One of the best features of the “world’s largest undefended border” used to be that Canadian and American citizens used to be able to travel relatively freely between both countries without anything more than a driver’s license. However, new immigration restrictions levelled since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks mean that crossing the border is not as easy as it used to be – for residents of either country. As of October 2010, Americans can usually enter Canada without a passport, but they may not be able to get back into the U.S. without a passport.
Currently, the Canadian government enforces border regulations through the Canadian Border Services Agency. That organization states that Americans who have not been convicted of a criminal offence (in either country) do not need a passport or visa to enter Canada for non-work purposes, for up to six months. Anyone seeking to enter Canada must have documentation providing both proof of citizenship and proof of identity. However, border posts have traditionally accepted government-issued photo ID cards, such as driver’s licenses, combined with proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or a certificate of naturalization. People with a passport can of course use that instead, since it is combined proof of both citizenship and identity. Even an expired passport can be used to support your identity, even though it is no longer an official document. Children under age 16 do not require a passport, but they do need proof of citizenship.
The situation is somewhat more complex when it comes to re-entering the United States from Canada – in fact, this is the main source of uncertainty at the moment. Under the Western Hemispheric Travel Initiative (WHTI), the State Department requires that all people entering the U.S. at an airport, including all American citizens over the age of 16, have their passport with them. In short, if you’re flying, you can enter Canada without a passport – but you can’t go back to the U.S. without one.
The rules are slightly more lax if you drive back to the U.S. or enter by ship. In that case, a passport still works, but the State Department also accepts any enhanced-type driver’s license, or a Passport Card. The Passport Card contains a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip and is accepted as equivalent to a passport ONLY on the Canadian-American and Mexican-American borders.
If you have further questions about entry and exit requirements in Canada and the U.S., or want up-to-date information, the best sources of information are the U.S. State Department’s travel service, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). The State Department can provide advice for American travellers, but official information must come from the CBSA, the Canadian government department which is charged with managing customs posts at the border and will therefore make the final decisions about who can and cannot enter Canada.