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Tips for going through customs

I travelled for the first time internationally two months ago. I took a road trip, just for a day to canada with my Mom. When we got to the border we assumed everything would go smoothly, but next thing we know, they sent us to secondary inspection and were asking us questions and ripping apart my car. It made me feel criminal, and left a very bad taste in my mouth. We eventually got through, but it ruined the entire trip, and we ended up driving home same day. I want to travel now, but I'm very nervous to cross a border again, because the experience was a very scarring. What should I do?

Posted by
11476 posts

Did they ever explain why you got the special treatment?

Your name same/similar to someone on a watch list of some sort?

Nor knowing why they did what they did, makes it difficult to suggest a 'solution'.

Posted by
1970 posts

This happened to me a very long time ago, in the 1970's

I was driving from Eastern Canada (Quebec?) into Maine.

I had an old clunker of a car and I was pulled over by border patrol. My car was torn apart.

I was with a man who was a jerk. it turned out that he had thrown a joint in the back seat of my car where it was very obvious. I do not know why he did this to me but I believe that he did it deliberately.

The border patrol showed me the joint nd asked me about it. i was stunned and told them that it was not mine. They pointed to the man and said "it is probably his, right" I did not know. I had not smoked any pot and I was not aware of him smoking any pot.

They demolished my car and found no other drugs. They let me go but they had removed my back seat and did not even try to put it back. They tore my car apart and never tried to put anything back.

I had a terrible time trying to get back to Boston with my date and never had anything more to do with him.

It was a terrible experience.

EDIT: I would try to find out why they did this to you. Maybe you can still call customs or border patrol and ask questions. Something had to have triggered your car or you so that they pulled you over.

Posted by
5685 posts

Was it Canadian or U.S. CBP who conducted the search? If it was U.S. and it happens again, you can inquire with CBP through their redress system
https://help.cbp.gov/s/article/Article-11?language=en_US

The last time I flew back to the U.S. from London, I got pulled aside for a secondary customs inspection at Dulles. They told me it was a random inspection. I go pulled into a separate room with several customs officers, asked a bunch of questions, and my bags were all put through a scanner. I have never had this happen in 30+ years of international travel. I had absolutely nothing to be concerned about but it still made me feel anxious.

Posted by
7707 posts

I would say that of all the borders I have crossed in my life, the US/Canadian border was the most unpleasant, on both sides actually. Nothing specific, just the general attitude of the officers, and questions that seemed more "smart-a**" than helpful.

I do not think you will have the same problems traveling by plane to most countries in Europe. However, do be prepared. Realize that the questions tend to fall into a few basic ones, and their job is to look for flags or inconsistencies. Some of the questions you will get:

"What is the purpose of your visit?" If for tourism, tell them your on vacation, traveling for work, your on a business trip. And that is about it. In all cases, keep your answers short and to the point?

"Where will you be staying?" Tell them the name of the hotel, or even just the town. No need to go into detail of every step of your itinerary, if they want more info, they will ask. It is also OK to tell them you will find a place when you get to whatever locale you mentioned.

"How long will you be staying?" I might say a little over 3 weeks, or a week in this country, then heading to X for a couple weeks. Of course, if you are traveling on a one way ticket, you should be prepared to explain how you are getting home, they will know if you have a one way ticket.

They can also ask about money available for the trip, if you have health coverage, and any other questions about your stay.

People who seem to get asked often a few more questions than others (Your passport, and unfortunately skin color, determines much of the difficulty, as well as if you travel to a country frequently) will keep pictures of return or onward tickets, hotel reservations, financial information, health insurance card, and other info, so it is handy without needing phone data to retrieve.

It is probably worth thinking over how you would respond to any of the above, again, just keep it short and to the point. If you ramble, you will look nervous, they will ask more questions to see what you are nervous about. If you get frustrated or lose your temper, you likely will be asked to sit on a bench off to the side, and than a trip to a small room with your bags.

Posted by
6669 posts

Reading between the lines of your post, it seems like the Canadian border people did this to you, not the US people. It would be interesting to know what border crossing this happened at. I've driven and bussed across the border many times in the Vancouver area and never had a problem going either way, except long waits sometimes due to heavy traffic.

