Canadians traveling North America year-round in their RVs who want to escape the cold winter weather while still playing by the rules regarding time spent in the USA face a conundrum. When traveling for pleasure, Canadians must limit their time in the USA to 182 days per calendar year and rolling 12 month period, basically less than half the year. Anything longer exposes Canadians to the possibility of being taxed as US residents and may jeopardize their privilege to return to America the Beautiful on future trips. However, for Canadian full-time RVers wanting to maximize their time south of the border avoiding cold weather, the bulk of this time is spent in the southern states, limiting the time available for US destinations at higher latitudes.
To see everything the USA has to offer while still dodging winter, Canadian RVers can take advantage of North America’s other warm refuge: Mexico!
While the southern United States offers many beautiful places to explore, as this past winter has shown, even southern Arizona may not always be warm enough for snowbirding RVers fleeing the cold. Mexico gets warmer the farther south you go and offers an entirely different experience that will enrich your travels. Most Canadian provinces allow Canadians to spend up to seven months traveling internationally without endangering their health benefits. For Canadian RVers, time spent in Mexico frees up additional “America time” to visit cooler US destinations or to RV up to Alaska in summer.
The trick to make it work is for Canadians to spend at least 30 days in a row in Mexico during their winter sojourn. Anything less than 30 days, and USA customs may not consider Canadians visiting Mexico to have left the USA at all. However, since travel health insurance premiums jump up as much as double for trips over 6 months, it remains most cost-effective to limit your entire winter trip south of the Canadian border, including the month in Mexico, to just under 6 months. The month you spent in Mexico is now another month you can use for a return visit to northern destinations in the USA in the summertime.
Don’t get me wrong: Arizona is great! But there are many amazing destinations in the northern United States that Canadians may also want to visit, and summer is a better (and maybe the only) time to do so. Yellowstone National Park, at its high elevation, can be under snow into May and even October, while Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is downright rainy and cold in the shoulder season. Of course, driving your RV to Alaska can only be done in their short summer season. Canadian RVing snowbirds need the extra month of summer-time stateside travel to fully experience everything America has to offer!
RVing in Mexico
Mexico’s Baja California offers an easy and safe initiation into RVing in Mexico. You will need to purchase Mexican automobile insurance before you go (price varies) and pick up a travel visa either in advance online or at the border (about $30 per person). The app iOverlander has ample info on places to camp in the Baja from campgrounds to wild camps with crowd-sourced reviews and other helpful info, like where to buy propane. Making camping reservations in advance may make you feel safer but really isn’t necessary: there is generally good availability for RV camping spots. If you just want to relax at a few different spots, you can usually negotiate a discounted weekly or monthly rate at any of a dozen RV parks along the Pacific coast, or in San Felipe, or Puerto Penasco on the Sea of Cortez, all within one day’s drive of the US border. No need to go through Tijuana – cross at Tecate to access RV beach resorts on the Pacific side, and Mexicali if you are heading down the east side of the Baja toward San Felipe.
While gas and propane are as expensive in Baja California as in Canada, most other things are much cheaper including food, RV camping, laundry service, car detailing, beauty services and more. You can get pesos from bank ATMs in most towns and credit cards are sometimes accepted. Most towns have businesses that will fill your water bottles with safe “inversa osmosis” filtered water, and dump stations are located at most RV parks. RV tourism in Baja California is well-established and you will find the locals are set up to assist you with a smile for “almost free”!
Thinking like a Border Agent
Canadians RVing across North America will need to negotiate multiple border crossings during their travels. While not difficult, these can go badly if you are unprepared or say the wrong thing. The key to a successful border crossing is to understand what each border is most concerned about for you as a Canadian at each crossing. Having a Nexus card may help you avoid longer lines and set the expectation that you are a trusted traveler. Certain things are always true: answer the question asked directly without embellishments, tell the truth, don’t crack jokes, but always laugh at theirs!
Canadians crossing into the USA
This is your most difficult crossing. US border patrol has 2 main concerns about Canadians overwintering in the USA. First, do you have enough money to pay for your trip? Canadians are not entitled to work in the USA without proper advance arrangements as this would be taking a job away from an American. Know your bank account balances and ongoing income from Canadian sources and be prepared to provide proof at the border upon request, such as by logging in to your online banking on your smart phone.
Second, what reasons do you have to return to Canada? US border patrol suspects that Canadians living and traveling full time in their RVs might disappear inside the USA never to return. Since that is not the case, use words like retired, vacation, sabbatical, special trip and/or snowbird to describe the nature and purpose of your trip. When they ask how long your trip will be, always give them a specific return date (eg. the date your travel health insurance expires). In answering their questions, emphasize your ties to Canada, especially business and property ties if any, and your reasons to return, such as to visit family, see your doctor, or resume Canadian employment or business activities.
Finally, don’t try to bring any raw meat, eggs or fruit or veggies grown outside Canada into the USA. Whittle your food stocks down and hit Trader Joes after you are stateside.
Canadians returning to Canada from the USA
When returning, the Canadian border patrol wants to know how much money Canadians spent while in the USA on goods returning with them to Canada, including any vehicle repairs. The duty free limit is only $800, but for a trip of many months, they won’t be surprised if you spent more. The value of goods I return with is usually around $1500. I always report truthfully and they have not yet asked me to pay duty. Be prepared for this question by making a list in advance adding up the value of goods bought on your trip. Receipts are recommended, though I haven’t had them on me for my crossings and it hasn’t been a problem.
Canadians crossing into Mexico via the US border
Mexico welcomes tourists readily. Their main concern at the border is that you are not bringing in any drugs (including marijuana in any form) or guns. There is zero tolerance on both and they use dogs to sniff for drugs. For Canadians returning to the USA from Mexico, the main concern at the border is that you are not trying to smuggle illegal drugs or undocumented people into the USA. Expect that they will ask to look inside your rig crossing in either direction – have a tidy rig with valuables out of sight or on your person and you should be fine.
Know the rules
The real trick to traveling North America for Canadian RVers is to know the rules and follow them. The rewards are avoiding winter weather, having the opportunity to see northern as well as southern states and exploring Mexico in your RV, all while maintaining the obligations and benefits of your Canadian residency.
Norman Ross spends his winters exploring the southern United States and Mexico and summers enjoying his native Canada and other northern destinations in his Class C Adventurer motorhome.
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