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I am a US citizen traveling to Canada from the US on short notice, within the next two weeks (unsure if by land or by air). I do not have a passport. I may or may not be able to obtain a passport expedited at the agency in DC, but even if I am able to, it seems like far more of a hassle than spending an extra few hours at the border on the way back for screening, if this is possible, so my question is: is it? Is it guaranteed that an under-documented US citizen re-entering the US can cross the Canadian border with some large level of delay, and is it legal to leave with the intent to be subject to screening on my return?

(I have a birth certificate and am in the process of obtaining a photo ID to cross to Canada, but I do not have any WHTI-compliant travel documents. An extended driver’s license is not an option, as the state of North Carolina does not seem to issue them, and I am under the age of 18 anyhow.)

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    How will you be crossing? Land border or air flight? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 14 '19 at 23:06
  • Our plans are such a mess that I actually don’t know… – Unrelated String Nov 14 '19 at 23:09
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    I think we’re keeping both possibilities open as of now, but I recall hearing something about a passport being strictly required both ways for a flight, so we may have to cross by land. – Unrelated String Nov 14 '19 at 23:11
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    @UnrelatedString you are definitely not going to be able to get away with doing this by air, no point in even trying. you can get away with it by land, but there will be a delay on the way back. there is a law that US citizens must enter and leave the US with their passport, but there is no penalty for violating it. the more documentation you can bring (birth certificate, ssn card, photo ID, etc) the less hassle you will have. – aidanh010 Nov 16 '19 at 7:38
  • Did already figure that part out. The situation has evolved such that it may not be possible to present adequate documents for a land crossing without a passport, so the current plan is to have a passport expedited at an agency, and most likely fly since that will then become an option. – Unrelated String Nov 16 '19 at 7:50
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Air travel:

Without correct papers, you will not be flying today.

Land travel:

Canada will let you in with a smile, because your state driver's license is good enough for them.

USA Immigration has an interesting problem. First, you are a US citizen so you have the irrefutable right to enter the United States. But second, US law requires you have certain papers, specifically a Passport, or certain lesser documents deemed appropriate for land travel from CA, such as a Passport Card, Enhanced Driver's License/state ID, SENTRI, Nexus, etc. Sadly, a REAL ID is not one.

So the answer is, Immigration will admit you grudgingly, and after delaying you somewhat punitively, and giving you fifty lashes with a wet noodle, i.e. a stern talking-to about having the correct documents in the future. This will create no serious adverse marks on your immigration record, and you won't have to tell foreign countries "yes" for "were you ever refused entry to a country".

However, if you or your parents don't have legal residency in the US, Do Not Do This Travel. You will likely be stopped and refused trying to re-enter the US; happens all the time to immigrant families; often with the children being allowed to reenter (as they are born citizens) but the parents not.

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  • So they absolutely won’t be happy with me showing up at the border without a passport, but there won’t be any long-term consequences, and if I have to swear I’ll have my passport next time then I can do so honestly since I’ll be moving forward with getting my passport through the normal procedure at the normal pace as soon as this is all over with. Thanks! It would be helpful to have some way I could be completely sure of this, but I don’t entirely expect that there would be any official resource for this kind of thing, since they do want travelers to not use it. – Unrelated String Nov 15 '19 at 0:18
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    @UnrelatedString Long term, no. But you will have to wait around while they try to verify that you are a US citizen, and they might even have you sit inside of a holding cell while they do it. If you're particularly unlucky you'll be handcuffed during this time. This is not a pleasant experience. If your trip isn't for life or death reasons, go get the passport. And if it IS for life or death reasons, give documentation of that to the passport agency and they can give you one the same day. – Michael Hampton Nov 15 '19 at 0:41
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    I'm not sure Canada will admit a person with only a non-enhanced driver's license "with a smile", but if convinced the holder is a US citizen, will probably admit the person. If that person is an immigrant (or appears to be), even if naturalized, there could be a reasonable presumption that the person is not a US citizen and that could complicate things. – Jim MacKenzie Nov 15 '19 at 14:50

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