Road trip to Canada in three parts
June 27, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

The short of it: (1) Do you have any personal experience getting into Canada and re-entering the US with only a driver's license and birth certificate? (2) What is the drive like between Toronto and Ogdensburg for someone who has really only spent time in cities and driving on major highways up and down the East and West coasts? (3) What should we do in Toronto?

We are taking a road trip from NYC to Niagara Falls/Toronto/along the Canadian side of Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence river and back down through NY. We leave tomorrow! A couple of questions:

1) Have you personally re-entered the US from Canada with only a driver's license + birth certificate? My passport expired in April of this year and this trip came up so quickly I did not have a chance to renew. This link says "Travelers without WHTI-compliant documents [passporte/enhanced license/SENTRI/NEXUS/FAST] are likely to be delayed at the border as CBP officers work to verify identity and citizenship." Anyone have experience with this?

2) What is the drive like between Toronto and Ogdensburg for city people who generally drive on major highways when traveling? Are there places to pee, eat, etc. along Route 401? Anything beautiful or cool we should stop to see?

3) What should we do in Toronto? I've looked through the smattering of posts here, and there wasn't too much info. It seems we should take a boat to an island. Nothing else really popped. What suggestions do you have? Things we stumbled upon and loved in other cities: Geppi's Entertainment Museum in B'more, the Mütter Museum in Philly, beautiful cemeteries anywhere. Roosevelt Island is a favorite of ours here in NYC.

Would love specific recos on: good coffee, *good* cheap eats, quiet/nature-y stuff (though maybe not, like, full-on hikes, ha), funky, local, non-corporate stores/restaurants, good street art, anything full of history.

No idea where we're staying yet, so if you have neighborhood recommendations, we'll take those, too! We're doing air bnb or Priceline Negotiator. We'll figure it out!

posted by anthropoid to Travel & Transportation around Toronto, ON (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can't use just a driver's license. It must be an enhanced driver's license, which is a separate and more expensive application. Your regular drive's license will not work, and you'll likely be turned away.

My favorite thing in Toronto in summer is Kensington Market, a pedestrian festival every Sunday through October. Grilled sardines, shops, street games (giant Jenga and Scrabble).
posted by Riverine at 8:38 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

401 has plenty of stopovers, but the traffic around Toronto is INSANE so try to leave early/late if you can. Budget 2h to make it out of Toronto (i.e. to Oshawa).

Unfortunately the 401 itself isn't pretty even though it looks like it should be since you're driving along the water. It's like driving in San Jose. That's not a compliment.

Stop over in 1,000 mile region if you can. There are pit stops right off the highway but they aren't as lovely.

You can easily stop over in Kingston & drive downtown as well. (exit Division St & Drive down Princess St. towards the water)

Since you are driving up from Niagara falls take the 403 to the 401 to avoid the construction delays on the QEW which will add hours to your trip.

Niagara on the lake is ok but kinda touristy.

If you like pick your own, there might be some PYO fruit in the Niagara area.

West of the city - there is not much to see unless you like counter-culture-ish artsy stuff in which case there are areas in Hamilton that may appeal to you. Otherwise I'd leave Niagara & go straight to TO. But do NOT take the QEW if you can, they've closed a few lanes and its a nightmare.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:40 AM on June 27, 2014

You HAVE to have a passport, likely Canada won't let you in without one.

We drove up from Atlanta, straight up 75 and came across the Ambassador Bridge. We needed passports in both directions. With Georgia plates, our vehicle was unloaded and searched, in February at about 10 at night.

Neither Canada nor Homeland Security is playing around.

I'd say, arrange for plan B.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:41 AM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

oh there's wine tasting all over niagara region (including ice wine, local specialty, yum) and if you're an architecture fan there's a barn that was 'inspired by' Frank Lloyd Wright (Inniskillin Wines at the Brae Burn Estate) but of course if you love architecture that much just go to Buffalo NY instead.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:46 AM on June 27, 2014

Addressing only question 1: If you can get into Canada with those documents (which is a very big if), you will be able to get back. American border agents are not allowed to keep U.S. citizens out of the United States. However, they are allowed to take their own sweet time verifying your citizenship, and it will probably be a very very long wait.
posted by ubiquity at 8:56 AM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: Regarding the re-entry, nowhere on any site does it say you absolutely MUST have a passport or that they will not let you in under any circumstances. Please look at the link I put in the question. This is why I'm asking for people who have had DIRECT experience with expired passport or no passport re-entry.

