Top Canadian Duty & Customs Tips for Snowbirds Returning to Canada

Canadian Duty and Customs Tips for Snowbirds

By March and April, most Canadian snowbirds are preparing to make their last trip home for the season.

However, one important consideration that is often overlooked by snowbirds returning home in the spring is complying with Canadian duty and customs regulations.

Whether you are driving back to Canada or flying home, understanding the duty and customs rules ahead of time is essential to avoid complications and lengthy delays when crossing the border. It can also help you save money and avoid issues in the future when travelling back to Canada.

To assist you with your return trips to Canada, we’ve compiled some helpful duty and customs tips for snowbirds, including duty free limits, declaration information and more. Keep in mind that while we try to keep this information up to date, it does change from time to time and it’s always a good idea to check the latest rules at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) website.

Duty Free Limits for Canada

Personal exemptions allow you to bring goods of a certain value into Canada from the United States and other countries without having to pay the regular duties that apply to those goods (except for minimum duties that may apply to certain tobacco products).

In other words, these items may be brought back to Canada “Duty Free”.

Even if you do not qualify for a personal exemption, you may still bring goods of any value back to Canada as long as you pay the applicable duties and any provincial or territorial assessments that apply, with the exception of certain Restricted and Food, Plant and Animal items.

What are Duties?

The term “duties” includes excise taxes and GST/HST. It does not include provincial or territorial sales tax. However, the CBSA has working agreements with some provinces and territories that allows them to collect provincial and territorial taxes, levies and fees on goods that have a value higher than your personal exemption.

What are your personal exemption amounts?

If you have been away from Canada for more than 7 days, you may claim up to $800 CAD worth of goods duty free. 

(There are lesser duty free allowances for trips of 24 and 48 hours outside Canada, but for snowbirds who are away for much longer, the 7 day duty free allowance usually applies.)

You may include some tobacco and alcohol products under this exemption (see below for more details). 

With the exception of tobacco and alcohol products, you do not need to have the goods with you when you arrive at the border. 

If the total value of goods you bring back to Canada exceeds $800 CAD in total, you can still claim this exemption and you will only have to pay duties and taxes on the value of goods that exceeds $800 CAD. 

Accordingly, it is important to keep all of your receipts for goods purchased outside Canada that you are bringing back with you or will be sending home. 

Important additional rules about Canadian duty free allowances

  • You are not allowed to combine your personal exemptions with another person’s or transfer them to someone else.
  • Children are entitled to a personal exemption as long as the goods they are declaring are for the child’s use.
  • Personal exemption claims must be made in Canadian dollars, which requires you to convert the amount you paid for goods in USD or other currency (including sales tax) into Canadian dollars at the applicable rate of exchange.
  • Generally, the goods you include in your personal exemption must be for your personal or household use. This includes souvenirs, prizes and gifts.
  • Goods brought in for commercial use or for another person do not qualify as a personal exemption and are subject to full duties.
  • Goods you claim in your 7-day exemption may be shipped to your home by mail, courier or other means of transportation, except for tobacco and alcohol.

Alcohol and Tobacco

You can include limited quantities of alcoholic beverages in your personal exemption. These items must accompany you on your arrival back in Canada.

Alcohol

You are allowed to import only one of the following amounts of alcohol free of duty and taxes:

  • 1.5 litres (53 imperial ounces) of wine OR
  • 1.14 litres (40 ounces) of liquor OR
  • 24 x 355 millilitre (12 ounces) cans or bottles (maximum of 8.5 litres) of beer or ale.

You may be able to bring in more than the duty free allowance of alcohol, as long as the quantities are within the limit set by the province or territory where you will enter Canada.

If you bring more alcohol back to Canada than your duty free allowance permits, you will likely have to pay additional duty, taxes and provincial/territorial levies. These additional costs can be extremely high, so make sure you are aware of them ahead of time.

For more information, check with the appropriate provincial or territorial liquor control authority before your arrival back in Canada.

Tobacco

Under your personal exemption, you are allowed to bring all of the following amounts of tobacco into Canada (each of the amounts below is considered a “unit”):

  • 200 cigarettes;
  • 50 cigars or cigarillos;
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) of manufactured tobacco; and
  • 200 tobacco sticks.

If the tobacco products are stamped "duty paid Canada droit acquitté", then you can bring them back to Canada duty free. Tobacco products sold at duty free shops are usually stamped this way.

If the tobacco products are NOT stamped, then you will be assessed a special duty rate when bringing them back to Canada. These rates change from time to time.

Additional tobacco limits

In addition to your personal exemption allowance, you may bring up to five additional “units” of tobacco products into Canada, but these will be assessed at the regular duty rates, which can be very high.

