Crossing the Canada-USA Border in an Airplane


Many pilots in both Canada and the USA don’t fly outside their country because of the paperwork involved.  It’s pretty daunting the first time you do it, but like anything else, it’s easy if you know how.



Canada to the USA


Going south, here are the steps you must follow:


1)      get a valid passport for everyone on board

2)      get a US Customs decal for your airplane for this year

3)      create an EAPIS account and file an EAPIS manifest

4)      call US customs at the first airport that you will land at in the USA

5)      file a flight plan with NavCan at 1-866-WX-BRIEF and OPEN IT

6)      establish contact with USA ATC and get a squawk code

7)      when you land, taxi to the “special spot” and close your flight plan




USA to Canada


Going north, here are the steps you must follow:


1)      get a valid passport for everyone on board

2)      file an EAPIS departure

3)      file a flight plan with Lockheed/Martin at 1-800-WX-BRIEF and OPEN IT

4)      call Canadian Customs at 1-888-CAN-PASS, answer their questions and tell them your first airport that you will be landing at in Canada.  Two hours notice required.

5)      when you land, taxi to the agreed-upon location and close your flight plan

6)      You can get out of the airplane.  Canada Customs may or may not show up.  If they don’t show up, you must call 1-888-CAN-PASS again and tell them when you landed.  They will give you a number which you should write down.



The above is the “Coles Notes” and summarizes what you have to do.  There are some details, though.





Everyone on board the aircraft must hold a passport which has NOT expired.  Some countries require at least six months before the passport expires.  In my experience, Canada and the USA do not, but if your passport has less than six months left before it expires, get a new one.



US Customs Aircraft Decal


To cross the border, you will need a US Customs Decal for your aircraft.  They are valid for a calendar year.  In the old days, you could buy one from the US Customs Inspector after you landed.  Not any more.  You now purchase them online.  I won’t include a URL because they expire so fast.  Google “US Customs Decal” to find the US government website.  You must create an account with a userid and password.  YOU MUST SAVE THEM.  This allows you to purchase, with a credit card, a USD $25 decal, which they will mail to you.  You do not need the decal to cross the border – just print off the receipt and carry it with you.  In a couple of weeks when it arrives, stick on your aircraft on the outside near the pilot door.  A decal is required for each aircraft.





In the Good Old Days, I would have a stack of 178 forms, which I would fill out and fax to US Customs.  No more.  It has been replaced with the EAPIS program.  Google “EAPIS”.  You must create a user account with a password.  YOU MUST SAVE THEM.  Enter crew (you) information.  Every time you fly from Canada to the USA, you must file an EAPIS arrival manifest, which US Customs gets.  The first time you file a manifest, you might find it a little frustrating.  You need everyone’s passports in front of you, and you need an address in the USA with a zip code.


Something new with the EAPIS program is the requirement to file an EAPIS departure manifest every time you fly from USA to Canada.  If you forget to do it, you will get a very nasty email from US Customs informing you of a $5,000 fine that you must pay.


Hint:  file the EAPIS departure in Canada, at the same time that you file your EAPIS arrival.  I learned that lesson the hard way.


Of course, print out your EAPIS arrival and departure manifests and bring them with you.  I use a file folder in my flight bag.



US Customs


You can’t just land at any airport in the USA to clear customs.  Only some of them have customs, and many have limited hours.  It is up to you to select a US airport that has customs available when you arrive.  You MUST phone US customs at that airport and ensure that they will be there when you arrive.  If you do not do this, terrible things happen.  Do not ask me how I learned that.


Here’s the trick:  you need to somehow find out the phone number of US Customs at your destination airport.  There is no country-wide “800” number to call.  Guess how you’re going to find it?  Google.  They oughta get a Nobel Prize, for gmail if nothing else.  Heck, Obama got a Nobel prize just for showing up.  Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize – I am not making this up, check for yourself – presumably for “most improved”.  As usual, I digress.


Google “us customs airport of entry” and you will find a very nice list of airports, sorted by states, with all the info that you need – hours of operation, phone number.  Most places will require 2 hours notice.


Call US Customs at that number and tell them when you are coming, and tell them that you have filed an EAPIS manifest.  GET THE NAME OF THE INSPECTOR, in case when you land, an enraged US Customs Inspector tells you that he is going to fine you $5,000 for not following procedure, hand him your EAPIS paperwork and tell him that you phoned Inspector Wilson at 9:14 am on 13 Sept 2013 and he knows you are coming.


When you land, taxi to the “special spot” often marked with yellow paint on the ramp, that US Customs “owns”.  Tell Tower that you need customs when you are inbound.  DO NOT GET OUT OF THE AIRCRAFT until a US Customs Inspector tells you to do so.  They will ALWAYS meet you, very much unlike Canada Customs.  Immediately hand the US Customs Inspector the file folder containing your Decal receipt, your EAPIS manifest, all passports and your pilot’s licence.  It is not unusual for them to have dogs present to check for drugs, and a Geiger counter to check for radioactive materials.  Don’t forget to smile.



Canada Customs


Going northbound, don’t forget to file an EAPIS departure manifest with US Customs.  And you must contact Canada Customs by calling 1-888-CANPASS at least 2 hours before your time of arrival at your first airport in Canada.  They will ask you a bunch of questions, and off you go.


When you arrive in Canada, you can get out of the airplane.  If no Canada Customs Inspector is there, call 1-888-CAN-PASS again and get your number from them and write it down.  Note that they like you to plus or minus 15 minutes on your ETA.



Flight Plan


When you cross an international border – even if you don’t land – you must file AND OPEN a flight plane, either VFR or IFR, your choice. 


In Canada you call NavCan at 1-866-WX-BRIEF.  I always use auto-open, even though NavCan strongly dislikes it, so I don’t have to bother calling them on the FISE after I take off.  If I don’t use auto-open and NavCan doesn’t answer on the FISE, I have a problem.  NavCan doesn’t have a problem, though.  A lesson there for you.


In the USA, call Lockheed at 1-800-WX-BRIEF.  Try to figure out what “equipment slant” your aircraft is ahead of time.  I never do, and sound like a knob.  Again, insist on auto-open.  Again, I have had great difficulty getting through to US FSS after taking off.  And if I don’t open my flight plan, Transport Canada Enforcement is going to make a huge deal about it.  So, I use auto-open going north, too.



ATC Contact & Squawk Code


Going south, you should be aware that there is a truly incomprehensible FAA NOTAM, written by a team of frustrated lawyers for maximum obfuscation, which requires you to establish contact with US ATC and get a squawk code for border crossing southbound.  If you have incurable insomnia, sometime try reading the NOTAM.  It’s really quite something.


Anyways, what this means is that you need a mode C transponder.  Or if you are flying in formation, the lead needs one.  Incomprehensibly, sometimes US ATC requires every aircraft in a tight formation crossing the border to squawk a discrete code.  I have seen this strange request from Miami Center.  Perhaps it was Cuban overflight paranoia – perhaps we were tainted by our contact with Havana Center.  I have no idea.


Going northbound, I am unaware of any corresponding regulation or NOTAM requiring you to establish contact with Canadian ATC before crossing the border.  I have tried in the past, and ATC has rudely refused, as it frequently does when VFR traffic requests service.  Well, I tried.





Holy shit, you’re saying to yourself, I can never figure out all that crap.  Yes, you can.  Like going to the dentist, you will get over it.  Don’t let the bureaucrats stop you from flying.  And carry a thick stack of paperwork and keep smiling, regardless of how many police cars and SUV’s surround you with flashing lights after you land.



Nov 2013