Crossing the border to the Great White North: a musician’s guide

Visit Us

Playing music gigs in Canada just got easier thanks to a new law, but crossing the border with your instrument still requires preparation and organization

playing music gigs in Canada
O Canada! So close… yet sometimes so far away. Music flows freely across the border, but there are times when musicians and instruments have a little more trouble. If you’re planning a trip to play music gigs in Canada, here’s some advice and a few online resources to help make your border crossing smooth and easy.

Document your gear

At the border, you will be asked to document the instruments you’re taking in so customs can be sure you aren’t buying or selling (without paying duties) your goods while visiting. GearTrack makes it easy to export and organize your gear library to a spreadsheet and print that out to go.

Banned materials

Recent restrictions have made it even tougher for folks whose gear contains Brazilian rosewood, tortoiseshell, and elephant ivory. You’ll need very specific documentation to gain re-entry into the US with instruments and bows containing these banned materials. Learn more about that at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s website.

Be legal

US musicians traveling in Canada to play festivals, non-profits, and house concerts do not require a work permit to enter the country. You will, however, need documentation – e.g. a signed contract or a letter from the host.

Take note that in June 2014, Canada repealed laws that leveled a hefty permit on both the venue and the artist (every member) playing short-term gigs in bars and restaurants (Operational Bulletin 580). This bulletin “exempts foreign artists entering Canada to perform in a bar, restaurant or similar establishment from the requirement to obtain a work permit from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and consequently from the requirement of employers to seek a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) from Employment and Social Development Canada.” You may still need signed contracts or letters for these engagements, but they just got a whole lot easier!

Permits and visas are sticky territory, so know before you go. The Canadian Federation of Musicians is a great resource for AFM members (and non-members).


You may be asked if you are transporting goods for sale in Canada. Lying about it won’t do you any favors. You will need a full inventory of your merch, the wholesale cost for each item, and the price you are selling it for. You will likely be asked to pay 5% tax on these items. It’s a good idea not to take in your entire stock of merch, just what you hope to sell.

Here’s a funny and informative post on this from frequent border jumper Chris Jones at The Bluegrass Blog.

Get organized

Your crossing will be smoothest if you print and prepare all related documentation to present to the CIC. It also doesn’t hurt to tidy the van before you hit the checkpoint. Here are some things to have in a folder ready to go.

  • Your Passport (check that expiration date!)
  • Signed contracts with venues or letters from the host clarifying your R186(g) status
  • Addresses or contact info for your accommodations while in Canada
  • A copy of Operational Bulletin 580 or other applicable laws and statutes
  • A manifest of your instruments and gear, including serial numbers
  • A bill of lading for all merch (CDs, T-shirts, thongs, etc.)
  • Any documentation regarding rare and endangered materials in your instruments/bows

What about my kids? My dog? My chia pet?

Learn about what can and can’t go with you at the Canada Border Services Agency website. Also, if you have a criminal record of any type, be sure and investigate any paperwork or clearances required.

Canada is a warm and welcoming nation, even in winter. Embrace their appreciation for music and art (and don’t forget to pack a sweater), but don’t take their borders lightly and treat your crossing with care, preparation, and respect.

GearTrack is an online registry that aims to deter music instrument theft and aid in recovery. Instrument owners can itemize their collections and victims of theft can send stolen alerts to the WatchDog network and access tools for search and recovery. Buyers and sellers can easily search serial numbers before trading and selling their gear. Learn more and register your instruments at

The 90-Day Album Release Planner

Read More

Tips from a cop to help prevent music instrument theft
Touring Tips For International Music Gigs
International Music Gigs, Pt. 2 – Managing Your Gear
How To Tour As An Indie: On The Road
What to do when the song is over

9 thoughts on “Crossing the border to the Great White North: a musician’s guide

  1. Hello, is the 5% duty fee applied to the production cost or to the retail price of the merch? Also, some provinces, like Ontario add a local tax making the total 13%.

  2. Any advice on how to accept credit cards at the merch table in Canada (or the UK?) We use Square in the US. Have researched a bit but haven’t found any good solutions yet – especially if doing just a few gigs as opposed to a longer tour.

    1. I have researched this a lot since we are going to Canada for an event. You can use Square in Canada, but it is a limited version of Square called Square Virtual Terminal:
      You pay the higher fee of 3.5% + 15¢ and you can only enter an exact amount and charge it by manually inputting the CC data (no selecting items and swiping cards). Square will tell you you have to do this from a computer, but you can also do it on your phone by logging in to your account via the website (not the app, terminal won’t show up on the app). But, keep in mind they force you to charge in USD (or where you setup your company originally), so you will have to calculate that amount to CAD for the Canadians who are buying your merch. That can be very confusing since the exchange rate changes all the time. And, they may have to pay an additional CC cross-border fee for buying from a US company (even though you sold in Canada).

      After much research, I am leaning toward a different option. Get a free CC processing account with Stripe. Then, use this company “Payment for Stripe” ( to integrate with your Stripe account. This will allow you to use their mobile app to process CC in many countries (including Canada). You can even pick the currency before you charge. This is very important because IMO you want to charge in the local currency so they can pay you in even amounts/bills. Just pick a price in CAD currency that is close to your USD sales price. It will charge them in CAD. Their bank may still give them an additional cross border fee which shows up as a separate charge. But, at least you can charge them with a mobile app and in their local currency. Here is the downside of this method: THE FEES. First, you have the standard Stripe fee: 2.9% + 30¢, then you have the 2% currency exchange fee from Stripe for the person who needs the currency converted to their bank (which is you in this case assuming you are from US and are charging in CAD), then you have the 1% fee from “Payment for Stripe.” So, let’s assume your most frequent charge for merch is $20 USD. Here are total fees as a % of purchase price:

      Stripe Standard: 4.4% ($20 USD x 3.5% + 30¢ = $.88/$20 = .044 x 100 = 4.4%
      Stripe currency conversion fee: $2%
      Payment for Stripe fee: 1%
      Total effective fees as a % of $20 USD sale: 7.4% (4.4% + 2% + 1%)

      7.4% is VERY HIGH.

      But, at least you can charge in their local currency and use a swiper (additional $100). Swiper is not required.

      Also, you may sell most or some of your merch in cash. In that case, you only have to pay the currency exchange fee from CAD to USD at a bank. Not sure exactly what they charge, but I’m sure it’s much less than 7.4%.

      Hope this helps.

  3. Henry,

    It is much more difficult for a musician from Canada to perform in the US. You will need a P-2 Visa and the best and easiest (perhaps the only) way to obtain this is to contact the AFM (CFM) to handle it for you. They do it all the time and will walk you through the steps. My wife performs often across the US (she is a US citizen) with a band from Toronto. They file everything with the AFM and pay the fee and receive their P-2 Visa (good for a year-with the same company or band) quickly. You still have to deal with the TSA at the border who can be less than welcoming to musicians carrying gear. The checkpoint near Buffalo, NY deals with it regularly and seems to have the process down. Other checkpoints or Airport Customs is real hit or miss.
    Again, all that to say, contact the AFM. They make it as easy as possible.

  4. Good advise! I myself am a Canadian living in Canada though. Some guidelines for heading ‘south’ across the line, outlining any differences, would be much appreciated….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *