Get ready to explore the United States’ northern neighbor by learning about this country’s entry requirements and rules of the road.
By Peggi McDonald, F71504
This summer is a perfect time to experience the vast, diversified, friendly country of Canada. FMCA’s 70th International Convention in Buffalo, New York, will take place July 18, 19, and 20, and the Northeast Area Rally will be held July 25, 26, and 27 at Prince Edward Island, Canada. These events offer great reasons to explore Canada either before or after they take place.
The United States and Canada share the world’s longest undefended border. Since September 11, 2001, and the more recent conflict in Iraq, both governments have become more sensitive to the need for security and safety. However, if you play by the rules, your crossing should not be difficult and your visit will be enjoyable. Be sure to cross through a car lane, and not a truck lane. At times, border agents may ask more questions and perform a few more searches, but unless you’re traveling at peak times, such as Friday evenings and holiday weekends, delays should be minimal. Of course, road construction at the border or new terrorism threats may instantly change that situation.
Begin by ordering the guidebook titled Pure Canada’s 2003 Outdoor Experiences Guide from the Canadian Tourism Commission at (877) 822-6232. This guide contains information about touring and regulations. Next, call the travel bureau of the province(s) you plan to visit and request their travel guides, campground information, and a map. (See the accompanying sidebar for more information.) Quite often, such information is also available at provincial welcome centers.
To enter Canada, U.S. citizens must present a passport or an original or notarized copy of their birth certificate, as well as a photo ID. To re-enter the United States, Americans must have a birth certificate (or a certified copy of one) or a valid passport. Computers at the border do record vehicle license plate numbers, but if you have no outstanding tickets, agents will have no reason to dig into your driving history.
People with a criminal record may be refused entry into Canada, and this includes those who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated. If you are travelling with children other than your own, or with grandchildren, you need a letter of permission from their guardian or parent. It’s a good idea to carry along children’s medical records (information about allergies, diabetes, etc.), too, just as you should do for yourself.
Always remove your sunglasses so that you and the customs agent can see eye to eye. Present only the documents that he or she requests. Do not give cute or smart answers, and reply only to the questions asked. For example, if you’re asked whether you have any cigarettes or tobacco products in the coach, simply say “yes” or “no” “” don’t answer by saying, “I don’t smoke.”
Although your motorhome is home to you, it is merely a vehicle at the border. Agents may leave items disorganized during an occasional search, and it will be your responsibility to repack them.
Be aware that inquisitive agents are on duty on both sides of the border. Two years ago, while returning to our home in Canada, we were asked to pull over. Two agents asked whether we had any weapons on board and requested that we leash our dogs and vacate our unit while they gave our motorhome a precautionary look. They found nothing and we were on our way in a few minutes. If you feel that you’ve been mistreated by a customs agent, ask to speak with the next person in the chain of command to initiate a complaint after the fact. Border officers can provide the details.
In our 18 years of full-timing, we’ve had only one “less-than-perfect” border crossing. Our U.S. Customs agent asked us numerous questions about where we lived and how long we would be in the United States. She also asked whether we had more than $10,000 in cash on board (if so, the money has to be declared going both ways). We were not searched and made every attempt to follow the Golden Rule; she was simply doing her job as she saw fit. At an agricultural checkpoint 100 feet farther ahead, a friendly agent entered our unit to search for controlled fruits and vegetables, mainly citrus fruits. By the way, for convenience, don’t take along any houseplants; it’s too complicated to take them across the border.
For RVers, most food, even meat in a freezer, and belongings designed for personal use are not questioned. Travel brochures list many foods as prohibited, but this information is mainly directed toward car traffic. If you ever have a specific question in this regard, phone the Canadian border office to ask, and phone United States Customs with the same question.
I led a Canada travel seminar in which an RVer asked whether she could take her valuables out of her motorhome in a small case while the coach was being searched. If the customs officer could first examine the contents of the case, I see no big problem; however, since this is out of the ordinary, ask in advance. More information about border crossing requirements is available by contacting the organizations listed in the accompanying sidebar.
