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House-sitters beware: Your trip could end at a border crossing

Click to play video: 'House sitting traveller bound for Canada turned away at border'
House sitting traveller bound for Canada turned away at border
WATCH ABOVE: An Australian woman bound for a house-sitting adventure in Canada was turned away by American border officers in Los Angeles. At issue: whether watching someone’s house or pets is considered work. As Seán O’Shea reports, the woman’s experience may be a lesson for others looking for a less expensive way to travel. – Dec 7, 2022

Madolline Gourley had done it many times before without a hitch. But coming to Canada was not in the cards.

The 32-year-old from Brisbane, Australia found a website and lifestyle that allowed her to explore other countries less expensively than someone else who would need to find paid accommodation along the way.

“It sounded like a great way to travel the world without having to worry about things like hotel expenses,” she said.

Gourley signed up with TrustedHousesitters, a U.S. company that puts would-be house-sitters together with those who would like someone to stay at their home, typically to care for pets when they’re away.

In the last few years, Gourley made several house-sitting trips, mostly to the United States.

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But in June, Gourley ran into a roadblock during a house-sitting trip to Canada. When she landed in Los Angeles to connect onward on a different flight, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers would not admit her.

Gourley was taken out of the normal processing line and questioned by more than one officer, she said. Finally, Gourley says she was told her planned house-sitting trip made her inadmissible.

“(A CBP officer) proceeded to tell me that house-sitting on a tourist visa is illegal even though you’re not paid: things like feeding the cat, walking the dog, weeding a garden — they’re all forms of productive activity,” Gourley said in an interview from her home in Brisbane.

House-sitters, like Gourley, don’t receive remuneration for looking after someone’s animals, but they are able to stay in someone’s home, at no charge.

Even so, CBP officers wrote in a document shared with Global News that Gourley “did not have employment authorization to legally work” and as such would be “refused entry.” Gourley was given a copy of the document that describes why the Australian woman was not allowed into the U.S.

It didn’t matter to U.S. border officers that Gourley had a ticket to Montreal and that she had arranged to fulfill her house-sitting commitment in Canada, not the United States.

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Gourley had an email confirmation for her flight to Canada, although she had not been issued a boarding pass yet.

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Eventually, Gourley was told she was inadmissible to the United States. She was put on a return flight to Australia at her own expense.

“Frustrated, angry, annoyed because they weren’t willing to listen to what I was saying,” said Gourley, who maintains that border officers were firm that house-sitting was “not an acceptable form of activity on a tourist visa.”

Contacted by TrustedHousesitters, a spokesperson said “it’s not plausible that a U.S. official was concerned about the purpose of her visit to Canada.”

“Having taken legal advice from immigration lawyers we have been advised that, as the primary reason for travel is leisure, pet sitting with Trusted Housesitters doesn’t contravene immigration guidelines,” Leonie Garfield said in an email.

Garfield said members are “fully informed about the requirements for international sitting” and “it is essential to us that all our members are in a position to explain to immigration officials the nature of the TrustedHousesitters platform.”

Had she reached Canada, it’s possible Gourley would also have been questioned about the arrangement and denied entry.

The Canada Border Services Agency pointed Global News to the Canadian government website, which defines work as “any activity that you would usually be paid for or would be a valuable work experience.”

Asked if house-sitting would be acceptable or considered a form of work, the agency’s senior spokesperson wrote in an email that “we cannot speculate on certain outcomes, as each traveller presents themselves to a border services officer under a different set of circumstances.”

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“When assessing admissibility, CBSA border services officers consider all relevant factors before making a decision,” said Rebecca Purdy.

Canadians travelling to another country for house-sitting or pet-sitting could face questioning and may also be denied entry if deemed inadmissible.

For Gourley, the consequences of having been denied entry to the United States are significant.

“I’m not allowed to return on a tourist visa. For something that I believed was above board … the penalty for me specifically is very harsh,” she said.

Gourley said TrustedHousesitters needs to make prospective travellers more aware of the risks they could face entering another country.

Instead, Gourley says the company blocked her from commenting on their social media accounts after she brought up her case and tried to warn others that they could be denied entry, too.

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