You may need different types of documentation to cross the border into the U.S., Canada, or Mexico depending on whether you are crossing by land, air, rail, or water. In addition, the documentation requirements to enter each country are slightly different.
Generally speaking, the U.S. has stricter requirements for documentation than the other two countries, so if you’re crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico both ways, you should focus on the more restrictive American requirements, and you should then be covered for Canada or Mexico as well.
To avoid problems when you arrive at the border, you should be sure to review the following pages:
- The Border Inspection Experience
- Clearing Customs
- You should also visit our page for the specific border crossing you will be using for a description of that port with real-time traffic information, traffic cameras, wait times, and road conditions.
- If you are crossing the border with minor children, you should read our page which details the special requirements for Traveling With Children.
We describe each of the types of travel documents you can use in detail on a separate page titled “Types of Documentation.”
Why do I need the proper documentation?
As a general rule, Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. are not likely to prevent one of their own citizens from re-entering the country and returning home – even if you lack the preferred documentation. However, you may be subjected to a secondary screening.
In a secondary screening, officers will review whatever evidence you show proving who you are and your country of origin. They will also attempt to check that information against available databases. Obviously, this will take much longer than a normal entry, and there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the country. However, you can be admitted without the preferred documentation, at the discretion of the border officials.
Don’t lie. Be careful about misrepresenting something regarding admissibility. North American countries track every border crossing event, and you will most likely be banned from future crossings if you are caught lying.
Documents Needed to Enter the United States
There are different documentation requirements depending on how you are entering the country. Some of these documents have long lead times, and could delay your trip if you do not order them early enough.
- American citizens arriving by land or sea must produce one of the documents below to enter the country. If you are driving across the border, be sure to also check the section at the bottom of the page about the paperwork you need for your vehicle.
- United States Passport Card
- Trusted Traveler Cards – NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST
- Global Entry Card
- Enhanced Driver’s License or Enhanced Identification Card – EDL / EIC.
- Military ID or Merchant Marine Document
- Must be traveling on official orders or maritime business, respectively
- Family members over 15 years old must still present passports
- Enhanced Tribal Card
- Children under 15 may, of course, present a passport as well, but there are also the following options:
- Birth certificate (an original copy)
- Consular Report of Birth Abroad
- Naturalization Certificate
- These rules also apply for children 16-18 if they are traveling with a group (school group, sports team, etc.).
- Closed loop cruises (which begin and end at the same U.S. port)
- You can re-enter the United States with only a birth certificate and government-issued photo I.D. But remember – if your cruise visits other countries, you’ll probably need your passport for those anyway!
- American citizens arriving by air must produce one of the following to enter the country:
When traveling by air, check whether you’ll be flying into an airport that lets you use Mobile Passport Control. Through the app, you can enter your personal details and travel plans, and your interactions with the CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officer will go much more quickly and smoothly. You’ll still need to present your passport, but they’ll have your information pulled up ahead of time and can verify everything more quickly. Important: Only download the official version of the app, as third-party apps won’t be accepted and may misuse your private information.
Non-citizens entering the United States
To enter the United States as a citizen of another country, you will need one of the documents below. If you are driving across the border, be sure to also check the section at the bottom of the page about the paperwork you need for your vehicle.
- Valid Passport
- The U.S. often requires that travelers from some countries (including Canada) have passports that are valid at the time they cross the border and 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.
- Canadian citizens may use:
- Lawful permanent residents need to present their Lawful Permanent Resident card (Form I-551) or other valid evidence of permanent residence status
- Canadian citizen children under the age of 16 can use a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. The birth certificate can be original, photocopy, or certified copy.
- Also applies to children under 19 if they’re traveling with a group (school trip, sports team, etc.).
Depending on your country of origin and your reason for traveling, you may need to get a visa as well. Visitors from Canada and Bermuda, in addition to visitors from the 39 countries in the Visa Waiver Program, do not require visas.
Documents Needed to Enter Canada
To cross the border into Canada, you will need one or more of the documents listed below. If you are driving across the border, be sure to also check the section at the bottom of the page about the paperwork you need for your vehicle.
