Traveling to Canada gives Americans the chance to experience a foreign culture in a relatively safe country without traveling too far from home. That said, all travelers need to make sure they have the right travel documents for a quick, hassle-free border crossing.
Passport requirements for Americans traveling to Canada have changed. Prior to 2009, those traveling to the country’s northern neighbor could cross the border via land or sea with picture I.D. and birth certificates, which is still all that is required to comply with Canadian law. However, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative changed these laws on the American side, requiring further documentation in order to protect America’s borders. The WHTI laws only apply to reentry of the country, not entry into Canada, but travelers must have these documents ready when entering Canada to ensure they can come home.
When traveling by air, a valid U.S. passport is required under WHTI legislation. Air travelers may also want to consider purchasing travel insurance to guard against unexpected cancellations of their flights.
When traveling across the border by land or sea, the WHTI allows Americans visiting Canada a few other documents in place of the passport, if they wish. These are the U.S. Passport Card, Enhanced Driver’s License, and Trusted Traveler Program Cards.
The U.S. Passport Card is a limited-use travel document that allows travel by land and sea to nearby countries, like Canada and Mexico. The driver’s-license sized card is more affordable than a passport, giving travelers a little extra money for other travel essentials like a travel insurance policy.
The Enhanced Driver’s License is a form of I.D. that also includes permission to drive and denotes the holder’s citizenship. Currently only Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington states are offering these driver’s licenses, which indicates this program is primarily used for travelers visiting Canada.
Travelers who are considered low-risk may qualify for programs like NEXUS or FAST. These Trusted Traveler Program Cards allow travelers to get across the borders quickly, but they are not available to all. They are designed primarily for those who travel to Canada frequently, such as business travelers or private travelers who live near the border. The NEXUS card was designed for Canadian travel and the SENTRI card for Mexican travel, but technically they can be used on both borders. The FAST card is for commercial truck drivers.
WHTI does allow for a few exceptions to these rules. For example, children under the age of 16 do not have to have these documents when traveling to and from Canada by sea or land. They simply need a birth certificate or naturalization certificate. Also, children under the age of 19 who are traveling with a group for school, religious, or other charitable reasons do not need a WHTI document or passport. A birth certificate is sufficient. Children and teens traveling via air still need a passport.
Those who plan to travel to Canada should make the necessary arrangements for the required documents as early as possible. Some of the documents, such as the passport, can take several months to receive. Rush services are available, but cost a significant amount of money, so planning ahead is the best choice.