|New Cornwall Port of Entry Border Crossing. Credit: Seaway International Bridge Corporation
My practice is located near one particular Canada-U.S. border crossing, though I help clients throughout Canada crossing at one of the numerous land (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canada%E2%80%93United_States_border_crossings) or air ports of entry. Sometimes I get calls from Canadians getting hassled when travelling into the U.S., and sometimes it is Americans who are hassled during travels into Canada. There are a few tips I can offer to maximize your chances of a smooth border crossing, regardless of what direction you are headed in.
1. Don't accidentally have contraband in your vehicle or luggage. As one who has a glove compartment that's difficult to close at the best of times, I understand how things have a habit of accumulating in a vehicle. Things you have no clue of how or when they first showed up in your vehicle, and for which you lack sufficient motivation to dispose of. If we're talking junk mail and candy wrappers, you don't have anything to worry about when border crossing. But if we're talking a Glock 43 9mm pistol that you've forgotten about, you've at great risk of having a serious problem.
I regularly help people who've been found with everything from fruit to endangered species in their vehicles and luggage at the land and air ports of entry, but forgotten firearms tend to cause the greatest trouble. Trouble like criminal charges, as well as customs charges. While some of my readers might doubt whether one could forget a gun in the car - trust me, you can.
The only way to avoid the accidental contraband scenario is to clean out your car or luggage before crossing the border. Been thinking for the last few months about getting that Buick detailed? Well, now's the time. Check in the glove box, console, under the seat, in the trunk, and even in the spare tire compartment. Only cross the border with clothing, personal care items, documents, and things you're planning to declare - like food that you know is legal, or even firearms for which you've obtained an import/export permit in advance.
2. Have the proper documents with you. This means most of the time that you'll need a passport (no longer just a driver's licence), a visa if you're not from a visa exempt country, and paperwork for other family members like children who might require written permission of the other parent in order to travel.
3. Clear up criminal conviction issues prior to crossing the border. A prior criminal conviction won't necessarily prevent you from crossing the border, but it might. Because of the degree to which the Canadian and the U.S. governments share information, there is a good chance that they might both know about your criminal convictions, regardless of whether you're travelling north or south. So if you have criminal priors, consult a Canadian immigration lawyer (if you're coming into Canada) or a U.S. immigration lawyer (if you're going into the U.S.) to see if it might cause you trouble, and what is the best way to guarantee your hassle free crossing. The seriousness and type of the past charge, as well as how long it has been since the conviction, will affect whether it might be an issue. I've heard that drug convictions can particularly cause trouble when entering the U.S., but I'm not able to advise on U.S. law - you'll want to seek a "criminal waiver" from the FBI to ensure entry. In Canada, you might be "deemed to be rehabilitated" if enough time has passed for a minor offence, or you might need to make a formal application to the Canadian government for criminal rehabilitation for newer or more serious offences.
4. Truthfully answers all questions and expect to be searched when crossing the border. While you might have all sorts of constitutional protections within Canada or the U.S., many of them melt away in that transitional zone of the border. In that zone of passage from one state to the next, you have very limited rights to remain silent (unless being accused of a criminal offence), and very few protections against search and seizure. By voluntarily choosing to cross the border, you're choosing to submit yourself to all manner of questions and search. So don't just expect to be asked about criminal convictions - you can even be asked about whether you've ever been charged with an offence, or been refused entry, or how you earn a living, or who you plan to visit with in the country you're entering. Be ready with answers, and be ready for border officials to poke around your vehicle and even your clothing if they're suspicious.