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  • Annie Beaudoin

Secondary Immigration Examination at Port of Entry when entering Canada.

If you have ever been referred to a secondary examination on entry into Canada, this experience can often be extremely stressful and even traumatizing. This is called an Immigration Secondary Referral, and it can occur when arriving at a Canadian Airport or Port of Entry.

Even though this is considered a standard immigration procedure, and the agent may allow entry after questioning, the mystery and anxiety linked to the procedure is real for any foreign national entering Canada.

Common questions that arise from my clients are:

‘Why was I sent to a separate office for an examination when I arrived in Canada?’

‘Why did this make me feel like someone on the most wanted list?’

‘Is this normal?’

The answer is yes, it is normal to some extent. Most often, foreign nationals entering Canada will not be referred to a second, more intense, and perhaps intimidating examination but it can happen for various reasons and at any time.

In this article, I will discuss this Immigration Secondary Referral and what are the common triggers.

It is important to note, that under Canadian Immigration Law, the port of entry (POE) Officers always have the final say to allow or deny entry of a foreign national whether or not they have a Canadian visa approved in their passport or are visa-exempt foreign national. Simply put, the POE officers are the final line of defense before entry into Canada.

In short, the Immigration Secondary Referral is a specific examination where an officer will conduct an in-depth questioning because of a concern(s) that has been brought to light. These concerns can vary but it can be as simple as your name being flagged about a criminal record after a POE officer performed a name search in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Canadian Immigration Laws and Regulations provide that an examination is not final until the person has left the controlled area of the POE or if no controlled area exists, has left the POE. The examination process at a POE may include a primary and a secondary examination.

This examination process is what occurs when you arrive at the Canadian land border or customs at the Canadian airport.  At that point, a final determination is made to decide if the foreign national (person) seeking entry has a right to enter Canada or is authorized to enter Canada. If allowed, the person leaves the port of entry and enters Canada, and the examination is finalized.

For example, if a US citizen arrives and they suspect that they may have a conviction, an examination may be continued, and the person will be sent to a Customs Secondary examination area. This is usually the case when evidence arises that indicates the person may be inadmissible to Canada or a random name search is performed on a list of passengers on a plane.

Furthermore, having an approved permit or visitor visa in a passport does not guarantee entry into Canada. This is also valid if a person has been granted a Permanent Resident visa for Canada. As mentioned above, the final decision to allow entry will always rest on the Port of Entry Officer you will encounter when you arrive. Consequently, the decision to allow entry into Canada is not final and may be revisited as long as the person has not left the controlled area of the Canadian, for example, the Toronto Airport.

Another good example of a case warranting referral to ‘Secondary’ would be if a study permit holder or visitor visa holder arrives in Canada and is clearly in the advanced stages of pregnancy. The POE officer may refuse entry because they may have concerns that they are entering Canada primarily to obtain Canadian citizenship by birth for their unborn child. This is often referred to as ‘Birth Tourism’. Another concern that arises from these situations is whether the pregnant foreign national will have the funds to pay for the hospital cost of giving birth in Canada. As such, the officer may deny entry, especially if this was not declared on the visa application approved by the visa office abroad.

The same would apply to a foreign national who arrives intoxicated or is showing erratic and violent behaviors that could put the safety and security of Canadian citizens at risk. The POE officer would most likely refuse entry even if the person has a valid visa in their passport.

This is often the case also for example for a film crew, producers, and actors attempting to enter Canada as tourists, when in reality, they are shooting a TV show, commercial, or movie in Canada.

An additional common occurrence would be for example when a US citizen or US green card holder enters Canada with an undeclared US conviction(s) (misdemeanor or felony). Often these individuals have been able to enter Canada without any issues for years and at one point they get ‘flagged’. That is when their entry process in Canada becomes very different and often complicated. Usually, these clients contact us and are in disbelief that after 20+ years or so of coming and going to Canada without any problems, they are now inadmissible and can no longer enter Canada because they have a previous criminal record.

