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Questions from border officials on why you are traveling abroad

Posted by John Reed on

I have lately been putting money in bank accounts in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand and urging my readers to do the same. For details, read my book How to Protect Your Life Savings From Hyperinflation & Depression.

Many have gone to my banker in Canada, (Tannaz Alesafar | Financial Services Manager | Park Royal Branch
BMO Bank of Montreal | 913 Park Royal South | West Vancouver, BC, V7T 1A1
(T) 604-903-2943 | (F) 604-903-2955) and done just that. You have to go in person to open accounts in Canada.

In Australia and New Zealand, they did not make me come in person but they asked my purpose for the account. So did my bank when I asked them to wire money to Australia and New Zealand.

Some readers have been surprised at questions from border officials about why the would-be depositor is trying to enter the country. In Canada, U.S. officials asked me what the purpose of my visit to Canada was when I was returning to the U.S.

1. Do not lie to them. It can get you banned or make you jump through hoops every time you go.

2. They are experts at detecting nervous people—sort of like human polygraphs.

Customs people are concerned about your paying duties on stuff you are bringing in, and making sure you are not bringing in some diseased or non-native plant or animal.

Immigration people are concerned you are not planning to leave after they let you in.

Tourism is an okay reason. They may call your hotels to confirm your bookings.

Visiting a friend is an okay reason. They may call the friend on the spot to verify it.

Business is an okay reason. Ditto with the phone calls.

Looking for a job is a very bad thing to say. One reader said even going to trade shows in Canada causes him to be questioned for an hour and his bags to be thoroughly searched—because of suspicion that he is really coming to look for a job. He said it is worse when you drive into Canada than when you fly.

So is planning to live there permanently or even longer than the typical tourist time limit of 90 days or marrying one of the locals—if you lack written approval for that.

Here is an email about an American who lied to the Canadian authorities:

Hi Jack,

I just read your border patrol comment, and have an anecdote for you, which emphasizes the whole "Don't lie to the border guards/customs agents."

A former colleague, who lived in Buffalo was working on a consulting project in Canada. He would drive across the border on Monday mornings and come back on Thursdays. He had been instructed by his firm to tell the Canadian border guards that he was "going in for the day for a meeting," during the several weeks that it was going to take for him to get a work visa. Right before the visa came through, they did a random search of his car (after he told them that he was just going in for the day) and found receipts for an extended stay hotel in Canada. As a result, he has been banned from entering Canada for a decade.

I went to Iceland for a long weekend two years ago. While there, I bought an expensive watch. When I got back to the US, the US customs official asked if I had anything to declare, so I told him that I had this expensive watch (cursing to myself because I figured I'd have to pay some exorbitant duty on it) but he just waved me through. I think the customs officials and border guards are looking for certain "hot/suspicious" items like drugs, weapons, animals or large amounts of cash, and don't really care about anything else. It's just more paperwork for them.

As you suggested, saying as little as possible without lying is your best bet. The worst that will happen if they don't like your truthful reason is that they will send you home. If they catch you lying, you could end up like my former colleague.


PS I'm a software consultant and may be starting a project that will require me to periodically travel to Canada. During the interview, they asked me several times if I was free to travel to Canada, so I'm guessing that they're cracking down on this since 9/11, and that my colleague isn't alone.

And here is another:

Mr. Reed,

Feel free to use this email, but please withhold my name from publication.

I recently crossed the border into Canada. My conversation with the guard went like this:

Guard: Purpose of visit?
Me: Business
Guard: What sort of business
Me: I want to open a bank account in your country.
Guard: If you are an American, why do you want to open a bank account in Canada?
Me: I want to diversify my savings.

That conversation resulted in me being lead away to a holding room while the guards searched my car top to bottom. I had a small amount of cash on me (much less than the declarable limit of $10,000), which the guards took away and counted in front of me. Afterwards they gave it back. They also glanced at the money in my wallet but did not take it out.

The guard later told me they were looking for evidence of a crime (drugs, firearms, etc), in which case my cash would have been confiscated since it would be assumed to be illicit assets related to the crime. Since I had committed no crime, they found nothing, and I got my money back. The whole process took an hour.

I never want to go through that experience again. I recommend carrying a cashier's check instead, even for a small amount of money.

