Crossing the U.S. Border
A special thanks to Pete Loevinger for providing these helpful tips for crossing the U.S. – Canadian Border.
Initial Recommendations & Tips
- Complete any preflight procedures from home, before your flight – when you can take your time
- Check and complete the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (EAPIS) and other forms BEFORE you get to the point of entry
- Some airports don’t have Internet access, and most pilots aren’t familiar with the EAPIS process
- Cut Bank is the only 24/7 U.S. Customs Facility in the Area
- Bookmark the Website for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
Crossing the Border: Advice for Small Aircraft Travelers
By Pete Loevinger
Flying to Alaska is challenging, but crossing the borders can be frustrating for a small aircraft pilot without an IFR rating. AOPA provides good assistance online for its members, but the information is voluminous and general. The information does not target a VFR pilot flying a small plane in difficult weather and terrain and at low altitudes, and flying into small non-controlled airports in remote areas. This is my personal experience crossing the US and Canadian borders in a Citabria with no IFR rating, equipment or training.
There is one difference between crossing the lower 48 border and the Alaskan border, and it applies both ways: You do not need nor will ATC assign a unique beacon code to cross the Alaskan/Canadian border in either direction. This because the lower 48 border is an ADIZ, the Alaskan/Canadian border is not. When crossing the Alaskan/Canadian border or the lower 48 ADIZ you do NOT need to be in contact with any ATC service, but you DO need to be assigned a unique beacon code by ATC when crossing the ADIZ border between Canada and the lower 48.
Lower 48 to Canada:
- File the EAPIS Departure notice online. You DO NOT need to depart from a POE, just list the closest one. This filing can and should be done hours or days in advance. Try to get the time of crossing close but it does not have to be exact. When you call Customs (US or Canada) you must give accurate times, but the EAPIS filing is only used for reference and Customs will go by your phone call. A quirk in the EAPIS interface is that when filling out the manifest, click on show details for each drop-down crew member and passenger. This fills in all saved details so that you do not have to re-enter them.
- Call Canadian Customs, CBSA, at (888) 226-7277 shortly before leaving. You MUST land at a Canadian POE, which are conveniently listed as dashed boxes on Canadian VFR charts. Customs prefers that you arrive a few minutes after your ETA, not before, but don’t be more than 15 minutes late. This can be a bit tricky for a VFR pilot flying at low altitude in difficult weather and terrain. I minimized the risk by choosing border airports as close together as possible. Cut Bank Airport (MT) is a great one that fits this requirement since it’s only 70 miles from Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
- File your VFR Flight Plan with US FSS. At this time you can ask the FSS to call Center and get you a border crossing beacon code, but they are reluctant to do so and Flight Service competence is not reliable. The Codes are only valid for one hour, so you must be very close to the border when you get your code.
- Once airborne activate your flight plan, US FSS will not do this by phone. Use the closest FSS facility or RCO, they are on both US VFR and WAC charts. You may have to climb to 9000’ to get radio contact in remote areas, and weather may prohibit this so plan your departure accordingly. When close to the border, contact FSS again and get your discreet Beacon Code before crossing the ADIZ. Once on the ground in Canada, wait for the Customs agent. Call CBSA five minutes after your ETA if no agent arrives. About half the time Canada never sends an agent and you receive your Visa number by phone. You MUST also call US FSS to close your Flight Plan, don’t believe the Canadian radio operator if they say that they will close your flight plan, they are thinking Canada not the US.
* If you are not familiar with FSS, here’s how it works. The RCO will have the controlling facility listed, for instance for Cut Bank it is Great Falls. You say “Great Falls Radio, November 123AB” and patiently wait for a reply. Don’t forget to disable the squelch on your radio, as the signals may be faint. FSS stations and RCOs are on all of the VFR and WAC charts.
Canada to Alaska:
- EAPIS, same as above. File an arrival notice.
- You must find a US POE, and use its specific phone number when calling US customs. In typical government fashion, the US has made it devilishly difficult to obtain this information. AOPA has done an outstanding job of compiling a list of POEs and phone numbers in PDF format, I highly recommend it.
- File your VFR Flight Plan with Canadian Flight Service. You will use US FSS to close this Flight Plan. Canadian Airports that have Mandatory Frequencies or Towers will automatically activate (and close) your flight plans. Since you are not landing at a Canadian airport, you must manually close your flight plan.
- A US customs agent will meet you at the POE. Alaskan customs is very relaxed.
Alaska to Canada:
- EAPIS, same as above. File a Departure notice.
- Call Canadian Customs, CBSA, at 888 226-7277 shortly before leaving. You MUST land at a Canadian POE, which are conveniently listed as dashed boxes on Canadian VFR charts.
- File your VFR Flight Plan with US Flight Service. You will use US FSS to close this Flight Plan.
- Activate your flight plan when airborne using FSS. 5) Call CBSA five minutes after your ETA if no agent arrives. About half the time Canada never sends an agent and you receive your Visa number by phone. You MUST also call US FSS to close your Flight Plan.
* If, for some reason, you have to cancel or delay your crossing, call the CBSA and inform them of your plans. There is no known way of updating EAPIS.
Canada to the lower 48:
- EAPIS, same as above. File an arrival notice.
- You must find a US POE, and use its specific phone number when calling US customs. AOPA has a list of POEs and phone numbers. The POE for Cut Bank is Sweetgrass, you can call (406) 335-9628 to arrange inbound clearance. The officer will be able to drive to Cut Bank to meet you if you provide sufficient notice, 2 hours minumum.
- The larger airports have full time customs officers on the field
- File your VFR or IFR Flight Plan with Canadian Flight Service. You will use the US FSS to close this Flight Plan. Canadian Airports that have Mandatory Frequencies or Towers will automatically activate your flight plan.
- VERY IMPORTANT to contact US FSS and get a discreet Beacon Code before crossing the continental ADIZ if VFR! I had to climb to 7,500’ to reach the Cut Bank RCO, and then dropped down to 1000’ AGL to avoid the weather. The US uses specially equipped Citations to patrol the ADIZ, so be sure to get that code because they will know that you are there whether you call or not!
- A US customs agent will meet you at the POE, you will fill out the same antiquated card that you get on commercial international flights. Customs agents are generally very professional and courteous. They will scan your plane with a Geiger counter. For those of you with vintage aircraft, be aware of the possible presence of radium in your instrument dials. Most of the customs agents are aware of this, but others may go ballistic when they detect high radiation levels in the aircraft.
* If, for some reason, you have to cancel or delay your crossing, call the US Customs agent and give them the reason and details. This takes care of the EAPIS filing. I believe that US Customs (CBP) is the only outfit that pays any attention to EAPIS. Flight Service can reach Customs if you do not have a phone, but do not rely 100% on any Flight Service, US or Canadian.