COVID-19: US and Canada travel and immigration update (March 20, 2020)

20 mars 2020 | Veronica K. Choy, Mabel Kyei

( Disponible en anglais seulement )

Travel to Canada

Only essential travel permitted into Canada

On March 20, 2020 at 11:59 pm EDT, there will be a temporary restriction on all non-essential travel at the Canada-US border.

“Non-essential” travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature. Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has stated that this measure should not impact:

  1. Supply chains (for trades and goods, including trucking); and
  2. Americans and Canadians who cross the land border every day to do essential work for their urgent or essential reasons.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland stated today that a negative list approach rather than a positive list approach will be applied to what constitutes “essential” travel. Therefore, the government has pointedly identified tourism and recreational purposes as non-essential activities during this time, and these travellers will be turned away at the border.

Deputy Prime Minister Freeland stated foreign workers are recognized as essential, and those with valid work permits and study permits will continue to be allowed entry into Canada via the US-Canada border, with the understanding they should self-isolate for 14 days.

Minister of Public Safety and Preparedness Bill Blair has stated that both sides of the US-Canada border are working to ensure consistency in which this will be implemented, but CBSA officers will be trusted to implement the appropriate discretion at their port of entry.

This measure will be put in place for 30 days, at which point it will be reviewed by both parties.

Measures to stop irregular migrants

This morning, the Government of Canada announced that Canada and the United States have entered into a reciprocal arrangement to return irregular migrants that attempt to cross between unofficial points of entry at the US-Canada border.

Irregular migrants attempting to enter Canada will be directed back into the United States. Prime Minister Trudeau stated that this measure will be temporary, and is needed to maintain safety and order at our border crossing during this time.

Minister Blair stated that the federal government recognizes the importance of those coming into Canada self-isolating for 14 days, which can be greater conveyed at official ports of entry, and that this measure is intended to create greater governmental control of non-essential passage at the border. Minister Blair also stated that exceptions will apply, such as an unaccompanied American minor attempting entry at an unofficial crossing.

This measure will become effective on March 20, 2020 at 11:59 pm EDT.

Canadians and permanent residents

Canadians and permanent residents will continue to be allowed to enter Canada by land and air. Prime Minister Trudeau announced today that efforts are being made to fly Canadians and permanent residents to Canada from Morocco this weekend (March 21 -22, 2020).

Transport Canada released an Interim Order to Prevent Certain Persons from Boarding Flights to Canada due to COVID-19, that confirms air carriers operating flights to Canada are taking the following measures:

  1. Prohibiting foreign nationals (i.e. persons that are not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident) from boarding an aircraft for an international flight to CanadaExceptions include (but are not limited to: a person who has been only in the United States during the period of 14 days before the day on which they board, an immediate family member of a Canadian citizen or of a permanent resident (defined below); those transiting through Canada; and essential flight crew members.
  2. Prohibiting individuals that have signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or competent adults that refuse to answer questions asked of them by air carriers regarding this health check.

This morning, Minister Blair reiterated that airlines continue to have this duty of care and the responsibility to ensure returning Canadians and permanent residents are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or possible illness. CBSA agents on the ground in Canada are taking steps to screen every person that arrives from any destination for symptoms and those from a region where the illness is prevalent.

Family members

Immediate family members of Canadians and permanent residents will be authorized entry into Canada. A close “family member” is limited to:

  1. The spouse or common-law partner;
  2. A dependent child; and
  3. The dependent child of the dependent child noted above.

Temporary residents in Canada

CBSA has confirmed that travel for the purpose of obtaining immigration services is non-essential. Individuals who are in Canada, and are seeking to travel to the border in order to make an application for a work permit, study permit or permanent residence, are asked to not travel to the border for these services until further notice. Those currently in Canada as a visitor, student, or worker should apply online to IRCC to extend their temporary resident status rather than at the border.

Employers must ensure that employees with a SIN beginning with the number “9” (i.e. foreign workers) are authorized to work in Canada and have a valid immigration document.

Those who have applied for a renewal of their work authorization before their most recent work authorization expired are authorized to continue working under the same conditions (if they remain unchanged) as long as they remain in Canada, pursuant to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations. This is referred to as “implied status” until a decision is rendered by Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Confirmation of Permanent Residence Requests (landings)

Individuals who have had their permanent residence applications approved (i.e. hold Confirmation of Permanent Residence documents), but cannot travel to Canada before their documents expire, are encouraged to contact the IRCC for detailed instructions on next steps.

All in-person permanent resident landing appointments have been cancelled by the IRCC until April 13, 2020. Those with a landing appointment already booked will be contacted by e-mail regarding the appointment being held by telephone.

Citizenship ceremonies

All citizenship ceremonies, citizenship tests and retests, and itinerant service trips have been cancelled until further notice.


Travel to the United States

Travel from Canada

As the restrictions to travel between Canada and the United States have been decided by mutual agreement, the United States will enact similar restrictions as described above.  In a Notification published under 19 Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 1, the US Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection affirms that as of March 20, 2020, 11:59 Eastern Time, the Secretary of Homeland Security will temporarily limit the travel of individuals from Canada into the United States at ports of entry along the United States-Canada border to “essential travel” until April 20, 2020 at 11:59pm Eastern Time.  At the time of the Notification, these restrictions are not meant to apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel between the United States and Canada, but do apply to land border crossings and passenger rail and ferry travel between the United States and Canada. “Essential Travel” is subsequently defined as:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals travelling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States); 
  • Individuals travelling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals travelling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the  farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Canada in furtherance of such work);
  • Individuals travelling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Canada);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

The Notification indicated that this list of “essential travellers” is not necessarily exhaustive but does specify that non-essential travel consists of:

  • Individuals travelling for tourism purposes (e.g., sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events).

From the US Department of State: Mission Canada Change in Consular Operations

As of March 17, 2020, United States Embassy and all Consulates General in Canada have cancelled routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments. Further, they will suspend all routine consular services effective Monday, March 23, 2020. They will continue to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens in need of emergency assistance are encouraged to contact the United States Embassy or Consulate closest to them in Canada.

Inability to depart in a timely manner

Customs and Border Protection officials in the Seattle area, John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ (Newark) have announced special provisions for travellers who were admitted under the Visa Waiver Program/Electronic System for Travel Authorization (VWP/ESTA) to seek, essentially, an extension of their previously granted period of stay by requesting Satisfactory Departure for up to 30 days.  As this provision only relates to travellers who had sought entry under VWP, it does not apply to Canadian visitors.

Only travellers who were admitted into the United States through JFK and Newark can apply for Satisfactory Departure and are instructed to do so through the Deferred Inspections office at JFK,  Those seeking Satisfactory Departure in the Seattle area are to contact CBP’s Deferred Inspections office in Seattle.

In both locations, individual applicants will need to apply their name, date of birth (DOB), photo of passport biographic page, a brief explanation of the situation, and the original flight and new flight or planned itinerary (if no flight is booked) at the time the request is emailed.


Special measures continue to be put in place internationally by the IRCC and affiliated government agencies to help temporary and permanent residents, and applicants, in response to the evolving circumstances. For more information, contact Miller Thomson’s Immigration Team.


Miller Thomson is closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation to ensure that we provide our clients with appropriate support in this rapidly changing environment. For articles, information updates and firm developments, please visit our COVID-19 Resources page.