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Me and my girlfriend are travelling central america for the last few years and we are currently in Mexico planning a road trip to Canada via the USA with our car. Being EU citizens we will be enetering to the USA under the VWP that allows us to stay a maximum of 90 days in the US but 180 days in Canada. Now we have several options considering to plan our trip ahead:

1.) Enter the USA from Mexico by land and stay in the US only for the needed time to drive up to the canadian border and cross to Canada. Estimated time to spend in the US 5-7 days. Then spend in Canada 5 months and drive back to Mexico through the USA again staying in the US for the time needed to reach the Mexico border.

2.) Enter the USA from Mexico by land and stay 1 month there before we head up north and spending 4 months in Canada. After that return to Mexico via the USA. Staying in USA this time only for the time needed to make it to the mexican border (5-7 days).

3.) Enter the USA from Mexico by land, spending the needed time to get to the canadian border (5-7 days) and stay in Canada only 1 month, then return to Mexico via USA, but staying 3 months in the USA before returning back to Mexico.

4.) Enter the USA from Mexico by land, spending 3 months in USA, heading to Canada, spend 5 months there and then get back to Mexico without staying more than a week in USA to get back to Mexico.

I was looking extensively for an answer and all I got is ending up even more confused. There are answers that say yes, is possible in all 3 options and then there are answers that the clock does not stop and reset in Canada. In the first two options we will technically be spending minimum time in the USA, staying out 5 times longer than staying in. The third option is the one we prefer the most. Our car has mexican plates on it, and I am the holder/owner of the car. All crossings will be made by land ofcourse and would need advice which option to stick to or give me a better suggestion how to plan it and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each. With the problem the clock is not reset, we are limited technically to stay in Canada instead of 6 months to only 2.5 months (one week to get there and one week to get from Canada bach to Mexico) due to the fact we are comming from the south driving our mexican car from Mexico. Can´t figure out what to do. Any suggestions and help is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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All three of your proposed itineraries should be perfectly fine. Your biggest problem is going to be getting car insurance good in both the US and Canada, but as you didn't ask about that, I'll assume you already have that sorted. If not, you need to do that before you arrive at the US border.

Anyway...

Many people get confused by the so-called "clock" still running if they visit the US and then go to Canada (or Mexico or various Caribbean islands, but for your purpose I'll just say Canada in the rest of this post). In actuality there is no clock. There is only the stamp in your passport. Visitors to the US who go to Canada (etc.) for a short visit of up to 30 days and then return to the US may be admitted back to the US for the remainder of the time on their previous admission.

This is normally a convenience for genuine tourists, as it's the closest any non-permanent-resident, non-citizen will ever get to being "waved through", but it also has another purpose: to prevent visa runs, i.e. to stop someone from trying to live in the US and then border hop every few months to extend their time in the country.

You will be in Canada for longer than 30 days, and you are plainly not trying to make a visa run, so you'll go through the full interview when you return to the US after five months in Canada, and get a new admission. It seems unlikely to me that you'll have any problem with this second entry. If you actually plan to drive straight through to Mexico, though, you can declare the purpose of your visit as transit. You can explain that you already toured the US on your previous road trip. You'll most likely get a new 90-day admission anyway, but it's possible they might give you a 29-day transit admission.

I'd actually be more worried about your first entry to the US. I'd expect that you'll go to secondary screening, especially if it's somehow not very busy when you cross. (Most of the US-Mexico road crossings are extremely busy. Expect to wait for an hour or more most of the time, possibly several hours.) The profile of your travel is just unusual enough that they might want to take a closer look at you. Make sure your paperwork is in order and there's nothing in your car that will cause problems importing into the US, such as live animals, meat, fruits, vegetables, cannabis, etc.

You may still receive a paper I-94W record when you cross by land (and pay $7 for the privilege). Be sure you turn this in when you depart the US. If you weren't able to turn it in, this CBP web page explains how to get your departure recorded properly.

  • Thanks Michael for your very fast reply and making it more clear to me. However I do have some more questions after I read your reply. Regarding the car insurance, I do have insurance that covers Mexico, USA and Canada up to 100 000 USD liability. Hope that is enough. Now the new thing for me is the paper I-94 you mentioned. Wasn´t this a thing of the past? Is this mandatory? Do I need it? Will I get it from the officer while I am in my car? What conditions do I need to meet to get it or not? The last thing is the 29-day transit admission. Is that a new form or a stamp in the passport? – Paul 2 days ago
  • @Paul The last time I checked, the paper I-94W was still in use but only for land border entries. I could be wrong; it's been quite a while. I've also heard that they skip the paper I-94 and fee if you have a valid ESTA. The liability cover sounds fine for the USA; the minimum is lower than that in every state. I don't know about Canada. Finally, people admitted to the US for transit normally get 29 days, as that is the time specified in US law. – Michael Hampton 2 days ago
  • @Micheal I just checked at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website regarding ESTA and says for anybody comming by land under the VWP doesn´t need ESTA. The I-94 is still in place, just the change now is, that it is done electronicaly and no more paper version needed. The CBP officer puts it in to the system. If anybody needs it, they can get it after the entry from the CBP website. My worry should be secondary screening. What to expect from it? Any advice?This will be my first crossing. – Paul 2 days ago
  • @Paul In secondary? You should expect your car and all of your baggage to be searched. You might be interviewed in some depth for several minutes, and the CBP officer might appear to be less than friendly about it. – Michael Hampton 2 days ago
  • I think I got it now. However my third itinerary could be tricky as I am starting to understand it a bit more. The CBP officer can issue me a new admission to the USA for 3 months but he could also continue with the first admission when I first entered the USA and that would be a totally different story. How do I know then how much time can I spend in the US? The second option would make my stay a month shorter due to the fact that the one month spent in Canada would count to my trip. I imagine in that case if I would want to stay 3 months then I have a problem. How will I know this? – Paul 2 hours ago

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