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Dreaming of palms, ocean and sunshine in the middle of winter

Frank Boellmann 3055341669

Whether you're an ace snowbird or new to the flock, you can never be too prepared, says Robert Keats.

In an interview, the certified financial planner and author of Border Guide offered his top five tips for sun-seekers heading south in 2012:

1. Arm yourself with evidence Mr. Keats suggests putting together a border kit to prove to the U.S. immigration officials that you are indeed just a visitor to the U.S.

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The kit should include your most recent phone or utility bills, a copy of your most recently filed tax return, a valid provincial driver's licence and Medicare card, Canadian vehicle registrations if you're driving or return airplane tickets if you're flying, U.S. funds that you already have in your Canadian bank account, and if you own a home, the most recent property tax notice, or if you rent, a copy of your rental agreement.

Those who plan ahead are more likely to face a smooth border crossing, says Mr. Keats.

But don't be surprised if the so-called Murphy's Law of travel rears its head. "If you're prepared, then chances are you won't be asked for documentation. But the minute you forget your border kit, you're going to be under the heat lamp," he warns.

2. Familiarize yourself with the U.S. immigration rules Know how much time you can spend in the U.S. without creating any U.S. immigration or tax problems with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). For tax purposes, if you regularly spend more than 120 days in the U.S. each calendar year, or more than 183 days in the current calendar year, you need to understand the simple tax filing requirements, he says.

But one can avoid being labelled a U.S. resident by filing a Form 8840 with the IRS. The form takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fill out, says Mr. Keats, and must be submitted by June 15 every year.

"If you want to have peace of mind and be able to sleep at night, it's better to file it," he says.

3. Avoid the following red flags at the border:

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  • Make sure your passport does not expire in six months or less from your date of entry to the U.S.;
  • Do not travel on a one-way ticket or one that was purchased for cash immediately before the flight;
  • Do not travel with any documents that may indicate U.S. residency such as a state residency card, business cards with a U.S. address (unless of course you are in possession of a U.S. visa and not a visitor to the U.S.);
  • Do not travel in a vehicle that is not registered to you or any other person in the vehicle;
  • Do not travel in a vehicle registered to you in the country in which you have no legal immigration status, for example a Canadian winter visitor in the U.S. attempting to drive a Florida registered car into Canada;
  • Do not travel with a spouse or a companion that has a different immigration status than you do.

4. Exchange your currency before you leave Canada Bringing Canadian cash into the U.S. and trying to exchange it at a bank is an exercise in frustration and is likely to cost you anywhere is from 5 to 10 per cent more in commissions paid to the bank to do the exchange.

Instead, Mr. Keats recommends using a currency broker where you can negotiate better rates and change large sums of money at once.

Another option is to get a U.S.-dollar Canadian bank credit card so that you're not being charged with exchange fees every time you use a Canadian dollar card in U.S. and then make arrangements to have U.S. funds available monthly to cover your U.S.-dollar credit card bills.

5. Make all your medical insurance arrangements prior to leaving Canada Mr. Keats suggests purchasing a Canadian Medicare supplement with a high deductible to save costs. Another option may be to get an international policy that gives you 12-month, renewable U.S. coverage including non-emergency.

There are some very good policies at a reasonable cost that you can use year-round, he says, not just while you're in the U.S. for your winter stay but in case you need surgery or other medical treatment and there's waiting list in Canada.

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