Beware: New US entry requirements

We were warned: The June 1, 2009 deadline has now passed and the rules have changed. The last phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is officially in effect and restrictions at the border are even tighter than they were before. Now, a birth certificate and driver’s license won’t be enough to get you into the U.S. at land and sea entry points. A Certificate of Indian Status or Certificate of Canadian Citizenship won’t be accepted either.

Instead, you’ll have to present a WHTI-compliant document when you cross the border. So what are your options?


Best for: People who plan to travel internationally. According to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) it’s “the only reliable and universally accepted travel and identification document available to Canadians for the purpose of international travel.”

In other words, if you’ve got a passport, you’re set to travel just about anywhere — including the U.S.

Process: It starts by filling out paperwork, gathering your I.D., getting a photo and finding a friend or family member to serve as your guarantor. You can send in your application via courier, registered mail, or submit it through a receiving agent (i.e. designated Canada Post outlet or Service Canada location). You can take your application to your local MP’s office and have staff check it over and mail it for you.

If you’re worried about mailing your birth certificate — or want to cut the waiting time in half — you can go to the nearest Passport Canada office instead. Some provinces only have one or two, so expect some travel time.

Cost: The fee depends on size: 24 page passports cost $87 for adults, $37 for children ages 3 to 15, and $22 for children under 3. The cost for 48 page ones are slightly higher at $92, $39 and $24 respectively. Photos are extra, and there are additional fees for optional services like the $20 fee for Canada Post Receiving Agents, or “Express” or “Urgent” processing service ($30 and $70 respectively).

Beware: If you don’t have one yet (or need a renewal), do it soon. Even at the best of times, passports can take two to four weeks to arrive — and that can be a serious damper on your plans. (Current processing times are posted here).

For more information and forms, see the Passport Canada website.

NEXUS card

Best for: Canadian and U.S. citizens and permanent residents who frequently cross the Canada/U.S. border. NEXUS is one of two Trusted Traveller programs jointly run by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and it’s designed to save time and hassle for pre-approved, low risk travellers. Members have the option to use automated self-serve kiosks at airports, dedicated lanes at land border crossings and a phone-in feature for arrival by sea. These services can make it faster to use a NEXUS card instead of a passport.

And it’s not just good for land and sea: Members can use their NEXUS card for air travel to the U.S. or Canada.

Cost: $50 application fee for a five year membership for adults, and $50 to renew. Application and renewal fees are waived for children under the age of 18.

Process: The reason the NEXUS card speeds up the security process is that a lot of the leg work is done before you reach the border. As with passports, you can apply online or print out a paper application. The process involves determining your eligibility and conducting risk assessments.

Once you’re accepted, you’ll have to visit an enrollment centre in order to review your documents with officials and receive your membership card. In addition to a photograph, you’ll also be required to provide biometric data — like your fingerprints and a digital photograph of your irises. (See the NEXUS Information Guide for full details and application forms).

Beware: It won’t be a quick and easy application. CSBA warns that the process to determine whether you’re eligible or not can take six to eight weeks (whether you apply online or not). Once you have a membership, you should renew it at least three months before it expires to avoid any disruptions. NEXUS enrolment centres are often few and far between. Expect some travel time if you plan to go this route.

Also, the availability of special services depends on location, and in order to use them everyone travelling with you may need a NEXUS card too. For instance, you can’t use those dedicated security lanes if there’s someone in your car who isn’t a member.

Free and Secure Trade (FAST) card

Best for: Commercial importers, carriers and registered drivers. It’s the second Trusted Travellers program, and it’s meant to make it faster and easier to ship goods across the border.

You might see the FAST card on a list of WHTI-compliant documents, but it’s not an option for the average traveller. If you don’t already have one, chances are you won’t need one now. (For more information, see the CBSA website).

Enhanced Drivers’ License (EDL) or Enhanced Identification Card (EIC)

Best for: Canadian citizens who cross at land and sea borders. This option gets the nod for convenience: Like the NEXUS card, it fits in your wallet, and chances are you usually have it with you. In other words, there’s no need to scramble for special documents or cards if you want to make a spontaneous trip.

