Canadians can still travel to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic — just not by car

After Karel Bennett was turned away at the U.S. land border between B.C. and Washington state last month, she didn’t give up hope of entering the U.S. to see her newborn grandson.

The Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19. However, Bennett had heard rumours she may still be able to fly to the U.S.

She said she was first tipped off by U.S. border officers at the crossing where she was denied entry.

“They said, ‘Have you thought about flying?’ And I said, ‘Well, no,’ and they said, ‘You might want to look at that.'”

Bennett was desperate to visit her daughter, who lives just outside Seattle, because her daughter’s one-month-old  son was sick with a respiratory problem. So, Bennett took a chance and booked a flight from Vancouver to Seattle on May 22. This time, she had no problems getting through U.S. customs and entering the country.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Bennett, who lives in Sooke, B.C. “I was so happy.”

The Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19. (The Canadian Press)

Many Canadians are unaware that, even though they’re currently barred from driving to the U.S. for leisure travel, they can still fly to the country.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CBC News that its travel restrictions apply only to Canadians trying to enter the U.S. at land border crossings, which includes travel by car, train, ferry and pleasure boats.

However, Canadian air passengers can still enter the country as long as they haven’t visited Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, the U.K. or 26 European countries in the Schengen Area 14 days prior.

Canadian travellers also likely won’t have to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that international travellers do so, but it’s not a requirement unless specified by a particular region or state. For example, Hawaii requires that air passengers self-isolate for 14 days.

When Canadians return home, they must self-isolate for 14 days — as per federal rules.

Flying rule not widely known

The U.S. air travel rule isn’t widely known on either side of the border. U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders said he only became aware of the details when one of his Canadian clients called him in mid-May — from Las Vegas.

The client reported that he had managed to fly from Vancouver to visit his fiancée, who lives in Las Vegas.

“I was shocked,” said Saunders, whose office sits close to the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash. “Logically, when you look at it, if the border’s closed, it shouldn’t be any different whether you drive or fly.”

Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer in Blaine, Wash., said he was shocked when he first learned that Canadians can still fly to the U.S. (Gabriel Osorio/CBC)

Saunders immediately spread the word about flying to the U.S. to his Canadian clients who have loved ones in the country. He said dozens of them have since flown there and experienced no complications or self-isolation requirements.

“It’s given them the opportunity to reunite with family members, so it’s definitely a welcome loophole to many Canadians.”

Saunders advises people to book their flights online. His clients who have tried to buy a plane ticket to the U.S. by phone have often been rejected by airline agents unaware that it’s allowed, he said.

“Don’t talk to an agent, and you’ll have no problem.”

Some U.S. airlines currently offer routes between Canada and the U.S., and Air Canada resumed service to the U.S. on May 22.

The permission to fly isn’t reciprocal: Canada prohibits U.S. visitors from entering the country via all modes of transport — including by plane. However, this week, the Canadian government loosened its travel restrictions to allow U.S. citizens with immediate family in Canada to enter the country.

Last month, Canada and the U.S. agreed to keep their shared land border closed to non-essential traffic until June 21, and, according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation, that date will be extended. But Canadians will still be able to fly to the U.S., unless the country revises its rules.

Why let Canadians fly to the U.S.?

Bennett spent 10 days in the U.S. and is grateful she had the opportunity to reunite with her daughter and help care for her new grandson, who has since recovered from his illness.

“There’s really no words to express it. I’m very thankful,” she said about her visit.

But Bennett said she’s confused about why she was allowed to fly to the U.S. when the Canada-U.S. land border is closed.

“It’s very bizarre,” she said. “Why would they do that?”

CBP didn’t provide CBC News with an explanation. Instead, it sent a link to a Department of Homeland Security document that states that “non-essential travel between the United States and Canada poses additional risk of transmission and spread of COVID–19.”

However, the document doesn’t state why its travel restrictions for Canadians only apply to land border crossings.

Saunders said he’s stumped why the U.S. is still allowing Canadians to fly to the country for non-essential travel.

“It makes no sense, but many Canadians are happy to take advantage of this loophole.”

A word of caution

The Canadian government currently advises its citizens to avoid travelling abroad because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it won’t prevent them from visiting the U.S. or other countries and will allow travellers to return to Canada — as long as they self-isolate for 14 days.

However, because of the government’s travel advisory, Canadians will likely face difficulty getting travel insurance that provides medical coverage if they fall ill with COVID-19 while abroad.

Total U.S. coronavirus cases surpassed two million on Wednesday. Canada’s cases stood at just over 99,000.


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