- American Citizens:
- Passport: not required, but strongly recommended by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
- Alternatives: paperwork that shows proof of American citizenship. Examples include:
- Birth certificate
- Certificate of citizenship or naturalization, plus a photo ID
- 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.
- You no longer need to use ArriveCan to enter Canada, although it may speed up your border crossing. Through the app, you’ll fill out information about yourself and the people you’re traveling with, as well as your travel plans. Important: Only download the ArriveCAN app from the official source. The Canadian government has safety precautions in place to protect your personal data, but third-party apps may try to scam users. Be cautious.
- For Canadians returning to Canada:
- Passport: not required, but strongly recommended by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
- Alternatives: 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
- Birth certificate in combination with either a driver’s license or a government-issued photo identification.
- Note: these other forms of documentation may cause significant delay and trigger secondary screening as border officers try to verify your information.
Documentation Needed to Enter Mexico
The requirements for entering Mexico are fairly straightforward for most visitors. If you are driving across the border, be sure to also check the section at the bottom of the page about the paperwork you need for your vehicle.
You will need a valid passport that has not expired to enter Mexico, no matter where you’re coming from or whether you’re flying, driving, or traveling by boat. Mexico only requires that the passport be valid for the length of your trip, but if you’re flying, check with your airline, since some of them require that the passport be valid for the trip plus six months after.
You will not need a visa to visit Mexico for tourism, business, or transit if you are a citizen or permanent resident of one of the following:
- The United States
- United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
- Any of the countries of the Schengen Area
- Any of the countries of the “Pacific Alliance”
If you have a valid and not-expired visa for one of the above countries (except the Pacific Alliance countries), you can also enter without a Mexican visa. Remember to bring your passport or any documentation for permanent resident status as well as the visa.
You also do not need a visa if you are simply stopping at a Mexican port as part of a cruise (but you will still need a valid passport).
Every visitor to Mexico will need to fill out an FMM (Multiple Migratory Form, “Forma Migratoria Múltiple” in Spanish). You might hear this referred to as a Mexican “tourist visa,” but it is not actually a visa.
If you’re flying to Mexico, you will fill this form out either on the plane or at the counter at customs. If you’re driving or boating, you can fill the form out ahead of time online. You can also get a copy of the form at any Mexican embassy or border crossing station.
The form requires basic contact and travel information from you, and there is a small fee if you’re filling it out for land travel. It’s typically valid for 180 days, unless otherwise specified.
You should keep the FMM with you at all times while you’re in Mexico. Mexican officials can ask to see it at any point, along with your passport and other ID. If you lose your FMM, go to an immigration office in Mexico, where you will have to pay for a replacement.
Requirements to cross a North American border by car
- Driver’s license: The driver of the car must have a valid license.
- Vehicle registration: Border officials are always on the lookout for stolen vehicles, or people trying to avoid duties on vehicles purchased out of country.
- Proof of insurance: Mexico has strict rules for insurance and you absolutely must have it to drive in the country, so bring your vehicle’s insurance paperwork. For Canada and the U.S., the requirements are not always as strict and may change by state or province, but it is still recommended that you bring the insurance paperwork for your car.
Documentation required when driving a car you don’t own across the border
- Borrowed vehicle: Alarm bells will go off anytime you try to cross the border in a privately owned 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.
- Mexico has particularly strict rules, and generally requires the owner of a vehicle to be the one driving, or at least be a passenger in the car. Therefore, you shouldn’t attempt to drive across the U.S. / Mexico border in a borrowed vehicle.
- Canada and the U.S. will allow you to drive a borrowed car, but you should be prepared to face extra scrutiny. See our page on Crossing the Border in a Borrowed Vehicle for instructions and a sample permission letter you should bring.
- Rental Cars:
- It is very possible you will not be permitted to drive a rental car from the U.S. or Canada into Mexico. Check with the rental car agency to see if it is allowed.
- Between the U.S. and Canada, you can drive a rental car. It’ll be easier for American citizens than Canadian citizens, though. We have a separate page with much more detail on taking a rental car across the border.
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.