As of June 1, 2009, everyone coming to Canada by land or sea has been required to have a passport or equivalent travel document, which could include a passport card—a form of passport that only allows international travel between Mexico, the United States, and Canada by car, train, or boat.
Though U.S. and Canadian citizens used to pass quite freely back and forth between countries, the events of September 11, 2001, led to stricter border control and passport requirements from both sides, and now if you arrive in Canada without a passport, there is no guarantee you will be allowed to enter. In fact, you will most likely be turned away.
If you're planning to drive to Canada and don't have a passport or passport card, apply for your passport or passport equivalent at least six weeks before your planned visit to ensure it is delivered on time. Although there are expedited services available for passports, you shouldn't rely on this governmental service to be too fast.
If you need a passport right away, you can get a passport within 24 hours with services like Rush My Passport. However, if you plan to travel between Canada and the U.S. regularly, apply for your NEXUS card, which allows for faster, more efficient travel between the two countries.
Passport Requirements for Entering Canada
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)—which was introduced in 2004 by the U.S. government to strengthen U.S. border security and standardize travel documentation—requires all U.S. citizens to present a valid passport or equivalent travel document to enter or re-enter the United States.
Technically, Canada Border Services does not require U.S. citizens to present a passport to enter Canada. However, Americans do need a passport or equivalent travel document to get back into the U.S., which means that while these countries' border requirements may be different on paper, they are the same in practice and the U.S. border laws essentially trump Canada's.
At one time, U.S. citizens entering Canada could show a driver's license along with another piece of identification to cross the border into Canada, but now a valid passport or other forms of identification documentation is mandatory for entry.
The only exception to this applies to children 15 or younger who are allowed to cross the borders at land and sea entry points with certified copies of their birth certificates rather than passports as long as they have their legal guardians' permission.
Travel Documents and Passport Substitutes for Canada
Having a valid passport, NEXUS Card, or U.S. Passport Card aren't the only ways to get into Canada if you're an American citizen—you can also provide an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL) or a FAST/Expres Card, depending on which state you live in and how you plan on driving into the country. Both EDLs and FAST/Expres Cards are forms of passport equivalents that are accepted at border crossings for ground transportation.
Enhanced Driver's Licenses are currently only issued in the states of Washington, New York, and Vermont and allow drivers valid entry into Canada as they express country of citizenship, state of residence, and identity of the driver and must be verified through official state licensing departments.
FAST/Expres Cards, on the other hand, are issued by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection program as pre-approvals for commercial truck drivers who travel between the United States and Canada frequently. These are not issued to regular non-commercial drivers, so only apply to this specific card through your trucking company.