Flying to Canada from U.S.? Travellers could face new customs requirement at airports

The departures hall of Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo from Getty Images

Since 1952, people traveling out of Toronto Pearson International Airport have had to clear U.S. customs before even boarding their flight south of the border. Now though, for the first time, travellers coming from some American airports may have to clear Canadian customs in the U.S. before being allowed on their Canada-bound flight.

American officials say that Florida and Arizona, two states popular with Canadian snowbirds, will likely be the locations of the first pre-clearance facilities.

“While Canada has not yet deployed inspection personnel to the United States to facilitate pre-clearance movement into Canada, we hope to see steps on this in the near-future. Perhaps in a pilot project in Scottsdale, or in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for example,” said Kenneth Merten, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state, at a conference hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The move towards a more fluid border with Canada comes at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for increased border restrictions, like building his multi-billion wall with Mexico.

“I wouldn’t say that this is surprising necessarily. All that this really amounts to is a prescreening of travellers to Canada via the United States,” said Joel Sandaluk, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer. “The American border isn’t affected and if anything, already permits this type of activity.”

The only problem Sandaluk sees with having pre-clearance facilities in the U.S. is that it could complicate coming to Canada if a Canadian border services agent didn’t clear a non-Canadian traveller for entry into the country. “This could have the effect of marooning someone outside of Canada unable to present themselves at a border and have people in Canada vouch for them,” he said.

And U.S. pre-clearance border officers wouldn’t have the power to arrest people as they would at a Canadian airport. “The government I think would be curtailed in that way,” said Sandaluk. “The primary impact however will likely be felt by people arriving in Canada from overseas who will find that the links of queues at passport control will be greatly diminished.”

And the economic impact of creating pre-clearance facilities in the U.S. is being touted as a positive step for both countries. According to one Canadian official at the Wilson Center’s conference, border wait times cost Canada between one and two per cent of its GDP in 2010.

“A more efficient, seamless border will make it easier for passengers,” said Vincent Rigby, associate deputy minister at Public Safety Canada speaking at the conference. “It’s also essential to our economies.”

There are already pilot projects in B.C. and Montreal’s train systems to get passengers cleared at their ports of departure, rather than stop and wait to clear customs at the border.

The ultimate goal though is to have a system that will be used for all cross-border travel between the countries, including cargo transportation. But achieving that will require coordination across various American government agencies and harmonizing of regulatory standards across both sides of the border. When that comes to pass remains to be seen.