US to Canada, do they check everyone for everything?
August 6, 2005 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Crossing the Canada border from the US (Rainbow Bridge) -- Should I be worried about a minor criminal record issue?

I failed to appear for a speeding ticket some time back here in the states, resulting in a bench warrant (non-extradition, it would only be acted on in that state). I'm traveling away from home right now, and intend to go back to the county where I got my ticket and appear to the judge when I return from travel (I just recently found out about this warrant, and really am not the criminal sort, the failure to appear was an honest accident). I'd like to visit Niagara Falls, and drive back through Canada, but I understand that they don't let anyone in with a criminal record. Do they do computer checks at the border? My license is valid, but an "NCIC" check will definitely show the warrant (and show that it's a local-only warrant). I'd like to make hotel reservations for my trip, but obviously, I'm worried that the border police will simply turn me away when I get there.

What should I expect? Will they do this computer check? Will they care about a local warrant for a low-grade misdemeanor traffic issue? Am I being paranoid? What really happens when you cross the border? Will I have trouble getting BACK into the US? I'm a US citizen with a valid driver's license on my person, and I certainly don't look or act like a criminal. My wife and three month old son (with a certified birth certificate) will be with me, and we drive a nice luxury brand car.
posted by Merdryn to Law & Government (19 answers total)
One of the guys at the office tried to visit Vancouver several years ago, and couldn't get into Canada over just exactly something like that, a local warrant for a traffic offense. In his case, his driver's license had been stolen many years ago, and whoever got it ran up a speeding ticket he failed to appear for. It wasn't even him, but he never got in.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 2:44 PM on August 6, 2005

If you've got a warrant issued for non-payment of a traffic fine, I would double-check that you've got a valid license.

You've got a 90% chance of just being waved through, but if you get checked you'll be refused entry.

For the record, you can have a criminal record and enter Canada (Dude, I know from experience! I have a misdemeanor conviction!) but probably not if you have warrants.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:49 PM on August 6, 2005

Here is the CIC "Overcoming Criminal Inadmissability" sheet. In my experience, about half the time they don't check passports going *into* Canada in the BC/WA crossings [with BC plates]. However, why not call the CIC office in Buffalo to check? Also, your DL isn't enough for admission usually. You need a passport in most cases. More info in this thread.
posted by fionab at 2:51 PM on August 6, 2005

Response by poster: I called the border office, and they assured me that my DL is good enough (most people just use the DL and routinely cross at the Rainbow Bridge). The big issue is: Will they actually check; "Mayor Curley" seems to suggest that they don't check everyone. I'm looking for some real confirmation that they really don't. And, if it's just a "local" warrant, will Canadian officials just refuse me, or hold me pending some kind of paperwork or some other such nonsense.
posted by Merdryn at 3:14 PM on August 6, 2005

Border guards don't have nearly enough time to run the name of every single person in every single car at a crossing.

If they check, though, they'll almost certainly send you back home.
posted by Jairus at 3:24 PM on August 6, 2005

My experience at all land Canadian/US border crossings is that they sometimes check, and sometimes don't. It's a little higher on the wave-through policy going into Canada with Canadian plates, a nice car, light skin, and a family, and you may be lucky to get through with a nice car and US plates. If there is any sort of warning though, that percentage goes drastically up, and has increased lots post-9/11. Pick a line that seems to be moving the quickest; that will point you towards someone that isn't checking every passport, and you might get lucky. As for the refusal vs. paperwork policy, I have no idea. I would also suggest that a passport may allow you to get through with a cursory glance, whereas a DL may provoke further inspection.

YMMV and it's not something I would risk without having a direct confirmation of consequences from an official. Relying on us monkeys for this kind of thing isn't a great idea, IMHO. We can all tell you that they usually don't check, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, and they know the signals for someone who's nervous, and you could absolutely provoke a further inspection with unconscious signals.
posted by fionab at 3:28 PM on August 6, 2005

Well, the last two times I went to the USA as a Canadian citizen (a few months ago) I used my expired passport. I don't recall handing them a license at all. They did look up my plates as the car is under my dad's ownership -- they wanted to be sure I was allowed to drive it.

If you think the records are tied to the license you might just do that. Note that I had more trouble coming from the USA back to Canada though, even got inspected once, so YMMV.

But if you have a warrant you're probably best to clear that up first. If you're a tightwad and don't want to pay it, why don't you request a trial a week or two ahead of the trip? Hopefully they would take the warrant off your records temporarialy until the trial date (which, I'm assuming, you won't bother to go to) is passed.
posted by shepd at 4:15 PM on August 6, 2005

You need a passport in most cases.

That's flatly false. The formal requirement in both directions for (natural-born) US citizens is driver's license and birth certificate.

(really photo id and proof of citizenship; d/l+b/c is what most people would have, passports are both in one)

In my experience, the only thing they routinely check at the crossing are the license plate and that there's nothing under the car. That doesn't mean you won't have problems though. If it's remotely feasible to get it straightened out ahead of time, I would. You might call the relevant county and see if there's any way to work it out without you showing up in person (ie, paying $BIGNUM through the mail or electronically).