Beneficial duty rate

 A helpful rule that many Canadian snowbirds aren’t aware of is beneficial duty rate.

For trips outside Canada of 48 hours or longer, in addition to being eligible for a personal exemption of $800 CAD, you are entitled to a beneficial duty rate of 7% for additional goods valued up to $300 CAD over your exemption amount.

 However, there are a few restrictions to be aware of: 

  • The beneficial duty rate does not apply to tobacco products or alcoholic beverages.
  • It beneficial rate only applies to goods that accompany you when you enter Canada and that do not qualify for duty-free entry under the Customs Tariff.
  • You must still pay any applicable GST, PST or HST. 

Unaccompanied Goods

Canadians are allowed to ship items home that arrive after you return to Canada and qualify under your 7 day personal exemption allowance (excluding alcohol and tobacco).

However, the rules and procedures involved in the process can be confusing and onerous, so we recommend avoiding it if possible.

Snowbirds who still want to explore this option can learn more about how to ship your goods back to Canada on the CBSA website.

Currency and monetary instruments

There are no restrictions on the amount of money you can bring into Canada.

However, any time you enter Canada with currency or other monetary instruments in your possession (such as stocks, bonds, bank drafts, cheques and traveller's cheques) that have a combined value of $10,000 CAD or more, you must report it to CBSA.

If you are a NEXUS member and are crossing the border back to Canada with currency or monetary instruments valued at $10,000 CAD or more, you cannot use your NEXUS card to enter Canada.

You can learn more about entering Canada with $10,000 CAD or more on the CBSA webiste.

Personal Belongings & Valuables

Snowbirds travelling with valuable personal items that they intend to bring back to Canada should consider taking advantage of the free identification service for valuables offered by CBSA.

This service is available at all CBSA offices across Canada and helps ensure that you have proof you purchased these items prior to leaving Canada so you won’t be charged duty and tax on them when you bring them home.

To use this service, you must present your personal items to a CBSA officer before leaving Canada and state that you acquired them at an earlier date. The officer will list your valuables and their serial numbers on a wallet-sized card called a Form BSF407, Identification of Articles for Temporary Exportation. There is no expiry date on the form

This service is available for items that have serial numbers or other unique markings. For items that do not have such markings, the CBSA can apply a sticker to them so that they can be identified later for customs purposes as goods that are legally permitted in Canada.

When returning to Canada, show your card to the CBSA officer as proof, if requested.

Jewelry

Because jewelry often has significant value and can be difficult to identify, it can not be listed on a Form BSF407 with your other valuable items.  Accordingly, taking the following steps before you leave Canada will make it easier for you to re-enter the country with your jewelry:

  • Obtain an appraisal report and a signed and dated photograph of each piece of jewelry from a recognized Canadian gemologist, jeweller or your insurance agent.
  • Obtain written certification that the items or jewelry in the photographs are the ones described in the appraisal report.
  • Take the jewelry appraisal reports, certification statements and photographs to a CBSA office to be validated.
  • If the jewelry was purchased in Canada, retain the sales receipt. If you imported the goods previously, make sure you have a copy of your importation receipt.
  • Carry the appraisal reports, the certifications and photographs when travelling outside Canada.

Gifts

While you are outside Canada, you can send gifts free of duty and taxes to friends at home in Canada under certain conditions. To qualify, each gift must not be worth more than $60 CAD and cannot be a tobacco product or alcoholic beverage. You may also want to include a card to indicate that the item is a gift.

If the gift is worth more than $60 CAD, the recipient will have to pay regular duty and taxes on the excess amount. It is always a good idea to include a gift card to avoid any misunderstanding.

You might consider sending any gifts ahead of you, as gifts you send from outside Canada do not count as part of your personal exemption, but gifts you bring back in your personal baggage do count towards your personal exemption. 

Vehicles

Snowbirds who drive their Canadian owned/registered vehicles back to Canada generally don’t have to worry about vehicle related customs and duty matters.

However, if you fall into any of the following categories, there may be Canadian customs, duty and other vehicle related rules you need to comply with.

Using a Drive Away or Vehicle Transport Service

If you are using a drive away or vehicle transport service to bring your vehicle back to Canada for you, there is certain paperwork you will need to complete.

Check with your service provider to learn more about these requirements.

Vehicles Purchased / Registered in the USA

If your car or RV was purchased in or has been permanently imported to the U.S. and you plan to bring it back to Canada for temporary use, there may be Canadian customs and other regulations you need to be aware of.

If your car or RV is registered in the U.S. and you plan to permanently import your vehicle to Canada, there are a number of customs and other import rules you will need to comply with. You can find more information on importing a vehicle to Canada from the Registrar of Imported Vehicles (RIV).