I hope this won't discourage you from international travel. Based on your account, your experience was a very unusual one that's unlikely to be repeated. We all need to follow the rules of any country about what we can and can't bring, what documents we need, how long we can stay, etc. But it's also true that border authorities sometimes put people through extra scrutiny, either randomly or using behavior profiles that might not be obvious. They need to be courteous and professional about this, and we need to keep our cool if it happens. Please keep traveling, it's worth it!

Posted by
2 posts

For those wondering it was on the canadian side. The US side was ok. I have suspected it was because we were going to be there for such a short time, and only later on did I find out that detroit windsor is such a bad smuggling route. That aside, it still has me scared to go through again. Because I don't know what to bring. For instance I didn't know I had to show proof of accomidations.

Posted by
855 posts

It’s not unusual anymore to be randomly selected at an airport for a secondary inspection. I think I’ve mentioned it before but we were pulled aside in Frankfurt before our return flight to the US and our carryons were all opened and we answered questions about where we had traveled, length of visit, etc. There was another man, like us who was anxious because this was a reassigned flight having missed our connection coming in from Nice. We pleasantly answered their questions, etc., and were escorted directly back thru the gate and onto the plane. The other passenger became very angry about being detained and the possibility of missing another connection. The last we saw of him, he was being escorted off by a German policeman. When you’re outside the US, the customs and rules may not seem reasonable to you but it’s usually better to go with the flow then fight it.

Posted by
597 posts

I’m sorry the experience was upsetting for you. I hope you will give our country a chance again in the future.

As others have said, Border Services at airports and land borders can be intimidating for many different reasons.

If it’s any consolation, US Land Border agents have been terrifying for many of us for many years:) Always very serious and yes we get asked where we are staying and how long for etc every time. Of course our own Border Services create anxiety for us if we have done too much shopping there!

Posted by
938 posts

I am so sorry that this happened to you. I'm sure it left a sour taste in your mouth. It's especially unfortunate because it was your first international trip and the first is the one you're supposed to remember fondly forever. I hope you'll continue to travel.

My husband and I, in the 1970s traveled by car from somewhere in Canada (we're both scratching our heads about exactly where and the details) into ?Maine? ?Vermont? The US Border Crossing officers were straight up gestapo! They took everything out of our car and searched it all. They treated us like criminals! After 1-2 hours, we were allowed to leave with no explanation. Fortunately, we have been traveling ever since without incident. I am hopeful that you will make new, better memories.

Posted by
674 posts

When we came back from Norway a few months ago, the immigration officer took our passports and escorted us over to the customs desk where he dropped off our passports. He told us to claim all our luggage and to bring it back to customs. We had to put everything through a big machine. The customs guy told us they were looking for whale meat and reindeer sausage (we had neither). It was a little unnerving at first, but I struck up a conversation with the agent and discovered we had mutual friends. It ended up being another vacation story to tell others.

Posted by
2477 posts

My last two entries back into the US this fall there was only an automated face i.d. and no customs exam. My last entry into Canada, about 11 years ago, I also had the 3rd degree and more. List every place I had ever lived, employnent history and more. Makes me never want to visit Canada again, however I am going next year. If I was paranoid, I would think it was because great, great granddad was accused of killing a Canadian policeman ! He was found not guity, btw

Posted by
1909 posts

I cross the US/Canada border into Canada 4-10 a year. The US officers are about what you'd expect, but the Canadian border crews include some white hot jerks. Some crossings worse than others (Laurier/Cascade is a total nightmare), but you can get a flaming ####### at any crossing.

Our Canadian friends who cross very regularly confirm the pattern - much wound-up sadist routine from Canadian guards. Could be genuine, might be a technique to make smugglers et al nervous and tip their hands.

My tips for enduring the Hogan's Heroes routine and getting through without too much trouble.

1) know the drill. Have all the ID's out, open to correct page if passport, and ready. Roll down all windows on the officer side of car all the way. Put car into park when you pull up.

2) HAVE ONLY ONE DESIGNATED TALKER. Normally this should be the driver. Passengers should briefly and politely answer direct questions from the officer. Otherwise STFU! It is hard to resist the urge to "help" from the passenger seat, but once you create even the vague impression of conflicting information, or paint the driver as not knowing what's up, you are cooked.

