If you live in a cold Canadian climate, you've probably already considered spending your winters down South. In doing so, you'll be joining a group of like-minded travelers who call themselves snowbirds - people who migrate to avoid the climate of the North during cold months.
Snowbirds often flock from the northern United States or Canada to the Sun Belt - Florida, Arizona, Georgia and the rest of the area south of the 36th parallel, north latitude, of the U.S. - or other areas like Mexico and the Caribbean. They return to their northern homes to spend time with family or take care of business transactions during milder summer months.
Sounds like the best of both worlds! But before you pack your bags in search of sunshine, make sure you've considered everything it takes to vacation long-term in the United States.
Customs and Other Documentation
Whether it’s your first time away from Canada or you’re a professional snowbird, joining the Canadian Snowbird Association is a wise move. The CSA pledges to protect and defend the rights of Canadian travelers and is also an established resource for any questions you might have about forms, insurance, currency or other pertinent travelling information.
Bring along your passport, Canadian citizenship card (or Permanent Resident Card), your provincial health insurance card and, if applicable, your traveller’s insurance card, while making your way to the United States. It’s likely that you won’t need an entry visa as a Canadian citizen, but there are a few exceptions.
Bring your house deed, rental receipts, utility bills or a pre-booked airline return ticket to verify your return to Canada at the border. Bring along a recent bank statement to show that you’ll have the funds to support yourself throughout your stay, and keep your receipts when returning through customs to corroborate your customs value declarations.
Taxes and Length of Stay
The maximum length of stay for a Canadian in the United States is 182 days over a 12-month period – all at once, or throughout several trips. That’s more than twice the number of days allowed for anyone besides Canadians (only 90 days!).
According to the IRS, however, it’s best that you plan three years into the future. That’s because of their “substantial presence test” that examines U.S. residency in three-year stints where, if you stay in the United States for more than 183 qualifying days in a three-year span, you are considered a U.S. resident for tax purposes. But the calculations are not so simple.
Every day spent in the United States in the current calendar year counts for one day of potential taxable residency. Three days spent in the prior year count towards one day of taxable residency, and every six days spent in the United States the year before that count as one taxable day of residency.
So: If you spent 90 days per year in the United States for the past three years (a total of 270 days), it would only qualify as 135 days to the IRS, meaning you are not a U.S. resident, and it’s likely you will not need to pay any income tax.
If you are a student or a diplomat or another potentially exempt traveller, fill out the Closer Connection Exception Statement for Aliens (Form 8840) each year.
Unless you claim full U.S. citizenship on your visa, you are allowed to use Canadian health insurance while in the United States. British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia ask that snowbirds spend at least five months in their home provinces to keep provincial health insurance. Newfoundland and Labrador requires only four months at home, while the other provinces and territories require six months’ Canadian residency.
Consider purchasing travel insurance before leaving, and be sure to let your provincial insurance provider know how long you'll be gone. To maximize savings, try to leave before your birthday; travel insurance rates are based on age. You might also qualify for an early-bird rate if you purchase travel insurance during July or August.
Generally, it's a good idea to get a checkup before leaving. Speak with your doctor about precautions you should take before flying or travelling long distances - like compression stockings, which could encourage better blood flow if you'll be sitting still in a car or airplane. Keep your prescriptions in their original bottles, and carry a doctor's note detailing when and how you take your medications; it could come in handy if you need a replacement or a refill.
Locking up Your Primary Home
If you don’t already have a reliable home security system, consider the investment. Preparing properly can help you leave any worry of an emergency back up north as you enjoy the warm weather.
Rather than mentioning that you are “away” on your answering machine, opt for a vacation service through your phone company, which will temporarily disable your phone line (but be sure to switch your home security system contact information to a cell phone or a family member’s phone).
Keep your heat set between 50 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but find a dependable house sitter to check on your home once a week for frozen pipes or other potential dangers. You should advise this person and any family members of your return date, as well. Take a photo of any drawers that contain valuables. Install manual or deadbolt locks on garage and exterior doors, and place a plank of wood in the track of any sliding doors or windows.
It might also ease your worries if you hire a plow truck to keep your driveway clear in order to imply regular usage. If you don’t store your car in a locked garage, remove the battery to prevent potential theft.
• After ensuring that your ATM card will work in your destination, try using it instead of a currency exchange. You’ll potentially save on fees and hassle.
• Inform your bank of your location and length of stay, and check the expiration date on your credit card.
• Insure your valuables, if necessary, and declare them at customs.
• Call your cellular provider and ask if you’ll be covered at your destination. If you frequently use data, opt for a United States provider with a pay-as-you-go plan to avoid egregious charges.
• Stop and stretch intermittently throughout any long drives or flights. Bring along a blanket, warm clothes and a shovel in case of snowy conditions.
• Never leave valuables unattended in your hotel room or car. If you must leave items of value in your vehicle, cover them with blankets.
• Look into acquiring an International Driving Permit, if necessary.
• If you’re traveling by air, keep all medication in a carry-on piece of luggage – not a checked bag.
• Consider purchasing a padlock for your luggage.
• Pack candy or gum to lighten pressure changes in an airplane.
This article was written by Caitlin Klask.