Traveling to Canada when unemployed
May 6, 2019 6:41 AM   Subscribe

I (a US Citizen) am planning to visit Montréal for a weekend in June. I've also been unemployed for the last six months; there's a (hopefully small) chance I might still be unemployed at the time of the trip, and I'm concerned that this might make problems for me at the border crossing. Are my concerns valid?

It's my understanding that what I need to do is convince the border agent that I have no intention of staying in Canada past the weekend, which is true. Is that all I need to do?

More info: I have lived in NYC for over 20 years and have no intention of leaving. I have been volunteering with an organization in NYC for over a decade. I have both a passport and the passport card — I will probably be hitching a car ride with friends to save money, so I'm thinking of just bringing the card. I have tickets for another event in the US for the following weekend.

Is there anything else I should (or should not) bring, do, or say to help convince the border agent that I am going to leave Canada when I say I'm going to leave?
posted by Ampersand692 to Travel & Transportation around Canada (22 answers total)
I'm a US citizen and I've never been asked my employment status when traveling to Canada. Bring your passport if you are flying or if driving a passport or an enhanced ID card if your state provides one that is accepted at the border. There is no reason to think they will take issue with your employment status. They will likely just ask what you will be doing (vacation), where you will be staying and when you will be returning. Have fun!
posted by waving at 6:53 AM on May 6, 2019 [10 favorites]

You are allowed to stay in Canada for 180 days. I'm not even sure if you need a passport (probably). Nobody is going to ask if you have a job. All you have to do is say generally what you plan to do and when you plan to return home.
posted by JamesBay at 6:54 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Answer questions you are asked and don’t provide answers to questions you are not asked. Keep your answers as short as possible. Be honest. In a car full of other people who I am going to assume are all white people (this is a huge and totally unfounded assumption) you’re going to attract almost no attention. The border folks will want to know where you’re staying, for how long, what is the purpose of your trip, and if you’re carrying any illegal items. They might ask if you have any criminal history.
posted by bilabial at 6:55 AM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

You need the passport (or passport card), please do not try to cross without. But I agree, the unemployment will not be a factor, you just need to tell them when you plan to leave Canada.
posted by wellred at 6:56 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

You could probably tell a Canadian border guard that, not only are you planning to stay in Canada for the rest of your life, but you're also going to assassinate various members of Parliament, and they'd still wave you through. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Going into Canada is the easy part of a border crossing; it's the coming back that's hard, and even that's pretty overrated.

Generally, the way it works is that they ask you why you're going to Canada; they generally only expect the driver to answer this question. Then they'll look at your passports/cards and ask you some questions to verify that the data is correct. "Where were you born?" is the one I seem to get most often. The idea is to make sure you're not using obviously fake passports. They'll probably eyeball you a little to make sure you resemble your photo, and then they'll read you some boilerplate language that they're not even paying attention to.

It's possible you could get a hard-ass border guard before; I have. But there's a stereotype that Canadian border guards DGAF for a reason.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:58 AM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

As someone who regularly travels in and out of Canada for a variety of reasons, I've never been asked about my employment status. Border questions topics, in order of how often they are asked:
- Where am I going?
- Why am I going there?
- How long will I be there?
- Is there anyone else in the vehicle?
- Is there anything else in the car besides personal luggage?
- Do I have anything to declare?
- What did I purchase while abroad?
- How was France/the show/'dem Leafs?

Chill out, stay relaxed and honest with the Border Agent, enjoy your trip.
posted by RhysPenbras at 7:03 AM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

My border crossing experience is generally fine (American born white lady, mid-Atlantic accent) but at my most recent cross last month I was travelling with my tween daughter, who has a passport, and was asked if I was married to the father. I said no (never was, in fact) and he asked me for the custody agreement and a letter stating from the father (who does not have any type of custody). I said I didn't have it and he said he would let us in but next time bring the documents. This dude was serious and not likely to find jokes too funny, but at least I didn't get blocked from bringing my kid to Canada. I've never been asked for the custody papers so there's always a first. This is actually a law, so I should have been more careful.
posted by waving at 7:13 AM on May 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

On a recent crossing via car from the US into Canada (at a smaller border crossing station) I was not asked about my employment status, but I was asked about my occupation.

