How to avoid spending 6 hours in your car at the U.S. border into Canada

I spent 6 hours waiting in line, in my car, to cross from the U.S. into Canada.

There are much worse things in life, but the experience was a psychological challenge, so I’m hoping this post may help a fellow traveler avoid it.

How did this happen?

I’d never driven into Canada before. My partner and I decided the 3-day Memorial Day weekend would be a good opportunity to drive up from Portland to visit Vancouver.

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After about 3 hours, we finally hit the 1/2-mile point.

Mistake #1:

Trying to cross the border, on a major highway — I-5 between Seattle and Vancouver — in the middle of the day on the Saturday start of a 3-day weekend.

Okay that was several mistakes, but we’ll count it as one.

Mistake #2:

Ignoring the warning signs. Not only did we ignore the theoretical warning signs — the facts mentioned in Mistake #1 — but we also ignored the literal warning signs.

About 10 miles from the border, we drove past a sign that said something along the lines of “Extremely long border wait times. Expect a wait of 180 minutes at the I-5 border.”

When I flew past that sign, it seemed so preposterous that I didn’t believe it. 3 hours? No way. I expected a solid wait, maybe an hour or something, but they had to be overestimating at 3 hours. How naive I was.

Mistake #3:

Not thoroughly researching my first border crossing. If I had, I might have known what kind of waits are possible and how to avoid them.

But wait, how did a 3-hour estimated wait turn into 6 hours?

That’s something I’m still struggling with, but I have a few ideas.

And when I say 6 hours, I’m talking about from the moment we hit the stand-still traffic about 1.5 miles out from the border checkpoint, up until we bid farewell to the border agent who examined our passports.

First of all, check out this map:

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 8.18.26 AM.png

You see that exit by the Mobil gas station?

What some cars were doing is taking that exit, taking the roundabout, then getting back on the highway.

Sure, the traffic at the roundabout and subsequent merge back looked to be very slow as well, but in my estimation it was moving twice as fast and looked to be saving cars around a half a mile of the slowest portion of the wait.

I wouldn’t feel okay with myself about using that technique, but I guess that’s part of the reason I waited 6 hours instead of 3 hours. Dog eat dog world.

The truly tricky people would use that exit method, then drive as far forward as possible in the Nexus lane, and force themselves into the completely standstill non-Nexus lanes at the last possible point.

At one point I was eye to eye with one of the…guys…using this method, as he motioned incredulously at me that I let him in. Awkward moment for sure, but by the 4-hour mark my southern manners had degenerated a bit.

So how do I avoid this?

1. Cross the border at a non-peak time. If you have to leave at the start of a 3-day weekend, leave very early in the morning or late at night.

2. Use an alternate route. The warning sign I mentioned above listed the estimated wait times for a few different crossing points. The alternate route only a mile off the highway route that I took wasn’t drastically shorter on the road sign estimate, but I’m willing to bet it could have saved us a couple of hours.

3. Sign up for Nexus. My guess from the looks of the Nexus lanes is that I could have cut 4-5 hours off my wait time. It’s $50 and a process to obtain, but could be worth it if you plan to cross the border a few times.

If I could do it over again, I would have left early in the morning and taken this truck route to the east of the main I-5 crossing point:

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 9.07.44 AM.png

How was the crossing back into the U.S.?

We returned to the U.S. on the Monday evening at the end of the 3-day weekend, and I was terrified that we’d have a similar wait.

But we didn’t. We took the truck route and waited 30 minutes total. According to the road signs, the wait at the main route wasn’t too much longer.

I don’t understand why the wait to return home was so much shorter, but it was a huge relief that it was.

I’m obviously still not very experienced with U.S.-Canada border crossings, so if you have any tips or experiences to share in the comments below, it’s much appreciated.

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