US Customs in Canadian airports: rules about timing?
October 12, 2018 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Is there a rule that one must clear U.S. Customs in Canadian airports some minimum time before one's scheduled departure time, even if one's flight has already been delayed?

Context: when flying from most Canadian airports to the U.S. direct, one clears U.S. customs and immigration in the Ottawa airport before getting on the plane. This is awesome. My question is about whether rules exist for the hour at which one must clear U.S. customs.

I got the following notifications from United:
United Alert 1 of 2
Your 700am United flight to (X) is delayed because of (blabla). UAxxxx now departs Ottawa at 1134am and arrives at (hour)

2 of 2 United Alert
Due to Customs hours you must arrive at YOW at least 1 hour prior to your 7:00am scheduled dprt time
And then a few hours later (I had apparently been rebooked automatically in the meantime):
United Alert 1 of 2
Your 600am United flight to (Y) is delayed because of (blabla). UAyyyy now departs Ottawa at 1100am and arrives at (hour)

2 of 2 United Alert
Due to Customs hours you must arrive at YOW at least 1 hour prior to your 6:00am scheduled dprt time
What gives? Is it really required to arrive at the airport at least one hour prior to one's scheduled departure time in order to pass through U.S. Customs, when one already knows that one's flight is delayed five hours? Is there some rule about the minimum time-before-flight that the customs people will process you that short-sightedly does not take into account flight delays? (I can imagine there being such a restriction if one is so late that one would miss one's flight.)

Possibly relevant: U.S. Customs in Ottawa opens at 5 a.m. and the lineups are not generally an issue.
posted by heatherlogan to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That sounds to me like crappy IT or a cover-your-ass move from United, rather than an actual policy likely to be enforced by US Immigration.

That said, the only times I've ever missed flights have been due to lines for US Immigration at Canadian airports.
posted by caek at 8:27 AM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only remotely plausible thing I can think of is that the customs area might be open the same (limited) hours, even though the flight itself has been delayed - like I've noticed in Dublin there will be several US-bound flights that all leave at the same time, and we all go through the USCIS process at the same time. There are some flights that leave outside of that window and they don't pre-clear customs and will have to go through customs in the US.

But on the other hand, flights to the US from Ottawa are surely not clustered the way they are from Dublin, right? They leave all day. And I've gotten TERRIBLE information from United in the past (telling me a flight had landed when I was on the phone with people who were on the plane at the point of origin). And 7:00AM is not your scheduled departure time, 11:00AM is, it sounds like.

So I would probably ignore the message and hope for the best.
posted by mskyle at 8:27 AM on October 12, 2018

There are new homeland security rules around international air travel. If you do not arrive minimum 45 minutes in advance (and you’re told 1 hour) you can be denied boarding for customs reasons.

I know they take that 45 minutes seriously at Vancouver’s Coal Harbour seaplane terminal as a colleague was denied boarding for this reason. It is extra stupid to have this rule for seaplanes where there are only 8 passengers and no pre-clearance at customs, but there you go.

Call the airline if you want to be clear on scheduled va actual departure time, I’d do it in advance of the actual departure but I like to live dangerously. That hour is no joke though, you may be denied boarding.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:29 AM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Edit - do check in electronically an hour before the scheduled departure just to be safe. This will put your travel documents in the system. You cannot checkin electronically for the seaplane, so that might be the reason we would get denied boarding for not showing up before customs deadline.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:32 AM on October 12, 2018

Best answer: My understanding is that delays are not considered set departure times. Meaning that if a 7:00 flight is delayed until 9:00, but they are somehow able to leave at 8:30, then will do so. So you are still required to be at the airport as if your flight were departing normally.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 10:04 AM on October 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Crazycanuck is right about new baggage rules too. I've encountered them flying AC out of Ottawa to the US. There is a certain point after which they may not check bags anymore. Do check with your airline about that. Even if you do have a Trusted Traveler/NEXUS card and can skip most of security, that's a hard limit on when you have to be there.

I'm pretty sure that's calculated form your initial departure time.
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on October 12, 2018

Best answer: Part of this is that they schedule US customs officials for coverage based on the scheduled departure times of US bound flights. So they’re not just sitting there all the time if no flights are scheduled. Conversely, they don’t extend their hours if flights are delayed. So, for example, they may close US bound customs at 9pm if the last US bound flight is scheduled for a 9:15 pm departure and don’t readjust if there are delays.

Arrivals customs at US airports are usually open longer, more general hours, but there are limits there, too. For example, if you get to Newark early on an international flight, they will hold you on the plane til customs opens at 7am.
posted by mercredi at 11:24 AM on October 12, 2018

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