Back in 2010, I was traveling internationally a couple times a year and I decided to go through the process of getting a Global Entry card from the TSA. It’s like a magic pass that lets you run through customs in almost any country in just a few minutes, skipping lines and inspections. It’s a long tedious process of applying, giving the government the a-ok to do a deep background check on you, then you wait for months for one quick 10 minute long appointment to speak to an agent face to face. Mine took about six months to complete, and it required that I run up to Seattle’s little Boeing airport where a TSA agent met me for an interview.
At the time I did it, since we were a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, they asked if I wanted to talk to a mountie for a couple minutes and pay $5 extra on top of the $150 for the Global Entry pass. I said sure. Both agent interviews were quick and consisted of them holding a stack of papers ostensibly about me while posing the question “Do you have any prior felonies or interactions with the law?” and me saying “not really, no” and them nodding and saying “yes, yes that tracks” before stamping some papers on the desk.
That sweet Nexus/Global Entry life
Once I had my card, going through airports was a breeze, saving about 45 minutes of time skipping the giant customs line of whatever country I was landing in. The times I flew into Canada weren’t much different, even with the Nexus pass, but after a few years of owning it, I decided to take a drive up to sightsee randomly for a couple days in Vancouver, BC, which is a six hour drive from my house (about the same time to drive between LA and SF, something I was used to doing as a spur-of-the-moment road trip).
Driving across the Canadian border with a Nexus pass is absolutely fantastic. Even if you pull up to the border during rush hour, you can skip the line of cars stretching to the horizon and jump in the carpool-like NEXUS ONLY lane. When you get to the front, a mountie asks for your card, inspects it quickly, then lets you through.
It was so incredibly efficient that one time I timed it on a stopwatch to check and from the time I stopped my car at the kiosk to driving away from it into Canada, it took only 30 seconds.
A Global Entry account is active for five years and when I got the opportunity in 2015 to re-up it, I did. But by the time it came up for renewal in summer of 2020, I knew I had no plans for international travel and the Canadian border was effectively closed to all Americans, so I let my membership lapse. Had I known today it takes anywhere from six to fourteen months to get a Global Entry/Nexus pass, I would have renewed when I could.
My very first Canadian custom official interaction
Back in fall of 2003, almost 20 years ago to the day, I flew into Vancouver airport to meet my wife at a conference, who had driven her car up a few days before from Oregon. I’d get to crash in her conference hotel and take day trips while she was at the event, then we’d spend the following weekend exploring the city together once the conference was over.
My trip began by me forgetting my passport on my desk at home, which I learned when I landed in Canada and it wasn’t anywhere in my packed bag. I’m kind of amazed I even got to board the flight in Portland in 2003 because the TSA was recently formed and constantly implementing new harsher requirements to travel.
When I landed in Canada, a perplexed customs official greeted me at the airport and eventually said my US driver’s license was enough for him to let me into the country even though he legally shouldn’t and added “good luck getting back into the USA”. I knew we were driving back and I was going to be a passenger, so I figured I’d take the risk.
In the end, it was no big deal, the US border patrol didn’t ask me any questions and just let my wife through as the driver after checking her passport that she didn’t forget to bring.
This first interaction probably skewed my view of Canada’s authorities in a grossly positive light, as everyone I interacted with was thoughtful, helpful, and supportive back in 2003.
Things go south
My first weird Canadian official interaction was in 2017, when I flew to Vancouver on a quick 12-hour trip to record video interviews for a project at work. I had my Nexus pass, I was working for a company with offices in Vancouver, and it was a same-day in and out business trip. Since my time was short on the ground, I hired a freelance videographer friend from Portland to help me capture the interviews in a multi-camera setup.
For some reason, this did not sit well with the Canadian customs authorities at the airport. I expected a quick rubber stamp entry, but the official came back with “Why didn’t you hire a Canadian filmmaker to assist you? Why bring an American freelancer all this way?” and we argued for a few minutes about the short schedule, how we’d be heading back to the US that very night and how this was done for the sake of speed to get a project done quickly.
Eventually they let us pass.
My next weird interaction was a year ago, in November of 2022. I’d just bought a new plugin-hybrid Jeep and only one shop on the west coast had figured out how to improve its suspension and they were outside Vancouver. I remembered my previous weird interaction about American freelancers, so when crossing the border (this time without a Nexus pass) I was 100% honest and said I was there to get some car work done by a special shop in Canada and I was happy to exchange my American money for Canadian goods and services.
This did not sit well with the official at the border crossing. He asked why I couldn’t find an American shop to do the work. Was my jeep so unique I just had to get into BC to get it fixed and upgraded? I think the customs guy was trying to figure out if I was saving money by abusing the Canadian/US dollar exchange rate, which was in my favor at the time, but I assured him it was only to get specific work done I could only get in Vancouver.
Eventually, they let me pass, but it was far from a pleasant experience.
I know what I’ll try: lying
After nearly a year of hard trails and battering my jeep, I needed to fix some things and beef up my suspension further, so I called up the same shop that worked on it before and they ordered some new coils to upgrade my Jeep. Knowing the border officials would be weird about me spending money in Canada, I decided to not state it as my reason for being there, instead I would say I’m there to meet friends and do some sightseeing.
This turned into 5-10 minutes of questioning. Where was I headed? Why didn’t I already have a hotel room booked? Am I really going on a spur-of-the-moment trip? Is that a thing Americans do? Where do I work? Oh just freelancing for now—why?
I was asked to roll down all my windows so he could look around, then he asked me point blank: you need to tell me if there’s a gun inside your car.
I understand the Venn diagram of Jeep owners and gun owners in the US has a large overlap, but I didn’t know how to tell the guy that I would vote to repeal the 2nd amendment tomorrow if I could. Sure, I had guns as a kid from my gun nut dad, but I have never (and will never) own a gun as an adult.
Eventually, they let me in.
Good luck in the future
At this point, I don’t know how to interact with Canadian border guards. When I’m exceedingly honest they’re skeptical and pepper me with questions for minutes on end. When I lie, they get weird and the questions continue.
I know I’ll cross the border more times in the future as I keenly want to explore the region (and do some mountain biking in Whistler someday!) but honestly at this point, I don’t know what to expect in any of these interactions.