Tougher U.S. rules mean changes for everyone

Rules that went into effect more than two years ago for people flying into the U.S. now cover those who enter by land or sea. You'll need a WHTI-compliant document.
A passenger holds his Canadian passport before boarding a flight to the United States from Ottawa.
The vast majority of Canadians heading south — whether it's for a day of shopping, a weekend getaway or a family vacation — do it by car. Getting past customs used to be a matter of showing some ID (a driver's licence or a birth certificate) and answering a few questions.

No more. Rules that went into effect in 2007 for people flying into the U.S. now cover those who enter by land or sea. You'll need a WHTI-compliant document.

What's a WHTI-compliant document?

Under WHTI — the U.S.-legislated Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — anyone from the Western Hemisphere entering the United States must produce a document that contains photo identification and proof of citizenship.

Compliant documents include a passport, a NEXUS card, a FAST card, an enhanced driver's licence, or a Secure Certificate of Indian Status. While the Secure Certificate of Indian Status card is being phased in, older documents showing that a traveler has at least 50 per cent Native blood are being accepted. 

If you're 15 or younger, you only need proof of Canadian citizenship. Accepted documents are an original or photocopy of a birth certificate or a citizenship card. If you're 18 or younger and travelling with a school or other organized group — under adult supervision and with parental consent — you can also get through with just proof of citizenship.

Before the legislation was passed, a birth certificate or photo ID was usually enough.

It's estimated that around 50 per cent of Canadians hold a passport. For Americans, it's closer to 20 per cent.

How long does it take to get a passport?

Passport Canada estimates that it will take up to two weeks if you submit your application in person and up to four weeks if you apply by mail, through a receiving agent or a mobile passport unit.

However, if you're applying in person and you need your passport sooner, you may be able to speed up the process by paying extra fees and providing proof of impending travel.

Can anyone get a NEXUS or FAST card?

No, it's not automatic. The NEXUS and FAST programs were set up under the Smart Border Declaration and Action Plan. Both were designed to make it easier for low-risk, pre-approved travellers to cross the border between Canada and the U.S. The application process takes much longer than applying for a passport. Canadian applicants will be interviewed by American border protection officials. You will be fingerprinted during the interview. If accepted into the program, the officer will take a digital photo of your irises to verify your identity each time you enter Canada or the United States by air and use the self-serve kiosks. The officer will also take a digital photo of your face.

A NEXUS card will allow you to use special lanes when you cross the border by land. You might not have to stop - but you might be pulled aside at random for more detailed questioning.

FAST is similar to NEXUS in that it's designed to expedite the process for frequent travellers. However, FAST is designed to keep commercial traffic flowing smoothly. It was set up for drivers, carriers and importers.

Under FAST, an acronym for Free And Secure Trade, customs officials can be notified of the cargo's arrival up to an hour before it gets to the border. The pre-approved carriers and drivers use a dedicated lane to cross between the two countries.

What makes a driver's licence 'enhanced?'

Quebec Premier Jean Charest displays an enhanced drivers licence. ((Canadian Press))
Enhanced licences contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that points to information in a secure database stored at the Canada Border Services Agency.

The information can confirm a person's identity and proof of citizenship. The chip itself does not contain any personal information.

Currently Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia issue these licences. They are not mandatory in those provinces.

If you want one, you have to pay a fee on top of what you pay for the privilege of having a driver's licence.

Where can I get a Secure Certificate of Indian Status?

The Jay Treaty signed by Great Britain and the United States in 1794 granted aboriginal people the right to cross the border freely — but you have to be able to prove that you qualify.

Under the old travel rules, identification cards issued by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada were sufficient. But under WHTI, the U.S Department of Homeland Security wanted more secure identification.

Indian Affairs developed the Secure Certificate of Indian Status and began issuing the cards in December 2009 to people who applied in the spring of that year and whose applications were complete. But the department had suspended the application process in September 2009 to begin work on a new application process that will be phased in. 

U.S. Homeland Security has agreed to accept old First Nations status cards through the period of transition to the new card. But the Canadian government cautions that the period of flexibility is at the discretion of American officials. Ottawa also notes that if you're flying into the United States, you need a valid passport or NEXUS card.

The new aboriginal status certificate is being designed to be less prone to forgery or counterfeiting than the cards currently in use. The old card is a laminated paper document.

You are entitled to a Secure Certificate of Indian Status card if you've registered as a status Indian under the Indian Act.

American immigration officials do not distinguish between "treaty" and "non-treaty" or "status" and "non-status" Indians as determined by Canadian law.

Some First Nations issue passports that have been accepted by American and Canadian authorities as a courtesy. The six nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy have been issuing passports for 30 years out of an office in Syracuse, N.Y. The Iroquois primarily live in an area that straddles the border between Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

On July, 13 2010, a 47-person delegation of Iroquois athletes on its way to the world lacrosse championships in Britain was prevented from boarding a plane in New York because they were carrying Iroquois passports. Britain refused to issue them entry visas because American officials would not guarantee that they would be allowed to return to the U.S. using those documents. The U.S. government offered to issue the group American passports. They declined. A day later, the U.S. government agreed to allow the delegation to travel under the Iroquois passports. But the British government refused to allow the team to enter the country using the Iroquois passports.

In May 2010, three Mohawks from Kahnawake were delayed by more than two weeks when they tried to return to Canada from a climate change conference in Bolivia while traveling with Iroquois passports.

Do the same rules exist for Americans?

If they're entering the U.S. from Canada, yes. Americans will be required to produce an approved document that verifies identity and citizenship.