EDLs are equipped with a built-in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. When you hold the card up to a special reader at the border crossing, the chip sends a signal to the custom officer’s computer to automatically pull up your information — like your biographical and biometric data. Don’t worry: the data isn’t on your chip. The chip uses a unique identification number which links to a secure database. In case that doesn’t work, there’s also a barcode or “machine readable zone” on the card that officials can scan.

The EIC operates the same way, but it’s tailored for people who don’t drive. Once the concept catches on, it’s hoped that the EIC will be accepted in lieu of a driver’s license for other purposes as well.

The cost: Expect to pay an additional fee for an EDL on top of your usual driver’s license fee, and the amount will depend on where you live. You’ll have to pay up when you first apply and each time you renew (every five years). For example, in Manitoba, the additional fee is $30, and EIC applicants pay $50 (no license fee required).

Currently, not all provinces and states offer EDLs. Right now only Quebec, Manitoba and Ontario offer the program. British Columbia’s pilot project is set to expand soon, and other provinces are looking at the technology too — though there’s no official word yet on when programs might launch.

The process: You have to be a citizen of Canada and living in the province where you apply. You need to make an appointment and bring the necessary paperwork (like a Citizenship Questionnaire and Travel Restrictions Questionnaire for Quebec). Check with the organization/service location that issues your license for more information on procedures.

Beware: Critics aren’t too happy with the new EDLs because of some serious privacy concerns. The controversy is still being debated in Ontario, and has even led Saskatchewan officials to put the program on hold until issues can be addressed.

What’s the problem? The amount of protection built into the card (or lack thereof). There are still a lot of questions about whether the cards can be read at a distance and by whom, what personal information could be compromised and if criminals can clone or copy cards remotely. The “always on” nature of the technology has some privacy advocates worried.

If you’re in one of the provinces where EDLs and EICs are available, it pays to do a little research first to figure out if it’s the right option. If you’re worried, wait a while to see what problems show up and how officials deal with them. You don’t have to get an EDL at all — participation is voluntary.

To see who offers EDLs and how to find more information, see the CBSA, Issuing EDLs and the Department of Homeland Security.

Exceptions (“Special Audiences”)

As always, there are exceptions to the rules. Here’s what these groups can expect as of June 1, 2009:

Children: Canadian citizens under 15 years old or younger won’t need a passport for land and sea entry — a birth certificate or Canadian Citizenship Card will do. The same rule applies for children under the age of 18 who are travelling with an organized group (like a school field trip) — proof of citizenship (along with parental approval, of course) is all that’s required.

Even if the child has a passport or NEXUS card, a birth certificate may still be required to show the names of both parents. Depending on the circumstance — such as travelling with a child who isn’t your son or daughter — additional documents like a parental consent letter and any custody documents may also be required. (See Passport Canada’s section on Travelling with Children).

People who have Indian Status: According to the government of Canada, there’s a new Secure Certificate of Indian Status in the works for land and sea entry. Unfortunately, no one’s sure when it will be approved and implemented.

Boaters and passengers of ferries and small boats: Passengers and boaters are required to present a WHTI-compliant document when they enter the country by sea. If you have a passport or NEXUS card, you can phone ahead for clearance.

Which is best?

Confused yet? Remember, the trick is to figure out which option suits the needs of you and your family. Cost, convenience, how you travel, how often you travel and where you travel are all considerations. Even if you’re not planning a trip in the near future, you may need to travel if an emergency comes up. What documentation will you need to get to your friends and family in a hurry?

Bear in mind that these options are all secure documents. It won’t be easy or inexpensive to replace them, and you will have to alert the proper authorities if your card is lost or stolen — like the police, passport officials or your NEXUS enrollment centre.

Any of these WHTI-compliant documents will do for land and sea entry. The trick is to apply early and be patient.


The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (