Canadians like to brag about surviving their harsh winters, but when the snow piles up and the subzero temperatures set in, many start seriously thinking about travelling south for part of the year.
It’s particularly top of mind right now for those entering retirement, looking to ditch the snow shovel for a sandy beach during the winter.
Moving to the U.S. for part of the year is more complicated than packing your summer clothes and getting on a plane. There are important considerations to becoming a snowbird, including what items to bring, how long you are allowed to stay before you need to start paying U.S. taxes and the potential for losing your provincial health insurance coverage.
Here are the top five considerations for Canadians who are ready to go stateside to escape old man winter:
1. Create a Cross-Border Kit
You’ve heard of emergency kits for the car should you get stranded, or for your home in case of an earthquake? You should also get a kit for your trip down to the States. Items you should consider include your passport, recent telephone or utility bills, your Canadian tax return, driver’s license and health card, according to Dale Walters, Chairman of KeatsConnelly, which specializes in cross-border planning.
“When you’re entering the U.S., border officials will try to figure out your intent,” Walters says. You may need proof that you live and plan to return to Canada.
2. Get Travel Health Insurance
We’ve all heard stories about Canadians getting sick in the U.S. and returning with a multi-thousand-dollar health care bill. Walters recommends Canadians check that they have adequate travel insurance before crossing the border. You never know when you might get sick, or in an accident.
“One common mistake is that they wait until they get to their destination,” Walters says. “Between their arrival and the time they get the insurance in the U.S., something can happen.”
Another mistake is not getting insurance at all. Too often, Walters says people think if they get sick or injured they’ll just return to Canada for care.
“That’s fine if it’s something simple, or it can wait, but lots of things can happen that require immediate attention.”
While some credit card issuers offer health and travel insurance, travellers should check the coverage they provide, says Douglas Gray, author of The Canadian Snowbird Guide: Everything You Need to Know about Living Part-time in the USA & Mexico.
He recommends asking questions about the policy, including if it covers hospital and related medical costs, medical evacuation to Canada and escorts with a doctor or nurse, if needed. It’s also important to know if the coverage excludes pre-existing medical conditions.
“If such conditions exist for you, notify your insurance company and get an agreement in writing that you are covered for these conditions,” Gray says. “Otherwise, you could find your claim ‘null and void’ under a pre-existing condition clause.”
3. Count How Many Days You’re Away
How long you’re in the U.S. affects your taxes, immigration and Canadian health care status.
“The time you can spend in the U.S. is complicated due to the fact there are different rules for immigration and tax purposes,” Walters says.
If you’re in the U.S. for more than 182 days in a calendar year, you may be considered a U.S. taxpayer. That means you need to file a U.S. tax return and report your worldwide income. The 182 days includes the daily cross-border shopping trips that many Canadians take to find discounts.
There is another test related to the 182-day rule, which is more confusing, Walters says. It’s based on a formula where the days in the current tax year count one-for-one, the days in the previous year counts three-for-one, and the days two years ago count six-for one.
“If you pass the first test, but fail the second test, you can file IRS form 8840 – Closer Connection Exception Statement for Aliens, to avoid being a U.S. taxpayer,” Walters says. “If you fail the second test and you do not file form 8840, you are a U.S. taxpayer and subject to U.S. income on your worldwide income.”
For immigration purposes, the six-month rule is applied on a rolling 12-month period.
“To make things even more confusing, the immigration rule is not a hard and fast rule; what the immigration and customs officials are looking for is signs of your intent,” Walters says.
What’s more, if you’re away from your home province for too long, you can lose your provincial health insurance.
“While this will normally not be an issue if you are abiding by the U.S. rules of no more than 182 days in the U.S., it could be a problem if you were out of province immediately prior to or immediately following your time in the U.S.,” Walters says.
In other words, count your days away, and know the consequences of staying too long.
4. Have Your Medical History Handy
Most people understand why they are taking certain medications, but may not remember off hand what they’re called or the exact dosage without calling the doctor or pharmacy. This could be a big problem if you’re in the U.S. and need to seek medical attention.
Walters recommends having your medications written down and bringing that paperwork with you when spending time south of the border.
He also recommends having a health care power of attorney who can make decisions on your care if you’re unconscious or unable to articulate your wishes for care. This is someone different from your financial power of attorney, Walters adds.
“Make sure your routine immunizations are up to date,” Gray says, to prevent risk of contracting diseases such as tetanus as well as the flu. Gray also recommends travellers with pre-existing medical conditions wear an alert bracelet, which links to a database with your vital medical facts.
5. Sort Out Some Finances
There’s nothing more frustrating than using your credit card while travelling and having it denied because the bank considers the location of the purchase suspicious.
“It’s better to just let them know so it’s not inconvenient when you’re trying to pay for something,” Walters says.
Snowbirds may wish to consider opening a U.S. bank and credit card to make it easy to access cash, transfer money, pay for purchases without foreign transaction fees and pay U.S. bills.
Plan Now to Have Fun in the Sun Later
With the proper planning, the snowbird lifestyle can be rewarding and provide “the most active, stimulating and enjoyable experience” for retirees or anyone looking to live part of the year down in the U.S., Gray says.
“It could enhance your quality of life immeasurably,” Gray adds, because people tend to be more physically active when they are living in warmer weather.
The key of course is making sure you know the rules and have the appropriate paperwork prepared to prevent your blood pressure from rising. It will go a long way to making your winters away from the freezing cold in Canada even more special.
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