Here's an email I received from the US Consulate in Toronto today:

"The United States requires all to submit a valid passport at the time of requesting admission to enter the US.

They do have flexibility with those US citizens that have no passport but they can prove their US citizenship with either an expired passport, birth certificate and valid photo ID. It is entirely up to them to allowed you in.

Canada Border Services does not require a valid passport to enter Canada for US citizens as long as they can submit evidence of US citizenship."
posted by anthropoid at 8:58 AM on June 27, 2014

The Mutter Museum is great, as are the Magic Gardens on South Street. In Toronto I also like the Royal Ontario Museum and remember the Ontario Science Centre fondly, though I haven't been there in years.

If you still have the expired passport, bring that, it may help. All of my border crossing experience with those documents was prior to 9/11. It used to be so easy, but I've always used a passport since.
posted by ldthomps at 9:10 AM on June 27, 2014

Canada will require a passport or enhanced driver's license to enter Canada.

The US would likely allow you to re-enter without these if you have a regular DL and birth certificate, but I believe your question begins with your attempting to go to Canada, which is where you'd be prevented without these.

I live in Buffalo and use my passport to cross the border, but friends who do not have this or EDL cannot cross into Canada.
posted by Riverine at 9:12 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're in town by Sunday, the World Pride Parade is on! It's bound to be a good time.
Ribfest is happening on the weekend as well.

Kensington is a great place to be for funky/etc. Go to Banh Mi Boys and get the kimchi fries. Just...just do it. You mentioned the island and nature-y - one good option is to rent some bikes, go for a nice ride in the Don Valley and then head over to the islands with your bike. The Evergreen Brickworks (in the Valley) often has good things - they've got a beer festival-thing coming up. But check their website over the next few days, they got hit by some flooding and might have to cancel.

1,000 islands and Kingston are gorgeous places. Wolfe Island is a great place to get away from cityscapes.

Also BlogTO is an invaluable resource to find out things that are happening and their best "X" will get you all the food you ever want.
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:25 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IF you go to Kensington Market, here are some specific recs:

Coffee - Pamenar Cafe
Baked Goods - NuBugel, Wanda's Pie in the Sky
Brunch - Aunties and Uncles (for chi chi brunch you will likely have to wait in line for), Nirvana (for standard brunch you will not have to wait in line for)
Lunches - El Trompo (get the guacamole), Hibiscus Cafe (cheap delicious vegetarian food)
Stores - Fresh Collective (local clothing designers), Kid Icarus (printing press), Good Egg (cooking accoutrement and books)

Then wander on down to Queen St West and wander - west for shops and cafes, east for Chinatown and the Eaton Centre.

Other things to do in Toronto:
this week is World Pride!! Go to the Pride Parade!!!

Also check out BlogTO for more recommendations.
posted by hepta at 9:29 AM on June 27, 2014

Best answer: Seconding that the 401 is the route to use and that it is a boring, boring road. So boring there's some hazard of falling asleep. Also be aware drivers can be pretty aggressive (IMO) near Toronto, so just keep your cool and keep your eyes open.

You can easily stop over in Kingston & drive downtown as well. (exit Division St & Drive down Princess St. towards the water)

Yes! The Thousand Islands region is beautiful, Kingston is a nice little city with a compact and walkable downtown and many nice restaurants in that area. Point your GPS to Princess and King Sts and you should be able to find parking within a couple blocks of there. There's a (free?) ferry to Wolfe Island too, ferry dock is just a block or so away. (If you like games and science toys and yarn, you can stop in at Minotaur Games and Gifts a few blocks up Princess St - they are friends of mine and it's a great shop.)

Another random Ontario driving tip: a blinking green light means you have a protected left turn.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:34 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Canada Border Services does not require a valid passport to enter Canada for US citizens as long as they can submit evidence of US citizenship.

A driver's license is NOT proof of US Citizenship, as all states give driver's licenses to, for example, green card holders. You'll need a birth certificate or naturalization certificate as well, I believe. Whenever I drove to Canada, I had my passport, so I don't have experience with using driver's license plus birth certificate, unfortunately.

You can get a same-day passport for a hefty additional fee at certain passport offices; I believe there is one in Manhattan. Check the US State Department's travel website. I'd suggest doing this if you'd rather not deal with too many hassles at the border.

The 401 between Toronto and the Québec provincial line gets rather rural, and there aren't many places to stop to eat and take a bio break other than highway service areas (which if I recall are few and far between). There isn't much civilization until you get closer to Toronto or Ottawa.
posted by tckma at 9:38 AM on June 27, 2014

A driver's license is NOT proof of US Citizenship,

The OP has specified that they have a birth certificate and would not be using just a driver's license.

