Update: crossing the border

This week, I would like to summarize some lessons learned from crossing dozens of borders over the last six years. I posted on this topic in December 2014. This article has been updated to reflect my travels in Europe and Canada since then.

Passport. This is a no-brainer. It does not matter that you may not need a passport to go between the US and Canada (or other contiguous countries that have bilateral arrangements), it makes good sense to have a passport if you are traveling extensively away from home. It is an identification document that is even better than a birth certificate or a driver’s license. It usually does not expire quickly, it provides a photo ID, and is recognized almost everywhere. The only place that I have ever had a problem was in the rural United States, where a young, untrained cashier had never seen one, and did not know how to ask for anything but a “driver’s license.”

The instability of the situation for people trying to enter the United States now makes having your passport up to date all the more important. It is critical for non-US citizens to learn and understand the various rules governing border crossings in North America. However, American citizens have also been caught up in misunderstandings trying to re-enter the country.

2014-12-17 14.19.18

Black Cat Road, Keswick VA

ID Cards. It does not hurt to carry a second form of identification. In my case, I carry my military ID card. But a driver’s license is also useful, if for no other reason than it shows an address. Every once in a while, someone needs to know that you have a home of record. Of course, anything that proves you rate a discount is worth carrying (AAA, AARP or Medicare card, International Student ID, Hostel International card, etc.)

2014-11-17 12.45.27

Deep Cove, BC

Communications. It is a pet peeve of mine that the country that gave us the Internet, the cell phone, and the credit card remains behind the rest of the world as these technologies have advanced. Over the years of owning and using mobile devices, I learned about dual-capable phones, the way cell towers handle voice and data differently, and the dizzying rate at which the service providers roll out new “offers”, which may or may not really be anything new.

2014-11-21 15.22.02

The rain forest at Lighthouse Park, BC

Probably the first lesson I drew was to have an unlocked, unblocked GSM-capable smart phone that I own outright. This way, I can either obtain an international plan from my cell phone provider before leaving home, or I can buy new SIM cards as I travel. I get a new telephone number in the host country when I obtain a new SIM card, but because I do not receive a lot of incoming calls, this is not a great inconvenience. Prices and offerings vary widely. 

Inside the European Union, cell phone providers must provide service throughout the Union on the same basis as provided in the home country. This means that I can carry my Italian plan with me throughout Europe, as long as I keep my plan paid up in Italy. If I am travelling with someone else, I need to make sure that we can both call without additional charges. Prices and offerings vary widely.

When I returned to the USA from Canada in 2014, I purchased a Nexus 5 and signed up with AT&T, which has worked out well. It is now easy to keep one’s telephone number when changing providers, and one can find a plan that includes unlimited calling and text throughout North America at no additional charge.

2014-12-17 13.24.25

Woodbound Road, Albemarle County, VA

Prescriptions and medical supplements. I used to carry carry a fair number of pills with me. Only three of them were prescriptions. I obtain all my prescriptions and supplements by mail order, so I needed to plan for the additional postage cost to receive them when I needed them overseas.

Normally, one carries enough medicines to last the length of the trip. If a given trip is too long for that, one must rely on the addresses of friends and relatives, and at some point even the General Delivery service of foreign postal systems. It helps to know what the rules are in your destination countries. An important rule is knowing whether your source for prescriptions can mail your medicines across borders. If not, you may need to carry prescriptions that can be filled in the destination country. Sometimes, your home prescription may be honored abroad, but in Italy, I would have needed to have the prescription issued by an Italian doctor in the National Health System. Active-duty and retired US military personnel can use American military hospitals to refill prescriptions. You may need fresh, legible prescriptions when setting out.

Some postal systems will hold General Delivery mail for a month; others, like Canada, will hold only two weeks. On a bicycle, I would never find myself more than two weeks from the next place to get my mail. Online management of such things is a blessing.

Electrical adapters and transformers. Bicycle camping in North America did not raise this challenge for us. However, if you’re traveling to or from this continent, you need to learn about the types of plugs and receptacles and voltages used in foreign countries. Almost every device you could possibly need can be obtained in a dual-voltage format (120/240 V AC), but you must look on the device itself to make sure that the input goes as high as 240 V AC. Don’t assume a sales clerk in the store knows what you’re talking about. If you have all dual-voltage appliances, then all you need are the adapters to get from one type of receptacle to the plug on your device. These are smaller and much lighter than the various types of transformers.

If there’s something that you absolutely must have, which only handles a single voltage, then you will need a transformer, which you can buy a travel store. Even the ones that can handle 1500 W are very small.

Money. I had no trouble using the ATMs and various credit card machines in Canada and Europe, now that my American credit cards have a chip. The EVM card, which stands for EuroVisaMastercard, is also known as chip-and-PIN.

Foreign transaction fees were an annoyance. While in the United States, my personal Visa card and company Visa card performed identically. Abroad, the company Visa card incurred a three-dollar foreign transaction fee every time it was swiped. Once I realized this, I immediately stopped using the company credit card, even for business purchases. Different credit card offerings may or may not include annual fees, foreign transaction fees, and ATM fee refunds, in addition to widely varying exchange rates. At the very minimum, you should look for credit cards that do not impose foreign transaction fees, and do not require an annual fee for the card.

Insurance. I have been very lucky. The little things like a chipped tooth were affordable, so I paid and filed for reimbursement. The US military hospitals in Italy and Germany handled the major, expensive procedures.

You should know what medical care is available to foreigners and travelers. It will differ depending on whether you are a citizen of a nearby country, a tourist, or an expatriate resident. I have overseas health insurance, but I may still have to rely on the National Health Service in some places depending on what happens to me. Also, my health care coverage is on a reimbursement basis. That means that I must have the cash resources to pay upfront, and file a claim to get the money back. You may be asked to show proof of health coverage if you try to immigrate into a country so that you can stay longer than a tourist visa will allow.

What about your experiences?  There are so many variables in crossing borders that I can only share my small picture. Have you had any experiences or lessons learned trying to cross a border?

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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