Road Trip

Published on June 12th, 2014 | by Luciano Nisi


Tips for Crossing the USA Border

Every year, many Canadians pack up their vehicles and head south to cross the border for shopping, travel, or work. We asked former Border Services Officer Luciano Nisi to share some of his tips to help make your border crossing experience a quick and stress-free process:


How to limit the chances of being sent in for a search

When you arrive at the booth and begin speaking to the border officer, you are being asked certain questions that are designed to determine if you should be referred for further processing and possible searches. Keep in mind the officer at the booth in on average of 2 minutes or less has to determine if you are a Canadian Citizen, determine if your declaration is truthful and accurate, and then decide if there is anything suspicious about your behaviour or vehicle that would require further search for drugs, alcohol, weapons, or other contraband. Here are a few things you can do to limit seeming to be suspicious when you arrive at the booth:

  1. Turn off your radio
  2. Remove your sunglasses
  3. Turn on inside dome lights or roll down rear tinted windows
  4.  Have all your ID and receipts ready and know what you purchased
  5. Declare everything, even if you went over on your personal exemptions or purchased alcohol and were not gone greater than 48 hours. Allow the officer to use his or her discretion to decide if you will be sent in to pay the duty and or taxes on the purchases.
  6. Do not use or answer your cell phone and remove any headsets you may be using. If you follow these guidelines you will limit suspicion on yourself and your vehicle.


Buying alcohol when you are gone less than 48 hours

If you go down for a day trip, (perhaps to do some shopping) you may be tempted to purchase a bottle of wine or perhaps some beer. The customs regulations state that for any trips less than 48 hours any beer, wine or hard liquor is subject to duties and taxes. This simply means you may be charged on any purchases. It is a misconception to many travellers that think they cannot purchase alcohol while in the US. This is false; you may purchase as much as you want, you simply are not duty and taxes exempt. As a general rule, most officers do not send in travellers who purchase wine that is not over $12 for a 750ml bottle, or for a 12 pack of beer; however, you must be prepared to pay the duties and taxes when you arrive at the border. It is the officer’s discretion if they allow you to continue on or pay for the alcohol. So you may take a few trips and be allowed back without paying, then on another trip you may be sent in to pay. If you don’t have to pay on the purchase be thankful you were given a break that trip, just remember the next time you may be sent in. With regards to hard liquor such as vodka there is very little discretion given, this is more often due to the ratio of how the duties and taxes are calculated on hard liquor, it is higher than on beer and wine so officers are less likely to give you a break and let you continue without paying.


Bringing back fire wood from the USA

If you plan to travel to the US to go camping, and will be purchasing local firewood to use for your camp fires, you must ensure you do not bring back any of the firewood you purchased in the US to Canada. It is prohibited to bring back firewood or any wood not inspected. The reason is that this wood may contain larva or foreign bugs or mites that can potentially infect the ecological balance in Canada. Foreign bugs or larva that may be introduced may not have a natural predator and these bugs can overtake the natural habitat. Consider the devastating effects of the pine beetle that was accidentally imported from China. This bug has no natural predators in Canada and it has destroyed thousands of hectares of forests. If you are caught trying to import firewood you may be send back to the US to dispose of it, as well as subjected to fines and at the very least your travel back into Canada will be delayed. Don’t risk it and  leave the firewood you purchase in the US at the camp site (the next camper will appreciate it).


Buying meat and dairy products in the USA

For every trip you have a daily limit of meat and dairy products. If you exceed these daily personal limits you may be subjected to heavy duties on the overage. For example each person is limited to $20 in dairy per person per day. That includes: milk, cheese, butter etc. If you exceed this $20 daily limit the duty rate is approximately 240%, and if you exceed $100 it becomes a commercial import and you would actually require permits to bring it into Canada.  If you compare this 240% to hard alcohol such as vodka the duty rate on overage is only 140% duty, so the duty rate if you exceed the maximum dairy limit is substantial. The good news is that there are no age restrictions so if you travel down for a day and have family of 4 you are each entitled to $20 in dairy per person; $80 in this case.


What happens if you get caught for not declaring some clothing you purchased?