3) Know what they will ask, and be ready to answer clearly without a lot of delay. Where are you going? Staying? Why? How long? Guns? Ammo? Drugs? Alcohol? Tobacco? Fruit or Veg? What are you bringing? Will you leave gifts in Canada?

4) Be polite and business like. Not unfriendly, but not breezy/chatty/cheery. Make clear direct brief answers and then stop talking. A very small bit of polite chat in reference to flattering Canada maybe early on - "We"ll be staying at Christina Lake. Can't wait to get in the beautiful water." Maybe. If so then short, direct, clear then shut up, don't do it again.

5) Err towards no. Don't lie, but no is mostly the corect answer.

6) Don't interpret the questions. Answer only what was asked Don't extrapolate to something else.

7) Don't create new wholly rhetoric. It's bad enough dealing with their questions. Don't open any new avenues - the might lead to unexpected hassles, or make the officer think you are weird, or suspicious, or wasting their time.

8) Your car is clean and orderly inside and out. You are also clean and orderly. You look employed, dignified, and like you have reasonable resources.

9) Maybe declare something. Anecdotally I've found that things often flow better if you declare something - "I have two bottles wine" etc. People work on patterns, and the little back and forth prompted by the wine seems to make the officer feel like they have done the dance with you. These officers see hundreds of travellers a day, day in day out, so if you can affect the pacing of a normal pass through it might help.

10) If you've got dogs or someone else's minor child with you have the necessary paper work.
Look it up ahead of time, and have it ready if asked. I don't volunteer (rule of don't create new rhetoric) - they ask I give.

11) Even if the guard is a total ###hat, keep you cool. Becoming upset or acting like you don't like the guard is a no win and will only steal your time and cause problems. You don't need to be a lap dog to the jerk, rather strike a tone of dignified compliance but not high-hattedness. Swallow your urge to give back what you are getting - eyes on the goal rolling away. You don't give a flying whatever about making the guard feel retribution for a nasty attitude - poor sucker has to booth-monkey a boring job the rest of their life. Punishment enough.

So there they are OP, my tips for avoiding secondary and dealing with the somewhat more than occasional jerky Canadian border guard. Good luck next time!

Posted by
8615 posts

I cross the Canada-US border frequently to visit my sister’s place in Point Roberts. This is a 5 square mile section of the US only accessible through Canada. I find the agents for both countries professional and serious about their jobs.

My tips for any international border crossing.
1. Have your documents ready and any necessary visas.
2. Answer any question honestly.
3. Know where you are staying and how long you are staying.
4. Minimize any food and don’t attempt fresh fruit or vegetables.

Posted by
65 posts

@Hank ….. 5 star answer.

I have travelled thru Canadian borders (both driving and flying) regularly for business and pleasure for 45+ years and without doubt, the Canadian agents are the most surly I have ever encountered anywhere in the world (with the exception of Sana’a Yemen where I truly thought my trip was going to end up one way). Got Nexus about 10 years ago and it’s been a breeze since (almost no human interaction).

My “fondest” trip was being detained in the office for 2+ hours after emptying the entire trunk and walking the agent (and flunky trainee) through the difference between “samples” and “for sale” products I was bringing across for a design presentation for a hotel interiors my company was doing. “No officer, I’m not intending to sell that ONE glass block nor that 12” square of fabric” …. etc, etc, for EVERY sample.

No dig on Canadians … they live up to their reputed “niceness”, …. other than border agents. (Full disclosure I have Canadian citizenship and lived there 18 years).

OP, as others have noted, do not let them get your goat. Follow Hank’s savvy advice. Travel, enjoy. You’ll soon be enjoying your vacation and they’ll still be in their “monkey booth”. (Great line!)

Posted by
597 posts

Hank, you make many valid points.

It is worth noting that our Border Services are concerned about Americans not realizing we don’t want their guns brought with them as just one example of a difference between the countries. Visiting another country is a privilege, not a right.

Posted by
1909 posts

Yep, you're completely right. I was being colorful, but it's easy to lose tone on message boards.

I'll expunge that. Appreciate the heads up.

Posted by
9436 posts

Hank, excellent advice. Excellent for life in general too.