The thing is, is that border control (both sides) have quite a lot of leeway. They might let ten people in front of you cross without valid passports but with other forms of proof of citizenship, and then get to you and decide to turn you back. Why? Because they can; they have that discretionary power.

I have crossed into Canada with just a US license and certified birth certificate, but that was back before 2001; since then I've carried my passport.
posted by rtha at 9:45 AM on June 27, 2014

In 2006, I entered Canada at Niagara, ON. I drove across the country, and re-entered the United States on the Alaska Hwy in the Yukon. I returned from Alaska via the Alaska Marine Hwy, re-entered Canada at Prince Ruppert, BC. I then exited Canada again just south of Vancouver, re-entering the United States in Washington State.

I only had my driver's license with me. I had no problems. I think my driver's license is a basic license.

In my experience, the Highways in Canada were as good (sometimes better) than anywhere in the United States.
posted by Flood at 9:48 AM on June 27, 2014

Best answer: Oh, and about being stopped by Canadian border security for them to verify your citizenship-

Do bring license + birth cert + expired passport. You may be fine with just these.

Bring water and snacks. My experience was you can either be sitting in your car for a long time, or they can ask you to come into the building and sit in a DMV-like waiting room for a long time. Sometimes the waiting room has a vending machine, sometimes not. The wait can be many hours. You're allowed to bring stuff in from the car with you, so I'd recommend bringing water/snacks/whatever.

Also, keep in mind that border agents on both sides have the power to search your car, which means they can take it apart if they choose. Nooks and crannies, unpacking stuff, etc. (I've had this happen once -- I had some coins in a ziplock bag and my best guess is they thought ziplock bag = drugs.) So I would recommend cleaning the car and just taking out any unnecessary stuff to streamline this if a search does happen.

Whatever happens at the border crossing, keep your cool, be polite, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:48 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

The CBSA is quite clear that birth certificate and photo ID, for land crossings by US citizens, are sufficient. Bring the expired passport as well, it cannot hurt. That said, any border agent can decide not to let you in if they don't want to.
posted by jeather at 9:52 AM on June 27, 2014

(I should clarify my last answer - I have a fair amount of experience crossing the border, but I did not cross without a passport. I had a different immigration issue that took some time to resolve, and caused confusion on subsequent crossings, so I got to spend some waiting-room time, and then separately got my car searched a different time. Nevertheless, as everyone says above, your documents meet their requirements and anything you can do that encourages them to use their discretion favorably is a good thing - bringing the expired passport and keeping calm and polite no matter what.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:00 AM on June 27, 2014

I have not tried to enter Canada without a passport since the WHTI stuff went into effect. I have occasionally been sent to secondary inspection, though. Assuming the Canadian border agent doesn't deny you entry outright, you're very likely to be sent to secondary, which will probably mean spending 2+ hours in a waiting room waiting your turn to get grilled by another border agent, who also has the power to deny you entry. You'll have a strong chance of being sent to secondary again when you come back, which from inlaws that this has happened to starts with more along the lines of a 3-4 hour wait until you get grilled and/or chewed out by a US border agent.

Me, I would not do this. I would certainly not rely on statements that a passport is not formally required of US citizens to enter Canada because formal requirements are almost meaningless at the border. A border agent might well deny you entry anyway on the grounds that without the formally required passport to get back into the US, you run too high a probability of being denied entry back into the US and becoming Canada's short-term problem. Or for no stated reason at all.

In your shoes, I would drive the surface highways down the US side of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls NY and maybe try walking across the border from there. That would mean not going to Toronto, but you don't sound particularly enthused about it anyway. And, honestly, if you live in NYC most of the things you might do will be very good but somewhat weaker versions of things you could do in NYC. Toronto is a great city but to an American it has all the foreign exoticness of Chicago.

In 2006

2006 doesn't matter and might as well be 1982 for the point of these discussions. The WHTI requirements didn't go into effect until 2009.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:01 AM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, be polite, be clean, have a clean car, don't smell like cigarettes (or pot), try to look middle class, do not under any circumstances whatsoever have anything illegal in your car or lie to the border services people about what legal things are in your car. Just increase the likelihood that you can cross easily.
posted by jeather at 10:03 AM on June 27, 2014

Setting aside the question of passports -- here's the deal with the 401 from Ogdensburg.

