Crossing the border into the U.S. is no longer a routine matter. Security is priority One, and you have to be prepared. The lines to cross will be longer this winter, the questions by border agents a little stricter, the demands on your patience more onerous. Make it easy on yourself.
Have your passport and other documents at hand. You’re going to be asked for them, so don’t waste time digging them out of a ragbag or purse. Besides your passport, have your travel insurance certificate handy as that is a good validator of how long you intend to stay in the country and when you will be returning home. If you will be staying at a condo or rental property, have that information readily available too. Border agents like specific information. If you tell the agent you just plan on moving around the country for the next six months, prepare to be pulled aside and asked a lot more questions. Be pleasant, responsive, concise and don’t try to tell the agent your life story. He has work to do.
Have a record of previous visits over the past year or two available. You probably won’t be asked, but if you are, you can be specific and not get flustered trying to recall how many trips you have made.
Have some proof that you have a permanent home in Canada (it’s OK if you rent). A few telephone or utility records will do, but don’t carry a shoe box full of papers—just a few items to show you are a permanent resident and intend to return.
If you are carrying foodstuffs into the U.S., be prepared to declare everything you have. The border patrol and U.S. Department of Agriculture post lists of foods that can be brought into the country and others that are prohibited, but those lists change frequently. For example, potatoes from some parts of Canada are on the prohibited list, others are not. Certain types of cheeses are allowed, others are not. Don’t be lax on this requirement. Border agents take it seriously. Declare even what you have in your lunch baskets if asked. Don’t forget even an apple. Don’t assume that anything in your fridge at home is acceptable for entry. I know of people who for lack of declaring one apple in their trunk, had their car examined with a fine tooth comb—for 30 minutes. The point of this stringency is to prevent insects, pests and other infectious agents from getting into the U.S. food supply. Canadian border patrol agents are just as strict about this issue when you return home.
Be prepared to declare how much money you are carrying with you. You are allowed to carry cash or cheques, but there are limits (pretty high), and agents might ask you what you have on board.
Don’t be offended if the agent asks if you are carrying guns or other weapons. It has become a routine question. It doesn’t mean you look like a criminal or a terrorist. It’s a question that has now become almost mandatory.
Most important, understand that you are about to become a guest in some else’s country and the host has never seen you before. Be polite, concise, speak out, don’t argue or demand your “rights,” and be courteous not combative. Remember that the agent has the power to deny you entry and turn you around if he is not convinced your answers sound legitimate. And there’s not much you can do about it.