I’m asked this question quite a bit. How do I take an Amtrak train between Seattle and Vancouver? I’ve crossed the Canadian border with Amtrak four times in the last two months for four different cruises to and from Vancouver. Now would be a good time to explain how to cross the US and Canada border with Amtrak, while it’s fresh in my mind.
How the Amtrak border crossing procedure works
To begin, when traveling on Amtrak between Seattle and Vancouver, there are two ways that Amtrak has arranged to cross the Canadian border. I will explain this as clearly as possible.
First, you should know it’s easier to go north than go south. In other words, from Seattle to Vancouver, BC.
This Pacific Northwest route is one of many across the country where Amtrak operates dedicated motor coaches. Meaning, you have to be an Amtrak passenger making a connection before or after an Amtrak train to use the bus service.
Why is going north easier? Although Amtrak offers six northbound border crossings every day, only two of these are on trains. The other four departures are via motor coach. But there’s more to this claim.
Northbound border crossing into Canada
If you’re an early riser, you’re in luck. The first of the two Amtrak trains departs Seattle at 7:45am and arrives into Vancouver at 11:45am. This includes about an hour to go through Canadian Customs and Immigration. You can have the whole day to explore Vancouver.
The other Amtrak train into Canada leaves Seattle’s King Street Station at 7PM and arrives into Vancouver at 11PM.
Here’s how the border crossing is done if you’re on the train. You don’t need to do a thing. Border agents get on the train and check everyone’s passports, one by one. They ask a few questions. Carry-on bags can be randomly searched as well as any checked luggage in the baggage car. I’ve seen this happen on many occasions.
This isn’t to say that Canadian officials are lax. On the contrary. I was on a train border crossing last year and we were delayed at the border for two hours while agents searched for and removed two men who were trying to sneak through without a passport. But generally, it’s about an hour.
If neither of these departure or arrival times are convenient, then you’re left with option two: the motor coach.
There are four motor coach departures: 10:45 AM, 1:45 PM, 4:45 PM or 9:00PM. Each of these will take between 3:30 – 3:45 hours, depending on an additional hiccup…traffic. The drive itself is easy, with highway all the way once you leave downtown Seattle. Vancouver traffic can be a bear, especially if you arrive during lunchtime, rush hour or weekends.
Read next: Travel Tips for Amtrak Coach Passengers
Here’s how the border crossing is done if you’re on the motor coach, heading north into Canada.
Luckily there’s a separate bus lane to enter into the inspection area. Traffic from private vehicles can be backed up for over a mile. Your bus will have to queue in the bus inspection lane. This means waiting for any buses in front of you to complete the customs and immigration process before your bus can enter the “zone” – one bus at a time.
Once your bus pulls up in front of the entrance, the bus driver will tell you to remain seated on the bus until he has unloaded every piece of luggage from under the bus. This will usually take about five minutes. When you exit the bus, you must bring all of your possessions with you.
You cannot bring a specific list of prohibited items, including open sandwiches, plants, fruit etc. Anything that could have a bug in it. If you try to smuggle an apple, the Customs agent will pull you out of line and you could face a steep fine.
Then, one by one, you’ll exit the bus with all your possessions, claim your luggage and proceed inside the building.
Once inside, another long queue, where you’ll eventually have to present your passport to the Customs person, answer a few questions (where are you going, why you’re in Canada etc.) and then go to baggage screening. Your luggage will go through x-ray while you walk through the usual archway. You’ll have to be able to lift your luggage onto the conveyor belt or maybe ask someone to help if it’s too heavy.
Once this is done, there’s time for a quick bathroom break (there’s one on the bus, too) before you haul your luggage back to the bus to be reloaded. Finally it’s time to depart and get back on your way.
Which mode of transportation sounds better to you?
Heading southbound with Amtrak from Vancouver to Seattle
If you like to sleep late, the first outbound train from Vancouver to Seattle isn’t for you. It leaves Vancouver at….6:35 AM! Granted, you’ll get to Seattle in about four hours.
The second train leaves Vancouver at 5:45 PM and arrives Seattle at 10:10 PM. If you happen to be a solo woman traveler, this might not be the ideal arrival time. Just sayin’. The border crossing process will be the same as the earlier train, but with the addition of rush hour traffic when leaving Vancouver.
If you decide that the motor coach departure times might be more convenient, here’s when they leave: 5:30 AM, 9:00 AM, 11:30 AM and 4:00 PM. Again, it’s about a 3:30 – 3:45-hour bus ride. The seats are narrow and there’s no cup or magazine holder on the seat-back in front of you. There is overhead storage, similar to (I think) an airplane.
In my opinion, it’s can be a longer process crossing into the US than into Canada. On my last bus trip two days ago, there were 52 of us bus passengers and ONE US Immigration officer for the first 20 minutes. It felt as though our line was at a standstill.
Two others agents were present but doing other things. One of them left to check the buses while the other took a seat at the screening kiosk. Then it went faster. Of course, the more non-US passengers on the bus, the longer the screening process will take.
One important thing to remember if you’re traveling to Vancouver; there is no Uber or Lyft. When you exit the train station – whether you arrived by train or motor coach, you’ll have to get into the taxi queue. But they are usually there, waiting to meet the bus or train.
Read next: Why you should have a passport for an Alaska cruise