A working holiday in Canada also provides an excellent opportunity to visit the neighbouring USA. This article details everything you need to know about visiting the USA while on a working holiday in Canada.
For citizens of participating Visa Waiver Program countries, it is a pretty easy process overall.
There are, however, a few things you definitely should know if planning to visit the USA before heading to Canada to activate your IEC work permit. Read on for all the details and start planning your trip to the States now!
Last updated October 2022.
If flying to the USA from Canada:
Visitors travelling to the USA by plane or boat must have prior authorisation to do so with a valid ESTA.
- An ESTA is simply an electronic authorisation to board a plane or a boat to the USA, no more and no less
- Make sure you use the official government website to purchase your ESTA
- The ESTA application cost is $14 but there are plenty of third party agency websites out there who will be happy to charge double or triple that (or more!)
- It only takes around 15-20 minutes to fill out the application
- Don’t leave to the last minute – you should apply for an ESTA at least 72 hours before travel
- Most people will get a response within 72 hours after submitting their application
- Your approved ESTA is valid for flights into the USA for two years
- On arrival in the USA, you will be assessed for entry with the Visa Waiver Program (more info below)
Being admitted into the USA: the Visa Waiver Program
On arrival at the US border, you need to be approved for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)
- The VWP allows citizens of 38 countries to visit the USA for stays up to 90 days without a visa
- Eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program is determined when crossing the US border
- Fingerprints and a photograph will be taken
- Visitors arriving at a land border need to complete a green I94 form with details of their intended visit (more details below)
Visa Waiver Program eligibility
To be eligible for the VWP, visitors to the USA must:
- Intend to enter the USA for 90 days or less for business, pleasure or transit
- Have a valid passport (issued by a Visa Waiver Program country)
- Be a citizen of one of the Visa Waiver Program countries
- Have a return or onward ticket. (Onward) travel does not terminate in contiguous territory or adjacent islands unless the traveler is a resident of one of those areas
Source – U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Contiguous territory or adjacent islands to the USA is considered Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean Islands and Bermuda.
Arriving into the USA By land
Here is the process of crossing a land border into the USA from Canada.
From 1st October 2022, all visitors (with the exception of Canadians) must have a valid ESTA to cross the land border. It is recommended to apply for the ESTA at least 72 hours in advance. The cost is $14USD – be sure to apply via the official government website.
After reaching the US border booths (sorry, there is no way to skip the queue!), you will be directed to a secondary building.
Here, you will fill out the green I94W card with your personal info and travel plans. This card will then be stapled into your passport.
- Have the address ready for the first place you intend to stay as this is required when filling out the I94W card
- A photo and fingerprints will be taken after you have completed the card
- Payment for the I94W is $6USD and can only be paid with credit card or US cash
- An ESTA is not required for crossing land/sea borders but does help speed the process up if you have one
- If you visit the USA with a valid I94W already in your passport, it is unlikely you will need to enter the secondary inspection building so entry will be faster
Important! After leaving the USA for the last time, be sure to hand in your I94W (the green card) to Canadian officials. They are supposed to pass it to the US border guards who will record the date of your departure.
If you leave the I94W in your passport and visit the USA again after its expiry, it is likely that you will be questioned (and not in a good way) about your prior leaving date.
The problem of visiting the USA before a working holiday in Canada
To travel in or through the USA you must comply with the Visa Waiver Program requirements noted above.
IEC participants who have not yet activated their work permit in Canada need proof of onward travel out of North America (USA, Mexico, Canada, Caribbean Islands and Bermuda) within 90 days of arrival in the USA.
Not having onward travel plans outside of this area means that you may encounter issues when trying to enter the USA.
After activating a IEC work permit, you are considered a resident of Canada and as such, do not need to prove onward travel beyond North America within 90 days of their arrival in the USA.
While there are undoubtedly many IEC participants who travel through the USA on their way to Canada without any problems, a few people have contacted my IEC Facebook group and let us know that they were stopped and asked to purchase a flight out of North America within the 90 day period. There is a risk, albeit a relatively small one.
How to avoid the Visa Waiver Program issue
It is understandable that many IEC participants will still want to visit the USA before heading to Canada for their working holiday. If you’re one of them, there are two main options to comply with the Visa Waiver Program requirements:
- Book onward travel beyond North America
- Apply for a US Visa
The easiest way is to purchase a method of onward travel beyond North America, with the departure within 90 days of your arrival in the USA. Most airlines have refundable flight options.
An alternative way to avoid this Visa Waiver Program issue is to apply for a US visa. Visa holders are exempt from needing to have onward travel from North America within 90 days.
A B2 Visa, for example, is for people visiting the USA for the purpose of tourism, pleasure, or visit to friends and family. The application is much more involved than the VWP and requires an interview at a US Embassy or Consulate.
And, of course, the third option is to take a risk. It’s never an option I would personally recommend, however.
