What Travelers Should Know About Entering the United States

May 16, 2017

Before 2008 crossing the border into the United States was easy peasy. In fact, all a Canadian needed was to show a driver’s license as proof of citizenship! To tighten border security the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was passed and travelers had to have a valid passport to enter the United States regardless of where they were from.

Fast forward to today and security has tightened even more and a conversation with a border officer could look like this:

Border officer: (Flashing a badge) I’m not here to interrogate you. We’re gonna let you into the United States. This is just a formality. Let me see your passport. I’m interested in your travels.

Hmm.  Geneva, Switzerland.

Canberra, Australia.

Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistan? What were you doing in Pakistan?

Traveler: For one year, I lived in Islamabad for work.

Border Officer: Did you like living in Pakistan?

Traveler: Yes.

Border Officer: Why?

Traveler: Although I had guards and armed drivers, I felt safe there. I found the people to be welcoming, and I enjoyed the natural beauty of the land and the architecture.  I stayed in a house overlooking the Margalla hills.

Border Officer:  Did you speak to anyone there who didn’t like America?

Traveler:  Yes.

Border Officer:  Did they give you anything?

Traveler:  No.

Border Agent: Did you ever read the book Arabic Script: Styles, Variants, and Calligraphic Adaptations?

Traveler: No.

Border Agent:  Did anyone try to recruit you into a terrorist training camp or offer you money?

Traveler:  No.

Border Agent: What is your heritage?

Traveler: I am Canadian, third generation, with roots in Israel, Germany, and Poland.

Agent: How long have you had that beard?

Before the traveler could answer, he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). He was then pressured to surrender his smartphone, along with his PIN to unlock the phone and passwords to his social media accounts.

Crossing the border from Canada into the United States has long been an experience that can vary wildly. For those travelers who are treated with respect and dignity, it can be nearly stress-free; other travelers, sometimes through no fault of their own, are judged to be suspicious. Some travelers might experience lengthy detainments and car searches. Others might be detained for having passports stamped with visits to countries perceived as posing a threat to the security of the United States. Others may be held because they “look” like a threat. Recently, a number of travelers have been getting detained and asked to hand over their smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other electronics containing sensitive information.  Below, we will discuss changes in crossing the border from Canada into the United States, along with tips to reduce hassles when crossing.

Travel ban: beta and 2.0

Although not every visitor to the US is being microchipped, attitudes toward national security have been getting more conservative in America, which could change laws. On January 27, 2017, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order to suspend the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and temporarily ban admission of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen).  The order also included an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. With wide protest and legal challenges, the order was suspended a week later by a federal judge in Seattle.

In a revised travel ban in March, Mr. Trump signed “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” The updated ban temporarily (for 90 days) stops entry to individuals of six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). This ban removes Iraq from the previous list because the country has increasingly been vetting its own citizens. The ban allows current visa holders to travel to the United States. It suspends the refugee program for 120 days, and it treats Syrians like any other refugee or immigrant. A religious clause giving preference to those of certain religions was removed. This ban, too, has been halted by the court system by a federal judge in Hawaii.  It remains to be seen how the ban might be further altered by the Trump administration.

In light of the ban, market researchers have predicted a decline in international travelers entering the US in 2017. Fewer flights and visitors could mean a flatter economy for America, with many travelers opting to visit Canada or Mexico instead of the US.  Living in this era of mandatory passports and ever-tightening security at US borders could make crossing more difficult and stressful than it already tends to be. Below are 12 tips to help ease the stress.

1. Know What Information Border Agents Mainly Want to Know

It might be reassuring to know that border agents are generally concerned with the following:

  • Are you immigrating?
  • Are you bringing any alcohol, tobacco or firearms?
  • Are you smuggling in illegals?
  • Are you a person they shouldn’t let into their country?
  • Will you be doing something that you need a visa for?

If you can say “no” to these questions, you should satisfy the border agents (theoretically at least).

