Fingerprints and eyes scanned: Border crossing at Niagara Falls
‘Leaving Canada is no problem. At the other end, a double glass door controls entry’
Tourists look out at Niagara Falls from the Canadian side of the Canada/US border. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
It took little more than five minutes to walk east across the Rainbow Bridge, over the Niagara River gorge, from Ontario to New York on August 2nd.
Accompanied by my Canadian cousin, Peter Holland, my two children and I stopped for photographs at the mid-point of the bridge, where the Canadian maple-leaf flag flies side-by-side with the US stars-and-stripes, marking the border.
Our plan was to visit the pretty park on the US side of Niagara Falls which contrasts starkly with the often-tacky – though with more spectacular views – set-up on the Canadian side.
Leaving Canada is no problem – no checks. At the other end, however, a double glass door controls entry – one set of people at a time may enter immigration control, manned by the US Department of Homeland Security.
We hadn’t planned a trip to the US while visiting family in Canada, so hadn’t applied for ESTA (electronic system for travel authorisation) clearance before leaving Ireland.
Jesse, the friendly immigration officer, sighs as he realises we “need paperwork”.
A green landing card, with detailed questions including about where we live, why we are visiting the US and whether we plan to work or involve ourselves in terrorism, must be filled in for each of us three Irish passport holders.
My 15-year-old daughter and I have our fingerprints taken and eyes scanned. Both children are asked their names and to identify who I am in relation to them. Passports are scanned and exit cards stapled in, permitting us to stay until October 30th. The process takes about 40 minutes and costs US $18 which can by paid only in US currency or by card.
Peter has brought his Canadian passport, though any Canadian government-issued identification, or a birth certificate would do. He is asked his address in Toronto, his purpose in the US, how long he will be there and whether he is bringing in any food.
Several other parties, also on foot, are questioned either about why they are entering the US, or why they’ve been in Canada. All appear to have been moving back and forth across the border for casual reasons.
“Just site-seeing”. “Visiting friends”. “A bit of shopping” – are among the reasons given. Every bag is X-rayed and most travellers are frisked.
We spend about two hours around the park, getting right up close to the falls, touching them by leaning over the railings, as the Niagara river surges past before spilling down into the gorge.
Walking back to Canada it is after 9pm. Also queueing at Canadian immigration are several parties of teenagers, dressed for a night out, carrying their blue US passports.
Canadian Niagara is an attractive destination for this cohort, says Peter.
“The drinking age in New York is 21. In Ontario it’s 19. They come to party.”
It was worth the queue and form-filling for us, and probably for the US teenagers, too.