The Practical Pilgrim (or, how to achieve NO border-crossing stories when travelling to and from Canada)

Originally written for The Owl, newsletter of the College of Skeldergate, by Hector of the Black Height


The author is not qualified to speak on specifics of US or Canadian Immigration law or policy. For detailed information on law, policy or your personal situation, contact the nearest US Consulate, Embassy, Customs station or Immigration and Naturalization station, or the nearest Canada Immigration Centre or Canada Customs office.

When we travel to Pennsic (or any other SCA event in the United States), Canadian SCAdians sometimes forget about the fact that we are crossing an international border to get to where we're going. This is not a mere formality. When you show up at the border you are presenting yourself for inspection and asking for entry to another country. If you are a US citizen or have a Green Card and can prove it, you have the right to enter that country; the same is true for Canadians or Permanent Residents of Canada (as defined by the Immigration Act) coming home. All others are requesting a privilege. You do not have the right to enter a foreign country; the agents of the foreign country have the right to say "no" and turn you away.

Below are some tips on how to cross the border successfully, in both directions.

1) Have ID that proves your citizenship. A driver's licence proves that you can drive. A credit card proves that you can shop. A student card proves you can study. None of these things proves citizenship!

You need a birth certificate at the very least to prove you have a claim on citizenship somewhere; a passport is the best bet. Subject to confirmation, even an expired passport for an American or Canadian is good, because it proved you had citizenship as of the expiry date. The standard of identification required of Canadians and Americans at land border crossings (birth certificate as a minimum) is not the standard required of citizens of other countries at the same border points. Phone ahead and ask, but if you are a citizen of a third country only, you'd better have a passport. If you are NOT an American or Canadian, make sure your passport is valid for the duration of your trip outside Canada.

If you are not a Canadian or US citizen you may require a visa to enter the US or to re-enter Canada. If you are in Canada as a visitor on a Student or Employment Authorisation, you will need to carry that authorisation down to the US to re-present it on your return. It is possible that leaving Canada will invalidate your student or work papers (the authorisation may be valid for a year or more, but it may only be able to be presented at the border within a one- or two-month window at the outset of the authorisation period); check this out before packing. The onus is on you to check out these issues and obtain the necessary documentation.

Incidentally, "have ID at the border" means "have it in your hand", NOT "have it buried in your luggage". If you pack your birth certificate at the bottom of your suitcase, expect a nice long visit to the Customs inspection area, and while you're there perhaps the Customs folks would like to take a closer look at the rest of your luggage...

As a citizen you have the right to enter your own country. In Canada and the USA, the law says that the citizen must prove citizenship before being able to exercise his or her right to entry. No ID, no proof, and you can be turned away.

If you are a driver with a car full of Pennsic pilgrims or other event travellers, make sure they ALL have ID before hitting the road to the border. One person with no ID will stop the entire car (been there, done that; waited well over an hour for a fax of a birth certificate).

Once you get to Pennsic, make sure your ID is stored safely, either on your person or in a safe, lockable place (preferably a waterproof place, in the event of storms!).

2) Have sufficient cash on hand to support yourself. If you present yourself at the border with ten bucks and say you're going to be on vacation for two weeks, you'd better have a debit card (bank card) or a credit card in your pocket. If you have insufficient funds to support yourself while in a foreign country, you can and will be turned away by the border authorities.

Not required but a really good idea is health insurance while outside Canada. Remember, OHIP no longer covers everything that happens while you're in the USA. At the very least you'll be expected to pay up front in the emergency ward and then OHIP may reimburse you months later. Just like your ID, make sure your insurance document is stored in a safe, dry place.

3) Tell the truth. The US border authorities (Customs, Border Patrol and Immigration) know about the SCA. They know about Pennsic, Cooper's Lake and Butler County, Pennsylvania.. For several years we've warned them in detail that we're coming, well in advance of Land Grab.

Don't make up a story -- it's a crime to lie to a Customs or Immigration officer (in both countries). Bring your pre-Pennsic booklet. Show the lady or gentleman in the booth the map in the Pale or Tidings. They'll be much happier with you if you can prove you have a purpose and a destination in the USA. Some of them are very interested in what we do; a couple have even turned out to be SCAdians (as several hoary war stories relate).

4) Straighten out Immigration problems before hitting the road. If you have a criminal record you may be inadmissible to the USA (or to Canada on return if you're not a Canadian citizen). Contact the relevant Immigration authorities and obtain clarification. The law is NOT the same on both sides of the border, so if in doubt, check in both directions. It's possible that, even with a criminal record, you may be able to obtain a special border clearance permit to allow a trip to War; these cannot be arranged overnight. Start phoning now. Avoid inconvenience and disappointment!

