After some 16 months of being shut tight to everyone but essential travelers, the border from the United States into Canada finally reopened in August. Eager to fill their rooms and restaurants, Canadian destinations are rolling out the red carpet and happily welcoming back U.S. travelers, many of them jumping at the chance to visit. Chuck Carson, 72, and his wife, Christine, 71, had been planning a trip from their home in upstate New York to the island province of Newfoundland for years, to retrace Christine’s ancestry and enjoy the coastal scenery along the way. Carson says: “As soon as the border opened, we thought, this is our chance.”
But crossing the world’s longest undefended border still requires quite a bit of planning and preparation. “The biggest, trickiest thing is maneuvering the requirements,” says Julie Gillen, a travel advisor with Toronto-based Travel Agent Next Door. “You need to think about the requirements to enter, but also the requirements once you’re here.” The Carsons carefully researched their trip and noted a number of hurdles along the way. “But once we arrived at the border, it was simple, the gentleman had everything on his screen — he had our forms and vaccination documents online. It took no time at all.”
Here, what you need to know when traveling to Canada in the coming months.
Stay on top of the latest entry requirements
You can only enter if you're fully vaccinated. That means two shots of a COVID vaccine approved in Canada — including any mix of the AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer vaccine — or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Your date of entry must be at least 14 days after you've completed your shots (or shot, in the case of Johnson & Johnson), when you're considered fully vaccinated, and you must present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours. Important: Antigen tests (sometimes called “rapid tests”) aren’t accepted; you’ll be turned back without a PCR test result. A few visitors are selected for a random PCR test at the border, but if you’re one of those, you’ll still be allowed to enter if everything else is in order. Your results are later sent by email, and you must quarantine for 14 days if you test positive.
In addition, all U.S. visitors need to complete the steps on the ArriveCAN app, which is available via free download. (You can also input the necessary information through a browser version and print off a paper receipt from your computer; if you’re not tech-savvy, ask for assistance from a family member or friend.) In the app, you’ll be asked to upload your proof-of-vaccination documentation, as well as a firm plan for quarantine, a just-in-case measure should the border service officer deem your status for entry unsatisfactory. You’ll need to fill in an address and phone number of a place where you could spend 14 days, if necessary (in the vast majority of cases, it’s not). “We picked a hotel at the St. John’s airport,” says Carson.
Also note that there are re-entry requirements when you're ready to return home. All air passengers coming to the United States, including U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated people, are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result taken within three days of travel or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past three months in order to board a flight home (from any country, not only Canada). The CDC adds that travelers should get tested with a viral test 3 to 5 days after returning to the U.S.
What you can do: Get vaccinated. And stay on top of the latest requirements and travel advisories (see sidebar for details).
The State Department currently has Canada at Level 3 ("reconsider travel" due to COVID-19) on its travel advisory site. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also considers COVID-19 levels high in the country, and says, "Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling to Canada." Check the CDC's latest advice before you go, but also keep a close eye on current advisories and regulations from the U.S. Embassy in Canada and the government of Canada's website where you can take a quiz to ensure you’re meeting all the entry requirements. And don't forget to download the ArriveCAN app.
Consider your health care coverage
Canada’s “free health care” probably doesn’t include you: Canada’s socialized health care system provides free care to residents and select others living in the country — but not to visitors. “Travelers who become ill or injured while abroad in Canada are expected to pay in full at the time of treatment if they don’t have a medical insurance policy that will cover their care,” says Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of Elliott Advocacy, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that provides travel advice to consumers.
Couch-Friedman notes that many travelers are unaware that their domestic insurance (such as Medicare) won’t cover them out of the country, even in a nation just next door. Before you cross the border, she recommends shopping around for travel insurance on a site that compares plans based on your personal details and needs (for example: insuremytrip.com). She suggests purchasing both medical and evacuation insurance, so that your passage home will be also be taken care of, should you need it.
What you can do: Read the fine print, ask as many questions as you need when purchasing and always ensure that your policy includes COVID-19 coverage. “Ask specifically what’s covered,” says Gillen. “Often, insurance covers only unknown risks and, in some cases, COVID falls outside of that.”
Be aware of varying rules across Canada
Although certain restrictions apply across the country, Canada’s ten provinces and three territories all apply their own distinct pandemic regulations, as well, and can also require quarantines for arrivals coming from elsewhere in Canada. Plus, vaccination passports are, or will soon be, required in a number of provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. These are required to enter nonessential venues such as concert halls, movie theaters and restaurants. And note: Mask mandates are currently in place in every province and territory.
What you can do: Visit a province’s website before traveling there to check on its latest rules. For example, this site maintained by the government of British Columbia provides an overall view of that province’s entry requirements and restrictions, as well as on-the-ground nuances (you’ll learn that several of its indigenous communities aren’t currently welcoming visitors). If you’ll be traveling to multiple destinations across the country, this website from the government of Canada provides an overview of all of the provinces’ rules in one place.
It’s best to book well in advance (if you can). Although many travelers might hit the road this fall expecting abundant rooms and shoulder-season deals, the pandemic has reduced capacity and availability in many Canadian destinations. Marieke Gow, general manager of the Artisan Inn, a boutique property in the scenic coastal village of Trinity, Newfoundland, notes that rental cars have become scarce in many places, and staffing shortages mean that some businesses are closing early for the season or operating on a limited basis.
What you can do: In Gow’s words: “Plan, plan, plan. Letting accommodators and restaurants know you’re planning to visit will help avoid disappointment. It’s also not too early to book your 2022 trip.” But due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, you'll want to make sure there's no or a low penalty for changes or cancellations, and consider insuring your trip.
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Expect to wear a mask in public indoor areas
While not universal (protests against mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports have become an increasing issue in Canada), there has been a reasonable amount of unity on the pandemic in Canada, says Gow. Most businesses are taking consistent, across-the-board approaches, and a large majority of people support and abide by the regulations. For example, Newfoundland lifted its mask mandate for several weeks in the summer, before reimposing it in September. “I would say more than 90 percent continued to wear their masks voluntarily in public places like grocery stores,” she says. “The mentality is focused on how we can protect each other.”
Chuck Carson noticed the consistent application of rules across the board, which increased his confidence in his and his wife’s safety. Thus, despite the added layers of paperwork, he’s glad they ventured north of the border. “If you’re healthy and confident, go for it,” he says. “It’s so beautiful and wonderful up there.”
Canadian travel writer Tim Johnson lives near Toronto. He has visited 145 countries on all seven continents and has contributed to Bloomberg Pursuits, The Globe and Mail and The New Yorker.