Border Crossing Tips

Official Border Crossing Information – U.S. Immigration Dept.

 

Tips Compiled from TripAdvisor.com

A little preparation will help simplify the process of entering the United States.  For the documents you need to enter the United States, scroll down to the section that matches your situation:

  • Visitors with Canadian Citizenship
  • Visitors with Mexican Citizenship
  • Visitors from Visa Waiver Program Countries
  • Visitors Requiring Visas
  • Returning United States Citizens
  • Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States

General tips for a hassle-free border crossing are found at the end of this article.

Visitors with Canadian Citizenship

Take note: changes in U.S. law took effect June 1, 2009; you can no longer cross the Canada/U.S. border with only a birth certificate and driver’s license.

Traveling By Air or From Overseas

Traveler Present one of:
All Canadian Citizens(Including Infants)

When flying from a Canadian airport into the U.S., it’s prudent to arrive three hours before your flight due to heightened security measures.

There’s a limit of one carry-on bag, plus one personal item: a purse, laptop, or camera bag.  (Some additional items, such as medical devices, diaper bags, and pets, are exempt from these limits.)  See the CATSA web site for details.  Expect more intensive security screening for U.S.-bound flights, including full bag searches and the use of full-body scanners.

Almost all Canadian airports with flights to the United States have “pre-clearance”, meaning you will clear U.S. Customs and Immigration before boarding the plane and arrive in the U.S. as a “domestic” flight.  This does lengthen the check-in process, so make sure you arrive with plenty of time before your flight.  You’ll also need to have the street address of your hotel (or wherever you’re staying) handy to fill out the customs form.

Traveling By Land or By Sea

(from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean)

Traveler Present one of:
Adult with Canadian Citizenship
  • Canadian Passport
  • Enhanced Driver’s Licence/ID (EDL) (available in BCMBON, QC; also proposed in NS)
  • NEXUS/FAST card (pre-approved low-risk travelers only)
  • Secure Certificate of Indian Status (subject to U.S. government approval)
Children with Canadian Citizenship For children 15 or younger (or 16-18 years old and traveling with an organized and supervised school, religious, or other youth group):

  • one of the documents allowed for adults (listed above)
  • a Canadian birth certificate (original, photocopy, or certified copy) — photo ID is not required
  • Certificate of Canadian Citizenship

For children not traveling with both parents, see “Traveling With Children” at the bottom of this page.

A passport (or NEXUS card) is required to cross the border by air.  This applies if your trip includes a flight between a Canadian and American airport (in either direction).  However, if you have an Enhanced Driver’s Licence, you can still drive across the Canada/U.S. border and take a domestic flight (e.g. drive Toronto to Buffalo, fly round-trip Buffalo/Orlando, drive back to Toronto).

For typical leisure or business trips to the United States, Canadians do not need to worry about any paperwork before arriving at the border.  An immigration application is required for Canadians working or studying in the United States, or staying for more than six months.

Canadians who hold a U.S. “green card” should see the section “Lawful Permanent Residents of the U.S.”, below.

For more info on the border requirements that took effect June 1, 2009, see www.getyouhome.gov.

Visitors with Mexican Citizenship

Requirements for Mexican citizens did not change on June 1, 2009.

Arriving in the U.S… Present one of:
By Air or From Overseas
By Land or By Sea, from Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean

Visitors from Visa Waiver Program Countries

Most visitors from Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea will enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Citizens of over thirty countries are eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows them to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa, if certain requirements are met. Under the VWP, time spent in Canada, Mexico, and adjacent islands counts towards the maximum stay of 90 days.

To enter under the VWP, you must have a machine-readable passport (one with two lines of letters and numbers along the bottom of the photo page).  If you have a recently-issued passport, it must also have a chip in it. If you enter the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program, you are waiving your right to appeal or contest a decision not to let you enter the U.S. – ie. the immigration officer has the final say as to whether you can enter the U.S., and you have no right of appeal.  It is recommended to dress smartly and be polite to the immigration officer.  Do not under any circumstances suggest you may be seeking work, getting married to a U.S. citizen, or intending to stay longer than 90 days in the U.S. as this is not permitted under the Visa Waiver Program – you need to get a proper visa (see below).

The I-94W “visa waiver” is a green form which is stapled into your passport.  To obtain the waiver, you will be photographed and fingerprinted.  The I-94W must be returned at the end of your trip (see instructions on the form); if you return home without surrendering the I-94W, you may have problems entering the U.S. on future trips.  (More information about the VWP.)

Visa Waiver Program When Arriving By Air or By Sea

If plan to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program by air or by sea, you must use the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) to apply for pre-approval prior to checking in for your flight.  Although most requests are approved within minutes, it is recommended that you apply at least 72 hours in advance; the approval is valid for two years.  (To best safeguard your personal information, you may wish to apply from your home computer.)

An ESTA approval does not guarantee you will be admitted to the United States; the final decision rests with the Customs and Border Protection officer at the port of entry.  (More information about ESTA.)

The Visa Waiver Program applies even if you’re only making an international flight connection in a U.S. airport.  Where forms ask for your address while in the United States, write “In Transit”.

