How to handle crossing the U.S.-Canadian border on a boat in Lake Erie

The U.S. Coast Guard patrols throughout the Great Lakes. (Plain Dealer file)

So you want to boat from the United States to Canada?

There’s no markers separating Canadian waters from American in Lake Erie. You can cross the invisible boundary line on your boat, no problem. But you must report to customs when you dock or drop anchor in the waters of the other country.

(I once asked a U.S. Coast Guard about this. If there are no borders buoys, I asked, how do you know you crossed into Canada? His reply: “The boats are more polite there.” A little humor, eh?)

Both the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards patrol Lake Erie. County sheriff’s offices and lakefront cities also have their own patrols.

But you’re welcome to head north to Ontario, to camp on Pelee Island or check out the brightly colored beach houses of Port Stanley. And Canadians can boat on over to the party scene of the Erie Islands or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Here’s how to cross the border:

To enter Canada

Make it easy: The CANPASS program, which allows American and Canadian boaters to call in their estimated time of arrival 30 minutes to four hours before they dock, was discontinued this year.

Applicants can instead apply for NEXUS, which is open to Canadian and U.S. citizens and permanent residents and is good for five years. You can use NEXUS to cross on land, and it comes with Trusted Traveler benefits at airports.

If you don’t have CANPASS, report to a marina with a telephone reporting site, including Pelee Island and Eriau, Ontario. Follow the directions posted  there to contact the telephone reporting center. (The phone number is 888-226-7277.) Only the owner of the boat may leave to call; everyone else must remain aboard until the Canadian Border Services Agency clears you.

To enter the United States

Make it easy: The free Small Vessel Reporting System is available to all U.S. and Canadian citizens and lawful permanent residents. You can apply online but must report to an enrollment center for an interview.

Canadians can also get a Canadian Border Boat Landing Permit for the entire boating season. The I-68 permit allows boaters to enter the United States from Canada for recreational purposes with only the need to report to Customs and Border Patrol by calling in their arrival.

Each passenger on the boat must be enrolled in the program, to use it.

Here’s how it works:

  • Boat owners file a small vessel reporting float plan prior to their entry into the United States. Then, filers will receive float plan numbers.
  • On arrival in the U.S., boaters then call Customs and Border Patrol at the closest Port of Entry with the float plan number, answer a few customs questions and receive clearance to enter the country.

You can call 888-523-BOAT.Customs even has video phones at the following Ohio ports:

  • Put-in-Bay
  • Cedar Point Marina, Sandusky
  • Brands Marina, Port Clinton
  • East 55th Street Marina, Cleevland
  • Lagoons Marina, Mentor
  • Chagrin Yacht Club, Eastlake
  • Grand River Marina, Fairport Harbor
  • Ashtabula Public Dock, Ashtabula

 

Passengers must register individually to be cleared quickly into the U.S. through the new system. Passengers who have not preregistered through the Small Vessel Reporting System must report in person to a customs facility.

Here’s what to bring

What kind of documents do you need to cross the border? The same papers you’d need on land, and a few more:

  • Name
  • Date of Birth
  • Passport, NEXUS or FAST card
  • Boat Registration or license number
  • Boat name
  • Boat length
  • Copies of prescriptions for any prescription medication
  • Value of any declarable merchandise
  • Marina at which you arrived or will be arriving

Happy traveling!

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