US – Canada Border Inspection

The border inspection process is designed to determine your eligibility to enter the US or Canada. Your eligibility is determined by several factors.

The Customs officers make use of two processes to determine eligibility: the primary inspection and the secondary inspection. The primary inspection usually consists of an initial questioning at the booth and a review of your documents, such as:

  • Your reason for traveling to the country
  • Review of the required documentation
  • The length of your stay in the country
  • Your admissibility or inadmissibility

At times, the Customs officer deems it necessary to perform a more detailed inspection which is the secondary inspection. This may include:

  • A thorough inspection of your vehicle and goods, including your electronic devices
  • More detailed questions regarding your trip and any related topics
  • A search on the Internet
  • A personal search

Border Crossing Inspection Process

What they know about you

Crossing an international border is not a right. It’s a privilege.

Ever since 9/11, the US and Canada have been sharing a lot of information about their citizens. One way they do this is by granting access to their criminal databases. This means that Canada border officials can access the FBI’s database and US border officials can access the RCMP’s Canadian Police Information Centre. Another bit of information that the two countries share is the entry and exit of all passengers. While the Entry/Exit Initiative has yet to include US and Canadian citizens, it does share information regarding permanent residents of either country.

Primary Inspection

  • The inspection process actually starts a few meters before you reach the booth. A license plate reader captures your vehicle’s license plate which is then checked against law enforcement databases to see if there’s a lookout for that vehicle.
  • RFID readers, if available at the port of entry, will also capture data from any applicable documents within the vehicle.
  • A scan of your travel document will reveal the data printed on it as well as validate its authenticity.
  • The computer will also show the Customs official your passage history. Every time you have crossed a border, information gathered from you during your crossing is stored to be included in your passage history such as your name, date of birth, citizenship, address, mode of travel, purpose of travel, and value of goods purchased abroad.
  • The computer will then perform an analysis of the data to see if you have suspicious travel patterns. People with these kinds of patterns will be flagged for closer inspection the next time they try to cross the border.

Secondary Inspection

There are many reasons why you may be referred for a secondary inspection at the border and not all of them mean that you have done something wrong. Below are several reasons why you may be pulled over:

  • Verification of your documents and/or your declaration
  • A random inspection
  • Determining your admissibility
  • Paying duties and taxes

When you undergo a secondary inspection, Customs officers may be able to obtain more information about you such as:

  • Criminal history
  • Current job
  • Family members
  • Any contact you have made with law enforcement agencies
  • Your digital trail (i.e. social media)

Rules for border crossing

1 General Rules

  • ALWAYS tell the truth. Never lie even about stuff that may seem inconsequential. If you’re caught in a lie, they may detain you or, worse, refuse your entry.
  • Be polite. Don’t be a smartass or confrontational. Cracking jokes or making sarcastic remarks won’t go too well for you.
  • Answer the questions directly. Don’t babble or volunteer information that hasn’t been asked. Talking too little or too much may put you on the Customs officer’s radar.
  • Keep all your receipts if you did some cross-border shopping and declare everything.
  • Do your research. Make sure you didn’t bring anything prohibited or restricted unless you have a license or permit for them.
  • Don’t answer your phone while you’re undergoing primary inspection. It might make you look suspicious.

2 Rules for Drivers

  • Remove your sunglasses so the Customs officer can see your eyes while he or she talks to you.
  • Have your car registration available.
  • Roll down your windows especially the ones at the back if you have passengers in the backseat.
  • Check your trunk and make sure that it’s empty or there’s nothing there that would be a cause for Customs officials to question your border crossing. Only bring things that you will need for the purpose of your trip. For example, if you’re a handyman, don’t forget to take out your work tools or else the Customs officer may think you’re entering the country to work, not play.
  • Turn on the inside dome lights.
  • Make sure that you’ve got your seatbelt on.
  • Turn off your radio.
  • Make sure all of your passengers have a NEXUS card if you’re going to be using a NEXUS lane.
  • Don’t bring a stranger across the border. If he’s trying to cross the border illegally, you might find yourself criminally charged for it.
  • If you’re traveling with children that are not yours, make sure that you have all the necessary documents that prove you have their parents’ permission to do so. Read more about this on our Traveling with Children page.

