What to know when crossing the U.S. border over the holidays

U.S. toll plaza in front of Rainbow Bridge at the U.S.-Canada border. (Getty)
U.S. toll plaza in front of Rainbow Bridge at the U.S.-Canada border. (Getty)

If upcoming travels are taking you south of the border this holiday season, there’s a few things worth remembering, particularly when dealing with border agents.

Earlier this year, the Canada-U.S. Preclearance Agreement went into effect. This means preclearance screening into the U.S. is done on the Canadian side, by American customs enforcement officers. That way when Canadian travellers enter the U.S., it’s considered to be a domestic U.S. flight and they don’t need to go through customs again when they arrive. 

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U.S. officers have more authority 

Joel Sanaluk, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, says that while the new system makes things a lot more convenient for Canadian travellers, it gives U.S. officers more authority on Canadian soil.

“I do think Canadians would probably benefit from exercising a little bit more caution when interacting with U.S. immigration officials in Canadian airports,” he tells Yahoo Canada.

“Using a bit more caution in terms of what admissions they’re making, what statements they’re making and also recognizing that if an officer chooses to ban them from admissions into the U.S., that means they won’t be able to return to the U.S. potentially for a very long time.”

The new system has led some to some concerns that it will give U.S. officials who are operating within Canada more power. However, Sanaluk says it’s still unclear if those powers will be used frequently, if at all. 

Prior to the new agreement, if a U.S. officer asked a Canadian traveller questions they didn’t want to answer when they were applying to admissions into America, the traveller could simply walk away. Sanaluk says now it may be more challenging to do that. 

“It’s not clear how these powers will be able to play out,” he says. “One thing that’s been in the news is whether an American officer will have the power to detain somebody in Canada. It frankly doesn’t make sense that a foreign government can detain a Canadian within Canada.”

Cell phone searches

Another customs-related clearance screening that Canadian travellers could be subjected to is a cell phone search. Sanaluk says there’s been a spike in cases of cell phones being seized during preclearance screening. In certain circumstances, a customs agent will look through the mobile device to verify the traveller is only going to visit, rather than an extended stay or travel for a job that requires a work visa.

“There’s been more and more reports of cell phones being searched and seized at the U.S. border,” he says. “This is something that will probably continue into the future.”

Never mislead or withhold information

Sanaluk says travellers shouldn’t feel entitled to think they have the right to enter another country. American officers at port of entry have very broad discretion over the type of questions they can ask travellers and the manner of which they are asked. 

“What you’re doing is seeking a favour, a benefit from a foreign government,” he says. “In order to obtain that benefit, you really have to submit to whatever examination they feel is appropriate.”

Since cannabis legalization, for example, there’s been an increased number of Canadians who are being asked about cannabis use or their experience cultivating the plant at the border. 

Sanaluk stresses that it’s always important to tell the truth at the border and to never attempt to mislead a customs agent or withhold information. 

But if the questioning get uncomfortable or you don’t want to misrepresent yourself, the best thing to do is request to withdraw your application for admission into the U.S. 

“It’s up to the officer...but they can discontinue the examination,” Sanaluk says. “You won’t get into the U.S. but then again you’ll cut short the examination.”

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