Vehicle Repairs

Emergency Repairs

If you are outside Canada and you have to have emergency repairs made to your vehicle, the vehicle repairs are exempt from duty and tax. To be eligible for this exemption, you must declare the value of all repairs and replacement parts when you bring the vehicle back to Canada and provide any supporting documentation, such as police or insurance reports.

Other Repairs and Alterations

If you choose to have repairs or alterations done on your vehicle while you are outside Canada that do not qualify as emergency repairs, you must declare these changes at the border and pay any applicable duty and taxes when returning to Canada.

Prohibited & Restricted Items

It is important for snowbirds to be aware that certain items purchased abroad are prohibited from being brought back to Canada or are restricted and may only enter Canada under compliance with strict rules and regulations.

The following are just some of the restricted or forbidden items you should be aware of. You can find a full list of restricted and prohibited items here.

Drugs and Prescription Medications

In Canada, health products may be regulated differently than they are in the U.S. For example, a drug that is available without a prescription in the U.S. may require a prescription in Canada.

There are also restrictions on the quantities and types of health products that you can bring into Canada.

For more information on importing health products into Canada, please consult Health Canada's Guidance Document on the Import Requirements for Health Products under the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations.

Food, Plant & Animal Products

Canadian law requires travelers to declare all food, plants, animals and related products when entering to Canada. To be safe, you should declare any items you are unsure about.

Some of these items are not allowed into Canada, some are permitted but only in limited weights or quantities and some require specific documentation and permits

The rules also vary from country to country (i.e. you may be able to bring certain items to Canada from the U.S. that you can’t bring from other countries).

Some common items you need to declare that may be restricted or prohibited include:

  • meat and meat products
  • cream, milk, cheese and other dairy products
  • plants, trees, cut flowers and their soil (may require an import permit)
  • wood and wood products
  • fruits and vegetables (may require an import permit)
  • pets, birds and other live animals (require an import permit or vaccination documentation)
  • feathers and down
  • seeds and nuts
  • baby formula

A more comprehensive list of which food, plant and animal products you can bring into Canada can be found on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website.

Complete and current import requirements for CFIA-regulated products can be found by consulting CFIA's Automated Import Reference System (AIRS).

You can also learn more about restrictions in importing protected animal and plant species here.

Pets

If you are travelling with your pet or you acquired a new pet while outside Canada, you can find more information about travel requirements for pets on the CFIA website.

You may also want to review our article for Canadian snowbirds travelling with pets.

Firearms and Weapons

You are required to declare all weapons and firearms at the CBSA port of entry when you return to Canada. If not, you could face prosecution and the goods may be seized.

Because firearms and weapons are highly regulated, we suggest you contact CBSA and the Canadian Firearms Program before attempting to bring these items into Canada

Explosives, Fireworks and Ammunition

Written authorization and permits are required to bring explosives, fireworks and certain types of ammunition into Canada. You can find more information and resources on importing these items to Canada here.

Obscene Material

You are prohibited from bringing obscene materials, hate propaganda and child pornography into Canada. Learn more about these guidelines here.

Inspection Fees

If the items you are bringing into Canada need to be inspected, or if other actions are required, you may have to pay a fee.

This may apply to pets and plants you intend to bring back to Canada, including dogs, birds and plants that require inspection, quarantine and shipping. Pets and plants originally from the United States are often exempt from these requirements, but it is best to contact CBSA first to confirm any import requirements and applicable fees.

Penalties for False Declarations

If you do not declare goods or make a false declaration, the CBSA can seize the items. You may permanently lose these items or you may have to pay a penalty to get them back. In addition, vehicles used to unlawfully import goods may also be seized by CBSA.

In some cases you may also be subject to prosecution.

The CBSA keeps a record of infractions. If you have a record, you may be subject to more thorough examinations when returning to Canada in the future. You may also become ineligible for the NEXUS program.

If your goods are seized and you disagree with the action taken, you can an appeal the decision by contacting the CBSA within 90 days of the date of the seizure.

Learn more about false declaration penalties.

Links & Contact Information:

If you require further information about duty and customs matters, use the links and contact information below to reach the appropriate Government of Canada agency:

Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)

CBSA’s Border Information Services (BIS):

  • Website: https://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/contact/bis-sif-eng.html
  • Phone (Toll-free in Canada): 1-800-461-9999
  • Phone (Outside Canada): 204-983-3500 or 506-636-5064 (long-distance charges apply)

    If you call during office hours (08:00 – 16:00) local time, you can speak directly to an agent for more specific information.

Automated Import Reference System (AIRS)

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES)

Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS)

Disclaimer: The material provided on the SnowbirdAdvisor.ca website is for informational purposes only and does NOT constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial, real estate or other advice, and should not be relied on as such. If you require such advice, you should retain a qualified professional to advise you.