should be prepared to answer several basic questions.

When entering Canada, border agents usually ask questions like:

Travelers are encouraged to have an itinerary ready to present if necessary, including hotel reservations. U.S. customs agents will ask similar questions at the border when crossing back into the United States.

When crossing the border, always be polite to customs agents. Border crossing is a privilege, not a right, and rudeness or aggression can result in denial.


Air Travel

Entering Canada by air requires the preparation of a declaration form. At some airports, this process can be handled electronically at a Primary Inspection Kiosk. Where this is not possible, documents are distributed on the aircraft for completion.

Declarations forms cover the same information asked in person during land crossings, including the dates, purpose and location of a visit. Any goods being transported, like commercial goods, firearms, meat products and currency must also be included.

What Items Can Be Brought to Canada Without a Declaration?

Larger or potentially dangerous items must be declared when entering the border crossing from Canada to the U.S. or from the U.S. to Canada. However, there are duty-free limits in place that allow select items to enter the country without a declaration. These include:

Any quantity over these amounts brought into Canada is subject to forfeiture if not properly declared.

Firearms can’t be brought into Canada without a proper declaration and either a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) or Non-Resident Firearm Declaration form, as well as a valid hunting license for the province or territory in question.

Any pets accompanying travelers require proof of vaccination against rabies within the last three years.


Why Might a Visitor Be Turned Away at the Border?

Crossing the border is never guaranteed. While citizens can generally always return home, Americans attempting to enter Canada and Canadians attempting to enter America do not have a universal right to do so. There are several reasons a visitor may be denied entry at the border, including:

Tip: To increase likelihood of a seamless U.S.-Canada border crossing, be sure all documents are valid, declarations are comprehensive and complete and that any goods being transported are legally permissible to enter the country.


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