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A Guide to Visiting the USA on a Working Holiday in Canada (IEC)

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.

Hiking on a ridge surrounded by mountains
The Maple Pass Trail in the beautiful Northern Cascade mountains, Washington, USA

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)
  • When travelling to the USA by land, you do not need an ESTA
mountain views from top of maple pass hike washington

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.

Purple flowers in foreground with mountains and oil tanker in background
Valdez, Alaska

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.

After arriving in Canada, it would be wise to then advise the US authorities of your departure. This will help prevent any accusations of overstaying the Visa Waiver Program later. 

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. 

The carved rocks of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Usa

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
badlands national park south dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota, 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

Living in Canada on the IEC working holiday program and planning to visit the USA? Check here to discover everything you need to know about visiting the USA while on a working holiday in Canada! offtracktravel.ca

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Bethany

Friday 18th of November 2022

Hi Gemma, thank you for all this info in the article and comments. I just have a question. I'm looking to get the WHV next year fingers crossed, but would I be able to drive to the USA once or twice a month at weekends to see my partner? Or will they question why so many trips and not allow it?

Thank you

Gemma

Monday 21st of November 2022

Hi Bethany,

It all depends on the border officers. If I were you, I would take proof of funds, job and accommodation (when you have them) each visit, to help indicate your ties to Canada.

Conor

Friday 14th of October 2022

Thanks for the great info, really clear. I am aware that when re entering Canada (Im on an IEC) i need to be reassessed. For context, do I need to go and sit in the immigration area and go through the full queue process as i did when first being issued my IEC or is this assessed by a normal border control guard? I cant imagine having to sit in that room again, especially given that i now have a Canadian full time job, address and bank account! Hopefully this is not the case and once i bring copies of my permit/sin/job letter etc i should be ok?

Conor

Monday 17th of October 2022

@Gemma, Thank you! I have my ESTA sorted now, so should have no issues on that side. Ill just make sure to bring all supporting docs along with proof of employment, Canadian address, bank account etc and I should hopefully be ok.

Gemma

Friday 14th of October 2022

Hi Conor,

No, you shouldn't have to go back into the immigration office. The only reason to do this would be if the officer requests a secondary inspection (check of your vehicle or further questioning). You need your original work permit to travel back into Canada. It's also recommended to have the same documentation as you did when you first arrived, just in case - proof of funds, insurance etc. It's unlikely to be checked but they reserve the right to.

Please note that I just updated this post today - a valid ESTA is now required to cross the land border from Canada to the USA. Just in case you haven't left yet.

Sabine

Thursday 19th of May 2022

Hi Gemma,

Thank you for the article! I am curently on IEC work permit here in Canada and want to go to New York next month by bus, as it would be cheaper than flying. I would like to ask - does it matter which means of transport I am taking to travel to the US and back to Canada? Or traveling by bus is not allowed for a temporary resident like me?

Thanks! Sabine

Gemma

Sunday 22nd of May 2022

Hi Sabine,

Yes, IEC holders can visit the USA by bus. I think the bus companies do warn though that they won't wait long periods of time if people are held up at immigrations. Even though you don't need an ESTA for crossing the US land border, I would suggest perhaps getting one as it helps speed the process up.

Alexandra

Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Hello Gemma,

I am currently in Canada on an IEC work permit and I’m wanting to go and visit family in the US for a couple of weeks. My question is when I fill out the ESTA application, do I put my current Canadian address and info about my Canadian employment even though I’ve stated I’m not a National of any other country?

Gemma

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Hi Alexandra,

Yes, that's what I did when I visited the USA while living in Canada through the IEC program.

Chelsee

Wednesday 9th of February 2022

Hi Gemma! Was wondering if I can get your advice. I am currently in Canada as a visitor and want to go on a two week trip to the States, and then activate my IEC visa on the way back into Canada. Will I have any troubles with this as I am already in Canada?

Gemma

Thursday 10th of February 2022

Hi Chelsee,

That depends if you're entering the USA by land or air. If you're flying into the USA, then technically you'd be breaking the ESTA rules which require participants to have an onward ticket out of the USA that does not terminate in contiguous territory (which Canada is). This rule is not consistently followed, however, so you may have no issues at all. You're not considered a resident of Canada until you've actually activated the IEC.