As explained, the POE Officers have access to a name database. As such, criminal records are usually detected when the Port of Entry officer runs random name checks using the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) queries. The NCIC is a name database shared between the US and Canada based on a mutual memorandum of understanding.

When a Canadian Immigration Officer performs a name search, they can be notified if the person coming from the United States has a criminal record. If there is a ‘hit’ on your name, you will be flagged for all future entries even if you had never had any issues entering for many years prior.

Furthermore, you could have the same name as someone who has a criminal record and encounter issues with this at the Canadian border even though you have never had any charges or convictions. This is often an unfortunate case of mistaken identity based on a name.  

In theory, the database name search cannot be conducted as a matter of course and should never be done as a matter of routine. However, travelers can be queried in the NCIC if officers have reasonable suspicions indicating criminal activity. If the reasonable suspicion (or reasonable grounds to suspect) standard has been met, name-based checks in NCIC for an investigative purpose or criminal history are authorized on persons originating from or associated with the United States of America or any of its territories.

Once flagged, these individuals are sent to a different zone of immigration, usually office type where the investigation and questioning will begin. This is referred to as the Secondary Examination or often called ‘Secondary’.

IRCC publishes a non-exclusive list of common ground warranting an Immigration Secondary Referral. The list contains the categories of persons who are mandatory referrals for this type of Immigration examination. It is important to note that other foreign nationals can and are referred to ‘secondary’ since referral is highly discretionary and determined by the port of entry Officer.  In general, the following are guaranteed to be referred to ‘secondary’:

1.      inadmissible persons under sections 34 to 42 of the IRPA(criminal, security, medical etc.);

2.      persons whose citizenship or status is doubtful;

3.      foreign nationals refusing to answer questions;

4.      foreign nationals refused entry into another country;

5.      persons whose documents, such as passports, seem fraudulent;

6.      immigration Lookouts;

7.      Canadian citizens in possession of an emergency passport issued abroad;

8.      PRs of Canada who have had extended absences from Canada;

9.      foreign nationals intending to stay longer than six (6) months;

10.  foreign nationals seeking medical treatment or appear ill;

11.  Foreign workers and students on first entry.

Evidently, POE Officers whether at the airport or a land border, may also refer anyone else who they believe should be examined in greater detail. It is important to understand that, as a foreign national, when you seek entry into Canada you are obligated to answer all of the questions during the examination. If you refuse to do so, it is highly unlikely that you will be admitted into Canada.

Keep in mind that when you are seeking entry into any country that is not your country of citizenship, it is not a right but a privilege. It should not be treated as an entitlement.  Remaining cooperative, respectful, and truthful with the Immigration Officer at the port of entry should remain a priority for any foreign national seeking entry into any country that is not their own country of citizenship.

Here are a few additional examples of types of referrals that are sent to ‘Secondary Examination’:

1.      Officer has doubts about the person’s identity;

2.      Officer suspects the foreign national may have a criminal record;

3.      Officer believes the foreign national may require documentation such as a work permit;

4.      Officer has concerns about the length of time the foreign national is requesting to stay in Canada in light of their actual travel plans.

5.      Past Exclusion or Deportation Orders


POE Officers usually do not ask specific questions about criminality during a preliminary examination (custom crossing). Questions about criminality are better suited for Immigration Secondary, where they have more time to conduct a full examination and to question a person in a more private setting.

Consequently, if the officer suspects, through questioning, lookouts, IPIL, or other indicators, that you may have a criminal record, you will likely be referred to an Immigration Secondary examination to ensure privacy. This also ensures that the questioning of a person about criminality does not occur in the presence of accompanying family members or other travelers.

Should you need assistance navigating this process, avoiding issues related to mistaken name check identity, criminal inadmissibility to Canada, or other impediments, we at BIC specialize in this type of services including criminal Rehabilitation application to Canada, Authorization to Return to Canada (ARC) and Temporary Resident Permits (TRP) to help you resolve the issue and enter Canada once again.


February 7, 2024

Annie Beaudoin

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