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Going Through Customs

This photo shows a young man in his car, holding a passport out the window, for the border customs officer.

Know the prohibited substances before you cross borders.

If you plan on crossing the border from Canada to the USA, read this article for essential tips.

Going through customs is the least fun on any trip. But if you read and follow all the instructions carefully, it should be smooth sailing from one country to the next.

If you break the rules and get caught trying to import a banned substance, you could get turned away, detained, fined, or any combo of the three. You’ll also go on the naughty list, which means every time you cross a border from now on, you’ll be searched.

Just don’t bring any illegal, or controlled substances with you. I can’t tell you what they are, other than the obvious narcotics, tobacco and alcohol. That’s because what’s perfectly legal in one country, could get you jailed in the next.

A good example is cannabis. It’s perfectly legal in all of Canada. It’s also legal in some American states but not all. Therefore it remains a narcotic at the federal level. So if you try to enter the USA with cannabis, it’s illegal and they will take it away from you, fine you, or both.

The next few paragraphs may seem obvious, but I’ve seen the daily stockpile of confiscated items in customs. Their message still isn’t getting through to everyone. So pay attention to the following.

Do not bring weapons of any kind. That includes guns, knives, batons, tasers, pepper spray, and anything used for martial arts, or self defense. Such items are likely to be confiscated and never returned.


If you do try to bring a hunting rifle into Canada, you must declare it and provide all the necessary government paperwork in triplicate. Do it ahead of time, because you cannot do it at the border.

Do not bring more than $10,000 dollars in cash. (Believe it or not, some people do.) The customs agent could decide to fine you for every dollar over the 10K limit. So if you need more cash, consider using a bank machine after crossing the border.

Do not bring any meat, cheese, homemade sandwiches or loose food items. Toss them out, or eat them before you arrive at the border. Better yet, buy them after you cross the border and make sandwiches at your first stop. There’s nothing worse than having a customs agent search the inside of your food cooler with their dirty gloves on.

Declare any fruit or nuts. Not just loose ones, but even if they are professionally packaged at a factory. You still have to declare that you are carrying them. Usually they’ll just make you hold up the bags and show them what you have.

Occasionally the customs official might make you wait in another line and talk to a specialist. Sometimes they take food items away, because the rules change from day to day and you can’t possibly know what to expect. But whatever they decide to do, you’ve done your part by being honest and declaring everything.

If you’re going from Canada to the USA, or vice versa, there are limits to the amount of purchases that you can bring over the border. Anything over the amount will be subject to duty and taxes.


For example, at the time of this writing, if you’ve been away from Canada for 48 hours, you may bring back $400 worth the goods. You must have the all goods and all receipts with you when you arrive at the border.

Keep in mind that there are strict limits on alcohol and tobacco, and outright bans on other substances. But since the rules change constantly, check with a customs official, or the official website of the country you’ll be visiting, before attempting to cross the border.

Other than that, try to avoid peak times at the border crossings. That includes morning and evening rush hours, statutory holidays and long weekends. A good idea is to find the local news radio station and listen to the traffic reports, or look up the border cameras on your smart phone for current wait times.

When it comes your turn to drive up to the window, look the customs official straight in the eye. Don’t joke or goof around. Make sure your cellphone and the car radio are turned off.

Have your passports open to the ID page and ready to hand to the customs officer. Have receipts ready for any purchased items you are declaring. Have printed or digital copies of the hotel receipts handy, in case they want proof of your stay.

Listen carefully to the officer. Answer their questions honestly, using short answers. Do what they ask without hesitation and you should sail across the border with ease.


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