I also provided the guards with my hotel reservation, and my contact person at the bank. I don't know if they ever checked it.

After my appointment the following day, I drove straight back to the US border. I was again lead into a holding room while the US guards searched my car once more!

It was a lengthy drive to Canada, and I think the long drive and quick turnaround made the US border guard suspicious. Again, they found nothing, but it took about 45 min out of my day.

I recommend to carry only a small amount of baggage to make border searches easier. It also was helpful to have my hotel and appointment information in a file, with printed receipts, for the guards to look at.

[Reed comment: I never drove into Canada. I flew into YVR. I was asked the purpose of my visit and told to have a nice stay. I aggree that you should have your return plane ticket and hotel-in-Canada info handy. All I had was a normal amount of U.S. cash.They made no inquiry about it. I carried a couple of blank checks to make my initial deposit. My wife drove into Canada by flying to Bellingham, WA where she was picked up in a car by her college classmate who lives in Canada near the border. She mentioned no problems crossing the border in the car. During the visit, she went to the local branch of BMO and became a signatory and joint owner of the account I previously opened. “Diversify my savings” might not be the ideal phrase, not that this is an exact science. You can see that it was an unusual statement to the Canada official. By U.S. Constitutional standards, this guy’s experience in both directions is a bit outrageous. Ever heard of “probable cause?” But the U.S. Constitution does not apply to Canada. I do not know what the American guy’s legal basis for the search was. But apparently that is the way they behave, so I agree with another guy’s recommendation that flying is less of a hassle. If nothing else, they have less to search. Blame the terrorists. In the old days, we did not even need a passport to go into Canada and vice versa.

I have in my life stood up to upperclassmen at West Point when I was a new freshman, federal judges, Army colonels and generals when I was a lieutenant, litigation opponents who said they were going to ruin me financially, and others. However, you need to recognize that there is a time and a place for everything, including asserting your rights. When you are crossing a border going out of your home country, you are extremely vulnerable and in a very weak position to demand anything. Your attitude should be that the border offical is just doing his job. If you don’t really believe that at the time, fake it.]

Am I contradicting what I just said about not lying?

No. Say as little as possible is the rule. For example, if you casually say, “I’ve heard a lot of great things about your country. If I like it, I may just stay here permanently,” thinking you have just complimented the border official, you will likely find yourself on the next plane out of the country back to the U.S. It’s almost like making a joke about having a bomb in your suitcase (now a felony in the U.S.).

So do not babble about such normally mundane things as seeking a job in the country on staying there more than the standard tourist time limit or marrying a person in the country. These are no-nos. If that is, in fact, what you are doing, you need to get the proper paperwork before you go to the airport, cruise ship, or border.

If you are one of my readers, your real reason for going to Canada is to open a Canadian bank account in Canadian dollars and the bank requires you to do that in person. If you are asked why you want a Canadian bank account, your real reason is because you fear the U.S. dollar may hyperinflate in the future so you want to own other currencies if and when that happens. It’s called diversification.

None of that is illegal, so don’t be nervous or reluctant. And don’t get diarrhea of the mouth either and babble about all sorts of extraneous things.

One- or two-word answers are probably best, like “tourism,” “visiting a friend,” “business.”

If they want more, probably “To open a bank account,” “to get a safe deposit box to go with my bank account,” “do a little sight-seeing.”

Once again, they may demand pertinent phone numbers, itineraries, and call the people in question on the spot. They may ask to see your return trip ticket, ask how much cash you have on you (if it’s more than $10,000, you need to volunteer that and they will fill out forms and ask more questions—but it’s not illegal to take more than $10,000 across the border—only to do so without telling them).

A U.S. border guy at the Vancouver airport asked why I went to Canada. I told him to open a bank account. He asked which bank. I said BMO. He said it was a good choice and was also his bank there. He asked why I wanted a Canadian bank account and I told him. Have a nice flight.

A woman at my US bank USAA wanted to know why I was wiring money out of the country. She was filling out a form. I explained about U.S. deficit spending and hyperinflation and probable capital controls. After a pause, she said, “I’ll just say personal.”

My impression is the border guys are just probing a little to get a reaction. If you react like you’re guilty of some bad behavior, then you get the third degree, searches, and phone calls and all that.