If you are flying from Canada, see the notes about security measures in Canadian airports for U.S.-bound flights under “Visitors with Canadian Citizenship”, above.

Visa Waiver Program When Arriving By Land

If you are entering the United States by land from Canada or Mexico, you will obtain your I-94W visa waiver form at the border crossing.  There is a fee of $6 U.S. per person.  On average the process takes 30-60 minutes, though it can take two or three hours at very busy times.

You do not require a pre-approval through ESTA (described above) when entering the U.S. by land.

See this discussion page (answer #7) for an understandable explanation of the VWP. http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-…

Visitors Requiring Visas

If you do not fit any of the other categories listed on this page (citizen of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, entering under the Visa Waiver Program, or a Lawful Permanent Resident of the U.S.), you require a visa to visit the United States.  For example, a tourist with Greek citizenship requires a visa, as does a U.K. citizen who wants to study, work, or stay for more than 90 days in the United States.

A visa tells the United States government who you are, why you are traveling to America, when you are arriving and when you plan to leave. To obtain a visa for travel to (or through) the United States, you must fill out an application for a visa and submit it to the American embassy in your country. Application forms and details are available at the U.S. State Department’s website.

There are a few things you should know about obtaining a visa. First of all, the approval rate for visa applicants is very high (about 75%), and even higher for those applying for student visas. However, a visa does not guarantee entrance to American borders. At the port-of-entry where you clear immigration, the immigration officer present has the final say on whether you may enter the country. The visa only tells the immigration staff the purpose for your travel to that port-of-entry. That said, it is rare for a traveler with a valid visa to be held at the borders.

Returning United States Citizens

Take note: changes in U.S. law took effect June 1, 2009; you can no longer cross the border with only a birth certificate and driver’s licence.  Also, as a United States citizen traveling to another country, you need to meet that country’s entry requirements.

You’ll find helpful tips for crossing the border to Canada or to Mexico here on TripAdvisor.

Traveling By Air or From Overseas

Traveler Present one of:
All U.S. Citizens(Including Infants)
  • U.S. Passport
  • NEXUS card (pre-approved low-risk travelers, via participating Canadian airports only)
  • Merchant Mariner Document
  • U.S. Armed Forces ID and military orders

If you are flying from Canada, see the notes about security measures in Canadian airports for U.S.-bound flights under “Visitors with Canadian Citizenship”, above.

Traveling By Land or By Sea

(from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean)

Traveler Present one of:
Adult with U.S. Citizenship
Cruise Ship Passengerswith U.S. Citizenship For passengers on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same U.S. port):

  • one of the documents listed above, or
  • U.S. birth certificate and government-issued photo ID

Note that you may require a passport to go ashore at some foreign ports of call.  Check with your cruise line.

Children with U.S. Citizenship For children 15 or younger (or 16-18 years old and traveling with an organized and supervised school, religious, or other youth group):

  • one of the documents allowed for adults (listed above)
  • a U.S. birth certificate (original, photocopy, or certified copy) — photo ID is not required
  • U.S. consular report of birth abroad
  • Certificate of U.S. Naturalization

For children not traveling with both parents, see “Traveling With Children” at the bottom of this page.

For more info on the border requirements that took effect June 1, 2009, see www.getyouhome.gov.

Lawful Permanent Residents of the U.S.

Lawful Permanent Residents of the United States must present their I-551 (“Green Card”) when entering the U.S.  You do not require a passport to enter the U.S. by air, land, or sea.

However, your airline may require you to have a passport to board an international flight, and you will need a passport to visit most countries.  (One exception: you can use your I-551 to enter Canada, without a visa, regardless of your citizenship.)

You can lose your “green card” status if you leave the United States for a long time.  Expect extra questions if you’re gone for more than six months; if you’re going to be absent from the United States for more than a year, you should apply for a re-entry permit before departing.


Border Crossing Tips

Wait Times

For land border crossings, please allow at least 30 minutes at the port of entry, and expect a longer wait at the busiest times.  Border Wait Times can be checked online.

At airports, the average waiting time to clear customs is about 30 minutes.

Traveling With Children

Because of concerns about child abduction, customs officers may ask for additional information when a child is traveling without both of their parents.  Carrying the right documentation can help resolve these questions quickly.

Bringing Souvenirs, Food, Etc. Across the Border

U.S. residents should see Know Before You Go for information about duty-free exemptions and other rules that apply to goods you buy outside the United States.

Visitors to the United States should be aware of rules that apply to bringing restricted goods and food across the border.

Crossing the Border from San Diego

You can drive to the border, park in the parking lot (lock doors and use extra security like the Club) and walk over (recommended) or drive your car to Mexico. If you drive, there is the possibility of being asked for a bribe by Mexican police.  Remember that your U.S. insurance is not valid so you’ll have to purchase Mexican Insurance, which you can do right at the border.   Most people choose not to drive and walk over and hop into one of the cabs. You should haggle the cab fare.  There are also buses/ trolleys that will take you into town and back to the border.  Lots of people speak English, so no need to worry if you can’t speak Spanish.