5 tips for Driving across the Canadian Border

5 Tips for crossing border blog header
Whether you're just passing through or planning to stay for an extended period of time, this guide will help you navigate the process of crossing the border into Canada with ease

Crossing the border into Canada can be an exciting experience, but it can also be daunting if you don’t know what to expect. If you’re planning to cross the border into Canada, it’s important to be well-prepared and to understand the requirements and procedures for doing so. In this guide, we’ll provide you with quick tips to make border crossing into Canada a breeze.  I’ll walk you through ports of entry customs procedures, ports of entry logistics, and the essentials such as Phone SIM cards, Navigation and currency. Whether you’re just passing through or planning to stay for an extended period of time, this guide will help you navigate the process of crossing the border into Canada with ease.

Before you arrive

We crossed the border with our RV last summer when things were a little more tricky to navigate due to COVID regulations. We arrived a last week and these tips still hold true and make border crossing much easier. Before you arrive review you’ll need to know what required documents are needed and what items are not allowed in Canada or what needs to be declared.  You will also want to determine the port of entry hours of operation.  

      1. Know Your Port of Entry

        Canada has several ports of entry where you can cross the border.  This quick tips guide is focus on land crossing from the United States into Canada. It’s important to know which port of entry you’ll be using and to have all the necessary documents and identification ready. At the border, you’ll need to present your passport or other travel documents. You may also be asked about your travel plans, the purpose of your visit, and the length of your stay.

        Not all Ports of Entry are the same.  Once I had an idea of our route, I figured out which port of entry we would be crossing using an old-fashioned paper atlas.  Then I looked online to find their hours of operation.  Some ports of entry are open until 5 PM, some until 9 PM and a few are open 24 hours.  It’s important to know because most border crossing locations are not in densely populated areas (especially in central and western Canada) if you arrive outside their hours of operation you’ll be stuck for the night.  If possible try to avoid traveling at peak travel times.  Day time week dya crossings for us have been extremely smooth with minimal wait times. 

      2. Required Documents

        Ensure you have proper identification readily available.  A passport is recommended as it is the most universally accepted form of identification.  We have always used our passports.  I have heard of people traveling with birth certificates from the United States, but I could not find anywhere on the Canadian government websites to confirm this. Part of the reason I am writing this quick tip guide is so you don’t follow the loops of information that never answered my questions online.  

        If you are traveling with kids and both parents are NOT along, the non-existent parent needs to provide a notarized consent letter (including custodial parents or legal guardians full name, address and phone number) to give permission for the child to leave the country.  Here is more information on consent letters from the Government of Canada.  It is also advised that you travel in the same vehicle as your minor children.

        If you are travelling with pets (dogs and cats in particular) they must be over 3 months of age and have proof of a rabies shot within 3 years.

      3. Know What is Prohibited

        Canada has strict regulations regarding the import of weapons and food in particular.  The list of foods changes often, but in general they monitor plant and animal products.  A general rule of thumb is to keep all food in the original packaging.  Foods (including meat in the freezer or cooler) must be packaged and labeled. Eggs and chicken have always been specific items listed when we arrived, however a customs agent has never search our fridge or freezer.   You should always declare any food items you have with you at the border, even if they seem harmless. In general, it’s best to avoid bringing fresh food across the border and to stick to packaged and processed items. We even brought the original packaging for our dog kibble which referenced the ingredients since we typically dump it in a sealable bin when we travel.   Since we travel for recreational purposes the guidance around bringing food into Canada for Personal Use and Maximum Quantity Limits for Personal Use Exemption  have been the key resources I have use when determining what foods are allowed across the border.  Since we travel in an RV and make most of our food while we camp, this has been of keen interest.  Thankfully we haven’t had any issues with food when crossing the border into Canada.  

        In addition to food, there are other items you cannot bring into Canada, including firearms, certain types of knives, and illegal drugs. We made a point to declare our bear spray most recently as we heard it is classified as a weapon.  It’s important to familiarize yourself with the list of prohibited items before you travel, as bringing them across the border can result in fines, imprisonment, or other penalties. Canada has strict laws regarding the possession and use of cannabis, which is legal in some parts of the country but subject to regulation. We have had a customs officer walk around our vehicle with a dog during one of our border crossings, but never had any issues with declaring items.  While wait times vary, from the time we arrived at the customs gate to begin the process to being cleared has been 5-15 minutes total.  


    When you arrive

    3. Phone SIM Cards, GPS and Kilometers

    If you’re planning to use your phone while in Canada, you may need to purchase a local SIM card to avoid international roaming charges or even to have coverage.  Once we are across the border we look for a local Big Box Store, or a Local carrier (Such as Telus, Bell or Rogers) to get a prepaid SIM cards. THe last two years we have signed up for Lucky pre-paid to get a local number, data and international texting. Just for context the SIM card was $10 CAD and for 2.5GB of 4G coverage for the month it was $35 CAD.  (I’ll cover CAD and currency next).  It has given us enough data and coverage to do the essentials.  We always text our parents back in the states to let them know our local numbers.  I am not sure if it’s unique to apple products, but our existing contacts and messages coming to our old number have still been delivered.  We keep both our Canada number and our existing number in our Apple ID when placing the new SIM card and haven’t seen any disruptions with messages not arriving.  

      In terms of navigation, it’s important to note that Canada uses the metric system, so distances are measured in kilometers rather than miles. GPS devices and smartphone navigation apps should be able to switch between miles and kilometers, but it’s always a good idea to double-check before you set out on a long journey. It is really hard to see the k/h speeds on our spedometer in the RV so we rely on our navigation apps and devices to help.  If you are driving a larger vehicle (such as an RV) make sure to know your metric dimensions as well.  

    4. Local Currency

    Canada uses the Canadian dollar (CAD) as its official currency.  We use many different credit cards for travel rewards and none of them charge a foriegn transaction fee so we try to pay with credit card when possible.  However there was still a need for us to exchange money to the local currency (for things like parking and laundry). The easiest way to do that is through an ATM.  I suggest selecting the Amount you need in local currency and let your financial institution do the exchange rate (As opposed to the local ATM, as it will be cheaper with less transaction fees overall.  Also of note, your financial institution might flag foreign transactions so be sure to notify them that you are leaving the country or you may not have access to your money.  While exchange rates vary, generally speaking $1 CAD is approximately $0.75 USD which helps me determine and compare prices to back home and keep our budget on track.  

    In conclusion, crossing the border into Canada requires preparation and awareness of regulations and customs. By familiarizing yourself with these quick tips regarding ports of entry, food, prohibited items, local currency, phone SIM cards, kilometers, and GPS, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey.