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Skip the traffic at Canada-US border crossings with a NEXUS Card

On a recent cross-border trip to Portland, it became obvious that those who were whizzing by in the NEXUS lane were clearly the smarter travellers

NEXUS is a bi-national program jointly run by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the US’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The NEXUS card costs only $50, and with it you barely have to slow down as you breeze through the customs process.

It’s the perfect wanderlust accessory, especially for those who love spontaneous trips across the border. With the NEXUS card, you won’t have to plan on leaving at the crack of dawn to bypass the traffic. Go anytime, come home anytime!

It’s valid for five years, but I would have gladly paid that full amount for a one-time pass as I sat in the car for nearly two hours at the Peace Arch border crossing, after the six-hour drive home from Portland.

How Does the NEXUS Card Work?

As soon as I got back from Portland, I began the process of applying for a NEXUS card, which provides access to dedicated line-ups at all Canada-US air, land and marine border crossings. Yes, that means you get to skip the typically lengthy waits, which are often the worst part about a weekend trip south of the border. There’s nothing like having to sit and stew for hours at the border to burst the momentum of an otherwise fun road trip.

This photo ID card certifies that you’ve been pre-screened and pre-approved as a low-risk traveller for these two countries. It’s an approved form of citizenship documentation when entering Canada and the US and can take the place of your passport.

Remember though, it’s specific to Canada & the US. You’ll definitely still need a passport for travel to other countries. And if you’re travelling by car, every person needs to have a NEXUS card in order to access the special lanes.

How to Apply for Your NEXUS Card

The process is easy – easier than applying for a passport. There are two main components: an application form, which takes about 45 minutes to fill out, and an in-person interview, during which they review your information and take your photo for the ID card, all done in about 15 minutes.

Each person requiring a NEXUS card needs to make a separate application. The entire process takes 6-8 weeks, so plan ahead!

You may apply for your NEXUS card either by mailing in your application form or by filling it out online.

To mail in your form:

  1. Download and fill out the application form.
  2. When you’re ready to send in your form, you’ll also need to provide two supporting mandatory documents: Proof of citizenship, such as a valid passport or birth certificate; and proof of current place or residence, such as a driver’s license or provincial ID. A full list of accepted documents can be found here. Provide photocopies only. Do not send in your originals, but do bring them to your interview.
  3. When you mail in your form, you’ll also need to include the CA$50 fee, payable by money order or certified cheque.
  4. Once your application has been processed, you’ll receive a letter inviting you to make an appointment to set up your interview at a NEXUS enrolment centre. There are a number of centres located in most major cities and depending on where you go, the waiting time could vary from a few days to a few weeks.

To submit your form online:

  1. The online application uses the Global Online Enrolment System (GOES), operated by the CBP. You’ll need to register for a GOES account to begin the application process. Once registered you’ll receive a password and ID number. You’ll need these in the future so write them down.
  2. Before you begin, get your supporting documents together. Your session on GOES could time out while you’re running around trying to remember where all your various IDs are. The GOES system is finicky – sometimes it saves your last work, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a lot of detailed work at stake, so best be prepared to get it done in a single session. Have at hand: proof of citizenship (such as a valid passport or birth certificate), proof of current place or residence (such as a driver’s license or provincial ID), car registration number, and credit card number to pay the CA$50 application fee. A full list of accepted documents can be found here.
  3. Once your application has been submitted, check your GOES account periodically for an update. Eventually you’ll receive a message asking you to make an appointment to book your interview online at a NEXUS enrolment centre. There are a number of centres located in most major cities and depending on where you go, the waiting time could vary from a few days to a few weeks.

For the interview, you’ll be talking to a US CBP officer who’ll ask you a few questions to verify information on your application. Don’t forget to bring any supporting documents you’ve been asked to supply. Then they’ll take your picture for your ID card.

For the last step of this interview you’ll be talking to a Canadian CBSA officer, who’ll review the basic privileges and warnings of using your new NEXUS card. Remember that the usual customs regulations still apply. You’ll still need to declare your Trader Joe’s groceries and outlet shopping hauls. And yes, they do random checks.

Your NEXUS card should arrive by mail within 4-6 weeks. The final step of this application process is to activate your card within 30 days of receiving it. You must activate online before using. If you miss this 30-day period, you’ll need to start the entire process over again, including paying the $50 fee. And that’s $50 that could otherwise go towards a lovely little something at Nordstrom’s.