First of all it's the major east-west nexus between Toronto and Montreal, so it is an interstate-calibre freeway with lots of rest stops. Traffic will be steady with lots of trucks. The suburban fringe of Toronto starts at about Bowmanville and continues all the way in. Traffic going into the city will be a nightmare in the morning but not bad in the evening since everyone goes the other way. (Take care when leaving the city to the west to depart well before the evening rush, which starts at about 3pm, for that reason.)

There is some really beautiful countryside along the river and the lake. You'll pass through the Thousand Islands area which is famous. You can take boat cruises and such if you like, or there's a scenic road called the Thousand Islands Parkway. Kingston is a nice stop -- it's an important old colonial city with lots of historic buildings -- the first capital of Canada -- and now a major university town and the kind of cultural hub of the region. You might consider taking highway 2 along the river and lake instead of the 401 and switch back to 401 as you approach the city; it will be slower, but much prettier. The lakeshore is gorgeous out there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:38 AM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh I think I had it backwards. You're coming up from the west and then going east. In that case don't try entering the city in the morning (wait until at least 10am if you can) and don't try leaving to the east after 3pm.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:43 AM on June 27, 2014

Nth-ing stopping in Kingston. Lovely town. Two specific suggestions: Pan Chancho Bakery & Café is downtown and a nice place to grab a snack from, 2nd suggestion – if haven’t yet experienced poutine (fries covered in cheese curds and gravy) and feel up to the artery clogging yet delicious challenge, Bubba’s has two locations downtown and does it well.

The suggestion to take the Thousand Island Hwy is also spot on. If you are interested in exploring the islands, Gananoque which is east of Kingston, has a nice waterfront and a number of boat tours

Enjoy your trip!
posted by walkinginsunshine at 12:58 PM on June 27, 2014

Seconding Pan Chancho (yummm), Bubba's and Thousand Island Pkwy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:48 PM on June 27, 2014

I have experience trying to cross the border with a regular driver's license and birth certificate for my half asleep passenger. I have both a passport and a passport card. My son has an enhanced DL, but his friend has neither. We were trying to go to Sarnia, but were pulled over and had to wait for two and a half hours while they decided what to do with us. They inspected my car very thoroughly, and when one of my party made a sudden, lurching movement (as clumsy, half-asleep, young adults are prone to do), 4 armed officers rushed out to hold us at gunpoint. We were turned back and told we would be flagged in the system for extra attention. I travel internationally quite a bit and nothing has happened since, so I think that was just to scare the boys.
If you have a few extra hours to kill, go ahead and give it a try.
posted by notaninja at 2:07 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have any personal experience getting into Canada and re-entering the US with only a driver's license and birth certificate?

I don't because I wouldn't even think of trying that these days. Even if it's allowed to cross without a passport, the Canadian border agents always have the discretion to deny you entry, and the U.S. border agents have the discretion to cause you a lot of trouble. The U.S. is pretty obviously trying to discourage people from crossing without a WHTI document, and you ignore that at your own peril.

The immigration officials really do keep notes in their database about your previous border crossings. I was recently asked by a U.S. immigration official about something that happened when I entered the country in 2005.
posted by grouse at 2:32 PM on June 27, 2014

Here's the thing about crossing international borders: border agents in a foreign country can, literally, turn you away for any reason at all. You could have all your ducks in a row, a perfectly valid passport, and be the most pleasant, cleanest, most middle-class person in the world and Canadian customs could turn you away and there is literally nothing you can do about it. Border agents can turn foreign nationals away at will.

So, I think you are wrong to be concerned about American customs. You need to worry about Canadian customs. Yes, you technically do not need a valid passport and, yes, there is a good chance you will get through. But they are almost certainly going to hassle you and you are going to raise red flags. Even if there is a 10% chance that you get turned away - do you really want to make plans and reservations for a trip knowing there is a 1-in-10 shot that it will all not work out? And that you may also be barred from Canada for some period of time? Everything might work out hunky-dory, but it's likely you'll have to deal with some serious crap, and there's a non-trivial chance you could wind up walking back to the US with your tail between your legs. Me, I wouldn't take that chance.

As for the US side, well....they'll probably give you lots of crap, too. They'll probably make you sit in a room a long time, they might pick apart your car. But, ultimately, they'll let you in because you do have proof that you are a US citizen and US border patrol cannot turn US citizens away. Canadian border patrol can turn US citizens away anytime they damn well please.

