Covid-19 coronavirus Travel Restrictions Now In Effect
The U.S., Canada, and Mexico require that you must be traveling for an “essential purpose” to travel between the three countries. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Canadian Border Services Agency have turned away tens of thousands of travelers who they felt did not meet the essential travel requirement. This restriction applies if you are trying to enter Canada by any method. The U.S. is less restrictive, and the essential travel requirement only applies if you are entering the U.S. by land, commuter rail, ferry, or boating. These travel restrictions have been extended until December 21st, but it seems likely they will stay in place until spring unless there is a sudden improvement in containing the virus. The Canadian Prime Minister has stated that the Canadian government does not plan to allow the free flow of Americans into Canada until the virus is brought under control in the U.S.
This post provides details the definition of essential travel and other issues that apply to both the U.S and Canada. We have separate posts for Canadian Covid-19 Travel Restrictions, and U.S. Covid-19 Travel Restrictions. These posts detail the rules and regulations including facemask requirements, quarantine requirements, and more. They also list many Covid-19 information resources including the official government websites for both the US and Canada. The United States and Canada have also reduced the operating hours of numerous border crossing ports between the two countries and we have a separate post which shows all of the Reduced Port Hours Along U.S. and Canadian Border.
What is “Essential Travel”?
The list of essential travel reasons is very lengthy, difficult to read, and may change. The full list of allowed travel can be found at the U.S. and Canadian government websites we include at the end of this post. Despite the length of the lists, it is not always clear what falls under the essential travel definition. The government orders are intended to be a guideline, and border officials will use their own discretion to interpret your trip and decide whether to allow you to enter the country. Border officers make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. Below is a general summary of items considered essential travel:
- Work related travel
- Trade and Commerce including truck drivers
- Medical purposes such as shopping for essential goods such as medication or goods necessary to preserve the health and safety of an individual or family
- Emergency response and public health purposes
- Cross-border trade
- Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations
- Alaskans may travel through Canada to return to their home in Alaska. You should be ready to make a convincing case so bring supporting documentation such as your passport, Alaska driver’s license, utility bills etc. You will be asked to limit stops along the way. Note that you will have 24 hours to get through the Yukon territory. Make sure you read the covid-19 restrictions for every province you will pass through as the penalties for violating restrictions can be significant. Province police are handing out $1,000+ fines for sightseeing along the way.
If you do not clearly fall into one of the essential travel categories, you should be prepared to discuss in great detail why you should be allowed into the country. Bring any relevant paperwork to prove what you are saying. If your reasons are borderline, you may spend hours trying to convince an officer to let you pass. If you are an American entering Canada, you will need to demonstrate that you have a suitable quarantine location, and that you have medical insurance that will cover you if you get sick. In addition, remember that border officials have the right to examine your digital devices to confirm your story so come prepared!
One issue we have noted is that one government agency may say you can enter the country for a certain purpose, but the border officers still reject your entry. For example, you can call the Canadian Border Information Service Covid hotline who may you that you have a valid reason to travel but the Canadian Border Services Agency can still refuse you entry. To repeat, officers at the border have final say on whether you are allowed into their country. They can deny you entry based on hunches and instinct, and do not need a proveable reason to turn you away. See our post on how to prepare for your border crossing to increase your chances of being admitted.
You should also realize that even if you are making an essential trip, this does not change in any way the normal requirements to be allowed into either the U.S. or Canada. You must still have the required documentation, follow the rules on bringing prohibited items across the border, and are still subject to the issues with prior criminal offenses.
What is NOT “Essential Travel”?
You are likely to be turned around at the border if you are trying to cross for any type of “non-essential travel”. The following are examples of things considered NON-ESSENTIAL:
- Shopping or picking up something you ordered
- Visiting your spouse when you live in different countries. The Canadian Family exception does not allow you to come and go for a visit.
- Visit family, friends, girlfriend or boyfriend, or fiancé. The Canadian Family exception does not allow you to come and go for a visit.
- Collecting mail
- Boating across the border for non-essential purposes. Border officials are patrolling waterways to ensure people are not crossing the border to evade the restrictions. In addition, many small vessel reporting sites, small airports of entry, ferry terminals and the Remote Area Border Crossing program have been shut down. The minimum fine for failing to report to the CBSA upon entry to Canada is $1,000 and a possible lifetime ban.
- Fishing or hunting;
- Attend a party or celebration
- Go to a restaurant for take-out
- Taking a shortcut through Canada to get to a U.S. destination faster
- Picking up a pet
- Opening or checking on a property such as a cottage or seasonal home
- Immigration Services
- When entering the U.S., a foreign national coming to temporarily reside with spouse or immediate family during the pandemic. Officers may however consider circumstances such as whether the individual is trying to avoid the pandemic or trying to ensure their partner’s health and well-being.
- Travelling to be a caregiver for a family member. Officers may consider factors such as whether there are other options for caring for the family member.
- Travelling for the birth of a child. This will be a judgement call and the officer may take into account factors such as hospital restrictions on visitation, which may prohibit a visitor who has travelled outside the country in the past 14 days.
- A spouse or child crossing the border with a truck driver transporting essential goods. The passengers may be admitted if they have no other way home or if they are a co-driver, but may be turned away if they do have alternate ways to return home.
Again, be aware that border officers have complete discretion on interpreting these rules. You may be allowed to cross the border one time, and be denied another time when you are traveling for the same reason. A specific detail can sometimes mean the difference between someone allowed entry into the country or being refused.
Enhanced Coronavirus Health Screening
Both countries are performing enhanced health screening at all of their ports of entry although US CBP officers appear to be considerably less focused on Covid than Canadian officers. You may be asked various questions about your health including whether you are sick or have been exposed to anybody with the coronavirus. You will not be allowed into either country if you show symptoms of COVID-19. The health screening may include:
- Questions about where you have been. They can examine of your travel history records in their database and will know exactly where you have been, so don’t lie when asked about countries you have visited.
- Question you and any other fellow travelers
- Visual observations as to whether there is a potential health issue
- Temperature check
If you are considered at risk for the coronavirus, and you are a permanent resident of the country you are entering, you will still be allowed into the country subject to a mandatory quarantine.
Other Coronavirus Travel Considerations
If you do travel to another country, it is VERY important that you check with your medical provider to see if you will be covered if you get Covid while abroad. Many policies will NOT cover Covid, and you could be saddled with huge medical bills if you do get sick. A lengthy stay in a hospital could run as much as a million dollars without insurance. Also, remember that if you show symptoms, you will not be allowed to fly home so your options may be very limited.
Be aware that businesses that you might normally use could be closed. These include roadside rest stops with bathrooms and the number of operating restaurants. You should plan meals and your other stops carefully. Restaurants along your route may be offering take-out, but many have closed sit-down dining. Fast food places with drive-thru windows are not always allowing walk-up customers. You should consider carrying water and enough food to make your own meals. Many gas stations and truck stops are still open, but there are also many that are closed. Those that are open may have some limits on the services they offer such as washroom use. We have seen an outcry from truckers who say they have been denied access to a washroom, and some are therefore carrying portable toilets that are similar to a children’s potty.
Most of the bridges that span the U.S. Canadian border have eliminated the use of cash to pay tolls. You will need to use a credit card, debit card, or a cashless bridge account.
If you are not a citizen of the U.S. or Canada, and you are trying to enter either country by land, you will most likely to be denied entry unless you are a permanent resident, or immediate family, of that country’s citizens. The U.S. will also refuse entry to anyone at both the northern and southern border that do not have proper documentation for lawful entry. This will result in an outright rejection of individuals even if they are seeking political asylum or refugee status.