Border Crossing: Driving Your U.S. Purchases Back to Canada's Blog on Customs Brokerage and News Updates

Border Crossing: Driving Your U.S. Purchases Back to Canada

Every day around a hundred thousand Canadians drive into the U.S., and over two thirds of them return on the same day they left. Few experience any problems at the border, and average delays are only around 15 minutes. Still, it never hurts to be prepared, and there are a few things it can pay to be aware of before you arrive at the border crossing on your way home.


shopping in us
One good reason to head south is to take advantage of generally cheaper U.S. prices on consumer goods. Dairy products in particular can be a lot less expensive there, but there is a limit on what you can bring back duty-free. That’s $20 worth of milk, butter, and cheese every day. From $20 to $100 you’ll pay a duty of about 240%, and personal importation of over $100 worth of dairy products is prohibited altogether. The limits are per-person, though, so a family that goes shopping together can multiply them by the number of family members, no matter how old the children are. Other food-related limits include two dozen eggs and 20 kilos of meat.

Liquor runs to the U.S. are straight out, however. Unless you’re out of Canada for at least 48 hours, you’re liable for duty on any alcoholic beverages you bring back – Keep in my there are limits (for more information on alcohol and tobacco limits, please see: Alcohol and Tobacco limits). Travelers aren’t always charged for small amounts of beer and inexpensive wine, so if you picked up a six-pack along with your groceries you may find yourself waved through without paying. That depends on the individual Border Services Officer, though, so don’t count on it; be prepared to pay for everything, and remember that officers don’t have such discretion with regard to hard liquor.

In fact, day-trippers don’t have a duty-free allowance for any non-grocery items except gas; as for liquor, you’ll need to declare and pay duty on all clothing, appliances, etc. that you bought in the States.

Firewood and other untreated wood products simply can’t be imported, due to the threat posed to Canada’s timber industry by invasive insect species. Because this is an absolute prohibition, violating it, even inadvertently, is likely to cause problems. You’ll probably be fined, and may be refused readmission to Canada until you’ve properly disposed of the wood on the American side of the border.

At the border

canada Border Services Officer
The Border Services Officer looking out at you from his or her booth is there to confirm that you’re a Canadian citizen, determine whether you owe any duty, and assess whether your behavior and response to questioning raise suspicions that would justify further interrogation and a search. Even if you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t want to delay your homecoming by going through that process. To reduce the likelihood of it happening, make sure that as you approach the booth your radio, cellphone and sunglasses are off, your interior lights are on, and you’re ready to present your ID and receipts. Your customs declaration should be complete and correct – it’s much better to pay a duty than a fine.

Getting caught

If it’s discovered that you failed to declare something you purchased, the merchandise will be seized and you’ll have to pay the duty and a fine that’s based on the value of the merchandise and whether or not it was concealed. Your name and vehicle information will be recorded and flagged for heightened Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) scrutiny for four to seven years, again depending on the circumstances. Your NEXUS card will be confiscated and you’ll be removed from the Trusted Traveler Program. You may even be charged with a criminal offense.

That’s why it makes sense to declare everything. Border Services Officers have considerable discretion on whether to impose duty on low-value items. They don’t have any discretion when it comes to penalizing you for undervaluing or failing to declare goods, providing false information, or smuggling.