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What Canadians need to know before crossing the U.S. border

It’s a story that’s becoming increasingly familiar: A Canadian is denied entry into the U.S. for reasons that are vague or unclear. It’s enough to leave many travellers on edge at the border.

A Vancouver woman recently came forward with her story of being detained for hours at a U.S. land border crossing into Washington State, where she was eventually refused entry.

Jaklyn De Vos said she was questioned for nearly five hours back in April and refused entry, and then told she would need a visa if she were to visit the U.S. in the future.

The incident has made some Canadians wonder how to limit their risks of being denied entry into the U.S., especially if they’re not attempting to do anything nefarious.

Do Canadians have rights at the U.S. border?

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk says that in short, there aren’t any rights Canadian have to leverage crossing into the U.S.

“You’re presenting yourself to a government, and you’re seeking a benefit from that government,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “It’s not something you have a right to, it’s something you have to request. And the government may or may not grant it to you.”

However, if a traveller experiences difficulty crossing the border, they have the right to turn away with minimal consequences.

“If (you’re) given the opportunity to withdraw the application for admission, it’s usually a good idea to do that,” Sandaluk says. “If you withdraw the application for admission, you essentially prevent the issuance of a ban or a removal order against you from that country. Then what you may be able to do is attempt to enter into the United States subsequent to that.”

While withdrawing your application for admission doesn’t solve your problem, it can prevent your problems from getting bigger.

If the traveller experiences problems at a land border crossing, Sandaluk suggests that the next attempt should be at an airport. That way, the person would still be in Canada where they could feel a measure of safety and security they likely wouldn’t feel at a land-border crossing.

Freedom of Information request

If a Canadian traveller has been denied entry, they do have a right to obtain a copy of their file from the Customs and Border Protection under the Freedom of Information Act.

“If they had concerns about (a traveller’s) visit to the United States...usually the place to find that information would be the computer notes made by U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” he says.

Reasons for denied entry can range from the officer suspecting the traveller is attempting to find work or live permanently in the U.S., to suspicious items found in the vehicle.

The information provided in the Freedom of Information request can potentially help travellers looking to enter the U.S. at a later date. That way they can arrive at the border with proof of employment, or home ownership, which builds a case that the traveller has no intentions of staying longterm.

When are visas required?

While De Vos was told she’d need a visa next time she enters the U.S., Sandaluk says that that is not a requirement for most Canadians. The only time a visa is needed for Canadian visitors to the U.S. is if they’re planning to work, study, invest or immigrate.

Sandaluk explains that most countries, including Canada, impose visa requirements on certain countries as a pre-screening procedure.

If a visitor is coming from the UK to Canada, a visa won’t be required because officials accept that British travellers are likely not coming here to find work or to stay longer than they’re allowed.

However, if they’re coming from a war-torn country like Iraq or Yemen, for example, they’re more likely to require a visa. That’s because the traveller might have more reasons to want to remain in Canada and claim refugee protection, given the climate of their own country.