Posted by
1909 posts

Totally agree that Canada has every right to enforce its laws at border. Not at all begrudging that. And not complaining about the relatively high level of harshness of a selection of your border guards. Is what it is, better and worse ways of coping with it.

My Canadian friends whose extended family lives all over interior BC and Alberta, and who are rather politically conservative people, have a nickname for one of the most spicy guards, "fat bastard." First 5 minutes of conversation arriving at any of their houses will include the question, so did you get fat bastard today eh? :)

Posted by
33296 posts

4) Be polite and business like. Not unfriendly, but not breezy/chatty/cheery. Make clear direct brief answers and then stop talking.

Different strokies for different folkies I suppose. Maybe good advice for newbies, probably is. Maybe especially Detroit/Windsor. But I never ever had trouble driving across the US/Canada border between Vermont/Quebec, a couple of routes north of Plattsburgh / PQ, Niagara Falls and Buffalo / Ontario.

And I frequently go under the English Channel or ferry over, Folkestone, Dover, Harwich to/from Hook of Holland, Zeebrugge (back in the day), Dunkerque, Dover, Coquelles, and I'm not one to be silent when I deal with Dutch, (previously Belgian), French or UK officers. I always greet them in their language, hand over the passports, chat, answer questions politely, ask my wife to remove her sun hat, chat some more .... and thank them when they hand back the passports in their own language.

But I 'spose that's me

Posted by
434 posts

Some excellent advice on crossing the border. Yes, some agents seem to have something to prove---especially if another agent is in the booth for training or change of shift. We have rarely had any issues headed to Canada --just a little extra attitude. We always felt it was because we could say that we were headed to visit my mom or my cousins.

However, in 2016 I was headed across the border in a rented car. It was the first time I had driven a rented car. My Portland son had called and set up rental (and connecting airline tickets for less than 2 hours out) as I threw clothes in my suitcase so I could try to get to Abbotsford, just over the Cdn border. My mom was dying and was not expected to live beyond the afternoon. but the nurse told me she would keep Mom in the room until I got there While I waited for my flight in Seattle at about 5:30 pm, my brother told me my niece had seen my mom earlier and told her I was on my way (my mom gave a slight smile to my niece). I grabbed the car in Bellingham (worse rain I'd ever driven in) and headed to the Cdn border. Two agents in the booth gave me the third degree, even though I told them I was trying to get to the hospital before my mom died.

Finally, one of the guys asked why, if I was from Kennewick, the car had California plates. They'd been coyly trying to trip me up with nonsense questions. I said (repeated?) that I'd rented a car at the airport. One of the agents actually said something like "Ah, you're trying to save time, that's why you flew." That was my worst Cdn crossing, mainly from the emotional impact. BTW, when I arrived, I had about 10 minutes with my mom alert. She whispered "I'm rich in love" several times and "I 'ove you, too" when I called my brother so he could speak to her. She passed the next day.

*I'd never travelled the US/Cdn border with my Canadian passport. I used my alien card until I finally applied for US citizenship. We used our enhanced licenses and never had any problems. We usually travelled smalled border crossings (not Peace Arch). I did not have my Canadian passport on me during the above trip. I was in the process of renewing it, but really hadn't thought about carrying it. So much easier with driver's license. However, on a trip to my aunt's funeral later the same year, an Osooyoos customs agent laughingly said "prove it to me" when I my husband said I was CDN. Smiling, he leaned in to my husband "I could refuse you entry if I wanted but I couldn't keep her out if she was a murderer," and to me, "Always bring your CDN passport." Lesson learned; I now cross the border with my updatedCDN passport and I've reminded my kids to do the same.

Posted by
1909 posts

Nigel, give the small rednecky isolated border crossings 10 tries. Locals who know these guys from living in the same towns get hassles. Try it with an English accent...

Posted by
1909 posts

they weren't hired for the most congeniality contest.

Yeah if they were you guys need to fire some HR directors 🤣🤣🤣

Posted by
1909 posts

CanAmCherie I'm so glad you made it with enough time. ❤️

Posted by
9436 posts

But Nigel, how long ago was it that you crossed the Canada/US border… it’s gotten much worse with the US gun culture and drugs (fentanyl as one example) since you lived here.