2. Prepare: All things are ready if our mind be so

Crossing a border can become stressful and time-consuming if you don’t prepare beforehand. Be sure to provide written proof of who you are and why you’re entering the country.  If you’re not sure what documentation you need, check with US Customs and Border Protection or the Canadian Border Services. In case you didn’t know, since 2008, American and Canadian citizens and permanent residents need to carry a passport or PR card to cross the border. Know the citizenship and residency status of every person in your group. Be sure that each person has the required visas/permits.

If you’re traveling to the US with children in tow, you’ll need to prove to the border agent that the children belong with you and aren’t kidnapped or something. If you’re traveling with a friend’s children, you’ll need written permission from and contact information for absent parents/legal guardians for any children younger than 15.  Children need proof of identity. A photocopied birth certificate or citizenship care is fine for those aged 15 and younger. Note that, if you’re flying, you’ll need to get your child a passport.

Remember that children need proof of identity, too!

The border agents aren’t shy about questioning children, so allow the kids to speak freely and don’t speak for them.

Without knowing internal CBP procedures, any number of questions can come up, so be prepared with travel documents. Use printouts/receipts to serve as proof of where you are going. Include the address of the place where you’ll be staying and your itinerary.  Is the purpose of your trip business?  Pleasure?  Bits of both?  No matter. Just be prepared with something in writing to show the officer where you’re going.

For example, if you’ll be attending a business conference, bring documentation of an agenda.  If you’ll be visiting friends, have documentation of who they are, where they live, and if you’ll be staying with them or at a hotel (remember to bring the address of the hotel and any documentation of your reservation).

3. Know how to answer questions you will likely be asked at the border.

Expect the following questions, at a bare minimum, and prepare your answers in advance so you won’t get rattled.

What is the purpose of your visit? (Example: I’m going to attend a conference and visit my friend).

Why are you attending a conference? (Example: It’s part of a training to get promoted at work).

Why are you visiting your friend? (Example: My friend is in the hospital).

Why is your friend in the hospital? (Example: He has heart failure).

For how long will you visit? (Example: I’ll be here for one week).

Be ready to stress to the officer that you will only be staying for a limited period of time. Most importantly just be truthful and you shouldn’t have any problems.

4. While interacting with the officer, show respect

This is very basic, but remember that, if you’re wearing sunglasses, remove them so the officer can see your eyes. If you have trouble making eye contact because it’s painful for you (and it is for some people), look at the officer’s nose. Use this trick, and it will appear that you’re looking him in the eye. In addition, keep any passengers quiet, and mute your phone.  Have all of your papers organized, and speak in a respectful tone.

Always be respectful with the officer you’re talking to.

Remember that the job of border agents is to probe, often asking very pointed questions, which can come across as inappropriately personal, intrusive, and blunt.  The border is not as friendly as it once was, although it depends on the officer you get. As infuriating as unprofessional behavior can be, resist the urge to retaliate against the officer (whether overtly by cussing out the officer, or passive-aggressively by deliberately taking a long time to retrieve documents you have at the ready). Retaliating might cause you more grief and potential detainment.

If you’re outspoken, have no filter, have an intense activist streak, or are prone to getting into yelling matches or telling off people in authority, you might think twice about going around with a border agent. Are expressing your convictions worth getting arrested?

If you’re traveling with another adult who has the patience to deal with the officer, delegate the interaction to this person. After all, the officer can potentially ask hundreds of intrusive questions.  Very unlikely, but it can happen. Remember:  everything is scanned at the border, from your passport to your interactions with the agents. You could be earmarked as a problem and be refused entry.

5. Be aware of your appearance.

Everyone gets profiled at the border, on both sides.  This is a depressing reality.  However, if you want to avoid the hassle, as far as revealing your religion, you might avoid displays of religious denomination. If you worry about your ethnicity, you might wear the American costume or some version of that.  That is, wear something bland or neutral to avoid standing out.  When in doubt, go conservative in your attire. Wear T-shirts with offensive or political messages at your own risk.  You want to send the message that you respect the border agents and that you’re a decent, law-abiding person (and they associate those traits with a clean-cut look). Make yourself appear as conformist as you can, and they are likely to give you less hassle.

