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Documentation you need to cross the border

You may need different types of documentation to cross the border between the U.S. and Canada depending on whether you are  crossing by land, air,or water.  In addition, the documentation requirements to enter the two countries are slightly different. Generally speaking, the documents needed to enter Canada are somewhat less strict than the documents needed to enter the United States.  However, if you are crossing over the border twice, you should focus on the more restrictive American requirements and you will then be covered for Canada as well.

To avoid problems when you arrive at the border, you should be sure to review our pages on The Border Inspection Experience and Clearing Customs.  You should also visit our page for the specific border crossing you will be using for tips and a complete description of that  port.  If you are crossing the border with minor children you should read our page which details the special requirements for Traveling With Children.

If you try to cross the border without the appropriate documentation you may be referred for secondary screening at the port.  At that time, officers will evaluate whatever evidence you present proving who you are and your country of origin.    They will also attempt to verify that information against available databases.  Obviously, this will take considerably longer than a normal entry and there is no assurance that you will be allowed to proceed into the country.  However, you can be admitted to either country without the preferred documentation at the discretion of the border officials.  We describe each of the types of travel documents you can use in detail on a separate page titled “Types of Documentation“.

Be careful about misrepresenting something regarding admissibility.  Both countries track every border crossing event and you will most likely be banned from future crossings if you are caught lying.

Basic Requirements to cross the United States / Canadian Border

  • The driver must have a valid drivers license.
  • You must also have your vehicle registration. Border officials are always on the lookout for stolen vehicles or people trying to avoid duties on vehicles purchased out of country.
  • Having your proof of insurance showing coverage is recommended.
  • Alarm bells will go off anytime you try to cross the border in a car that is not yours.   This is especially true if you fly across the border, and then try to come back in someone else’s personal vehicle.  See our page on Crossing the Border in a Borrowed Vehicle  for instructions and a sample permission letter you should bring.
  • Rental Cars: Generally speaking, an American citizen can cross the border in a rental car without much problem.  It is a bit more complicated for Canadian citizens.  We have a separate page with much more detail on taking a rental car across the border.
  • As a general rule, neither country will prevent one of it’s own citizens from re-entering the country and return home even if you lack the preferred documentation.  Of course, you may be subjected to a secondary screening.

Documents Needed to Enter Canada

To cross the border into Canada you will need the following documents:

  • American Citizens: A passport is not required but is strongly recommended. Alternatively, you will need other documentation that shows proof of American citizenship such as a birth certificate, a certificate of citizenship or naturalization or a Certificate of Indian Status, plus a photo ID.   Remember, you will need to comply with the stricter U.S. entry requirements to return to the U.S.
  • For Canadians returning to Canada: a passport is strongly recommended by the Canadian Border Services Agency.  Otherwise, you will need proof of citizenship and a photo identification card.  Other forms of identification can include Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL)/Enhanced Identification Card (EIC), NEXUS card, Free and Secure Trade (FAST) card, Canadian citizenship card, Certificate of Indian Status, or a Birth certificate in combination with either a driver’s licence or a government-issued photo identification.  The CBSA warns that these other forms of documentation may cause significant delay and trigger secondary screening as border officers try to verify your information.

Documents Needed to Enter the United States

There are different documentation requirements depending on how you are entering the country.  Generally speaking, you must have a document that complies with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI).   Some of these documents have significant lead times and could delay your trip if you do not order them early enough.

Arriving by land or water you must present one of the following:

  • Valid Passport –  The passport of a Canadian citizen must be valid through the intended duration of their stay in the U.S. (As of January 2016).   Citizens of other countries are typically required to present passports that are good for up to 6 months after your intended departure date.  If your passport is expired you will most likely be sent for a secondary inspection.  Your entry into the U.S. will be at the discretion of the border official.
  • United States Passport Card
  • Trusted Traveler Cards – NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST
  • State or Provincial Issued Enhanced Driver’s License or Enhanced Identification Card – EDL / EIC
  • U.S. Military ID with orders.  Must be traveling on official orders
  • U.S. citizens may present an unexpired Merchant Marine Document in conjunction with maritime business
  • Native Americans must have a WHTI compliant document.  Some tribes have developed an approved “Enhanced Tribal Card” which is similar to an Enhanced Drivers License and is a valid border crossing document.
  • U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents can use their permanent resident card (Form I-551) or other valid evidence of permanent residence status.

Ferries and Small Boats

Passengers on ferries and small boat operators are processed just like travelers entering the U.S. through a land border. You must present acceptable documentation as if you are driving.  An I-68 form is not enough by itself.