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Canada to Require Negative COVID‑19 Test for Arriving Passengers

The federal government has announced today that Canada will be requiring travellers who arrive into the country to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to the traveller’s scheduled departure to Canada.

As per the Government of Canada, the measure will be implemented as of January 7, 2021, at 12:01am Eastern Time.

This measure reinforces the existing policy for a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the Canada (with the only exemption being Alberta’s rapid testing pilot program), and it adds another wrinkle for Canadians who might be considering international travel at this time.

Negative PCR Test Required for Arriving Passengers

Countries around the world have adopted varying degrees of measures for preventing international travellers from bringing COVID-19 into their borders, including complete border closures to non-citizens or non-residents, mandatory quarantines upon arrival, the requirement for a negative COVID-19 PCR test prior to boarding an inbound flight, or some combination of the above.

Until now, Canada has implemented the first two of those three measures. The 14-day quarantine may be bypassed for travellers entering Alberta as part of the province’s rapid testing pilot program; a similar measure has been mooted in Ontario, but has not yet materialized.

Canada is now adding the requirement for a negative COVID-19 PCR test prior to arrivals, as a further layer of protection against the rapid uptrend in COVID-19 cases within our borders.

Therefore, for Canadian travellers returning home after an international trip, you’ll need to make arrangements to take a PCR test at your destination before your return flight. The burden will fall on airlines operating flights to Canada to verify passengers’ COVID-19 PCR tests during the check-in process.

While it was at first announced by major media outlets that the test must be taken three days prior to the planned date of arrival, the Government of Canada’s website specifies that the test must be taken within 72 hours before the scheduled boarding time.

Since PCR tests can take 24–48 hours to turn around, this means that inbound passengers may need to schedule their tests very carefully in order to meet the requirements.

This announcement also raised the question of whether Canadian citizens might be denied boarding on flights returning to their own country if they fail to provide a negative test.

As per a CBC interview, Canadian citizens returning home will not be denied boarding and stranded abroad if they fail to present negative PCR tests; these passengers would be required to isolate at federally-approved sites immediately upon entering Canada until they obtain negative test results.

What Do I Make of This New Measure?

As an avid traveller and someone who has in fact travelled internationally during the pandemic, I would of course love to see travel restrictions being loosened rather than tightened – but that isn’t the reality we’re facing right now.

The reality is that the COVID-19 situation in Canada is more serious than ever before, so it’s only reasonable that stricter measures are introduced to limit the risk of new cases being brought into Canada.

Plus, even though a negative test prior to boarding is something that’s being newly implemented right now, I don’t think it’s particularly draconian when you consider the current state of international travel and how many countries around the world are enforcing a similar measure.

Indeed, it’s certainly a lighter measure than the 14-day mandatory quarantine upon return, which has been in place since March 2020.

And even though the federal government is keen to stress that the pre-boarding testing requirement does not replace the 14-day quarantine, I do believe that we are moving in the direction of the quarantine requirement being relaxed further.

Alberta’s rapid testing pilot project was the first step, allowing passengers who arrive into Calgary International Airport to reduce their quarantine period to two days, as long as they test negative for COVID-19 twice in the first seven days and remain within the province for 14 days.

Meanwhile, there have been ever-growing calls at both the provincial and federal level for Ontario to implement a similar initiative at Toronto Pearson International Airport, and I view this as fairly likely to launch in early 2021.

Montreal Trudeau International Airport has also equipped itself with COVID-19 rapid testing for select outbound travellers, with a view to expanding this for inbound arrivals in the near future.

In my view, the pre-boarding testing requirement very much ought to be combined with more comprehensive testing initiatives on the ground upon entry into Canada, as an alternative to the 14-day mandatory quarantine – which we know hasn’t been fully effective, neither in terms of compliance nor enforcement.

Instead, a more testing-oriented solution can be much more effective for preventing international travellers from bringing in new cases, and can also inspire confidence among the public that international travel can be carried out in a responsible fashion. I find it encouraging that Canada is moving in this direction.

For travellers, this development reinforces a simple reality: even though COVID-19 vaccines are on the horizon for 2021, any discretionary international travel will remain fraught with elevated risks, logistical challenges, and added costs in the interim.

Those who choose to travel ought to ensure they are fully comfortable with these realities before embarking on a trip.

Conclusion

Canada will be requiring travellers who arrive into the country to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within three days prior to their planned date of arrival, as a further measure to protect against inbound cases of COVID-19.