6. If driving, clean and unclutter your car.

To experience the least hassle at the border, attack your car with a UN-inspector approach. You’re entering another country. Treat it with at least the importance of a job interview or first date. Remember that it’s easier to hide something if you have a lot of clutter, which could raise red flags and cause you to be detained at the border. If the condition of your car is bordering on calling-the-board-of-health dirty and cluttered but you can’t get motivated, get a clutter-warrior friend or family member to get rid of the rotten vegetable smell, empty pizza boxes, old utility bills, magazines piled high on the floor, dirty laundry stacked on the back seat, and heaven knows what else. Also, be sure to dust and hoover. Don’t wait for a drill sergeant at the border to render you suspect and detain you for a search.

If you smoke marijuana, be aware that crossing any border with marijuana is a bad idea, regardless of what the laws are on either side. Make sure your car is clean before you get to the border, and know the laws before you go. The US has much stricter laws on grass than Canada, so beware, you could be prosecuted for a tiny amount of marijuana, not to mention face an entry ban.

7. If you are carrying a firearm, be sure to disclose that to the border agent.

Concealing a weapon is a big deal, probably taken more seriously on the Canadian side of the border.  Still, in the US, consequences for packing heat are pretty strict:  you could face fines, entry bans, or worse.

8. Tell the truth, but keep it brief.

Obviously, you don’t want to be deceptive about your intentions. Even if you think your story will sound odd, be candid with border agents.

On the other hand, it’s a good idea to know when to close your mouth, so don’t tell them your life story or volunteer information about the person you intend to marry in the other country. You’ll open up a can of worms if you discuss your romantic life.

Don’t joke around or be too informal with the agents. They can be prickly pears, and a level of decorum is the norm.

9. Don’t get caught in a long line at the border crossing.

Learn about the most convenient border crossing for your situation.

Although it’s not always possible, try to check border services wait times by visiting their website if you’re crossing in Quebec, British Columbia, or Southern Ontario.  Learn about the most convenient border crossing for your situation.

10. Cell phones: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

The story of the man above whose smartphone was confiscated by the border agent could be your story.  A few options: You could rent a cell phone and leave at home the cell phone you ordinarily use.  However, doing this could make you look suspect. What are you trying to hide?

If you opt to bring your smartphone, if possible, you might spend some time cleaning up any content that could raise eyebrows. Still, even with a clean phone, you could be seen as suspect as they may wonder what you’re trying to hide. When in doubt, err on the very conservative side with the content on your phone if you know you’ll be crossing a border in the near future.

Courts have upheld the power of customs agents to search devices at the border, although the laws about all of this are still very murky. In addition, searches made solely on the basis of race or ethnicity are still unlawful. That doesn’t mean the laws will be followed, unfortunately. However, if you refuse to surrender your phone, you could be detained for hours if the agent wants to make an example of you.

Whether or not you’re a non-US citizen, the border agents basically say that your civil rights don’t apply when you’re within 100 miles of the border.  If you’re stopped beyond that 100 miles, they cannot legally search you without good reason.

11. Don’t cross the border with any prohibited fruits, plants, or other organic materials.

Which fruits, vegetables, and plants are prohibited at the border crossing?  There are certain restrictions on importing food across the border in either direction.  For up-to-date information about what foods you can bring into Canada, use the online AIRS.  If you’re entering the US, use this page.

12. Declare all items you bring (or bring back) with you.

If you’ve indulged in some shopping, make sure you know what you can and cannot take with you. Don’t try to hide any item you buy at the duty-free shop, where your name and license number are recorded and stored in a database that is shared with border agents. If you lie, you will likely be detained.

In this modern era of mandatory passports and heightened security, there is definitely more suspicion in crossing the border to the US than there used to be.  If you follow these tips, your chances of encountering stress at the border will be slim to none.

Written by Katie Anton