If you still end up going, I highly recommend a trip to Little India in Toronto. Some of the best Indian food I've ever had in my life.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:39 PM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: Well, folks, this will be interesting! I'll update you with the result next week.
posted by anthropoid at 4:44 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For the Toronto part of your trip, Kensington and Little India are good suggestions. World Cup is still on, so Little Italy or Greektown may be interesting places to hang out during certain games.

Buy a TTC Day Pass, hop on the Carlton Street car out of Main Station, hop on and off as something catches your eye.


St Lawrence Market and surrounding area.
High Park
Mt Pleasant Cemetery (you mentioned cemeteries)
Evergreen Brickworks
High Park - Dream in High Park
Toronto Fringe Festival starts on Wednesday.
Downtown Jazz Festival ends tomorrow.

July 1 (Tuesday) is Canada Day. It's our national holiday. There will be fireworks.
posted by TORunner at 6:01 PM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: Ok, so, I just gathered up my birth certificate, marriage certificate, and my W-2 from my job working for the City of New York. When I grabbed my passport, I saw that it expires JULY 11. What? All this time I thought it was APRIL 11! Wow, I'm a lucky idiot.

I'm almost disappointed! I was ready for a test in patience and patriotism. Toronto, here we come, stress-free! Ha. Will go through the recommended places to visit, now.
posted by anthropoid at 6:30 PM on June 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Was just in the T-Dot a couple of weeks ago.

1. Avoid driving on Front Street at all costs. Complete clusterfuck. In the city, park the car and use TTC or walk or use Bixi as much as possible.

2. Seconding Pamenar for coffee in Kensington but also- holy damn, the coffee scene in Toronto has exploded in the past couple of years. A little inward looking which is to be expected in TO- in coffee, that means that they almost exclusively use Toronto and area roasters like Detour, Social and Pig Iron but they're also, thank God, excellent roasters. My faves in Toronto, though, were Voodoo Child on College and Early Bird on Queen West but in a city where espresso for too long was overextracted, stale garbage with dead beans from Italy, Toronto has really caught up with cities like Vancouver and Calgary.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 7:19 PM on June 27, 2014

Avoid driving on Front Street at all costs.

In the city, at least.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:33 PM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: in terms of driving, I've spent years in Manhattan/bridge/tunnel/BQE traffic, and I've also had my fair share of LA traffic.

How does it compare? I'm trying to figure out where we're staying and priceline has some great deals downtown ($83/night for 4-star hotel).
posted by anthropoid at 7:38 PM on June 27, 2014

Can't speak to NYC/LA from personal experience, but my understanding is you'll be fine. Dodge rush hours when you arrive/leave as people have discussed, but don't worry about driving into the city for your hotel, I've done that myself and it's nbd. Just try to plan your visit in terms of "my car will stay at the hotel all day", unless you're literally leaving the city. Standard urban centre deal.
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:49 PM on June 27, 2014

Best answer: Toronto's highway infrastructure hasn't remotely kept up with GTA growth and 401 can be downright apocalyptic. The surface streets are standard big city.

In the same way that I'd suggest a visitor to the US stop at a truck stop or Waffle House and soak up some undiluted Americana... it ain't good coffee, not by a long shot. But I usually suggest spending a little time in a Tim Horton or Country Style and just letting the Canada wash over you; with a little luck there may be some Certified Old Coots holding court in a corner. Helps you feel like you're somewhere different instead of Ohio with weird money, which is how Ontario often feels.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2014

In the few days I was there, I found Toronto traffic no worse than NYC traffic. The highways were straighter and probably somewhat better maintained than in NYC. The level of traffic was basically what you'd expect from a big city. At a certain point, it's all pretty much the same.

Like in most big cities, you'll want to time your arrival so that you don't hit rush hour and mostly just leave the car at the hotel. But I wouldn't avoid driving to a hotel downtown (provided parking rates are reasonable, I wouldn't know), and I wouldn't avoid driving to some destination that is further afield and difficult to reach on public transit, should you want to do that.
posted by breakin' the law at 10:28 PM on June 27, 2014

priceline has some great deals downtown ($83/night for 4-star hotel).

Expect another $30 or so per night for parking. Like others said, you'll be fine getting to the hotel, just don't plan on driving the car anywhere for sightseeing.

You're interested in history? Fort York is an interesting place to visit. It's a preserved British fort from the early days of Toronto. You might see if there are any ROMwalks on while you're here.
posted by grouse at 5:06 AM on June 28, 2014

« Older Frenemies R Us, Workplace Edition   |   Need advice for setting up a crowdfunded music... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.