There is nothing illegal about putting some of your savings in foreign bank accounts. So don’t act like there is. Generally, I would not expect the border guys to know about foreign bank account law. They deal with physical objects and illegal immigrants. But because they are not knowledgeable about foreign bank accounts held by U.S. citizens, your being nervous about the questions may cause them to think there is something wrong with opening a foreign bank account, then you have to waste a couple hours of your life convincing them you are not a criminal.

I do not have a great deal of experience crossing international borders. If any readers do have such experience and can supplement or correct what I just said, please send me your comments at

Here is a web site with suggestions:

Here is another email:
Hi John,

I've been following your articles about opening accounts at Canadian banks and the nuances in doing so. I thought I might be able to give you a little more info from a Canadian perspective.

Canadian mail isn't normally slow, it has something to do with crossing the border. When I send something from Woodstock, Ontario to Lethbridge, Alberta it takes 4 to 5 days. That is about the same distance as Buffalo, NY to Billings, MT.
Traffic cameras are not used everywhere in Canada, only in some provinces. In Ontario, they are not legal, and are not used at all. In Ontario it is also illegal to use a radar detector, doing so will result in a hefty fine if you are caught. In Alberta it is perfectly legal, but I'm not sure about BC.
You may also need a notarized statement from your spouse authorizing you to take the kid into the US when you are returning from Canada. This is to prevent estranged parents from kidnapping their children and skipping the country.
Carrying handguns is illegal. If you drive across the border, you will have to surrender them at the border before crossing, you will get them back when you return. If you are caught with them in Canada, you will have a very bad day.

Other than that, your advice to say no more than necessary and never to lie is good. The instant you are caught in a lie, your day is ruined. They do not care what you are doing as long as it is not illegal.

Here is another email:

Mr. Reed,

I visited family in Washington State earlier this week, and took the opportunity to drive to Vancouver in order to open an account with the banker whose name you printed. I thought you might like to add this to your archives of reader experiences.

My border crossing into Canada went like this:

Agent: What's the purpose for your visit to Canada?
Me: I am opening a Canadian savings account.
Agent: Are you moving to Canada?
Me: No.
Agent: Where do you live?
Me: Ogden, Utah.
Agent: That's a long way to travel. Why do you want a Canadian bank account?
Me: To protect myself from the US government's abuse of the dollar.
Agent: Good idea. How long will you be in Canada?
Me: I will drive back to the US as soon as I have finished with the bank.
Agent: How much cash are you carrying?
Me: 60 dollars US.
Agent: Have a nice day.

My crossing back into the US went like this:

Agent: Where are you from?
Me: Ogden, Utah.
Agent: You are a long way from home. What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?
Me: I opened a Canadian savings account.
Agent: Why would you travel from Utah to open a savings account?
Me: I had to provide identification in person.
Agent: But why do you want a Canadian bank account?
Me: I want to diversify some of my savings into Canadian dollars.
Agent: US dollars are not good enough for you?
Me: I want a basket of currencies.
Agent: Okay, sure. How long were you in Canada?
Me: About four hours.
Agent: Have a nice day.

I considered telling these guys I was visiting Vancouver for tourism, mainly out of embarrassment, I suppose. In the end, I decided that there was no reason to lie, and I did not want to put my 6 year old son or wife in a position of having to lie for me; not only a bad example to set, but a kid is not exactly reliable. I am glad I told the truth, and would encourage others to follow your excellent advice.

I forgot to mention something, another tip for readers of your site. I believe you pointed out that your mobile phone did not function in Canada. True for me as well. What I failed to anticipate was that my smart phone's GPS function would similarly not work in the absence of cellular service. Apparently, when you want to program a destination for driving directions in a smart phone (at least in my case), you need a network connection for the phone to access. This is obviously different than a typical stand-alone GPS unit; a distinction I did not appreciate. I was able to overcome the issue by stopping at a McDonald's and accessing their free Wi-Fi service to program my destination. Then, I was able to use the phone's GPS as usual.

I would recommend that folks either bring along their dedicated GPS units with the appropriate maps loaded, or print driving directions, or even dare I say, get a map.

John T. Reed

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