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YVR Preclearance and F-1 status

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I'm moving to the US this week, and I'll be flying from my city to Vancouver (YVR), where I have a connecting flight to the US. Thus, I will be going through the US preclearance in Vancouver. I've only ever gone through customs after arriving in the US, so I have a couple of questions about the procedure:

  1. I will have checked a bag on my first flight. Do I pick it up somewhere before I go to the US preclearance, just like I would if I was going through customs after arriving in the US?
  2. At what point do I tell them I'm entering on F-1 status, and not as a visitor? I'm assuming that it's once I've gotten my receipt from the kiosk and am handing it to the agent, since that's when they asked me my reason for visiting the US when I cleared customs in the US before. Is this right? I'm irrationally worried that I'm going to accidentally enter as a visitor instead of on my F-1 status, and then have to re-enter.
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I also entered from YVR :) And many times afterwards since it's where home is for me.

1. My flight originated from YVR. I checked my bag with the airline and then went to Preclearance/border control afterwards. The agent will scan your ticket and know about your checked bags but you do not bring it with you to the checkpoint. Since you are connecting through YVR, it will depend on your airline whether or not your bag is checked through to the final destination or if you have to pick it up and then check it again with the airline flying you from YVR to wherever in the US you're going. 

Also, there was one time where I entered the US through LAX (was traveling from a place other than Canada). In this case, you go through Passport Control/Border first and then pick up your bag later. This is the standard order in every country I've entered as far as I can remember. I never have my checked bags with me when I cross the border. So it should be no different here. (There is a customs agent after you pick up your checked bags--you hand them your declarations form and they will generally wave you through unless you have something on the form that indicates further inspection is necessary).

2. This part is tricky. This information is accurate as of December 2014, my last time going through this...it may have changed since then. When you get to YVR Preclearance, the line will split into two. There is one line for Canadian/US passport holders and one line for "everyone else". Do not go through this expedited line with the kiosks. You cannot cross the border as a F-1 or J-1 student this way. Sometimes there is a person at the split that will ask for your passport so they can direct you to the correct line. Show them your Canadian passport but clarify that you want to enter as a F-1 student and they should direct you to the longer line. The expedited line is only for Canadians wanting to visit the US or for Americans returning to the US (But maybe they have upgraded this to include F-1 status as well and/or I may have been wrong. In any case, asking the person directing people will get you the right answer, and if you are still not sure, you can't be wrong if you go in the longer line).

Luckily, the "other" line isn't very long usually. You will enter the long snaking line part and when you get to the front, there are something like 6-10 border agents that will call you when they are ready for you. Remember, this is the general purpose line for entering the US so to make it easier for both you and the agent, greet them and just clearly say that you are entering on F-1 status and have your passport, boarding pass, and I-20 immediately ready. 

** Oh also, be sure to pick up a US Customs declaration form before you get into this line. They are usually on counters along a wall or something. Filling this out before you get to the border agent will make things easier. The form looks like this: http://www.cbp.gov/travel/us-citizens/sample-declaration-form Note that you should have some information on a slip of paper handy to make this form easier (e.g. your US address).

P.S. Before you go through Pre-clearance, make sure you have everything with you. Once you speak with the border agent and cross through the doors to the US airport terminal, you cannot go back (or at least, there are giant signs saying that you cannot enter and I don't think running through the border doors in the wrong direction will make you any friends with US Immigration). Once, when returning to the US after a conference, I realised I left my poster tube back at the security checkpoint!! Luckily, I found a very nice gate agent that was willing to use their security credentials to go back and collect the tube for me. 

PPS There is a Tim Horton's in the US Terminal where all the gates are. Get something to eat there, it will be your last chance for Tim Horton's in a long time!! Even if you don't really like Tim Horton's, most Canadians I know will desperately crave it after awhile in the US because it represents familiarity and home! I guess you should pass on this if you actually hate Tim Horton's though. :P 

Good luck!!

Edited by TakeruK
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Thank you very much TakeruK! I think you are right about the procedure for question 1 - I had remembered wrong. 

You probably saved me a big screw up with this answer. I definitely would have headed for the kiosks! 

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I'm not 100% sure that the kiosks are the wrong way to go. I think it's wrong because there is a single person for all of the kiosks and they don't have the same setup of computers that the other agents use to process the I-20 etc. However, maybe you are meant to go through the kiosks first and then get redirected to one of the other agents (and thereby getting to skip the potentially longer line) or maybe the person at the kiosk does have more equipment than what meets the eye! Maybe the next time I enter the US through YVR, I'll just ask the border agent if the kiosks would work :) (Or maybe another Canadian here can answer it for us!)

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I've now gone through the preclearance procedure. YVR is undergoing some renovations, and as a result the procedure is not exactly what was described here! In case anyone else is doing this soon, here's what happened:

I got off my flight to Vancouver, and walked to the USA departures area (E gates). I was not required to pick up my checked bag. We (my mother was with me) proceeded through security right at the entrance to the E gates - this was like Canadian security, with metal detectors instead of full body scanners. There were Canadian security agents, but we followed the American procedures (e.g. they insist on removing shoes, which I never have happen at my home Canadian airport). Then we got into line for clearing customs/border control, with the I-94 declaration form filled out. There were no kiosks anywhere, everyone had to go through the line. When I got to the agent, I just clearly stated that I was entering on F-1 student status. He asked for my I-20 and proof of SEVIS payment, and then stamped my passport with F-1 status. I was not asked anything about ties to Canada (which I asked about in another thread). Then he simply looked at my mother's passport and waved us through.

Other than the fact that the A/C was off and the line was long (because no kiosks), it was pretty painless. The whole procedure took 1 hour.

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Glad your experience went smoothly and thanks for the update. I wonder if renovations will be complete by December, which will be my next visit home and the next time I have to do this again :)

I did forget to point out that since YVR is on Canadian soil and jurisdiction, all security and enforcement comes from Canadian agencies, such as CATSA and the RCMP rather than the TSA! The US border agents are only there to allow/deny you entry to the United States--it would be up to the RCMP or other Canadian organizations to actually prevent you from getting on the plane if you try to do so even after being denied entry.

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