General advice about visiting the USA while on a working holiday in Canada
While the vast majority of crossings into the USA by IEC working holiday participants go without issue, a minority of people experience a delay in entry. Here are some quick tips to make your border crossing go more smoothly:
- Have definite plans. Speaking to the US border officials confidently about your travel plans is key. Although you don’t need to provide a specific itinerary, you should be able to explain clearly and concisely why you want to visit the USA
- Take care of your appearance. Looking presentable can go a long way with having an easy border crossing into the USA. It sounds obvious but sure to wear clean clothes, brush your hair and wash your face before heading to the border
- Tidy up. If driving into the USA, make sure your vehicle is presentable too. Having your vehicle searched definitely slows down the border entry process. Cleaner vehicles look as though they have less to hide. This is especially important if you are driving a campervan or RV into the USA
- Check your vehicle for contraband. Although cannabis may now be legal in Canada (and some US states) you are not allowed to bring any over the border. If applicable, check your vehicle/luggage for cannabis and paraphernalia before trying to cross the border into the USA
A free pass into the USA – one of my visa waiver experiences
Having lived in Canada for quite a few years now, I’ve hopped over the border a fair few times. At the moment, I live close enough to go for dinner. One of my most memorable experiences, however, was when I was travelling to Skagway, Alaska from Yukon Territory.
The border, for reference, is on the edge of a valley surrounded by jagged mountains. Picturesque, but I still wanted to get the border crossing process over and done with as soon as possible.
At the secondary inspection building, the only other person there was a Dutch IEC working holiday participant. After eavesdropping for a few minutes, I learned that he was in something of a stalemate with the US border official.
He had planned to pay the $6 fee with his Canadian debit card but this wasn’t accepted (if only he’d read a post such as this before leaving Canada!) Paying with a credit card was also not possible at their machines were currently down.
Without any US cash on hand, both men seemed to be a complete loss of what to do. Their conversation went around and around for quite a long time, with no resolution.
I started counting my money in the midst of the conversation and realised I had exactly $12.40, just enough to cover both of us. The border official was thankful yet also quite surprised.
In the end, he decided to waive both of our fees. I’m not sure why he didn’t do that in the first place, but it just goes to show how handy it can be to have at least a handful of local currency before visiting a country.
Read these useful IEC working holiday articles next
How to File a Tax Return after your Working Holiday in Canada
7 Must Do Experiences on your Canadian working holiday
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Wednesday 22nd of March 2023
Hi Gemma, I'm on an IEC Visa & looking to travel to the US for a holiday. My company has an office in San Francisco and wanted to understand under my visa am I allowed to work for a few days while over there to extend my stay? I heard something about needing to attend a meeting to be allowed to do this but wanted to double check if it's allowed. Thank you
Thursday 23rd of March 2023
The requirements of the US visa waiver program (I'm assuming you are from a visa waiver country) state that the following business activities are allowed:consult with business associates attend a scientific, educational, professional, or business convention or conference attend short-term training (you may not be paid by any source in the United States with the exception of expenses incidental to your stay) negotiate a contract
Source - Travel.State.Gov website
Monday 27th of February 2023
I plan to move to Vancouver but want to fly into Seattle first for a few days of travel and then fly onward to Vancouver. If I have a return flight booked from Ireland to Seattle and a flight booked from Seattle to Vancouver, should I have any issues with immigration at the US?
Also, can you enter Canada and activate your work permit at a later date? i.e. if I wanted to take 2-3 weeks to holiday around Vancouver before starting work
Monday 6th of March 2023
Having a return flight back to Ireland sounds like it would satisfy that requirement. It's very unlikely you would have issues.
Yes, you can enter Canada and then activate your work permit later (see IRCC FAQ here). Keep in mind that you will need travel insurance (to cover medical expenses and repatriation) for the full length of your intended stay from the date of your intended activation. If you are purchasing a policy to start on that exact date, you will need to make sure that it is an 'already travelling' policy that allows it to be started in Canada rather than your home country. Most insurance policies have a requirement that you purchase it at home before leaving. If you're from Ireland, True Traveller sell 'already travelling' policies.
Monday 13th of February 2023
Hi Gemma, I am on WH in Canada and I traveled on ESta before. However I wanted to make longer road trip so I applied for B2 visa which has been refused. Does it mean I cant use my ESTA anymore and I have to reapply for B2 this time in Canada? (Before I applied in my home country - Slovakia stating that I work and live in Canada). Are my chances bigger applying from Canada? Thank you
Tuesday 14th of February 2023
@Gemma, Thank you so much for you response. I will apply again with the lawyer and I can share my experience in case someone is having the same issues.
Monday 13th of February 2023
Sorry to hear that your B2 was refused. I don't know much about B2 refusals but I believe that it would invalidate your ESTA as your circumstances have changed. I am unsure regarding the reapplication. Sorry I can't be of more help.
Thursday 2nd of February 2023
Hi Gemma, Thank you for the Information! You said the ESTA is valid for 2 years but is this for multiple trips within a 2-year period of one trip taken up to 2 years after getting it? I am currently in Canada doing a working holiday and I am planning to make several short trips to the states.
Friday 3rd of February 2023
Yes, you can use the ESTA for multiple trips to the USA during that two year timeframe.
Sunday 18th of December 2022
Hi Gemma I am an Australian citizen looking at working in Canada on the IEC program. Whilst on this program is there a limit to how many trips I can make across the border into the USA, to do short trips through different regions of the country? A limit on total days spent in the USA? or a limit on how long into my stay in Canada I can cross the border? for example after the first 90 days? Thanks in advance
Monday 19th of December 2022
No, there are no official limits - it is up to the discretion of the border officer.