As of January 1, 2001, the procedures for bringing firearms into Canada, or for borrowing firearms while in Canada, changed as a result of mandatory license requirements for all firearms owners and users in Canada. As before, all firearms must be declared at the border. The only guns allowed are sporting rifles and shotguns that will be used for competition, sporting, or hunting, or non-restricted firearms that are being transported between destinations. Owners must be over the age of 18. Visitors to Canada must complete a Non-Resident Firearms Declaration Form, pay the $50 (Canadian) fee, and have the form confirmed by a Canadian Customs officer. To save time, visitors can obtain the form and fill it out prior to their arrival at the point of entry (see “Canada Travel Information Sources” sidebar for information). However, the form must be signed in front of the Customs officer. The confirmed declaration will serve as a temporary license and registration for 60 days. To borrow a firearm in Canada, non-residents must have an approved Temporary Firearms Borrowing License, which will cost $30 (Canadian).
It is illegal to own or use Mace, pepper spray, and similar personal protection sprays, as well as handguns, automatic weapons, and even replica guns. Requests to transport these will be denied. If you are traveling through Canada to Alaska, for example, you may opt to crate and ship your firearms via commercial carrier to your destination. Remember, too, that you cannot carry ammunition for these guns.
Be sure to carry a copy of all prescriptions for medication you’re currently taking and any syringes you may need to have on board. This applies to pet medications as well.
To learn about what you can bring back into the United States, contact the U.S. Customs Service office.
Consider these other points before you cross the border into Canada.
- It is never wise to voluntarily tell border officials that you are full-timing. Since this will give the appearance that you have no reason to return home, border officials may be concerned that you’ll become a burden on the host country.
- Limited quantities of alcohol and tobacco are allowed into Canada. The duty on amounts beyond these quantities is high. Open bottles count in the overall total. Alcohol limits are 1.14 liters/40 ounces of liquor; OR 1.5 liters/52 ounces of wine; OR 355 milliliters/24 12-ounce containers of beer. Tobacco limits are 200 cigarettes, and 50 cigars, and 7 ounces of loose tobacco, and 200 tobacco sticks. Tobacco products not purchased and stamped at a duty-free shop may be assessed an extra tax.
- Dogs and cats must have a valid rabies vaccination certificate, issued by a licensed veterinarian, for entry into Canada. Last fall when our dogs had their vaccinations, our veterinarian removed the label from the vaccine vials and attached it to their rabies certificate. She added a note to verify it was a three-year vaccine, so our pets no longer receive unnecessary medicine. Birds and other pets are also welcome. Contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)’s Animal Health Services department for more information.
- For re-entry into the United States, dogs must have an unexpired vaccination certificate. There is no rabies vaccination requirement for cats. For more information, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at (404) 498-2260 or visit www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dq/animal.htm.
After you’re in Canada …
The great exchange rate of the U.S. dollar makes Canadian travel a bargain to Americans. Many day-to-day costs are similar to those in the United States, although the cost of tobacco (more than $50 for a carton of cigarettes in some locations), gasoline, and diesel fuel is higher. Liquid propane costs are approximately the same as those in the United States, and it is more accessible in towns and villages than at highway truck stops.
The rate of exchange at the time this article was written (April 2003) was approximately $1 U.S. per $1.49 Canadian. To figure the rate, divide $1 by $1.49; the result is 67 cents (U.S.). This means that for every U.S. dollar you spend in Canada, you get approximately $1.50’s worth of goods; or, to look at it another way, for everything that costs $1 in Canada, you’ll actually spend 67 cents of American money. A souvenir at a Toronto shop that costs $4 Canadian will cost you $2.68 U.S. ($4 multiplied by .67).
