Rules for Canadian Leisure Travel to the US in 2018

If you’re planning some travel to the US in 2018 (an estimated 24 million did so in 2016), you might want to review the rules of entry, how long you can stay, what documents you need to carry, and what changes have been made to those rules since your last trip.

Fortunately, there were no major changes for casual visitors, leisure travellers or snowbirds last year, but you still need to be vigilant about your crossings as the cooperation between US and Canadian border agencies continues to be more refined and precise. Don’t assume you may have slipped through once or twice without notice.

For short-term visitors or snowbirds who are Canadian citizens, the key rule remains—you are allowed to be in the US for up to six months (usually interpreted by border agents as between 180 and 182 days) over any rolling 12-month period. The best way to determine that is to tally the total number of days of all of your trips—long or short–over the most recent 12-month period. For example: if you spent the last three months of 2017 and will spend the first three of 2018 in Florida—that’s OK. What you cannot do is spend the last six months of 2017 and the first six of 2018 back-to-back in Florida, or anywhere else in the US.

The bottom line that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer watches for is that you are not spending more time in the US than in Canada. If you are, you will have to prove to that officer that you are only a temporary visitor, and not a de facto US resident.


What documents do you need to enter the US?

If travelling by air, Canadian citizens need passports or NEXUS (pre-approved border clearance cards for low-risk travellers) to enter the US.

If travelling by land or water, Canadians 16 or older need passports, NEXUS, SENTRI or enhanced drivers’ licenses or other enhanced identification cards issued by their provincial or territorial authorities. (SENTRI is also a pre-approved electronic network system for low-risk travellers.)

Canadians 15 or under travelling by land or water need only proof of citizenship such as a copy of their birth certificate; and citizens 18 or under travelling with a school group, religious or social organization, or sports team under adult supervision will need proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate, citizenship card, or a naturalization certificate.

Permanent Residents of Canada (not yet citizens) who are citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries need to have valid passports from their native countries if entering the US by land or sea. If by air, they also need to have advanced approval through the ESTA system. Permanent Residents of Canada from VWP countries are limited to no more than 90 days of visits in the US in any 12-month period.

For a complete list of VWP countries, see the US Department of Homeland Security website.

And, as important as any other travel document, you should have appropriate travel insurance covering you from the moment you leave the country until you set foot back on Canadian soil. This holds for travel not only to the US, but to any other country. Many in Europe are now requiring proof of private health insurance (your provincial card won’t do) to cover your entire stay; some are even requiring coverage that includes air repatriation home. Cuba, specifically, requires proof of coverage and will require payment in full (or a guarantee from your insurer) before you leave the island.

The US does not require proof of travel insurance for Canadians, but the exorbitant cost of medical care in the US—even for a relatively minor accident or visit to a doctor or emergency room—certainly does.

I routinely see bills in the six figures for a visiting Canadian patient’s four- or five-day stay in a US hospital. You don’t want to take that risk.


Travelling as families or groups

If travelling as a family or in a group, which is becoming increasingly popular, explore family plan coverage options, which can significantly lower your premium costs. But make sure all family members (especially children, who are prone to accidents and sudden unexpected illnesses while in foreign environments) are covered and specifically named in the policy documents. There are no “kid’s rates” in hospital emergency rooms.

And if you are travelling with children other than your own—even if you are their grandparents, or uncles or aunts, and they have your name—you will need to have properly notarized letters from their parents or guardians giving you permission to take them out of the country. The same caution stands for separated or divorced parents travelling with their own children: get a notarized letter from your former spouse authorizing you to take the child out of the country—specifying routes, dates, and means of travel.

There are no formalized government documents you need for this purpose—but samples of such letters are available from the government of Canada’s website.

If there are any significant changes to these and other border-crossing rules during 2018, we’ll be here to alert you to them. Stay tuned.


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