If you’ve been planning or contemplating any upcoming international travel, you’ll want to research how to make arrangements for a PCR test at your destination prior to your return flight.

For a full guide to things you need to know about international travel at this time, including pre-travel testing options by province, quarantine rules, and countries and territories where Canadian may enter as tourists without quarantine, refer to our resource for Travel During COVID-19 for Canadians.

19 Comments
  1. CharlesC

    Does anyone have a definition of what 72 hours actually mean. My flight to Ottawa leaves from Mexico at 14:00 on January 10th. The only test I can get is at 9:00 on January 7th, meaning its 77 hours before boarding. Given the turnaround time for test results, which are only emailed after 14:00 on a given day its impossible for me to guarantee the 72 hours.
    Do I also understand from DebB’s question that Air Canada MUST allow me to board?

    1. Ricky

      Given the poor communication from the government about the policy, it’s kind of anyone’s guess what will actually happen if you show up with a test taken 77 hours before departure rather than 72 hours.

      Based on Legault’s comments, it sounds like you’ll most likely be allowed to board as a Canadian citizen. But be prepared to be allowed to board, but given a mandatory quarantine federally-approved sites immediately upon entering Canada (likely at your own expense) until you’re able to obtain negative test results.

      What we know for certain is that 72 hours means… well, 72 hours. To be on the safe side and avoid troubles, I’d consider rescheduling the flight so that you can obtain a test 72 hours in advance.

      1. CharlesC

        Thanks Ricky. Unfortunately all Air Canada and WestJet flights from Cancun leave later in the afternoon so the 72 hours will always be a problem given that the testing site releases results after 14:00 and says 48-72 hour turnaround. It is encouraging though that as Canadian Citizens we won’t be denied boarding.

  2. don

    so it may turn out if you are asymptomatic, do not get tested abroad, and fly into Calgary, that you may be subject to the same rapid test and short quarantine that was previously applicable?

  3. Rk

    Are these rules applicable for USA flights coming into Canada ?

    1. Ricky

      Yes – all international flights arriving into Canada.

  4. LGM

    Mnn- I live in the Atlantic bubble – and we are just fine with out 14 day quarantine period – we have only a few cases a day here – largely as a result of that measure.

  5. Tejbir

    Does this requirement apply to land border entries?

    1. Ricky

      No, air passengers only.

      1. Tejbir

        Thanks for the quick response and reporting on this. Interesting that land border crossings are exempt from this.

  6. Nic

    What happens if u get a positive test? Are you denied boarding even if you have a Canadian passport?

    1. Ricky

      If you are positive and symptomatic, you will be denied boarding even as a Canadian citizen: https://travel.gc.ca/travel-covid/travel-restrictions/answers/citizen-symptoms-air

      If you are positive but asymptomatic, you may not be denied boarding as per the CBC interview; however, since you won’t be able to present a negative test, you’ll be required to isolate at federally-approved sites until you obtain negative test results. Nevertheless, you absolutely shouldn’t be getting on a plane, in the interests of public health of course.

  7. don

    does this new requirement apply to those landing in Calgary for the rapid test?

    1. Ricky

      Yes, the requirement to present a negative test before your flight applies to all arrivals into Canada, but those who are flying into Calgary may still be exempt from the 14-day mandatory quarantine under the Alberta rapid testing pilot.

  8. Mike

    Brutal. My return flight from Hawaii leaves on Saturday at 11:30 pm and arrives Sunday at 06:48am. If I understand the rules correctly I could get the test on Thursday and hope it comes in time? What happens if it doesn’t? And to have a 14 day quarantine on top of it all just adds fuel to the fire.

    1. Ricky

      Looks like the rules kick in on January 6, 2021, so if your flight is this Saturday you should be good.

    2. DenB®

      Are you a Canadian citizen? If you are, then the airline knows perfectly well that you cannot possibly be refused entry to Canada. Therefore, on what grounds could they possibly refuse you boarding? The fact that this obvious question isn’t even part of the announcement is telling. “A Canadian is A Canadian is A Canadian”

      1. Ricky

        Spot on DenB. As per this CBC interview – “Travellers who are unable to procure tests before their flights home won’t be stranded abroad, LeBlanc said. Immediately upon their return to Canada, he said, those passengers will be required to isolate at federally-approved sites until they obtain negative test results and meet other quarantine commitments.”

        I’ll update the article with this bit of info.

      2. Jay*

        Correct. Most likely wasn’t mentioned to give the impression of a more intense restriction.

Ricky Zhang

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