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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.