For a day trip to the USA you are not duties or taxes exempt on any purchases except certain groceries and gas. That means you must pay any duty or taxes on all goods you purchase. If you choose to purchase clothing for example and you either wear the clothing back or perhaps tuck it away out of sight and you are sent in for a search and the officers discover the clothing a few things can happen. Firstly there will be seizure of the goods, (the type of seizure will depend on if the goods were in plain view or concealed) each has a different level of fine attached. Secondly you will have to pay a fine associated with the seizure and any owing duties and taxes. Then your name and vehicle will be entered in the Customs database and your name will be flagged for 4-7 years depending on the level of seizure. And lastly if you have a Nexus card it will be revoked and you will no longer have the privileges of the trusted traveller program. All of this can happen for simply not declaring the clothing you brought back (and if the value was not very high the officer might have uses his or her discretion and not sent you in to pay). My recommendation is to declare everything you purchase and let the officer make the decision.


For more information and travel tips for crossing the border, check out Luciano’s e-book Crossing the Line: How to Cross a Land Border Stress Free. 

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About the Author

Luciano Nisi

is a former Border Services Officer with CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency). He worked over 3 years as a line officer, processing thousands of travellers during that time and has the knowledge and experience first-hand on everything that can happen at the border. He knows the process, the regulations, and what officers can and cannot do when you return to Canada. All the information you will receive is based on the combination of his training and experience doing the job.

4 Responses to Tips for Crossing the USA Border

  1. Sara says:

    You forgot a few very very important tips in terms of wine and food.

    Most fruit and vegetables are prohibited especially “stone” fruit, apples, potatoes, strawberries, etc.

    You mentioned the wine part. Costco has very cheap wine in very large sizes (greater than 750 ml) for less than $9 USD. If you bring that across the border, you will get sent in and you will not only pay tax and/or duty but you will also pay tax and/or duty for all other items (including toiletries, clothes, not exempt). Don’t even bother with liquor unless you stay 48 hours or more. I should also mention that people have been sent in, depending on how the CBSA agent feels for a one 16 oz can of beer.

    Bottom line which most ignorant and foolish Canadians fail to take into account when purchasing items across the border: expect to be pay tax and/or duty on all non duty exempt purchases. Consider this before you buy something in the USA. If you’re ok with that, you won’t get upset when you end up inside paying taxes.

  2. Luciano Nisi says:

    Sara, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment regarding my blog “Tips for crossing the USA border by car”.

    Regarding your concerns, you will notice my tip regarding food was specifically regarding meat and dairy “For every trip you have a daily limit of meat and dairy products”.

    In regards to your concern about wine my blog specifically states: “As a general rule, most officers do not send in travellers who purchase wine that is not over $12 for a 750ml bottle, or for a 12 pack of beer; however, you must be prepared to pay the duties and taxes when you arrive at the border” it is exactly what I wrote a “general rule” officers always have the discretion to sent a traveller in or allow them to continue into Canada. Your comment regarding large quantities from Costco do not apply as they wouuld exceed the volume amount of 750ml. As far as liquor it was not mentioned at all in the tip. In all my years working at the border I have never seen a traveller pay for a single can of beer.

    In writing the 5 tips I was only able to write brief tips in a condensed from to help the traveller. My ebook “Crossing the Line – How to cross a land border stress free” provides an indepth look at everything you have addressed and can be obtained at

    Keep in mind Canada and the USA have had a free trade agreement since Oct 4, 1987 meaning you do not pay duty on goods that are manufactured in the US except for certain goods such as alcohol etc. You are reponsible for taxes unless you are gone long enough for personal excemptions to apply.

    I would recommend you pick up a copy of my e-book at I think you will find it answers all of your questions.

  3. Rob Griffioen says:

    Awesome job on the collaboration. Great approach to generate traffic to your book. My niece works as a travel agent for the same company and I will suggest she mentions the ebook to her clients.

  4. Luciano Nisi Luciano Nisi says:


    Thank you for your comment and feedback, very appreciated. I hope the tips on my blog and my book (Crossing the Line – How to cross a land border stress free) are able to help people in their travels.

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