Nickel and Dimed
I had just spent the day shopping in Bangor, Maine, with my aunt and cousin. My cousin had spent the last couple of hours shopping until the last store closed while the rest of us waited semi-patiently. It was after 1 am when we finally pulled up to the border. My aunt and I were exhausted from a day that had begun at 7 am. We handed over our receipts at the window and were directed to the duty office. We went in, and all went smoothly. Then my cousin, who tends to be quite obnoxious, struck up a conversation with the border guard. She asked her what union she belonged to, and how much money she made per year. Then she started asking her about her gun. I left to wait in the car. Who knows what was said after that point. It's not unusual for my cousin to ask complete strangers about their intimate life.
I finally saw my cousin coming out the door, followed by the border guard. We had been selected for a late night vehicle search. My aunt and I went back into the building while my cousin stayed outside with the border guard. I went to the bathroom, then when I came out my Gap pants were laying on the counter. My cousin also had forgotten to claim a couple of items. Besides that, she hadn't realized that when you return or exchange an item previously purchased to a store in the US, you have to go over to the Canadian Customs office and let them know before you cross into the US.
The computer system was down, so we had to wait around for an hour and a half. The woman's coworker had told her that she should just let us go. She refused. When we were finally able to leave, I discovered that some of the bags in the vehicle had just been ripped open and the contents strewn about, as if she were searching for something much more serious than a piece of clothing that would be worth under $10 in duty.
I learned a lot of things that night. Such as, if you are given a gift in the US, no matter how small, you have to claim it at customs. Imagine accepting a gift from someone, then immediately requesting a receipt. Also, if you go over the allowable amount that you're qualified for, even by a nickel, you have to pay duty on the entire amount of purchases. If you're found not to have claimed everything, there is a black mark on your Canada Customs record for six years.
This was my first infraction, but upon returning home I found that I was made to pay double what I should have been charged. I didn't bother sending a letter of complaint though, since I was leaving for a trip to Washington, DC the following Friday, and was too busy.
On this trip to DC, I had decided to bring my laptop. I'd never traveled to the US with my laptop before, and hadn't realized that this could be considered a red flag that someone may be trying to take a job from an American. I was directed to the room where the bags are searched. This was the first time I'd had my bag searched entering the US.
When the guy asked if I had anything to claim, having learned my lesson the previous weekend, I immediately pointed out all the things that I would be leaving in the US, and offered up my receipts. He waved his hand to show his lack of interest. Instead, he kept asking if I was working in the United States. I said no, but he asked a total of three times. He also asked what I did for a living, twice, and how many days in total I had spent in the United States in the entire year. I think they would know that better than me. It's not really something that I keep track of. He kept searching, until he was satisfied. I assumed by the line of questions that he must have been looking for a resume, T4 slip or pay stub.
On my visit to DC, I was very careful to keep all my receipts together in an envelope, including the one for dental floss. At the end of my visit, I added them up, and converted then to Canadian dollars. I had been in the US for over two weeks, so my limit was $700, which I didn't even come close to.
Upon arriving in Montreal I was again sent to have my bag searched. I handed over the receipts, and he tallied them up. He didn't use a calculator, and just rounded all the numbers off, so the total wasn't really that accurate. He had me open my suitcase. It was completely full, and things were falling out. He asked me to match up the items in the suitcase to the receipts. I had already washed and worn all the clothing, so they blended in well with the rest of the wardrobe. I did find the Gap pants though. He reached in and grabbed a couple of small things that were given to me for Christmas. I had asked for receipts a few times, but wasn't given any, and informed the border guard of this. He then held one of them up and said "No more than twenty dollars."
He finally gave me permission to leave. I couldn't get the suitcase closed, so had to place it on the floor and sit on it, while struggling to get the zipper closed. He just stood there watching, along with a few of the other border guards.
When I finally got out of there I was informed that I had missed my connecting flight and would have to wait seven hours for the next one.
I've planned another trip to the US for April. Hopefully it will go more smoothly, since I'm only going for a weekend, and will just bring a small carry-on bag, and no laptop.
Rahctel Ettoltrab is a freelance Canadian who visits the US increasingly infrequently.