Crossing the Border with a Tiny House: What To Expect

Two Firsthand Accounts + Travel Tips


One of the few things less enjoyable than airport security is driving across the US/Canadian border. Long lines, intense questioning and ever-present risk of not being allowed to cross. Now imagine trying to explain to the Canadian customs and border patrol why you are bringing a tiny house with you. It is a rare sight and one that doesn't necessarily read like a recreational vehicle.

We recently took a family trip to British Columbia with our tiny home on wheels. The three of us (my partner, my son and myself) all had our passports and a large array of paperwork ready. This included extremely important documentation, such as letter of consent from my son's father and the truck return information. Unlike most traveling tiny houses, we use a U-Haul truck as a tow vehicle. Because of this, we were sweating bullets about crossing the border.

The Canadian border agents want to know why you're visiting and when you are leaving. They are most concerned with whether or not you are trying to move there, i.e. illegal immigration. The U-Haul sure makes it look like we're moving.

One of the first questions the border agent asked was, "why are bringing a mini-house with you?"  Ha! That's the first time I have heard that term for tiny houses. We explained that this is our full-time home and that we travel full-time, like gypsies. This amused her, but only for a brief moment. The agent was wanted to know exactly what cities we were visiting and how long we intended to stay. Multiple times she asked us if we had any fire arms with us or owned any. Her questioning style was mildly friendly, rapid fire.

Our tiny house parked outside of the Canadian Border Agency

I tried my best not to blink or stutter or seemed stressed. After a few minutes, she instructed us to pull ahead for further questioning inside the Canadian Border Services Agency building. The building was bright and friendly. It featured seating and TV screens for waiting visitors (unlike its American counterpart).

The next agent we spoke to was calm and direct, not overly intimidating. Though, when she began questioning me, it felt as if she was looking right into my soul. I couldn't lie to her, even if I wanted to. She asked me many variations of the same few questions Guns came up again. Again I tried to be calm and collected with all my answers. I explained why we were visiting Canada, the specifics of our visit, why we are traveling with a tiny house and the contents of the truck.

We had to turn over our keys to the truck and our house for inspection. As we walked away, she nonchalantly asked if we had an Instagram. A new follower? Probably not. My guess is the agent wanted to see if we were telling the truth about our tiny house travels.

The inspection process lasted only 15-20 minutes. The agent handed us our keys and that was that. When we returned to the house, the only thing we noticed was that the couch cushions were pushed to the side. Surprisingly, not bad at all. We waited until we were driving away to let out a big sigh of relief and allow ourselves to celebrate. We did it; Canada here we come!

My biggest takeaways:

  1. Do your research and be prepared
  2. Be honest but keep it simple; don't overshare
  3. Be courteous and calm

A valid passport is step one. Step two, know what you can and can't bring into Canada. When you get to the border you need to have multiple forms of identification, car insurance and registration on hand and know your itinerary by heart.

Canadians are actually very friendly people. The Canadian border is more visitor friendly too, like the design & layout of their facilities

Travel Tip: Prepare a folder with all your important documents and write your travel dates on the outside, as a quick cheat sheet.

As part of our research process we reached out to our friends, Cody and Randi Hennigan of The Best Little House in Texas to ask them about their border crossing experience. After they completed the build of their DIY tiny home, they hit the road for a six month road trip across the US and Canada. During their trip, The Hennigans crossed the US/Canadian border twice.

They traveled east from Texas through the Appalachians, into New England and New Brunswick. Then they worked their way back across the northern states and Canada. Finally settling in central Oregon.

Cody & Randi Hennigan, The Best Little House in Texas

Cody's Border Crossing Experience:

United States VS Canada

Where did you enter Canada?

We entered New Brunswick near Saint Stephen and Ontario at Niagara Falls.

What questions did the Canadian officials ask?

Their main focus was making sure we weren't moving there. Their questions focused on where we were visiting, why, what the specific dates were, when we were returning and what we were returning to. They also asked questions about our occupations and when our jobs expected us back. We were a little vague on these answers since our story was a tad bit untraditional from most travelers and we didn't want to raise any unnecessary red flags.

What paperwork was needed?

We had our passports and shot records for our dog. Border officials also provided declaration documents for any alcohol, tobacco or cash crossing over.

Did they search your house and truck?

