One of the most frequent questions Canadians who live close to the border shared with the United States ask is how often they can cross over to do some shopping, visit friends, play golf, have dinner, and watch a ball game.
Really, it’s not complicated. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to be unprepared, or uninformed about what you are allowed to do and what your responsibilities are. You do have to keep track of your comings and goings. You need to keep your documentation (passport, travel insurance card, etc.) up to date and in order, and you want to keep in constant touch with your government’s border-crossing updates, especially now that the summer vacation season is near. .
First be aware that border crossing data is shared by both governments so you must assume all of your crossings are being recorded. Keep your own record so you don’t encounter some unpleasant surprises on one of your trips.
Here are some rules to keep you safe and out of trouble, given that you are a Canadian citizen or properly documented permanent resident, and you don’t have other side issues such as having a criminal record.
Normally the US allows you to be present as a non-working visitor for a total of six months (i.e. 180 to 182 days) over any consecutive 12-month period. That can be in one continuous sequence of time or an accumulation of short stays.
Each day you are on U.S. soil is counted as one full day within that six-month total. Example: Go for dinner to Niagara Falls, NY, on Saturday evening and return after midnight (Sunday morning) and you will have used up two days.
Cross over to buy a tankful of gas and visit a Target store—return home three hours later, and you will have used up one full day.
If you recently purchased a second or vacation home in the U.S. and are planning an extended visit, you are still under the six-month rule, so keep precise track of your days (including travel days). Also make sure you have documentation proving your permanent Canadian residency (utility bill, tax bill for your home, provincial health insurance card, or even a recent copy of your 8840 Closer Connection form that you filed with the IRS). This last piece is not a requirement but it’s a good idea because it shows your exact tax status as a Canadian.
Though not a border requirement, carry proof of current Canadian travel health insurance. Just one accident or sudden medical emergency can land you in a U.S. hospital and that can be hugely expensive—thousands of dollars per day—even if it’s only an emergency room visit. For frequent border crossers, an annual multi-trip plan is the most convenient way to be assured of constant coverage. You apply only once a year, you take as many short trips as you wish throughout that year, and you pay far less than if you bought a succession of single-trip plans. Moreover, you don’t need to go through the hassle of applying each time you want to leave the country—even for a couple of hours.
And know the rules about what you can or cannot bring into the U.S. (food, alcoholic beverages, drugs, etc.) and what you can or cannot bring back into Canada.
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