Crossing the Canadian border

Sometimes traveling involves delays… Whether it’s waiting in line to cross a border, going through customs, or going through security at the airport. Sept. 11th happened and so people are still careful when it comes to travel, especially international travel, but fortunately there’s a couple things you can do to speed up the process and make your life easier.

So a quick story as to why I started looking into this.

On a flight back from Colorado last year I met this girl. She was sitting next to me on the flight and it turns out she’s ridiculously awesome. We started seeing each other and she lives across the border near Vancouver, Canada. There’s several border crossing choices you can pick from when you get to the border including Peace Arch which is the more scenic one pictured above. Wait times can vary depending on which border crossing you choose so I’d usually go for whichever one has shorter lines.

When you cross the border, they like to grill you while you sit in your car. It’s the same usual questions… Stuff like, “What’s your reason for travel? Who are you meeting with? How long have you known them? How long are you staying? Do you have anything to declare? Do you have any weapons in the vehicle?  Why are you here on a weekday? Shouldn’t you be at work? What do you do for a living?” etc etc.

I think half of what they ask you is seeing what you say, the other is seeing how you say it. You can tell they’re sizing you up to see if you seem suspicious, nervous, are making up answers or lying, and so on.

Now one thing about me is that I’m ridiculously honest. It’s just part of my personality now. That said, I’ve found there’s several ways you can answer a question and while all the answers are true, they have different outcomes. For example.

When they ask me who I’m going to see, if I tell them I’m going up to visit a girl I met recently, they’ll question me about her, asking her name, how long we’ve known each other, how we met, and so on. If I say she’s my girlfriend, it makes things a little easier because she’s less of a stranger and thus a possible threat.

One time earlier on, before we were officially together, when asked who I was going to see, I said that I was going to visit a friend that I’d met recently on a flight. I made it sound like this was just some random stranger and you could tell the border crossing agent got immediately suspicious. He got kinda squinty eyed, looked me up and down, and gave me a special pass because I now had to be searched.

It turns out that at border crossings, your rights are different than when you’re in the country. You play by a different set of rules. They have the right to not only search you and search your car, but they can legally search your phone and personal emails and photos, right there on site. I kid you not.

CBSA officers are authorized to conduct searches of individuals entering Canada, including their baggage, parcels or devices such as laptops, BlackBerrys or cellphones. These searches may be conducted without a warrant.

In addition, officers may examine devices for photos, files, contacts and other media, in much the same way customs officials have broad powers to open, inspect and seize mailed packages being delivered into Canada.

Source: This fact sheet available from The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

I don’t know if you’re required by law to give them the password to your phone too if they ask and unlock it, but I didn’t have a password on my phone so it didn’t come up.

In any event, I’m not a fan of having people pry into my life that much, even if it is legal. The laws are different at border crossings and they are doing their best to protect their borders and I get that, but wow… Really? That’s pretty insane. This search was actually more invasive than when I flew to Israel, and they’re a pretty heavily targeted country!

So in the interest of not only avoiding the hassle of some pretty invasive searches, plus in the interest of speeding up the whole process and avoiding the huge lines, I looked into getting a NEXUS Pass.

I didn’t really know what it was. All I knew was that there were a bunch of long lines at the border crossing, and there were a few express lanes with no lines where some people got to drive through very quickly.

NEXUS Pass

Image from vancouversun.com

Image via vancouversun.com

Lines/delays at the border can be super long. They can also be non-existent. They may somewhere in between… like traffic in general.

The line in the picture above is for the normal border crossing. With a line like that, you’re probably looking at well over an hour. If you have a NEXUS pass, you can cruise right on past that by heading down the lane on the right… You can probably see where this is going.

So if you’re a frequent traveler and cross the border often, you can get a special RFID card that lets you travel in the “express lanes” called the NEXUS lanes. They ask you fewer questions, the lines are way shorter, and the whole experience is much quicker and easier. Awesome.

You can find information on the program for both American citizens and Canadian citizens.

In order to do this, you have to apply for the program. In order to be accepted, you gotta provide your information online, pay the $50 fee, and go through an in-person interview.

Basically what you’re doing is going through a pre-screening process where they can check you out and you’re deemed a low risk traveler and are becoming a member of their Trusted Traveler Program.

The process can take a while. Once I submitted my information online, it took 2 months to get the conditional approval to where I could select a time slot and go in for the interview. The available interview times were all 4-6 months out so I just picked the nearest one. Fortunately I checked back periodically because people do cancel and reschedule. One of the times I checked in, a much sooner spot popped up and I was able to get my interview scheduled in just under 3 months. Score!

When you go in for your interview, you sit down and talk to a Canadian customs agent and then an American customs agent. Both of them make sure all your information is right (name, address, etc.), see if you’ve been arrested or had any legal issues in any country ever, make sure you have enough money to come in and not turn into a bum and put a drain on their resources, and so on.

