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Planning for re-opening: what might an international border opening look like in Canada?

Brittany Trafford

Last week the Maritime provinces announced various re-opening plans based on vaccine trajectories, with Newfoundland and Labrador making an announcement today¹. These plans address, among other things, who will be able to enter the provinces and who will need to quarantine upon entry. Of course, this is promising news for businesses and those looking to travel within Canada or with relatives and friends in other provinces who have been restricted from visiting for months.

However, the provincial re-opening plans are only part of the story of travel restrictions in Canada. When it comes to international travel and entrance from outside Canada, the federal restrictions on our international borders also dictate who is allowed in and under what requirements. These restrictions are in effect regardless of provincial re-opening plans and function independently to the provincial decisions.

The federal government has enacted three Orders in Counsel which together restrict international travel into Canada and require various COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements. While the provinces have been announcing their plans to “get back to normal” the federal government has not presented a plan yet. Most recently, Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that 75 percent of Canadians would need to be vaccinated, and that daily cases would need to be on the decline before opening the borders.²

It is fair to say that the government is under increasing pressure to open the borders to non-discretionary travel, which has been prohibited since March 2020. Indeed, there are some reports that the United States seems to be intent on re-opening their borders by June 22, 2021.³ Nothing official on the US border opening has been announced, but it is clear politicians on both sides of the border are turning their mind to when restrictions should be lifted and what that will look like in practice.

In fact, Health Canada has just recently published recommendations from its COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel which address border re-opening strategies that give us some insight into the possible next phases of international restrictions.⁴ They recommend a phased approach to lifting Canadian border restrictions based on the vaccination status of the traveller.

A summary of the recommendations includes the following:

  • An unvaccinated traveller: would need a pre-departure COVID-19 test, an on-arrival COVID-19 test, and another test on day seven. If the day-seven test is negative, the traveller would be permitted to leave quarantine, even if 14 days has not elapsed.
  • A partially vaccinated traveller (has received the first of two doses of a vaccination): would need a pre-departure COVID-19 test and an on-arrival test. If that arrival test is negative, the traveller can leave quarantine (no second test needed).
  • A fully vaccinated traveller: would not require a pre-departure COVID-19 test, but would complete a test on arrival. There would be no quarantine period, even prior to receipt of that test result.
  • A traveller with proof of a previously resolved infection (had COVID-19 more than 14 days ago but less than 189 days before travel): would need a COVID-19 test on arrival. They would be able to leave quarantine on receipt of a negative result from that first test.
  • A traveller falling under a quarantine exemption (such as emergency service providers): would have a voluntary arrival testing and no quarantine.

In addition to the above, the Panel recommended removing the requirement to stay at a federally-approved quarantine hotel upon entry to Canada by plane until an on-arrival test comes back negative, and to otherwise better align requirements regardless of whether the mode of entry is by air or land.

The above are only recommendations at this point with no projected implementation date. However, they suggest that we may see movement toward a system reliant on proof of vaccination records with a reduction in testing and quarantine in same cases. This would be a welcome reprieve as currently the restrictions and travel requirements apply regardless of partial or full vaccination. Current rules also require a separate consideration of 1) whether a person can enter Canada at all, and 2) what quarantine requirements apply. Conversely, the recommendations seem to take a streamlined approach, allowing travel in general and merely applying different quarantine and testing requirements depending on which of the five categories a traveller falls into.

Finally, the recommendations also suggest that, for Canadians who want to travel in the future, having a vaccination will potentially make their re-entry to Canada much cheaper and easier.

As we watch provinces opening up, we are also watching the federal border restrictions carefully as these restrictions ultimately dictate the rules for international travel despite any provincial changes.

Current travel restrictions are very complex, but our immigration team of lawyers are able to help you review your options under the existing exemptions and to advise various pre-arrival and post-arrival requirements.


This article is provided for general information only. If you have any questions about the above, please contact a member of our Immigration group.


¹ New Brunswick: New Brunswick’s Path to Green; Prince Edward Island: COVID-19 in PEI: Moving Forward; Nova Scotia: Reopening Safely with COVID-19; Newfoundland & Labrador: Together Again
² Morgan Lowrie, Canada won’t rush reopening border with United States, Trudeau says (CTV News, May 31, 2021, online)
³ Taylor Campbell, American whisperings that border will reopen June 22 stir Windsor excitement. (Winsdor Star, May 27, 2021, online).
⁴ Health Canada, Priority strategies to optimize testing and quarantine at Canada borders, May 28, 2019, online.

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