Canadian Snowbirds: What You Need to Know

Canadians who head down south for a good part of the winter to enjoy sunnier skies and a milder climate – and the opportunity to golf in January – are known as snowbirds.

The Sunbelt of the U.S. (the southern states extending from Florida to Southern California) is by far the most popular destination for snowbirds – it’s close by, has a similar culture and the same language.

Here’s a list of the best U.S destinations for Canadian snowbirds.

The Pacific coast and interior of Mexico also provide a home away from home for many retired Canadians.  Long-term rates are available on good-sized villas that are located by sunny, secluded beaches on the ocean or lakeside. 

Many snowbirds have purchased property in both the U.S. and Mexico for extended stays.

Related:  Planning to Retire to Another Province

Crossing the border

Be prepared before crossing borders.  Whether driving or flying, the restrictions and guidelines involved should be researched beforehand.  Canadian citizens entering the United States by air must have a valid Canadian passport.  For document requirements when entering by land or sea, visit the Canada Border Services Agency website.

Here are some common issues:

Medication and prescriptions: Many Canadian snowbirds need to take a supply of medication with them when travelling to their winter home.  Make sure you know the rules in advance, or you risk having your medicines confiscated at the border. 

All medication must be in its original container issued by your pharmacy with your name, your doctor’s name, dosage instructions and all other labels left intact.  Don’t mix your pills into another container to save room.

U.S. Customs requires a doctor’s note describing your medical condition(s) and the need for your medication. 

The Government of Canada website has some helpful tips for Canadians travelling with medication.

Accessing your money:  Check your bank’s website for advice on banking products and how to access your money while you’re away.  Set up online banking and arrange to receive your bills electronically so you can pay them online.

Make sure your credit cards don’t expire while you’re gone and renew them if necessary.

There’s no need to open a U.S. bank account, although some Canadian banks with U.S. affiliates have enabled Canadians to open U.S dollar accounts with their divisions.  These cross-border accounts provide convenient and cost-effective options for getting cash and making payments.

Bringing your pet:  First of all, your pet must be healthy and well groomed.  All pets must have up to date rabies shots and other vaccinations.  Bring a letter from your veterinarian certifying your pet’s good health and vaccination records.  These will also be required when you come back to Canada.

Your belongings:  Be sure you know how much you’re allowed to take in and out of the country – general goods, gifts, alcohol, tobacco, food and cash.

If you’re taking a lot with you, you should document your belongings by filling out the appropriate forms from both the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Be sure to itemize jewellery and other valuables and be able to prove where and when they were purchased if asked.

Travel insurance:  Getting good medical coverage and insurance is the single most important step that travellers can make before travelling to any country and especially for a prolonged stay.  Emergencies can and do happen and can be devastating financially. 

Your provincial health care coverage does not mean you’ll be covered for medical expenses outside Canada, or they will pay only a very small fraction of the costs.

The cost of medical treatments in the United States can be very high – an average hospital stay can cost thousands of dollars per day. 

Most Canadian health insurance plans only cover $75 to $400 a day, so the difference can add up quickly.  Be sure to top up your provincial plan with extra travel coverage.

In addition, each province and territory has residency rules for you to remain eligible for government health insurance coverage.  If you stay out of the country too long you run the risk of losing your health care privileges.  It can take months to have coverage restored.

Taxation:  Taxation can affect temporary residents in the United States as well. Canadian snowbirds need to be very careful of how much time they spend in the U.S. as overstaying your welcome can result in being deemed a U.S. resident for tax purposes, especially if you own property.

Unfortunately, many Canadian snowbirds have been misinformed that if they simply spend fewer than 183 days in the U.S. in any given year, they will not be considered U.S. residents for tax purposes. 

Look here for U.S. residency rules you need to be aware of so you don’t fall into the snowbird tax trap.  Before leaving the country seek advice from a qualified professional.

(Legislation is being introduced to allow Canadian citizens over the age of 50 who either own or rent a residence in the U.S. to remain in the country for up to 240 days each year.)

Prepare your home before you leave

Check your home insurance carefully to ensure you are covered for theft, vandalism and water damage from frozen pipes, ice, and sewer backups that might occur while you are away.

Many home insurance companies want to be advised in writing if you are going to be out of the country for more than thirty days.  Ask how often your home has to be checked.

Arrange for a family member, or a house-sitting service, to empty the mailbox, clear the answering machine of messages, shovel the snow and do routine checks of such things as windows and water lines.

Travellers may also need to provide their own insurance for their accommodations, such as a time-share condominium, where they will be staying while away.

Other considerations

  • Take photocopies of passports, birth certificates or citizenship certificates and other important documents – or scan them into your computer. 
  • Check the expiry dates of your driver’s license, car insurance and registration. 
  • Leave your travel and destination information with relatives or friends, in case of an emergency back home.
  • Make sure someone you trust knows where to find your will, power of attorney and other important papers.

Check out these great resources:

Snowbird Advisor – membership is free – has a wealth of information for Canadian snowbirds including checklists, tips, tax and legal information, essential government forms, travel insurance, and more.

Canadian Snowbird Association is a lobbying group that works on protecting the rights of travelling Canadians.  Their website provides updated news and information about upcoming events. Annual membership is $25.

The bottom line

Whether you’re planning an extended stay in a milder climate, or a shorter-term respite from the snow, enjoy the experience. The rest of us will be jealously hunkering down in preparation for our long, cold Canadian winter.

Related:  Does Cold Weather Help You Live Longer?

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