5) Remember, you are subject to Customs inspection whenever you cross the border. You are responsible for what you carry across the border (in either direction). It doesn't matter that you're carrying that bag for a friend; if it has contraband in it, you'll have to explain to the Customs officer or a police officer and -- eventually -- a judge. US Customs has been operating border crossings on a "zero-tolerance" basis for some time. If a drug-dog takes an interest in your car, expect to have the car confiscated on the spot. Do yourself a favour and help the SCA maintain its good name. Need more be said?

If you carry prescription drugs and/or intravenous drug hardware such as syringes (for your insulin or your bee-sting kit), you had better have a doctor's note in your pocket when you reach the border.

In a related topic, investigate duty-free allowances before you go to War. Declare your purchases on the way home and, if necessary, be prepared to pay duty on what you've purchased outside the country. US and Canadian Customs officers are aware of us; they know Pennsic is where SCAdians may make major purchases. It's better to declare and pay duty than to lie, get caught, pay extra duty plus fines and possibly be flagged for future checks (as has happened to a couple of SCAdians; names omitted to protect the apprehended). Remember, duty-free allowances increase the longer you are in the foreign country.

Before carrying weapons such as crossbows or firearms of ANY description across the border, contact Customs. If you're taking such items from Canada to the USA and then bringing them back, contact both countries' Customs services before you start packing. I am not aware of any SCAdian who's had problems bringing a "traditional" bow and wooden-shaft arrows across the border; when I've been asked and offered them my old recurve for inspection, I have been told they were more interested in compound bows. Still, times change.

Canada Customs can provide you with forms to record the particulars of valuable items; this way you don't buy a nice camera here, take it to War and then, on the way home, have a Canada Customs officer ask you to pay duty on that nice camera she or he suspects you may be smuggling into the country. If you are an Important Person in the SCA, you might want to have your Coronet or other valuable regalia registered with Canada Customs if you plan on attending several events through the year across the border. Canada Customs can help you through this process.

6) Kids are people too. Kids (even babes-in-arms) need ID at the border. Transport your own children ONLY; how can you authorise medical treatment for someone else's child who becomes sick on the road? If for some reason you must transport someone else's minor child across the border, have signed permission from BOTH parents to travel with the child across the border and, preferably, authorisation to order medical treatment for the child in the event of an emergency.

Child kidnapping is a major concern on both sides of the border; expect to have your children (especially pre-schoolers) looked at closely, expect to be asked for ID for your children and expect your children to be asked "Who's this with you?" This is a Good Thing; Customs can tell you how many kids they've caught at the border, being kidnapped. The number per year is frightening.

Subject to confirmation, kids have the same duty-free allowance as adults; they cannot import alcohol or tobacco, though. Contact Customs for more information.

7) If you as a Canadian wish to be a merchant at War, contact US Customs to find out what you'll have to do (and what duty you'll have to pay or what deposit you'll have to provide) to import your merchandise. Also, contact Canada Customs to ascertain what you'll have to do to bring unsold goods back across the border. Do this well in advance!!!

8) Do not be a jerk. Border authorities are just doing their jobs, protecting their countries' interests. If you are not co-operative, don't expect co-operation from people who can order you to unpack your luggage, to empty your car and, in extreme cases, to take your clothes off before bemused witnesses. Tell the truth, be pleasant and sensible, and all parties will be much happier with the outcome of the encounter.

That's a brief introduction to some possible border-crossing issues. Remember, you will be dealing with two countries' laws, and the laws and procedures differ coming and going. When in doubt, contact both sets of authorities. The various Customs and Immigration services are there to answer your questions and to help you enter their countries easily and pleasantly. Ask questions; foresee problems and fix them early; make the border crossing as painless a process as possible for all concerned and have a great trip to and from Pennsic!


For more information on border crossing, contact (information effective May 1998):

the US Embassy in Ottawa, 613-238-5335 or 613-238-8968

the US Consulate in Toronto, 416-595-1700

the US Customs station at Pearson Airport, Toronto, 905-676-2606

the US Immigration station at Pearson Airport, Toronto, 905-676-2563

Canada Immigration Toronto 416-973-4444

Canada Immigration outside Toronto 1-888-242-2100

Canada Customs:

Fort Erie: 905-994-6330 or 905-994-6331

Fort Frances: 807-274-3655

Hamilton: 905-308-8715

Kingston: 613-545-8477

Mississauga: 905-612-6532

Ottawa: 613-993-0534

Sarnia: 519-257-6400

Sault Ste. Marie: 705-941-3050

Thunder Bay: 807-626 -1603

Toronto: 416-973-7577

Windsor: 519-257-6400

or visit the following web sites (information effective May 1998):

Canada Immigration:

Canada Customs:

US Customs Service:

US Immigration and Naturalization Service:

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.