Waiting at the Peace Arch Border Crossing

The reason why I was not able to attend Dot Com Pho last Saturday was because I was being interviewed by Canadian and American customs officers as part of my application to the NEXUS program. If you travel frequently between Canada and the United States, I recommend that you take a look at this program, because it will allow you to bypass those lengthy lineups at the border.

As a public service, I’ve decided to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about NEXUS and how the “trusted traveler” program works. Let’s just say that a five-minute wait at a border crossing — like at the Peace Arch which connects Blaine, Washington with Surrey, British Columbia — is substantially more pleasant than the two or three hour waits that are typical on long weekends.

1. What is the NEXUS Program?

According to the official website, “NEXUS is designed to expedite the border clearance process for low-risk, pre-approved travellers into Canada and the United States.” This means that the border guards and customs officers don’t need to grill you as you cross the border, because you’ve already been pre-approved. As a NEXUS member, you are still bound to the same laws. This means that you are under the same restrictions for bringing back fruits and vegetables, tobacco products, illegal aliens, and so on. NEXUS is a joint program between the governments of Canada and the United States.

2. Who is Eligible for NEXUS?

Generally speaking, if you are a Canadian or American citizen without a criminal record, you should have little trouble getting approved for the NEXUS program. Permanent residents of either country are also eligible. Check out this page for a little more information. You cannot be a terrorist.

3. What is the Application Process?

The easiest way to apply is through GOES (Global Online Enrollment System), a service provided by the US Department of Homeland Security. There is an online application form that you will need to fill out. This application form will ask you for your passport information, mailing address, phone number, employment history, and other personal data. After you submit your NEXUS application through GOES, you wait about a month or two for the approval process to go through. You will not receive an email when you receive initial approval, so you will need to log into GOES periodically to check on the status of your application.

When you see that your application has passed the first stage of approval, the GOES system will tell you that you need to book an appointment time. There are NEXUS offices in many major cities and airports, so just find the one nearest you. They have an online booking system for appointments, but I also learned that there are walk-ins for many of these locations as well. For the interview, you will want to bring your passport, the approval letter, and any other supporting documentation you may need. This could be a birth certificate, driver’s license, and a utility bill to prove your current address.

4. What Should I Expect at the Interview?

The interview, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes, is basically just to confirm what you have already stated in the application. The questions will vary a little, but you will be questioned by both a Canadian and an American officer. They may ask why you want to join NEXUS, confirm your employment information, and ask with whom you travel most frequently. I told them that I may be travelling more often for work-related purposes (like going to CES) and I also shop in the States from time to time. The officer will take your digital fingerprints at this time and, if you are at an airport, you can opt to have your irises scanned as well.

5. What Are the Advantages to Being a NEXUS Trusted Traveler?

Naturally, the biggest advantage to joining NEXUS is that you will be able to cross between Canada and the United States much more quickly than if you were not a NEXUS trusted traveler. In general, it will also mean that you will not be grilled as harshly as the general population and this is because you have been pre-screened and pre-approved.

6. What Are the Cons to Being a NEXUS Trusted Traveler?

Some people may not be comfortable with having both the Canadian and American governments having so much information on them. The “big brother” phenomenon is in full play with NEXUS, because they’ll have your employment history, your fingerprints, and (optionally) your iris scan. The other disadvantage is if you are found breaking any immigration or customs laws, for example, not only do you have to revoke your NEXUS membership, but you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The punishment will likely be worse than if the same crime was committed by a non-NEXUS member.

7. Do NEXUS Members Pay Taxes and Duty?

Yes. Holders of a NEXUS card are not exempt from all the laws surrounding duties and taxes. In fact, at the end of the interview process described above, you will be handed a booklet of forms. One of these forms (the Canadian version is called the Travellers Declaration Card or TDC for short) must be filed out each time you return to your home country. On this form, you will state the value of goods being brought back, broken down into the various categories. There’s one category for clothing and footwear, another for electronics, and so on. It also asks where the majority of goods were made and how long you were out of the country.

And herein lies another disadvantage to the NEXUS program. Upon returning to your home country and handing this form over, any duties and taxes that you must pay are automatically charged to the credit card that they will have on file. This is automatic. By contrast, when you take a regular lane at the border crossing, the customs officer has a certain level of discretion as to whether he wants to pull you over to pay your duties or not. This is not the case with NEXUS. That said, you still have the option of using the regular lane upon your return if you’d like; it just means you have to line up like everyone else.

UPDATE June 8, 2012: The rules have changed since the time this article was originally posted. You can make a verbal declaration at the border on the way home, just like you would in a regular lane. The border guard can be just as strict or as lenient about your duty-free allowances.

8. How Much Does It Cost to Join NEXUS?

If you go through GOES, there is a non-refundable application fee of $50. This is payable in either Canadian or US funds. The application fee includes the price of the NEXUS card itself, which is valid for five years from the date of issue. There is no discount for renewals and replacement cards cost $25.

9. What Happens When I Travel by Air or Sea?

The NEXUS card itself is largely used for land crossings, but you can also use it to bypass lineups at the airport as well. For this, you will need to have your iris scan on file, which can be done at any of the NEXUS offices located in an airport. Note that not all airports will have a NEXUS line that is separate from the regular line. If you choose to take the NEXUS line at an airport, filling out the Travellers Declaration Card (TDC) mentioned earlier is optional. If you do fill one out, duties and taxes are charged automatically to your credit card. If you don’t, then any duties and taxes will have to be paid before leaving the customs area.

10. When Do I Get My NEXUS Card?

The NEXUS card is issued immediately after the conclusion of your interview. The card is printed on the spot and it contains your information, a photograph, and an RFID tag. The card cannot be used for the first 24 hours of issue, however.

More Questions about NEXUS?

If you have any further questions about the NEXUS program, you can use the comment form below and I will answer your questions to the best of my ability. You can also check the Wikipedia page for more information, as well as the official website. Happy travels!

UPDATE: A second NEXUS FAQ has been posted that addresses the renewal process. Have a read. Also, I have learned that the $50 NEXUS application fee is waived for children under the age of 18.