If it were somewhere else, I'd say that, hey, the worst that Canada will do is not let you in so's you turn around. But in this case, that would put you back in Niagara Falls NY, which is no fit place for man or beast.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:36 PM on August 6, 2005

If you're really not the criminal sort, you should try getting the ticket/warrant cleared up over the phone. If all you need to do is simply pay the fine, many county clerks take credit cards now. And if you're planning on contesting the ticket, I wouldn't bother. Judges don't look kindly on people who fail to appear.
posted by MrZero at 4:46 PM on August 6, 2005

Response by poster: I'm really not the criminal sort, it was an honest mistake. :)

They sent me notice of a court appearance by certified mail, and I was away on travel (I travel a lot these days) and the letter was returned unclaimed.

I think we've decided to just skip the Canada trip this time around, and get this court crap taken care of next week. Then, we'll plan a proper Niagara vacation. I've been looking for an excuse to get a passport, and from what I understand, it will make an excursion past the border go a little smoother (even though it's not -- yet -- required).

So, I guess I'll turn this AMF into a different topic: How long should we plan for Niagara? What else is a must-see (or must-eat, or must-hear, or whatever) in the area?
posted by Merdryn at 5:11 PM on August 6, 2005

Plan on spending at least a couple days in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is the prettiest little town EVER. Also the area is full of wineries, and if you're the least bit a wine person, be sure to go on a winery tour or two.
posted by mendel at 5:33 PM on August 6, 2005

You said "we" so I assume you're going with someone else?

Just have them drive while you hide in the trunk.
posted by delmoi at 6:15 PM on August 6, 2005

We recently spent three days in Niagara, which was exactly enough.

If you're in the mood for the prime tourist things, the four-part package they sell of Maid of the Mist, Journey Behind the Falls, the rapids and the butterfly museum is a good deal.

I thought the butterfly museum was the stapled-on worthless ticket, but we went anyway and it was great. It's a large aviary with thousands upon thousands of butterflies. You walk through, and, unless you've got a butterfly phobia, it's great.

I was surprised, though, how much like a down-market Vegas the Canada Niagara was. But, once you accept the noise and neon of their one big street, there's no denying the beauty of the falls and the rush of riding a boat in the splash of those monsters.
posted by baltimore at 6:26 PM on August 6, 2005

I found that when I lived in Michigan and had to visit my dad in Buffalo several times (when he was ill before he died), I got through quicker than I ever did before when I told them my Purpose for the Visit was going to visit my dad in the hospital. As soon as the guard heard that, they waved me through. This worked both ways (to Canada and to U.S.), at both borders (Detroit and Buffalo).

By the way, traffic is usually less at the Lewiston Bridge which is more of a truck route. And if you need to flesh out your story, you could mention St. Joseph's Hospital in Cheektowaga (near Buffalo) or Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
posted by Doohickie at 8:33 PM on August 6, 2005

Rule One of immigration agents is, NEVER LIE TO IMMIGRATION AGENTS.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:32 PM on August 6, 2005

It's not Flatly False.

Rule One is Never Lie. Rule Two is that just because something is written as law or policy and is supposed to be right, it doesn't mean that the guy in the booth knows what he's talking about and/or agrees with that policy. IME, it simply doesn't matter what the law is, or what the websites say, or what someone on the phone says. If the guy at the border says no, it's a no. And I know, in my own circle, about 5 or 6 people who have been refused entry to one side or the other with a birth certificate and DL. It's supposed to take effect on January 6, but that hasn't seemed to matter.

I'm a Canadian that has been a student in the US for 6+ years, and the border guards still have the visa procedure screwed up. I agree with duck's comment here; it's just not a guaranteed thing anymore. Maybe in Ontario/NY it's more likely to pass, but it's just not something I can heartily recommend anymore. It seems as though the passport/ID mess isn't what the question is about, and I'm sure that it often *is* enough, but that's not a risk I'm comfortable taking anymore. Get the passport!
posted by fionab at 12:50 AM on August 7, 2005

If you want to try this I suggest:
1) driving a car not registered in your name
2) being a passenger
3) using a passport (not a DL) as ID
posted by mosch at 1:08 AM on August 7, 2005

Sure. And I've known Canadians who've been refused entry to the US with a passport. If they think something is shady, or if they just don't feel like letting you in because they're cranky that day, they're not going to let you in even if you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pleading your case to the agent, much less if you have a passport.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 AM on August 7, 2005

From the US Dept. of State Tips for Travellers to Canada:

Drunk Driving

Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense. Penalties are heavy, and any prior conviction (no matter how long ago or how minor the infraction) is cause for exclusion from Canada. A waiver of exclusion may be obtained from a Canadian consulate in the United States, but several weeks are required. There is a processing fee for the waiver.

. . .

Previous Convictions

Section 19 of Canada’s Immigration Act prohibits the admission of people who pose a threat to public health, safety, order, and national security. Prior to attempting a border crossing, American citizens who have had a criminal conviction in the past must contact the nearest Canadian embassy or consulate well in advance to determine their admissibility as visitors into Canada. If found inadmissible, an immigration officer will advise whether a waiver (Minister’s Permit) is possible.

posted by caddis at 11:34 AM on August 7, 2005

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