Seems like a grey area but I would probably avoid using "unemployed" as an answer to that question and just say what you typically do for a living.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:21 AM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

In my experience Canadian border agents are just as likely as any other customs official to be assholes, so I wouldn't joke with anyone. But why would they ask you where you work? That's never happened to me at any border. (Well, I guess once when I was going to be working in the Netherlands for half a year, but I think it only came up in the context of what I would be doing in NL, not that they went out of their way to ask me about my job.)

I agree that you should answer only the questions you are asked, as precisely as you can answer them.

Enjoy Montreal!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:24 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Like JoeZydeco, I have occasionally been asked about my occupation and (once or twice, IIRC) place of employment when crossing the Canadian border, and I'm a Canadian citizen.

I agree with most folks above that you'll be most likely be fine so long as you don't look like you're trying to move to Canada. If you really want to be on the safe side, bring documents that prove that you're planning to return to the US. If you have a lease for your apartment, that's perfect. A photocopy of the tickets to the event next week might help too. But don't whip out a folder of Corroborating Evidence unless you're actually pulled aside for secondary screening; there's at least a 90% chance that you'll sail on through.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:29 AM on May 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

Even if you have the card, a real valid passport is what they're looking for. I've travelled many times while unemployed and it hasn't been a problem. Just say you're going to the festival and will be back on a particular day. There will be thousands of people doing the crossing for the event.

Canadian border guards are mostly concerned that you're bringing in guns, knives, contraband smokes or milk products. US border guards care if you're trying to bring in weed, fruit or people. Otherwise, they want you on your way and out of their way.
posted by scruss at 8:26 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

They've asked me what my employment is, but that's only because they're trying to make conversation with me. By doing that, they're trying to determine if I'm nervous, drunk, eying the back seat, or have a different native language (and if so, why). They will make everyone in the car verbally answer a question at least once; if you just nod your head, they'll make you say yes, again to just make sure that you're on the up and up about everything. Just cheerfully say you're between jobs or whatever, and you'll be fine.
posted by Melismata at 8:39 AM on May 6, 2019

Even if you have the card, a real valid passport is what they're looking for.

A passport card, or an enhanced driver's license like the ones issued by Minnesota or New York State, are perfectly valid documents for entering Canada by land from the United States and don't require a passport book at all.

I (a non-white person) have crossed the Canadian border several times with my enhanced NY DL and have never been asked for a passport book. The whole point of those documents is to make it easier to cross the border without having to carry the book all the time.
posted by andrewesque at 8:51 AM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

It will become a very big deal if they suspect that you are entering Canada to work. They won't arrest you but will send you back to US. So, clean out your car and don't have any tools in your trunk.
Other than the times I was going to Canada to work (and declared it), they never asked.
posted by H21 at 8:59 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thirding JoeZydeco, I was asked occupation on a recent-ish (last summer) trip. I answered truthfully and my retired friend keen to avoid complicated questions, answered her pre-retirement industry and both were fine. Both white, females. Traveling with Passport
posted by TravellingCari at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Like JoeZydeco, I have occasionally been asked about my occupation and (once or twice, IIRC) place of employment when crossing the Canadian border, and I'm a Canadian citizen.

Yep, every time I say "librarian" they seem anxious to be rid of me. This will be a non-problem and a passport card or passport are both equivalently fine documents to do this. Just mention the work you do in a volunteer capacity as if it's your job. Usually they mostly talk to the driver.
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

if you have a DUI you will NOT be allowed in.

My border crossings have been varied: sometimes they've just popped the trunk and waved me through, sometimes I've been grilled like crazy---including asked my grandfather's middle name--and asked to hand over my phone (has anyone said no and been allowed in?). In Victoria BC I was told that "it didn't look right" for a woman to be travelling by herself; the other people being ?'d were a hippie family.
posted by brujita at 11:54 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you'll be fine. Be prepared to answer all the questions above by RhysPenbras. If they ask about your occupation, you can tell them your most recent occupation at your last job. Give short, honest answers. If they happen to be really grilling you, I think Johnny Assay's suggestion of corroborating documents is good. Bring a paper copy or an electronic copy on your smartphone of a lease or something similar to prove you have a reason to come back.

