Canada is dropping pre-entry tests. Here’s what travellers need to know

The federal government announced Thursday that it will do away with the pre-entry COVID-19 testing requirement for all fully vaccinated travellers coming to Canada, removing a major roadblock to the free flow of people.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that with vaccination rates high and the COVID-19 case count stable, Ottawa is now comfortable with reducing restrictions on travellers destined for Canada. The change will take effect next month.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are now entering into a transition phase of this pandemic,” Duclos told a press conference. “We are now ready to announce further changes to border measures.”

The government has faced pressure from frequent travellers, border towns, some medical professionals, the opposition Conservatives, airlines and tourism operators to drop pre-entry testing — a process some have criticized as pricey and pointless at this stage of the pandemic.

What does this mean for Canada-bound fully vaccinated travellers?

Starting April 1, 2022, travellers will not need to get either a PCR/molecular test or an antigen COVID-19 test before coming to Canada.

If you’ve had two shots of an accepted vaccine (or one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine), you can cross the border in a way that’s very similar to how things worked before the pandemic.

A fully vaccinated traveller will still need to complete a questionnaire in the ArriveCAN mobile app or on the government’s website before approaching a border crossing. Travellers will be required to answer a series of questions about their vaccination status and travel history.

Since the early days of the pandemic, incoming, non-essential travellers have had to get tested abroad before boarding a flight to Canada or driving across the Canada-U.S. boundary.

A COVID-19 test is performed at Pearson airport in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The measure was meant to limit the introduction of novel coronavirus cases from abroad. The process was stressful — the availability of molecular testing is limited in some areas and turnaround times vary greatly. Those tests had to be conducted within 72 hours before departure and many travellers reported slow processing times at some clinics.

The molecular tests also don’t come cheap. Up until last month, a traveller needed a PCR test to enter Canada — which routinely costs well over $200.

Travellers getting a positive result were not allowed to return to Canada until 10 days after a positive test — something that prompted many travellers to extend their hotel stays or rebook flights at premium prices.

While a test is no longer required as of April 1, symptomatic travellers will still not be allowed to cross into Canada.

What does this mean for travellers coming to Canada between now and April 1?

A pre-entry test is still required.

The government will accept either a molecular or antigen test conducted by a lab or through a recognized telehealth service. A rapid antigen test — a test conducted at home — is not acceptable because the test must be “professionally administered or observed,” according to government regulations. A molecular test must be conducted 72 hours before departure, while an antigen test must be completed one calendar day before entry.

Will there still be arrival testing after April 1?

Yes, for now. While the federal government will do away with the pre-entry requirement, some travellers will still be randomly picked for an arrival test.

Some travellers will be given a take-home test — this is often the only option at the land border — or will be sent to see a nurse at the airport arrivals area. Travellers collect tests or go for swabs, then continue on to their final destinations.

In this file Oct. 2021 file photo, a motorist is seen entering the U.S. from Delta., B.C., at the Point Roberts-Boundary Bay border crossing, in Point Roberts, Wash. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Starting April 1, travellers from abroad will not be required to quarantine while they await the results of that test — they can go about their lives as normal.

The government is maintaining the arrival testing regime because it helps track variants of the virus. Public health officials can also monitor how many travellers are returning to Canada with COVID, Duclos said.

What if you’re unvaccinated?

Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated Canadian travellers returning to Canada will still be subject to testing requirements.

Duclos said these travellers will be tested with molecular tests on arrival and on the eighth day after arrival. These travellers must quarantine for 14 days — regardless of their test results during that period.

Generally speaking, unvaccinated foreign nationals are not allowed to travel to Canada. There are some very limited exceptions.

Do you need a test to travel to other countries?

The answer depends on where you want to go.

Some countries — like the United Kingdom as of March 18 — do not require a pre-entry test. If you’re going to England, no testing of any kind is required, even if you’re unvaccinated. The requirements are different for other parts of the U.K., like Scotland.

If you’re travelling to the U.S. by air, you will still be required to take an antigen test no more than one day before your scheduled departure. All non-U.S. citizen air travellers to the U.S. must be fully vaccinated to board a plane headed to that country.

If you’re fully vaccinated and travelling to the U.S. by land or by a ferry, a test is not required. The U.S. dropped its testing requirements for land-based travellers last October.

Passengers wait to board a plane for New York at the Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, on Monday, Nov.8, 2021. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)

Now that Canada has done away with its pre-entry testing requirement, fully vaccinated travellers can cross the Canada-U.S. land border just as they did before the pandemic hit — although for now, people entering Canada will still be required to fill out the ArriveCAN questionnaire each time they make the trip.

Air Canada’s Travel Ready hub online directory tracks the current testing requirements for all other countries.

Will you still be required to wear a mask when travelling?

Yes, that hasn’t changed. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said travellers on planes and trains will still be required to wear a mask at airports and train stations and while on board.

While some provinces and territories have dropped mask mandates, or are preparing to do so, the federal government will demand that federally regulated transport sectors continue to enforce mask wearing onboard planes, trains and certain marine vessels.

What does the government mean by “fully vaccinated?” 

To qualify as a fully vaccinated traveller to Canada, you must have received at least two doses of a vaccine accepted for travel (this includes a mix of two accepted vaccines) or at least one dose of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

You must have received your second dose at least 14 calendar days before you enter Canada. For example, if your second dose was anytime on March 1, then March 15 would be the first day that you meet the 14 day condition.

While some countries, such as Denmark and France, have changed their definition of fully vaccinated to include a third booster dose, Canada has not yet made that shift.

Duclos said the government could make a change at any time. He encouraged all Canadians to get a third shot because it offers much greater protection against severe COVID-19 outcomes — and it may also reduce the likelihood of contracting an actual case of the novel coronavirus.

Which vaccines qualify you as “fully vaccinated”?

  • AstraZeneca/COVISHIELD (ChAdOx1-S, Vaxzevria, AZD1222)
  • Bharat Biotech (Covaxin, BBV152 A, B, C)
  • Janssen/Johnson & Johnson
  • Moderna (mRNA-1273)
  • Novavax (NVX-COV2373, Nuvaxovid, Covovax)
  • Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty, tozinameran, BNT162b2) including for children aged 5 to 11 years
  • Sinopharm BIBP (BBIBP-CorV)
  • Sinovac (CoronaVac, PiCoVacc)

Could the federal government bring back pre-arrival testing?

Yes. The government has dropped some testing requirements in the past only to restore them later as the COVID-19 situation deteriorated.

Last fall, for example, some people going to the U.S. for three days or less were exempted from a pre-entry test. That requirement was restored with the onset of the Omicron wave.

“Today’s announcement is encouraging, but let us remember that all measures are subject to review. We will continue to adjust them as the epidemiological situation evolves,” Duclos said.

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