When I was going through the interview, they asked me why I wanted to get this pass and I explained that I had been crossing the border pretty regularly to go see this girl. We were no longer together, but since I’d already gone this far, I might as well keep going. It reminded me of Forrest Gump, heh. It turns out that there are some unexpected and really awesome perks that come along with the pass that I wasn’t expecting, and I’ll get to them in just a moment.

While waiting for my interview, I was talking to the guy sitting next to me who was scheduled 15 minutes after me. We chatted while we waited. Cool dude. He flies into Canada a lot while I drive. It turns out if you fly, you gotta through an additional step and get an iris scan while you don’t if you’re just driving in.

With the benefits of the pass come some additional responsibilities. You’re required to know more about crossing the border including not smuggling things over, knowing how and what to declare, that you can’t use the nexus lane if you have non-members in your vehicle, and so on. They’re pretty strict about it too. If you mess up once, even unknowingly, they revoke your privileges for life, as well as prevent any of your immediately family members from ever becoming members as well. *whip crack sound*

So yeah, just know the rules, follow them, keep everything legit, and you’re good to go. Time to start enjoying much quicker passages in and out of Canada!

Oh, remember those additional perks I mentioned? Well by joining into their Trusted Traveler Program, you’re also automatically entered into two other programs, the TSA PreCheck (express lane for the TSA / security in American airports) and Global Entry (express lane for customs when reentering the USA).

TSA PreCheck

Image via Jack’s World

So this is pretty awesome. I’m not exactly sure what it is, so I actually have to look it up before continuing this article. 😀

Okay so basically what it is, you get to bypass the long lines in security and go through special designated lines which speeds up the whole process. Not only that, but you don’t have to remove your shoes, belt, liquids, or laptop.

It looks like you also get to avoid the naked body scanner and go through the metal detector instead. Awesome! I always opt out of the nudie machines and choose to get the pat down instead, but the metal detector is a better solution than both! Less invasive and it’s faster. There we go…

Remember that flight back from Colorado I was talking about earlier? Well when I flew out of Denver, and this was before I got all these passes, I went through a different area of security (thanks to a recommendation from a friendly security guard on a previous trip out of DIA) and this one had much shorter lines, let us keep our liquids and laptops in our bags, jackets and shoes on, and go through the metal detector instead of the naked body scanners. It sounds just like the TSA Precheck option, and it’s WAY better! I can’t tell you how much that really helps lift your spirits when you get to go through the awesome line rather than the other line. 😉

I’ve also had the experience on another trip where I got “randomly selected” at an airport. Basically, it turns out, if you’re a male traveling solo, buying a last minute one-way plane ticket (I like to travel spontaneously and not have too many plans!), then you fit the criteria for a terrorist and they pull you aside, open up and check your bags, and give you a thorough pat down and even swab your palms, checking for bomb residue!

So in any event, this PreCheck sounds like a step in the right direction at least. It’s not the best solution (whatever that is), but it does return things to pre Sept. 11th levels. It’s only valid at certain airports and with certain airlines, so knowing that, you can aim to stick to the designated airlines.

It costs $85 to sign up with TSA Precheck, but it turns out membership is automatically included with the NEXUS membership. Woohoo!! I think this is actually gonna be more useful than the Nexus pass since I think I’ll be at the airport more than I’ll be actually crossing the border back and forth between the US and Canada.

Global Entry

Global Entry

I’ll be quick about this one. Basically what Global Entry is for is to speed up the customs process for when you reenter the US.

With this one, you get to bypass the line and go right to a computerized kiosk. Scan in your passport and fingerprints, declare whatever you need to on the computer, and off you go. Simple and easy.

Image via The Points Guy

Image via The Points Guy

So yeah, if you do a lot of international traveling, particularly coming back to the States, this one is definitely a good idea.

It costs $100 to apply, but it comes free with the NEXUS membership.

Other Programs

If you travel down to Mexico, they have the equivalent version of the NEXUS called the SENTRI. I wanted to apply for this one as well (hey, why not!?), but you actually have to take your car down to the border for the interview and inspection and all. I don’t have any immediate plans to do this one so I haven’t bothered.

I’m sure there’s lots of other similar programs out there too that I haven’t listed. These are just some that I’ve come across recently. Other countries have their own programs, and there’s plenty more for Americans and Canadians too.

If you know of any good programs like this, and any other tips and tricks that help simply and speed up traveling, please let me know down in the comments below!

Also if you’re a member of any of these programs and would like to share about your experiences, I’d love to hear about that as well.

and of course, if you have any questions or need more info, you can always Google it or ask me in the comments. 😉

Until next time.. Happy Traveling!! 😀

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