Canadians are generally friendly but in my limited experience of 3 Canada Border Crossings, their Border Guards are very serious. Be polite and smile but avoid making any jokes. I don't think you'll have a problem.
posted by mundo at 12:03 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Think of all the unemployed people (mostly moms) who stay at home with kids, retirees, people with health issues that prevent them from working, etc. You aren't obligated to be employed to visit Canada.

I've crossed (generally, but not always, at the Peace Bridget) dozens of times. You'll be asked some combination of where were you born, why you are going to Canada, how long you'll be staying, and perhaps some questions about what you're bringing in. You may have to pop the trunk, mostly to show you aren't an importer or bringing in guns.

They do sometimes ask what you do for a living to make conversation and get a bead on whether you're jittery. Just be honest -- the reason to be jittery would be if you were a drug mule, not because you don't have a job right now.

A colleague of mine was going to Canada for a speaking engagement and volunteered that as part of "So what do you do?" and then everything broke down because she didn't have paperwork (which should have been supplied by the company/venue) to show she was allowed to come in and do a speaking gig for pay. But if you're just going in to be a tourist and your passport is up to date AND SIGNED, you should be fine. But seriously, make sure your passport is signed. I forgot to sign my new passport before my last visit to Ontario and the border agent got very cranky with me.

Don't just bring your passport card; bring the actual passport. Yes, the card is supposed to be enough, but they prefer the passport. If you're really stressed, you could bring a copy of your lease, showing the expiration date.

I've heard of people being asked for their phones coming back to the US; I've never been asked for my phone on my way into Canada.

(Sidebar: When we were about 19, before passports were required to go to Canada, a group of us drove to Canada. He asked each of us (all pasty-faced Buffalonians) where we were born: Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo) and then my boyfriend, who was Taiwanese-American, who said, "Reno, Nevada." The border agent leaned in, looked my boyfriend very closely up and down, then shrugged and said, "I guess someone had to [be born there]" and waved us through.)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 1:51 PM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

As a U.S. Citizen living in Canada who crosses the border, back and forth, five days a week every week, and has been asked every question under the sun by border agents including once having my car searched, I promise you that you are overthinking this.

First, the advice to only answer what you've been asked is TOP NOTCH, this is the number one thing to remember. Don't volunteer information beyond what you've been asked.

Here's an example of how your border crossing is likely to go:

Canadian Border Agent: [taking and looking at your passport] Citizenship?

You: USA.

BA: Where do you live?

You: New York.

BA: Purpose of your trip to Canada?

You: I'm on vacation.

BA: Where are you going in Canada?

You: Montreal.

BA: How long are you staying in Canada?

You: I'm visiting for the weekend.

BA: Do you have anything to declare? Any alcohol, tobacco, firearms?

You: No sir/ma'am.

BA: [hands your passport back] You're all set. Take care.


You're not staying long enough for them to worry that you're trying to squat and over stay a visa. When I got here, I informed them I was entering Canada with the intent to marry a Canadian citizen and apply for permanent residency, and I was taken inside to immigration where I was given a visitor record that says what date I have to leave the country (6 months from when I obtained the visitor record) if I haven't obtained PR/obtained a visitor extension by that point.

With me, they had A LOT of questions about if and where I worked, how I was going to support myself while in Canada (I have a job in NY), if I still maintained a residence in the US (I do). In my case they definitely needed assurance that I had ties/roots to the US and would leave after six months if I didn't get PR/an extension.

In your case, they don't care. I promise you. Just be honest and truthful, polite, only answer what you've been asked and don't volunteer additional information. It also helps to look them in the eye and remain calm, but honestly if you're just there as a tourist for a weekend - even a couple weeks - they aren't going to pester you.

If you're still worried and have questions, feel free to Memail me. (Also, enjoy Montreal, it's a great city!)
posted by nightrecordings at 4:50 PM on May 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

To be fair, I have been asked where I work while crossing into Canada, and I'm a citizen that lives here. Fun moment? Telling the BSO I worked at Canada Border Services Agency.

They might ask but I doubt your answer matters.
posted by aclevername at 5:18 PM on May 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

One thing I get asked fairly regularly is "Where are you staying?" I usually say "With friends, in $neighborhood" or "At XYZ hotel" but don't be rattled if they ask you that question, it's fairly normal.
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 AM on May 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

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