Gasoline, diesel fuel, and propane are sold in liters, not gallons. In fact, all Canadian measures (weights, lengths, and even temperature) are metric, so it’s best to take along a calculator or a metric calculator (these are sold at RadioShack and other stores) if you will be in the country for a long time. When you get to the fuel pumps and need to convert the cost in liters to gallons, multiply the Canadian price by 3.78 (3.78 liters to a gallon) and then multiply that number by .67 (the conversion rate). This will provide the cost per gallon.
Note that speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers.
Other tidbits to keep in mind include:
- Making a right turn on red is legal in all provinces except Quebec.
- Seat belts are mandatory everywhere.
- Headlights must be on one hour before dusk and one hour after daybreak.
- Radar detectors are illegal in all provinces and territories except British Columbia and Alberta. Expect heavy fines for possession and/or use.
- Canada uses $1 coins called Loonies and $2 coins called Toonies. Each value of paper currency is a different color.
- Most U.S. bank ATM cards work in Canadian ATMs (sometimes called cash or debit machines), but beware that your bank may charge you a fee to get cash. The Canadian Interac system works with all debit cards. When traveling in the United States, we save ATM fees by receiving cash back while using a debit card at Wal-Mart and major grocery stores. Technology is changing, so test your card in stores in Canada. You also can convert your cash at banks or at businesses with “Fair Exchange” signs.
- Credit card companies convert money at fair exchange rates. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express are welcome in Canada, but Diners Club is used only occasionally. Do not expect the Discover Card to be accepted in Canada.
- Severe thunderstorm warnings in Canada are the equivalent of tornado warnings; they indicate the possibility of hail, high winds, heavy rain, and tornadoes. Locations of weather disturbances are reported according to towns and villages, not by counties.
- U.S. drivers licenses are legal. Ask your vehicle insurance company to give you a free non-resident inter-provincial motor vehicle liability insurance card to prove you have coverage.
- Medical services are readily available by dialing 9-1-1 or ‘operator’ (zero). Hospital costs range from $1,000 to $2,000 per day and are payable by cash, credit card, or insurance.
- Campgrounds are plentiful and vary from full-service parks with 50-amp hookups to private, laid-back getaway spots with 15- or 30-amp electric service. Municipal parks, national and provincial parks, private parks, and membership and discount parks all are available.
- Overnight stops are available at most freestanding Wal-Mart stores (those that are not part of a mall), but always ask first. Local laws may prohibit overnight parking. Most truck stops and rest areas that are combined with truck stops are fine for overnight stays, but it’s not advisable to use an isolated rest area just off the highway.
- Water in most RV parks is tested regularly, and results are posted. Personal drinking water is available for sale at grocery stores, and some drug and grocery stores have water bottle refill stations.
- Leashed pets are welcome in most campgrounds, including provincial parks.
- The climate in Canada is such that you probably will not need to run an air conditioner in summer except in southern Ontario, or when camped around lakes.
- The Trans-Canada highway system stretches east to west, but the highway numbers change.
And now it’s time to consider taxes. Each province and territory except Alberta charges sales tax, and the entire country adds a 7 percent federal tax called the GST (goods and services tax). Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland combine their sales tax with the GST to form a 15 percent “harmonized” sales tax (HST). Visitors are encouraged to claim a rebate of both the GST and the HST for purchases of more than $50, if their annual total exceeds $200. (If you spend less than $200 during one visit, receipts can be held and combined with sales on future visits, up to one year.) Consumables such as meals, gas/fuel, cigarettes, beer, and liquor do not qualify for the tax rebate, but you can get a rebate on the tax paid on campsite fees. GST rebate forms are available in stores, tourist bureaus, etc.; receipts must be stamped at the duty-free shops. Payment may be available on the spot.
Tolls, roads, and bridges
Canada has very few toll roads, but some bridges at the border do charge a fee. For example, the Rainbow Bridge, the Queenston Bridge, and the Peace Bridge, which all cross into Ontario near Buffalo and Niagara Falls, have the same toll: $3.50 Canadian/$2.50 U.S.