3 Rules for Passengers

  • You need to hand your ID and other relevant travel documents to the driver before you reach the booth.
  • Roll down the windows in the backseat, so that the border officials can see and talk to you.
  • The border officials will be scanning the vehicle for radiation. If one of you has recently undergone a medical test or treatment that involves radiation, you will need to get a doctor’s note that verifies where the radiation came from. Be prepared to be referred to secondary inspection, though.

Personal Information Act Requests

U.S. Freedom of Information Act Requests

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally states that anyone can request access to federal records or information except those that “are protected from disclosure by any of nine exemptions contained in the law or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.”

What does this have to do with you? If you’re having problems getting past border security or are simply curious about what information the federal agencies have on you, you can get access to those records by filing an FOIA request. You can learn more about what information you can request from the CBP and how you can get it here.

Canadian Privacy Act Requests

Similar to the US, Canada also allows you to request access to any records or information that the different agencies of the federal government have on you. After 9/11, national security and public safety became a huge priority. Now, every time you travel and cross the border, your file will be updated. There are several programs in place that monitors your movement when crossing borders:

  • The Entry/Exit Initiative where the CBP and CBSA share information on all passengers that enter and exit both countries.
  • The Advance Passenger Information/Passenger Name Record (API/PNR) Program that allows the CBSA to collect information on all individuals arriving in Canada. The information includes not only your name, address, and citizenship but also your travel itinerary, ticket payment information, baggage details, etc. The data is then stored in the Passenger Information System (PAXIS) that can be shared with other agencies and foreign authorities.
  • The Integrated Customs Enforcement System (ICES) is utilized by Customs officials to gather personal information on all border-crossing travel from Customs declaration forms. Gathering this info lets them create a passage history which can alert them to any suspicious travel patterns.

Border Crossing & Immigration Agencies

If you wish to access the personal information that Canadian government institutions have on you, you can make a request under the Privacy Act. To do this, you need to be a Canadian citizen, a Canadian permanent resident, or an individual or corporation currently residing in Canada. If you don’t fall under any of those classifications, you can still submit a request, but you should do so under the Access to Information Act which requires you to pay a fee of CAN$5.

Before you make your request, you will need to know which government institutions are most likely to have the information you want. Below is a list of the institutions that are most likely to have information that is relevant to travel, border crossing, and immigration:

Transport Canada

  • Shelley Chambers
  • Place de Ville, Tower C
  • 330 Sparks Street, Room 827
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N5
  • Telephone: 613-993-6162
  • FAX: 613-991-6594
  • ATIP/

Citizenship and Immigration Canada

  • Narono Building
  • 360 Laurier Avenue West, 10th Floor
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1L1
  • Telephone: 1-800-667-6703
  • Other Telephone: 1-800-667-6703
  • FAX: 613-957-6517

Canadian Air Transport Security Authority

  • 99 Bank Street
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1P 6B9
  • Telephone: 613-949-2721

Canada Border Services Agency

  • 333 North River Road
  • 14th Floor Tower A
  • Vanier, Ontario K1A 0L8
  • Telephone: 343-291-7021
  • Facsimile: 343-291-7012

Correctional Service of Canada

  • Sir Wilfrid Laurier Building
  • 340 Laurier Avenue West
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0P9
  • Telephone: 1-844-757-8031
  • Facsimile: 613-995-4412

Canadian Security Intelligence Service

  • P.O. Box 9732 Station T
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4
  • Telephone: 613-231-0107
  • Other Telephone: 1-877-995-9903
  • Facsimile: 613-842-1271
Click on each agency to find out more about the records and information they have that you can access. To find what other agencies you can submit this request to, visit here.

You can submit your request by: