Coming to Canada as a non-citizen

Getting to the goal

The goal in crossing the border is gaining admission to Canada without giving up sensitive information to government officials. This takes preparation.

According to immigration lawyer Peter Edelmann, there are three broad reasons why Canadian border agents generally deny entry to foreign nationals:

  • If they suspect you are entering Canada to work or study without permission, or if you don’t have the financial resources needed for the duration of the visit;
  • if you pose a security threat to Canada or are a member of a terrorist or criminal organization;
  • or if you’ve committed certain crimes, like drug offences or mob violence.

Edelmann says that US citizens are easy to target because of information-sharing programs between the two countries. As soon as they scan your passport, border agents have access to a host of state and federal databases. Still, Edelmann says, “Who gets targeted and who doesn’t is definitely an exercise in profiling.”

Non-Canadians visiting Canada should have a valid passport, a return ticket (if travelling by air or bus) & proof of sufficient funds for the stay (a bank account statement or credit cards, for example). The owner of the vehicle should be in the vehicle, or the owner should give the driver a written transit permit.

Assume your bags, vehicle, phone, computer, and your person will be searched. Be prepared to relinquish passwords for your devices. Consider leaving them at home.

Don't try to bring ANY contraband across the border. That includes guns, prohibited weapons, marijuana and all other illegal drugs. Make sure your prescription medicine has a label from the pharmacy with your name and the date of the prescription. It is illegal to import medical marijuana to Canada.

To avoid being profiled, look as neat and clean as possible. Don't carry more baggage than you need. Be mindful of sensitive information in plain view (books and bumper stickers, for example.)

Note: Your cell phone may not work in Canada. Check with your company for info.

Answering questions

Visitors must be prepared to answer border guards' questions. A border guard has almost total power to bar your entry. Plans are hard to change and the pipeline situation is urgent, so travellers should take care.

Canadian Border Guards get their authority from the Customs Act, which sets out the border guards’ powers to bar a person from Canada. The Act also compels visitors to answer questions truthfully on arrival at the border or face serious consequences.

The Act states “every person arriving in Canada shall…present himself or herself and answer truthfully any questions asked by the officer…” Failing to answer truthfully can lead to being barred from the country or even being criminally prosecuted. So, it is important that you neither lie nor say things that could be viewed as lies and used against you.

Of course, there can be many truthful answers to the same question. Finding the right balance between oversharing and undersharing gives you the best chance of admission. Do not volunteer information. Answer the question and then stop talking. Refusing to answer will make the guards very suspicious.

You will be asked, for example, “What brings you to Canada?” One truthful answer might be, “Camping.” Another truthful answer might be, “Blocking pipelines at the Unist’ot’en Camp.” The first answer will undoubtedly lead to more pointed questions like “Where are you camping?” “Who are you camping with?” and “How are you getting there?” The second answer will put the guards on alert, leading them to interrogate you about the Camp, and likely land you in a back room where you will sit by yourself as guards google your name and scroll through the messages on your phone trying to figure out whether to ban you from Canada.

The guards have unbridled discretion to reject visitors, so there is no magic answer that will grant you admission and deflect more questioning. Honest followup answers might be: “I'm going to be camping in northern BC, near Smithers.” Or “I'm going to be hiking and sightseeing the Skeena Forest District along the Morice River.” Or: "I'm meeting some new friends and driving up to a fishing camp north of Prince George."

Folks will almost certainly get special treatment if they mention Unis'tot'en Camp, its location on the pipeline route, or its purpose in stopping pipelines. Saying that you’re camping in northern BC, in the Skeena Forest District, by the Morice River may satisfy the border agents. You can also say you are travelling with a ride-share that you linked up with online. You can explain that your expenses will be relatively low as you will be camping.


Border guards can and will search your computer, cell phone, and other devices. They will compel you to give the password and they can deport you if you refuse.

Canadian case law authorizes three types of searches in increasing levels of intrusiveness. The first is routine questioning which may include searching your phone and computer. Your goal is to avoid more intensive questioning by providing border guards with satisfactory answers in the initial phase. But many activists may be on red-flag lists, and guards can arbitrarily choose to run you through the whole gauntlet of more intrusive searches.

The second level of search is a strip search. The third is a body cavity search. As part of these searches, border guards are authorized to search baggage, parcels and devices such as laptops and cellphones. They may demand you unlock password-protected devices. These searches are conducted without a warrant. In addition, officers may examine devices for photos, files, contacts and other media, in much the same way customs officials have broad powers to open, inspect and seize mail delivered into Canada.

So, when possible, leave devices carrying sensitive information at home. It is often not possible to leave cellphones or laptops needed for work, so it is a good idea to remove sensitive information from these devices. Sensitive information includes others’ contact information, revolutionary writings, browsing history, and text and email communications etc.

When searching a vehicle, border guards sometimes decide to remove everything that isn't welded on - license plates, spare tires, floor and door panels, etc - and leave them in a pile next to the car when they are finished.

So, How Do I Get In?

Prepare your answers to typical questions in advance and practice those answers so you’ll be ready during the stress of questioning.

Typical questions include:

  • What brings you to Canada?
  • How long are you going to be here?
  • Where are you coming from?
  • Where are you staying?
  • Who are you staying with?
  • Who are you travelling with?
  • How are you getting there?
  • How much money do you have?
  • How much is in your bank account? Prove it.
  • How many credit cards do you have? Show us.
  • Do they have maximums? What are they?
  • Do you have a job back home?
  • Do you have family back home?
  • Do you have family in Canada?
  • Are you carrying guns or contraband?
  • What will you do if something bad happens to you in Canada?

As part of these questions, border guards often ask to see itineraries, hotel reservations, cash on hand, and credit cards. It may be helpful to have a copy of your travel reservations handy. Guards want to be sure that you will, in fact, return home, so a copy of a reservation for a return flight will help assure your admittance.

Whatever happens, stay calm, be prepared, and we'll see you on the frontlines!

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