If you drive through Toronto, Ontario, on Highway 401, a 16-lane highway, plan to be there between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., when traffic is lighter; stay in the “express” center lane; and go with the flow. Do not take the 407 ETR (Electronic Toll Route) in north Toronto. This toll road functions using a totally automatic toll-paying system, and vehicles weighing more than 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) need an automatic toll-paying transponder that fits on the windshield. Violators from all states and provinces are assessed a fee per kilometer, a $25 vehicle photo fee, and the possibility of a hefty fine.
Two other toll roads in Canada include Coquihalla Highway 5 in southern British Columbia (between Hope and Merritt), and a short route in Nova Scotia near Truro (Route 104). On Prince Edward Island, you pay the Confederation Bridge toll only when leaving the island. The bridge cost for a motorhome, with or without a towed vehicle, is $43.75 Canadian. Toll for a regular vehicle (such as a car, truck, etc.) is $38.50 Canadian. (Phone 888-437-6565 for more information.) The ferry costs range from $65 to $78 Canadian, but only upon departure from the island. Many RVers take the ferry to the island and return by the bridge. (An article about PEI appeared in the May 2003 issue of FMC on page 156.) Ferry information is available from provincial tourist offices. It is never too early to make ferry reservations; a small fee to do so may be charged.
The more you learn about traveling in Canada, the more at ease you will be when crossing the border. Understanding the minor differences that exist between our two countries is always helpful. Routine visits should be hassle-free with minimal preparation. So don’t be afraid to come and enjoy your friendly neighbor to the north.
Canada Travel Information Sources
Border Crossing and Regulations
John and Peggi McDonald’s Web site offers quite a bit of information about motorhome travel in Canada: www.rvliving.net/traveltocanadacont.htm. It includes information about ferries, toll roads, rules of the road, links to towed vehicle braking information, and more. Other border crossing information sources include:
Canada Customs and Revenue Agency: www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca; (800) 461-9999. Use this Web address and phone number for general information. For information about rebates on the GST or HST, go to a different part of this Web site: www.ccra-adrc.gc.ca/visitors/; phone (902) 432-5608, or, from within Canada, phone (800) 668-4748.
Canada Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca.
Canada Government Services: A complete source of information about Canada with a live assistant on the phone: (800) 622-6232; www.canada.gc.ca.
Canadian Tourism Commission: www.travelcanada.ca; (877) 822-6232. This is the source of the Pure Canada’s 2003 travel guide.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA): Handles questions concerning pets, plants, foods, etc.; www.inspection.gc.ca; East (877) 493-0468; Central (800) 835-4486; West (888) 732-6222.
Canadian Firearms Centre: www.cfc.gc.ca; a related site is www.cfc-ccaf.gc.ca; (800) 731-4000. Contact before attempting to bring approved firearms across the border; necessary forms are available online or by phone.
Transport Canada: Road condition information and roadway news: www.tc.gc.ca.
United States Customs and Border Protection: www.customs.gov; (877) 287-7667; (202) 354-1000
Canada Travel Specifics
The following Canadian tourism bureaus provide information to travelers:
Tourism British Columbia: (800) 663-6000 or (800) 435-5622
Travel Alberta: (800) 661-8888
Tourism Saskatchewan: (877) 237-2273
Travel Manitoba (800) 665-0040
Ontario Tourism: (800) 668-2746
Tourism Quebec: (877) 266-5687
Tourism and Parks New Brunswick: (800) 561-0123
Nova Scotia Tourism: (800) 565-0000
Prince Edward Island Tourism: (888) 734-7529
Tourism Newfoundland & Labrador: (800) 563-6353
Northwest Territories: (800) 661-0788
Nunavut Territory: (866) 686-2888
Tourism Yukon: (800) 789-8566
For information about Canada’s national parks, phone (888) 773-8888 or visit www.parkscanada.gc.ca.