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Adventure Awaits Across the Border: A Guide to Visiting Neighboring Countries as a Private Pilot

After you’ve obtained your private pilot license, it’s time to get out and explore the world by plane. The first, and most easily accessible international destinations for pilots in the U.S. to set their coordinates to, are our neighbors Canada and Mexico.

If you’re searching for information about visiting neighboring countries as a private pilot, we’ve laid it out for you in this guide. Let’s get started!

First, Things You Need

There are several items that you need in order to conduct an international flight out of the United States, including:

  • Valid passport
  • Visa, depending on your nationality
  • U.S.Customs Service decal for your airplane, purchasable this decal at airports of entry, the Decal/Transponder Online Procurement System, costing $27.50
  • Insurance that covers the country to which you’re traveling
  • An electronic eAPIS report through Customs and Border Protection

In addition to these basic requirements, there may be a list of things that need to be addressed depending on what you are bringing, the type of airplane you fly and which country you choose to visit. Make sure you do your research before you go.

Flying to Canada

From expansive, never-ending wilderness to large inner-city urban centers, Canada has something for everyone. Plus, there’s no one nicer than our neighbors to the north. And that niceness seems to also transfer over to the country’s border agency, Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). In general, air travel to and from Canada tends to be pretty easy. You do need the basic documents listed in the previous section, and plan to fly to a CBSA-sanction airport of entry and alert the agency by phone between two and 48 hours before you arrive.   

Private pilots carrying no more than 15 people (including the crew), must call the Telephone Reporting Center (TRC), at 1-888-226-7277, to get authorization from the CBSA to enter or return to Canada. General aviation aircraft must land at an approved airport of entry (AOE) during the CBSA’s hours of business.

A CBSA agent may greet you upon landing, ask you a few questions about your trip and take a look at your documents. If there is no CBSA agent present at the airport of entry,  

For those pilots planning on making regular trips up north, you can purchase CANPASS, which is a pre-approval system for frequent, low-risk pilots and passengers and offers the chance to land outside of airports of entry and CBSA office hours. It costs $40 CAD (about $30 USD) and is valid for five years.

For those traveling with children, both parents will need to be present, or a notarized letter from the non-present parent is required. Additionally, in some places in Canada, special equipment is required on-board the aircraft, like suitable shelter, a fire starter and signaling devices.

Flying to Mexico

If you’re looking for beautiful beaches, rich cultural heritage and plenty of nightlife, then set your coordinates toward Mexico.   

Six years ago, the country implemented the processing system for pilots known as the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS). Essentially, this system mirrors the United States’ eAPIS system through Customs and Border Protection.

This system gathers some crucial information, such as:

  • Full name (last name, first name, middle name if applicable)
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Country of residence
  • Travel document type (normally passport)
  • Travel document number (expiry date and country of issue for passport)

In addition to complying with the APIS requirements, you may need to present other documents, such as a private pilot certificate or higher since a sport pilot certificates do not meet the licensing requirements.

You can enter Mexico at any airport of entry, where you can expect to be greeted by army fatigue-clad guards with machine guns. They may look intimidating but are generally friendly and just doing their job. They will lead you to the immigration office, where you need to obtain an entry permit that’s valid for 180 days. Don’t be surprised if at some airports you may incur additional fees, or have to visit multiple offices and meet with a few different border agents. While government-owned airports have regulated fees, private airports can set their own.

In Conclusion

Now that you know what it takes to fly to Canada and Mexico, you can set your coordinates on either one and experience your first safe, successful international flight. All it takes is collecting the right documents and information, verifying your trip with various border control agencies and paying the proper fees and you’re well on your way to traveling to these two great countries.