There are many places in the US-CA border which are unguarded or "honor system". In one on a recent documentary, vehicles stopped at an unmanned inspection station and picked up a "white courtesy telephone". And nothing stops you sailing your boat across the Detroit river, indeed, a water event on the St. Clair river (near Port Huron) recently went laughably wrong and the wind took hundreds of Americans in swimsuits (no papers) to the Canadian side.

I can certainly imagine someone whose living situation or job had you crossing several times a day, the US has places accessible only via Canada, and Canada has recreation areas only accessible to Canadians that are actually in the US.

If someone is a proper dual citizen of both US and Canada (or any other two nation pairs), does that mean they are free to ignore border controls completely and cross wherever able? Or do they still need to visit a port of entry and do the formalities?

What would this "visit" consist of? Noting that the standard setup at some border crossings is to literally phone it in... can they call it in on their Iridium phone halfway across Lake Erie?

  • The US has a system for Canadian boaters to get a permit allowing them to cross freely.
    – phoog
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:35
  • 2
    @phoog They still have to report to an official immediately upon arrival, and are not supposed to leave the boat until permission has been given except to report arrival if the location is not staffed (Canadian direction). One guy on the border security show went for lunch and was fined $1000. Expensive lunch. Commented May 18, 2017 at 17:33
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    Some borders have unmanned crossings where it doesn’t even matter if you’re a citizen or not. I’ve driven back and forth across the UK–Ireland border around Derry several times (though not for the past few years), where the only sign that you’re now in a different country is literally that: a road sign that you pass as you’re driving, followed by signs switching to a different typeface. And I’m not a citizen of either country. Commented May 18, 2017 at 22:46
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    @JanusBahsJacquet of course the common travel area and the Schengen area are special cases. I gather the Russia-Belarus border is the same, but I've never been to either country. Surely the asker is concerned with borders that otherwise have controls.
    – phoog
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 1:02
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet On the NI border, the signs saying "speed limits in miles per hour" or "speed limits in km/h" are far more prominent than the international border signs.
    – TRiG
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 9:36

4 Answers 4


You still need to enter the country according to its rules; being a citizen of the country does not waive that requirement. When I bicycle or drive from Canada back into the USA I am required to show my passport to the CBP officers stationed at the border, even though I am a citizen. Likewise if I do the same at an unmanned border crossing, I have to report in as dictated by the signs at that crossing.

As for calling in our your "sat phone", that would not be the same as calling from the "courtesy phone". The officer answering the courtesy phone call would know it is from that particular phone and therefore would know that you are physically in the country. A call from any other phone would not be verifiable proof that you have entered the country.

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    There is actually no law that penalizes a US citizen for entering without immigration inspection. Customs is another matter.
    – phoog
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:43
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    @phoog - Seeing as how the officers you deal with are CBP (Customs AND Border Protection), I fail to see value of your point. They handle both aspects and the fact that one has no criminal penalty (while the other does), doesn't waive the responsibility to report as directed.
    – user13044
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 16:56
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    @Tom: Historically there have been some oddball circumstances where one deals with Customs and Immigration separately; for example, it until about 2009 the pre-clearance facilities at Irish airports only did immigration checks before take-off, with customs inspections upon landing in the US. But in general, I agree that the distinction is somewhat moot; even in that case, one couldn't avoid dealing with both Customs and Immigration. Commented May 18, 2017 at 17:13
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    I guess what I was trying to get at is that one wouldn't even ask the question unless one were thinking only about immigration laws. I had also read the question more as "what happens if someone doesn't report" than "what are the requirements." So to that extent, a discussion of the laws and penalties seems warranted, and the INA is a point of difference for US citizens. Your point about the sat phone (or indeed any mobile phone) is a good one. @MichaelSeifert I wonder what the unstaffed border crossings were like in pre-CBP days. Did the courtesy phone connect to Customs, INS, or both?
    – phoog
    Commented May 18, 2017 at 17:51

You asked about the US/Canada and the generic case. There is no generic answer.

  • Some countries insist that any border crossing, by citizens or non-citizens, happens at an official crossing point.
  • Others agree to special regulations for residents of the border region.

In the United States, 19 USC 1459, 19 USC 1436, and 19 USC 1433 require that anybody entering the US report to a customs officer for inspection. Failure to do so can be punished criminally or as a civil penalty. As a citizen, you have a right to enter the country, but you still can be fined or jailed for failure to follow customs procedures.

The law requires that "individuals arriving in the United States other than by vessel, vehicle, or aircraft shall— enter the United States only at a border crossing point designated by the Secretary." In other words, you can't walk or swim across the border except at a designated crossing, absent special permission. If you're in a vehicle, §1433 requires you arrive "only at border crossing points designated by the Secretary" and present yourself for inspection.

To facilitate this, Customs and Border Protection has special reporting programs for pleasure boats and private aircraft, with various requirements depending on who you are and where you're entering, which can allow you to make the required report by telephone in many cases, once you've registered and received a permit. They've installed videophones at some marinas in the Great Lakes region to facilitate this. A similar procedure is used at the Northwest Angle in Minnesota, which is otherwise cut-off from the United States.


US immigration laws concerning entry without inspection concern only aliens, so they do not apply in the case you contemplate. There are, however, laws that penalize entry without customs inspection. (See US laws requiring US citizens to enter the country at designated border crossings at Law Stack Exchange.)

These are 19 USC 1459 for people and 19 USC 1433 for vehicles.

I don't know about the Canadian side.

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