For the last five winters, my wife Anne and I have journeyed as Canadian Snowbirds from our home province of British Columbia to the southern USA. We spend anywhere from four to six months each year camped out in multiple locations chasing the sun. We absolutely love the lifestyle and are happily in the process of prepping for a sixth snowbird season!
Over the years I’ve been asked many questions regarding what it takes to migrate south for such an extended period. Folks are either curious or are planning to do the same. Compared to American snowbirds we Canadians face a different set of challenges.
Challenges For Canadian Snowbirds
Nowadays our full-time RVing snowbird lifestyle isn’t that unique but unfortunately, it’s still enough outside the norm to cause problems. The world just expects everyone to live at a fixed address their whole life with the odd vacation here and there. Simple everyday things like banking, insurance, taxes, internet/phone service, etc. can suddenly become a problem. Add a border crossing to the mix and even more hurdles crop up to overcome. Answers can be hard to find in the murkiness of government bureaucracies on both sides of the border.
So, I’ve decided to share some of the solutions we have come up with. Keep in mind though the following isn’t a one size fits all list, just what has worked for us coming from BC. Furthermore, many things are in a state of flux as technology and rules change.
I’ll start with border crossing since for many newbie snowbirds it can be a bit intimidating. Even with many crossings under my belt I still get a little apprehensive, mostly because I just never know what they are going to ask. No two crossings have been the same. For the most part though after all the build up in my mind of things that could go wrong it usually ends up a non-event.
Generally, the border guard asks us the purpose of our visit and where we are going. So it’s good to have some answers in mind like trip routing and particular states and cities you are planning to visit. After those two questions though things get somewhat random in my experience. We have been asked all sorts of things like “How much cash we are carrying?”, “Do we have any firewood?”, “What year is the vehicle and where did we buy it?”, Are you bringing in any gifts for US citizens?”.
You just never know what they are going to ask. One time my wife was asked, “Do you like turtles?” She was stunned, huh? “Well yes,” she answered. It turns out she was wearing a turtle on her necklace but had totally forgotten about it, haha.
My best advice is to make it as easy as possible for the border guard, they are just trying to do their job. Have all documents ready, take off sunglasses and hats, look them in the eye and answer the questions politely. Don’t get too chatty or crack jokes. I find the less said the better.
Here is our pre-border crossing checklist:
- Make sure our passport and drivers licences are current and not set to expire while away.
- Remove all fresh foods and liquor. (I find it easier to just restock in the US)
- All dry foods in original containers with labels including pet food and treats.
- Cupboards and storage areas are neat and organised. In case of inspection, it will speed things up.
- Vet signed document stating our beagle Angie is in good health and proof of up to date vaccines.
- File folder with copies of documents border security might ask for. IE. banking statements, tax statements, receipts, insurance, etc.
- Make sure the truck and trailer are clean and maintenance is up to date.
- Count up exactly how much cash we are bringing with us in case asked.
For a much more in-depth checklist, have a look at this printable one put out by the Canadian Snowbird Association
One of our big expenses every year is insurance. From the truck and trailer policies to travel medical to emergency roadside to our storage room to a special full-time RVer policy. It all adds up. We make sure the policies don’t expire during our time away from Canada. Renewing over the phone can be a huge pain. Another tip is to have them expire around the same time.
As fulltime RVers we needed to buy some unique insurance which was sort of difficult to find five years ago in BC. Because we no longer had home insurance we had no personal liability coverage. Say we caused property or personal damage somewhere and were sued, we could be up the creek without a paddle.
It took a while, but our insurance broker was able to find it. The policy covers the full replacement cost of our fifth wheel; it has personal liability protection, and we were able to add a rider for contents. It runs us about $1000 a year.
Being sick on the road and in another country is, of course, no fun at all. We try to have our doctor and dental check-ups close to our planned snowbird departure date. We want to leave with a clean bill of health.
Next is extended travel medical insurance. We buy a package from BCAA. It runs around $400 for a six-month term with a $500 deductible. (We get a 10% discount because we have their emergency roadside insurance as well) Thankfully we’ve never had to use either.
I’m lucky and require no prescription drugs however Anne uses several different ones. She has her doctor issue six months worth which she keeps in the original pharmacy bags with labels attached until we have cleared the border. In a pinch, she has in the past had her pharmacist send her a prescription she ran out of.
For our US travel, the only vaccine we get is our yearly flu shot. It’s a good idea though to check for any health advisories before departure – https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/united-states. For instance this year there is concern over the Zika virus in Florida.
Even though you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, the US is by in large a safe place. In our five years of RVing I’ve never felt physically threatened and the only crime we suffered was a stolen gas can from the bed of our pickup truck. I don’t take any different security precautions than practised in Canada. I use my common sense, avoid sketchy areas, and lock up my stuff.
It’s my personal choice to avoid the hassle and not carry any firearms or things like stun guns or pepper sprays. For animals, I have pointed walking stick and a loud air horn. And of course, if desperate there are all sorts of potential weapons lying around the RV. For example, large kitchen knives and a hefty torque wrench. Another way to increase security is to camp out with my American friends.
Internet and Phone
We are big internet users with multiple devices to connect so we use a MiFi hotspot from Verizon. We buy data as we need it using a prepaid no contract plan. I like to keep things flexible and not get tied up into any long term plans. I know quite a few RVers using the same setup with good success.
For a phone, we’ve used a cheapie Tracfone from Walmart and buy minutes as needed. It can call back to Canada but has a delay when we initiate the call so we have whoever we are calling call back and it’s normal.
For this coming season, I’m seriously looking into a plan from a company called Roam Mobility. They offer a $49.95 a month Snowbird Plan that looks ideal. I’ve just bought myself an unlocked smartphone so I’ll only need to insert the Roam Mobility sim card and will be good to go. Then when back in Canada I can use a different carrier by popping in their sim. I’ll still keep my prepaid Verizon MiFi as the rural coverage is superior but the two should work well in combination for us.
Banking and Taxes
It’s getting easier and easier all the time as things are quickly moving online. We are setup to do all our banking online and manage our taxes online as well. The biggest problem is the currency exchange. Banks love to nickel and dime us with fees. So, to combat that we carry US dollar credit cards and have a US dollar savings account. That way we can transfer funds in one large chunk. when the dollar is favorable. We take our Canadian credit and debit cards as backups.
Because we spend so much time in the USA every year, we file the IRS form 8840. It basically lets the IRS know even though in their eyes our extended stay has made us a “US person” for tax purposes we pay all tax to Revenue Canada. Our two countries have a tax treaty to avoid double taxation. The 8840 form is designed to prove to the IRS that you have a closer connection to Canada than the USA. The form doesn’t appear to be mandatory but is a good idea to avoid any future tax issues.
My final advice is, don’t get too obsessive over every little detail. I’ve seen some folks get so wound up worrying about all possible ways things can go wrong they become paralyzed with fear. Remember we are living the dream it’s supposed to be fun. The fact is hundreds of thousands of Canadian snowbirds if not millions trek south and back every year without a problem.