Long delays, but surprisingly anticlimactic: What it was like to enter Canada by car

Aug 10, 2021

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Hello from Niagara Falls, Canada!

U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been fully vaccinated (14 days past the final dose) are now allowed to enter Canada for nonessential travel purposes, such as tourism. Travelers have to take a COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of departure but no longer test on arrival

My colleague Andrew Kunesh reported on Canada’s reopening by air while I’m checking out the situation from the ground on the U.S.-Canadian border, which I drove through.

After landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF), I immediately started the roughly 40-minute drive to the U.S.-Canadian border. There are many places to enter Canada from the U.S., but I entered via the Rainbow Bridge.  

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Photo by Victoria Walker/The Points Guy

Once at the border, I presented my passport, vaccination card and negative PCR test. The border agent asked where I was coming from (New York City), how long I was staying (just a few hours) and if I had anything to declare (I did not). The border agent did not check my ArriveCan receipt. He handed my passport back, waved me along — and that was pretty much it. 

Travelers driving into Canada from the U.S. must have a valid ID, such as a U.S. passport. Unlike most of the world, a passport card is also accepted on the land border. Children under 16 need only show proof of U.S. citizenship. Travelers arriving in Canada by land or air need to take a negative COVID-19 test (PCR tests are accepted, rapid antigen tests are not) within 72 hours of departure. Additionally, travelers must also present proof of vaccination and must have received the final dose at least 14 days before entering Canada.

Entering Canada by land was a simple, painless entry process, given how complex travel between the U.S. and its closest ally has been during the pandemic

Canada Niagara Falls boat and rainbow
Niagara Falls (Photo by Victoria Walker/The Points Guy)

Government leaders in both countries first announced the border closure on March 21, 2020, and it had been extended on a near-monthly basis until Canada announced its reopening. However, while Canada is open to vaccinated travelers, the United States has not reciprocated. The U.S. extended the closure of the land border with Canada to nonessential travel through at least Aug. 21, 2021. 

Canadian leaders also recently averted an extension of a strike by border officials that would have undoubtedly led to backups at crossings as the country reopened to vaccinated Americans.

Nearly 9,000 Canada Border Services Agency employees began a work-to-strike rule on Aug. 6, at border crossings and airports due to pay issues and what they called a “toxic workplace culture.” But after more than a day of negotiations, the Border Services Agency and unions representing employees appeared to reach an agreement.

“CBSA employees have been on the front lines of the pandemic since day one, protecting our borders and keeping Canadians safe. But they weren’t receiving the support they needed from the government,” said Mark Weber, Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) president, in a news release on Aug. 6. 

“Finally – after three years of negotiations – we’ve resolved longstanding issues that will go a long way towards making CBSA a better, safer place to work for our members.”

If there were tensions on the border due to the strike, I didn’t feel it. However, if you’re planning to drive to Canada from the U.S., you’d better pack your patience — and snacks. Lines are still long as border agents worked to verify travel documents. I waited roughly 50 minutes for processing even after being in a queue for people who’d pre-uploaded their documents in Canada’s mandatory ArriveCan travel processing app. 

But the delays appeared to be related to growing pains with verifying health documents — not passenger traffic.

According to the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, just 756 automobiles entered Canada via the Rainbow Bridge on Aug. 9, the first day of reopening. That’s a sharp drop from the same day in 2019 when nearly 6,600 automobiles crossed the Rainbow Bridge border. Travelers appeared to be a mix of American tourists (a car with Virginia license plates was just ahead of me in line) and Canadians returning to the country. Just over the bridge, travelers stopped to snap selfies from the Canadian side of the Niagara, while boat tour operators from both countries ferried tourists hoping to get a closer look at the Falls.

But the travel industry is eager for the border to reopen on both sides. The U.S. Travel Association, an organization that represents the travel industry, has repeatedly praised Canada for reopening travel and called on the Biden administration to reverse the Trump-era policy. And the fact that the U.S. land border remains shut was all too clear when driving back to Buffalo from Niagara Falls. While long lines snared traffic into Canada, I sailed across the international Peace Bridge into the U.S. with no wait. Only travelers flying into the U.S. from abroad need to provide a negative COVID-19 test, not driving.

“Reopening the U.S. land border to fully vaccinated Canadians would mark a good starting point towards rebuilding our own travel economy, and the Biden administration should reciprocate this policy decision – given the high rate of vaccination across Canada – without further delay,” U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow said in a statement on Aug. 9. 

As the U.S. remains shut, Canada has indicated that it plans to open its borders to vaccinated citizens of other countries as of Sept. 7 if things don’t deteriorate. Unvaccinated children under 12 will be allowed to enter Canada but must submit their information electronically through ArriveCAN and meet all testing requirements.

Featured image of Rainbow Bridge U.S. toll plaza crossing into Canada by eyfoto/Gettying Images

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