~ US border stories ~


Here are a few anecdotes over 20 yrs period 1980 – 1999, after acquiring Canadian citizenship but before entering US on H1-B visa.

  • Arrive at the border in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on a roundtrip from Montreal to Toronto and back. Planned to return on the south shore of Lakes Ontario and Erie to experience the fall foliage in upstate New York. As a student I used all my cash to rent the car, and had just enough to tank up once more and eat twice before returning to my friends in Montreal. I had no credit card then, just cash. US customs thought, however, that was not enough, and found it suspicious I had only a sleeping bag in a rented car. So they pull me over, tear the car apart, find nothing, and turn me back! Canadian customs were surprised to see me return so quickly, and when I asked, they suspected US customs was afraid I was running drugs or might get stranded stateside cashless.
  • Arrive at border south of Winnipeg, Manitoba on our way back from Chicago toward Calgary. My parents and sister are in the camper van behind us, my wife-to-be and brother and I in the compact car in front. Difference is that my wife-to-be and I have Canadian passports, whereas my brother is a minor on a French passport incl. the visa tear-out form to return when leaving the US. US customs asks who my brother is, and when I tell them, they ask me to prove it. As a minor he luckily shows on the passport of my parents. They luckily also happen to pull up behind us, just as US customs queries us. Treble-lucky, even they were waved thru customs, they thought of stopping to visit us at the border patrol cabin. So my brother crosses the border in their car not ours. But I wonder where I’d be today if we had followed my parents? Remember there were no cell phones then to call them back had they gone ahead of us...
  • I go to my job in Dallas on a TN visa, which is boiler-plate with just three requirements: visa fee, proof of a university degree, and letter of employment in the US. Calgary had the distinction of having the virtual US border in the airport terminal upon departure (customarily the border is in fact at the arrival terminal). So when I show up, they find the letter of employment unsatisfactory... it is signed by my current manager in Calgary, not my future one in Dallas! But luckily this happened in Calgary before I left, not in Dallas after I arrived. So I return the next day with another letter, but being the next day it was only a fax copy not an original. Luckily my future boss was in that day, and US customs accepted the fax copy when he vouched for it over the phone. As the customs officer had a good day he let me thru, even though he insisted that only originals will do next time.
  • I arrive at Houston international airport one evening, the same time as three other flights, so that the line fills the arrival hall to the brim. Groan, a fourth flight arrives... but wait a minute! It’s from Toronto, so a customs agent asks aloud if there are any Canadians, to please come through this side door. Even though I wasn’t on that flight, I slip through that door with the others. Lo and behold, there is no border check other than a quick look at our passport... after all 100+ people had to file through a single narrow door in a hurry!
  • Speaking of border checks, not! I arrive at Chicago international airport on my way to London from Dallas. The departure gate turns out not to be in the international section, but a domestic departure gate – not enough gates that busy evening I guess? What happens then, is that I scan my passport into what turned out to be an experimental device: what looked like a cash machine, scanned my passport and my visa form, and printed out this tear-out visa form with the biggest bar-code I ever saw (it was a 2 dimensional B&W pixel pattern, not a linear barcode). No interaction with any customs official whatsoever... I even had to have a shop keeper, not even an airport employee, show me where said hole-in-the-wall was! As I wait for departure, families visit in the lounge, and no-one watches for luggage or anything, but I figure I’ll cross customs upon boarding, not! I board straight onto the plane, having only my boarding-pass not my border-pass ;-] checked. And considering the market atmosphere at the departure lounge, there was absolutely no security, and anyone could have boarded that plane or swapped out any bag with something else.