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I'm a US citizen and I'm employed by a US company. Recently, I drove to Canada to do some on-site work for one of my employer's customers in Canada.

There was some stuff that I was planning to declare to customs (but nothing I expected to have to pay duty on). Specifically, I had some prescription medications, a box of tools worth about $1,000 in total, two laptops, and two cell phones.

When I got to the booth, the agent asked me various questions, including questions about what items I had with me, but they never actually asked if I had anything to declare. That agent then sent me to secondary inspection and told me to speak with an immigration officer.

(To be clear, they only asked me specific yes-or-no questions like "do you have any firearms?"; they never asked any questions similar to "do you have anything to declare?" or "what do you have with you?")

I'm guessing my experience at secondary inspection was pretty typical: some customs agents searched my car, and the immigration officer asked me a few additional questions, before telling me that I could proceed into Canada.

Was there some point in time where I should have said "by the way, I have stuff to declare," or was that unnecessary?

Some additional details, in case any of it is relevant:

  • I was going to Canada to supervise the installation of a machine in a factory.
  • I told the agent at the booth that I was going to be in Canada for about 6 weeks, but apparently they misheard me and thought I said 6 months.
  • I didn't have a visa or work permit. I did have my US passport with me.
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    You got sent to secondary inspection and apparently it was so pleasant you didn't really notice? Aug 28, 2022 at 14:10
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    In what way does "what items do you have with you?" not mean "do you have anything to declare?" or not give you the opportunity to declare things. Aug 28, 2022 at 14:19
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    "questions about what items I had with me" does not mean the question "what items do you have with you?" -- often they ask specifically about things like firearms, drugs, etc.
    – ajd
    Aug 28, 2022 at 14:20
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    @KateGregory Well, I mean, yeah, I was aware of the fact that they were sending me for additional searching and questioning. I just didn't know that that process is called "secondary inspection."
    – Entrapta
    Aug 28, 2022 at 15:12
  • I'm not sure I understand any of the answers. By this logic, every tourist to Canada must declare their cellphone in advance. That's obviously ridiculous, but no different from OP's situation. What am I missing? OP isn't selling or buying anything.
    – pipe
    Aug 29, 2022 at 0:06

2 Answers 2

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Was I supposed to declare my stuff anyway?

Yes, they don't need to ask, it is your responsiblity to declare to the customs official what you are bringing with you into their country (just as it is your responsibility to declare everything you bring back to to your own country that you obtained outside of your own country).

The main function of any customs authority is to collect taxes.

It is for them to decide what needs to be taxed or not.

Not declaring what they (as the sole authority that can determine this) anything that is taxible can lead to charges of tax fraud.


2022-08-29: Visitors to Canada - Making your Declaration
When arriving in Canada you must, by Canadian law, report to a BSO, answer all questions truthfully, and accurately report your goods. This means you must also report any food, plant and animal products in your possession.

Have all required identification and travel documents in hand. Be ready to make a full and accurate declaration, including the amount of goods in Canadian dollars you are bringing with you. This will help us get you on your way as quickly as possible.
...
Arriving by land: If you are arriving by land, follow the signs to the first checkpoint. A BSO will check your identification and other travel documents and you will answer their questions.

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    Thanks. What would have been the appropriate time to declare my stuff? Should I have answered the very first question I received with "I'm going to such-and-such place, and by the way, I have some things to declare"?
    – Entrapta
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:56
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    @Entrapta If your first contact is an Immigration official, simply ask where to go to declare your goods. Otherwise simply ask if this is the correct place to declare your goods. Aug 29, 2022 at 6:37
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    @Entrapta some countries require you to make a declaration only if the articles you're importing exceed some threshold. The threshold is typically a certain volume of alcohol, a certain number of cigars or cigarettes, or a certain mass of loose tobacco. There are often limits and prohibitions on various agricultural and similar products. There is usually an economic threshold (i.e., monetary value). Some countries require a declaration even if the thresholds are not met. I don't remember whether Canada is one of those countries.
    – phoog
    Aug 29, 2022 at 8:48
  • I meant to add that a visitor's "personal effects" are usually not considered to be "imported," pour perhaps they are counted as imported but explicitly exempted from duty. Only items that will be left behind on departure typically need to be considered. Similarly, in return to one's country of residence, only articles acquired abroad typically need to be considered.
    – phoog
    Aug 29, 2022 at 9:00
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Yes it is absolutely your responsibility to tell customs of anything you had to declare. However you only need to declare things that are dutiable, not everything you have in your possession. When they asked "What items do you have with you?" you were supposed to tell them then. Even if they didn't ask you it's still your responsibility to tell them. Do it as soon as possible. Waiting to see if you get sent to secondary might be considered attempted smuggling ( hoping you won'tget sent for inspection and can then evade payment).

Since you went through secondary inspection and a search without problems it seems they agreed with you that you didn't have anything that you needed to declare this time. If you do next time you should definitely mention them, or secondary inspection might be much less pleasant.

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    They never asked me any questions similar to "what items do you have with you?" I went ahead and edited the question to try to make that a little clearer.
    – Entrapta
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:57
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    In response to your edit, do you have a suggestion for when I should have declared my items? When the agent at the gate told me to go to secondary inspection, would that have been a good time to say "oh, I have stuff to declare," or would that have been too late (or too early)?
    – Entrapta
    Aug 28, 2022 at 23:23
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    @Entrapta - In my experience, Canadian police, customs, immigration, etc, are pretty easy-going if they think you're OK. They won't throw you in jail for a minor procedural error. Aug 29, 2022 at 14:33

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