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Secondary Inspections at Canada’s border: What to Expect

When crossing the Canadian border, every person is required by law to submit themselves and their goods for inspection. This standard procedure, called Primary Inspection or Customs, is second nature for frequent travellers and people shipping across the border.

However, you may be pulled aside again after the initial inspection. A secondary inspection at Canada’s border might be alarming at first, but you shouldn’t worry. In most cases, secondary checks are completed without any incident and many of the measures that the CBSA is prepared to take are not used.

Knowing what to expect in the event that this happens to you or a family member will help you feel at ease and continue along your journey in a timely fashion.

Read on and learn about what to expect when crossing the Canadian border by car, plane or train.

What Is the Purpose of Secondary inspections at Canada’s border?

The CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) works diligently to ensure that all persons or items entering the country are safe and law-abiding. As an extra measure of defense, there are occasionally CBSA secondary inspections.

Secondary inspections at Canada’s border are meant to catch travellers attempting to break the law who have taken deliberate action to avoid detection in the first inspection. There are certain flags customs officers look for, but more often than not secondary inspections are performed at random.

The purpose of random secondary inspection is to double check individuals who do not raise any flags. Apart from a random selection, you may be pulled aside for a secondary inspection for:

  • verification of documents
  • paying duties or taxes
  • determining admissibility to Canada
  • completing or processing paperwork to support your entry or the entry of your goods to Canada.
  • answering more in-depth questions about yourself or presenting your goods for inspection;

According to the CBSA, travellers “will not be referred for a secondary inspection based on any discriminatory basis, such as race, nationality, religion, age or gender.” However, to maintain the security of their methods, agents may not answer specific questions regarding CBSA secondary inspection processes or what customs officers look for, so don’t expect to find out why you were pulled aside.

What Happens During a Secondary Inspection?

If you do get pulled aside, knowing what to expect will put your mind at ease. You will likely be asked to repeat information given in the first inspection, have your background information checked, asked to verify the status of children you may be traveling with, prove how much money you have on you and how much funds are available to you, inspect any animals traveling with you, or produce receipts for goods purchased abroad.

Be ready to answer these and any other questions they ask at the Canadian border. Answer honestly and willingly and you should get through your secondary inspection without any problems.

During a random inspection, or more likely in the case of you or your luggage triggering a physical alarm, you may be asked to submit yourself to:

In recent years, a controversial security measure has been implemented. You may be asked to turn over your electronics, such as a cellphone or laptop, for inspection. This policy is widely challenged, but currently part of secondary inspections at Canada’s border. You must give access or the password of your device to a CBSA officer if they ask for it. From there, they can look at your photos, calls and emails.

They can not access anything stored offline, such as on social media or in the cloud, and are advised to turn off all wifi and data connection in front of you.

Arriving with a dead cellphone may be considered suspicious, and could potentially result in the seizure of your device. If you choose not to let the CBSA enter your device, they may seize it from you.

If you are worried about sensitive intimate materials, do not travel with anything stored in your device that you are not okay with a border guard seeing. While this can be an uncomfortable experience, compliance with this law will get you to your destination quickly. Thankfully, device checks during secondary screenings at Canadian customs are very rare, with only 0.15 percent of travellers being subjected to them since 2017.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Going Through Canadian Customs

The best way to avoid being flagged at the Canadian border is to follow all laws and traveling guidelines. Here are some common mistakes travellers make that you can avoid on your next trip to get through without delays.

  • Going way over your duty-free limit – check all the regulations regarding limits and timespans.
  • Frequent crossing – doing so very often can raise flags. If you plan to be a frequent
    crosser, apply for a NEXUS card.
  • Farm visits – Livestock diseases are a serious threat. If you’re visiting an out of country farm, be honest and patient when returning at the border.
  • Fruit, vegetables, and fresh foods: Sniffer dogs may smell residue in your bag even if its empty. Clean out your bags before your trip to avoid a possible delay.
  • Being rude or anxious: Agents are used to some unease, but unusual behaviour such as aggression, uncooperation or agitation can prompt a secondary inspection.
  • Vague answers: giving nonspecific or unclear responses to the questions they ask at the Canadian border is likely to elicit a second round of questioning.
  • A criminal record: Secondary inspections are guaranteed for those with criminal records. Without a relevant Entry Waiver, the chance of being turned away is high. Contact a reputable pardons lawyer before planning any trips or vacations across the border.

While all of this might sound a little scary, the CBSA is Canada’s first line of defence at the border and their primary goal is to protect Canadians. If you remain polite and respect all Canadian laws, you should have no problems crossing the Canadian border.

Still have some concerns? Our team of customs brokers are trained to help you out and answer any of your questions. Get in touch with us today.