Yes, they searched both but the searches were much more intensive crossing back into the United States than when we entered Canada. The US agents confiscated much of our food upon our return trip and tried to take our house plants. Thankfully a manager intervened on behalf of our plants.

How long did the entire border crossing process take?

We had to wait in a long line coming back from Ontario but other than that, the actual process only took about 20-25 minutes.

Where did you enter the US?

Saint Stephen in Maine and Sarnia just north of Detroit.

What questions did US officials ask?

The US officials weren't very inquisitive, just more aggressive and authoritative. They were mostly searching for something not necessarily trying to obtain information from us.

What paperwork was needed?

Passports, shot records for dog and declaration paperwork.

Did they search your house and truck?

Yes, both very thoroughly.

How long did the entire process take?

20-25 minutes.

How was this experience different than entering Canada?

It was much more intimidating and thorough.

What were your key takeaways from your border crossing experience and your time spent in Canada with your tiny home? Any advice for others?

Canada was incredible. The people and places were beautiful. I would highly encourage people to travel north with or without their tiny house.

Advice would be to give yourself plenty of time, possibly rehearse your story (since tiny housers don't usually have traditional jobs/itineraries) and remove all food from the house prior to crossing. Also research any ferry crossings. There are many islands in BC and New Brunswick worth visiting but costs can vary from one ferry to the next. Our ferry ride to Grand Manan Island was about $100 (USD) each way.

Travel Tip: Budget extra for fuel. It's almost $6/gallon in Canada!

Is all this arduous planning worth it? If you enjoy exploring from the comfort of your own home, then yes! We had a wonderful trip to Canada and made lasting friendships while we were there, too.  Like Cody, the US border crossing was bit more gruff. It's definitely a difficult job. 

Two different US border agents were surprised by the ease of our Canadian  crossing. "They let you in with that thing?!"

My advice: plan your trip thoroughly in advance. The more prepared you are, the quicker you can get to adventuring across Canada.

Vancouver, British Columbia

Rath Trevor Beach on Vancouver Island

Had a blast hanging with @tiny_house_expedition last night! #toomanyhashtags

A post shared by Tiny Nest (@tinynestproject) on

-Alexis Stephens, Tiny House Expedition


Alexis StephensTiny House Blog Contributor

My partner, Christian and I are traveling tiny house dwellers. Together we've been on the road two years for our documentary and community outreach project, Tiny House Expedition. We live, breathe, dream the tiny home community every day. This is our life, and our true passion project. We are very grateful to be able experience this inspiring movement in such an intimate way and to be able to share our exploration with all of you.

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Sarah Ewing - August 11, 2017 Reply

Hi there, just wondering about the Instagram question from the border guard and the subsequent comment – a little confused that we’re left hanging what the intention was there. Cheers, Sarah

    Alexis Stephens - August 11, 2017 Reply

    Hi Sarah, sorry for the confusion. I was trying to suggest that she probably wasn’t asking to follow us or because she likes tiny houses. My guess is the agent wanted to see if we were telling the truth about our tiny house travels. Thanks for reading!

Maureen - August 11, 2017 Reply

Hi,

Not sure if I missed this in the post, but what was the significance of the Instagram question? Why was it not innocent?

Alexis Stephens - August 11, 2017 Reply

Sorry for the confusion, Maureen. I was trying to suggest that she probably wasn’t asking to follow us or because she likes tiny houses. My guess is the agent wanted to see if we were telling the truth about our tiny house travels. I updated my post to reflect this. Thanks for your interest!

Mitch Smythe - August 12, 2017 Reply

Here in British Columbia, Border crossings vary in wait times. Peace Arch (Blaine) & The Truck crossing are the longest wait times, where as Sumas / Huntington and Lyndem / Aldergrove are the shortest.

Lynden / Aldergrove is only open until midnight, and if you are crossing closer to midnight, the Chances of just being swept through without a major shake down is greater, as the guards on both sides of the border, dont want to be there much after midnight..

From my experiences in general, the smaller less travelled crossings, tend to have the friendlier crossing agents on both sides.

Susanna - August 23, 2017 Reply

There’s a big problem of Americans bringing/trying to bring their guns into Canada hence all the questions about guns. It seems there isn’t a lot of awareness about the different gun laws and that in general people aren’t armed in Canada.

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