How Long Canadians Can Visit the US: A Review

Every now and then, the question of how long or how often Canadians can visit or tour the United States each year comes up from someone who has heard a horror story about a border-crossing mishap.

And though I have written many thousands of words on this subject over more than 25 years, there always seems to be room for an update—especially as travel regulations constantly seem to be changing and new requirements for international travel keep being announced.

Since hundreds of thousands of Canadians spend entire winters in the US, it’s worth setting the record straight. And that’s easy. It’s not complicated.

Thanks to the special relationship that exists between Canada and the US, there is a preferential arrangement between our countries that allows Canadians to visit the US for up to six months per each rolling 12-month period. That is an allowance deemed under the B2 visa which covers tourism, vacations, visiting relatives, going to ball games, general leisure activities, and also medical treatment, but not working or doing business. The B1 covers trips for business purposes like visiting with customers, attending scientific meetings, arranging contracts, and so on. 

For the B2, all you need is to show up at the border with your up-to-date passport and a willingness to tell the US Customs and Border Protection agent how long you will be visiting, where you’re going, how long you intend to stay, and the answers to whatever questions he or she asks. The purpose of these questions is to determine that you are travelling for tourism/leisure purposes, that you don’t intend to stay beyond your allowance, that you’re not intending to work for pay, that you have the means to support yourself during your stay, and you’re not likely to break any laws while in the country.

Ultimately, it’s up to the border agent to approve your stay (or deny it if you have a record as an over-stayer, or if the agent suspects you’re travelling for purposes other than occasional tourism or medical treatment). Remember, too, that if a CBP agents denies your entry, or limits your stay to less than you had hoped, there’s no use arguing. The agent has the right to deny and does not have to explain it to you.

The bottom line is that you really don’t have a “right” to be a visitor in the US or any other country for any given period. You are allowed in because your host country grants you permission to enter. Act accordingly.

How do you set your timer?

The six-month allowance can be done in one single stretch or an accumulation of shorter trips totalling, but not exceeding, 182 days per each rolling 12-month period. You’ll often hear different limits being referred to—like “180” days or “183 minus one.” But let’s not get picky. Just don’t go over 182 days. And if the border agent asks how long you intend to stay, just say “six months” if you’re intending to stay the full term in one trip and you’ll be safe. Don’t go into actual day numbers. Let the agent be the referee.

But one rule is sacrosanct

Because your allowance of days is not based on the calendar year, you can’t stay in the US from July 1 through December 31 and then link your next year’s six-month allowance to make it one continuous 365-day year. It doesn’t work that way.

If you’re not sure of your current status, think back twelve months. How many days have you been in the US? Count each day even though some of your trips took only a couple of hours for lunch or bingo and you returned to Canada the same day. So long as you touched US soil, it’s a day.

And don’t assume your border crossings are untracked, even if you pass through smoothly with a smile and “have a nice day” from the border agent. In 2019, US and Canadian border control agencies activated a shared entry/exit data system for land-based travel. So every time you re-enter Canada from the US, even though you don’t actually “check out” of either country, your Canadian re-entry data clocks you in and is automatically available to US CBP. Isn’t the digital age wonderful?

And then, if you spend a lot of time in the US, there is the question of whether or not you’re subject to being taxed by the IRS. In the next part of this primer, we’ll deal with how you can avoid such a fate, legally and with full compliance of Uncle Sam.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

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