Posted by
5 posts

Don't take it personally. Sometimes it just happens.

My wife and I are in our 60s and look about as average and harmless as you can. Yet, my wife was pulled for a secondary check at the gate in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. They said it was a random check and we believe them.

Be polite, listen to their questions and answer directly.

Don't let it worry you any more than that.

Posted by
33296 posts

But Nigel, how long ago was it that you crossed the Canada/US border… it’s gotten much worse with the US gun culture and drugs (fentanyl as one example) since you lived here.

a few

probably

sad

Posted by
597 posts

I think a lot of new international travelling Canadians and Americans think of border crossings as more about Customs (as the OP mentioned in the title) and not Passport/Border control because unlike in Europe and elsewhere, it is combined. Customs sounds quite innocuous when you haven’t done any shopping. So it can come as a bit of a shock the level of sternness encountered at Border Services anywhere.

Posted by
6669 posts

Hank's advice was very good I thought. I'd add something, which also applies to TSA at airports, specifically the people who check your boarding pass on the way to the machines. They often (maybe always) make a little conversation, to see whether you act nervous or defensive or otherwise suspicious. Maybe something light, maybe just how are you. Once a Canadian border guy wished me a happy birthday when he saw that on my passport. The interactions at borders will be longer because they're for a different purpose.

In December 1999 a guy came off the car ferry from Vancouver Island to Port Angeles WA. His sweating and general nervousness led the immigration people to pull him aside, and sure enough he had explosives and later pleaded guilty to being part of an Al Quaeda plan to blow up the Space Needle on New Year's Eve. Someone in the FBI later told an audience I was in that he had malaria, i.e. a mosquito helped save a lot of lives. These people who work at the border of whatever country have an important job to do, often under very difficult conditions. They may not win congeniality prizes, but we have to let them do their jobs. Hank's pointers can help us do that and save us a lot of trouble too.

Posted by
1451 posts

I've crossed the US/Canada border in Washington, Idaho and Vermont by myself, with family and with friends. I've gotten questioned the most by both Canadian and US border patrol when travelling by myself. I guess that's the most suspicious. The most recent trip (Peace Arch in WA) this past October, was the most amusing. I was by myself and when the US CBP asked if I had anything to declare I said "About $750 in clothes". He nodded, smiled and waived me through. What else would a single woman traveling to Vancouver be doing when the exchange rate was so good for the USD?

Posted by
318 posts

I have suspected it was because we were going to be there for such a
short time, and only later on did I find out that detroit windsor is
such a bad smuggling route.

I lived in the Detroit area many years ago. Whenever we drove into Canda for a day trip of sight-seeing we would be throughly questioned, but never searched. Learned it was drugs being trafficed from US into Canada. What was interesting is that years later when we lived in northern Pennsylvania and would day trip to Niagara Fall, we were never given the same treatment. Just waved-on with "have a nice day".

Posted by
4012 posts

Since this is the first time you have driven to Canada or have ever left the US, you don’t realize the simple fact is that you were just unlucky. It happens. My husband and I drive to Montréal for lunch and then return to the US a few hours later when we stay in Lake Placid. So it doesn’t matter how long or short we will be in Canada. Sometimes our car is completely checked; other times it’s practically a drive-through. We typically cross the border away from the interstate so we don’t have to wait on the long lines. It is those country roads where the border patrol has done a complete search. We have never felt like criminals because there is no reason to think that way. I don’t understand how going through Canadian immigration by car ruined your entire trip. The border patrol has a job to do and you were just unlucky. It happens. If you’re still nervous about the realities of Canadian/US border patrol, then don’t leave the US. But what a shame that is if you really don’t.

Posted by
11476 posts

.......only later on did I find out that detroit windsor is such a bad smuggling route. That aside, it still has me scared to go through again. What should I do?

Is using a different crossing an option?

Posted by
4586 posts

File claim, seek explanation and recourse. But good luck dealing with a governmental entity.

Posted by
465 posts

It's funny that during my whole life of going up to Canada from Washington I have only encountered pleasant Canadian border guards. In fact my friends and I often comment on how nice they are (even smiling!). But US guards have been a whole other matter. Have had some very negative encounters with them over the years coming back into the US, as well as coming through Houston after trips to Central America with students.