A Kiwi couple's cruising adventures on America's Great Loop and around the coast of New Zealand

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Crossing Borders

To recap...

To enable us to do the Loop, we needed to get US visae (visas). To get these, we filled out on-line applications including uploading digital pix of ourselves and , after making an on-line appointment, visited the US Consulate in Auckland for an interview. There we were fingerprinted and asked for our intentions (as well as the usual stuff.....had we ever been arrested.....did we do drugs etc), and finally granted 10 year visae. You will see in a previous posting that we were aware that this does not automatically give access to the USA, nor does it determine the length of stay. The Customs website will not, in fact, tell you how long you can stay. This is decided by the officer at the point of entry, and the "usual" periods are 3 months for Visa Waiver Scheme and 6 months for a Visa. However we had heard anecdotal evidence that some of the less busy ports of entry would extend this stay for up to 12 months for good reason (like doing the Great Loop). When you arrive in the USA with a visa, you have to fill out a white I-94 arrival card. The officer at the border stamps the bottom half of it with your arrival date and the latest day that you must leave. You keep this with your passport and surrender it on departure.

Los Angeles is not one of these "less busy" ports and as previously reported we were fingerprinted, photographed and granted 6 months only, which left us 3 weeks short of our scheduled departure date - for which we had already purchased air tickets.

We visited CBP in Milwaukee to get our cruising licence and were fingerprinted, photographed and told the easiest way to get an extension was to travel to Canada for a day and be given another 6 months on our return.........

So there we were in Muskegon, with the rental car, heading for Sarnia, Canada, across the Blue Water Bridge or "Bridge to Canada" from Port Huron USA. We had no idea what the procedure was but presumed we would check out through US Customs at the border before crossing so we could surrender our I-94's and pick up new ones on our return. We were quite surprised when we only passed through a toll booth (and paid the $3 toll) and were suddenly on the bridge and over the river. The Canadian Customs guy listened to our explanation for our reason to visit Canada - we told him exactly why as we felt it best to be totally honest. He was rather disinterested, asked if we were carrying any firearms, stamped our passports and waved us through, wishing us an enjoyable stay (although he looked like he couldn't have cared less). We drove round the waterfront and the town and checked into the Drawbridge Hotel in downtown Sarnia just as a thunderstorm and torrential rain descended on us. That night I had a real bad feeling over the fact that we still had our original I-94's in our passports.

The next day was a nicer day and we cleared Sarnia at 9.00 to do battle with the border. The return trip was a repeat of the crossing (except the toll was $3.25) and we finished up at a familiar looking toll booth on the other side, but talking to a US Customs guy this time. He listened with a little more interest to our tale and finally gave us a yellow form and told us to pull over to the inspection area after calling in and saying a "102" was on its way. We duly pulled up where indicated and a bunch of Customs guys with long mirrors and big guns descended on the car to "inspect" it. We were ushered into the building and up to the counter to tell yet another officer our tale of border crossing rationnale. When we had finished, he gave us his "you won't like this" look and told us that we had been given "bad advice" by his counterpart in Milwaukee, that in order to get a new I-94 and therefore an extension to our stay, we had to undertake a "meaningful departure" from the USA. I replied that, to us, our departure had been pretty meaningful, but he countered that we would have had to go back to NZ for it to be. Sadly, he said, there was nothing he could do as he had no authority to issue new I-94's and it looked like that was going to be it! Having gone to all this trouble, we persisted by asking if there was any way that we could overcome our problem, showed him our air tickets and respectfully requested that he take the matter further. He pondered a while and asked if we were retired, to which we replied that we were not trying to immigrate or overstay then he, almost reluctantly, said he would go and seek advice from his superior. He went into another office and talked to another man for about 5 minutes, at the end of which time they both were shaking their heads and shooting occasional glances our way. When they left the office I thought "this is not going to be good", but they walked to another office and began talking to yet another officer (supervising supervisor??) for another 2-3 minutes. This guy actually nodded several times and when our original officer walked back alone, I thought "we might be in luck here". And, as it turned out, we were. He told us he had now been given the authority to go ahead and he issued us with new I-94's with a date 2 days after our return flight to NZ (in case of delays). This was after taking our photographs and fingerprints yet again.

So we left the border with mission accomplished and a few lessons learned:

Firstly, it can be done as suggested by Milwaukee CBP, but you need to be persistent.
Do not make up any stories about your visit to Canada. If we had said we were just popping across to see friends there would have been no problem doing so, but we would have been left with our original I-94's.
Make sure you take all your documentation with, you such as air tickets. Our "boat card" which has the map of the Great Loop on it was actually quite useful in explaining what we were doing.
Be very polite to the Customs guy when you explain that you don't intend to work in the USA or bludge of any of its welfare systems - and don't argue that you are also paying tax on everything you spend in the USA as that seems to offend them, and they have the power to disappoint you considerably if you offend them.

We are now back in Muskegon....working on the DC system and fixing the inverter stuff-ups. That's for a separate posting.


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