traveling from canada to us

The PCR and COVID tests you need and where to get them to travel from Canada to the U.S.

When traveling from Canada to the U.S. and back home again, Canadians will need to abide by certain new pandemic protocols, including providing proof of a negative COVID-19 test to gain entry to both countries.

Though Canadians have been able to fly to the U.S. throughout the health crisis (if they chose to defy directives to avoid non-essential travel), the Great White North only opened our borders to fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents on August 9, and the land border to get from Canada down to the U.S. isn't slated to reopen until November 8.

Up until the beginning of this year, foreign nationals did not need to take any sort of test before entering the U.S., but President Joe Biden implemented a requirement for a negative COVID-19 test from all air passengers aged two and older on January 26.

There are also new vaccination policies coming into effect in the next few weeks.

What type of test/vaccine is needed to get into the U.S.?

The test to gain entry to the U.S. by air can be any viral test, whether it be a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) such as the commonly-used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, or a rapid antigen test, and it must be taken within 72 hours (three days) of departure.

The U.S. will also accept proof of recovery from COVID-19 infection within 90 days prior to travel in lieu of a negative test result.

The U.S. is also introducing a new stipulation on Nov. 8 that non-American entrants — whether by air, land or sea — must be fully vaccinated against the virus, like Canada has done. 

It was also recently announced that a mixed dose regimen of any Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 shot will be considered valid by the federal governement — welcome news after worries that Canada's mRNA cocktail or AstraZeneca/mRNA mix might not be accepted.

One must need to have had their final shot at least two weeks before travel. Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sinovac and Johnson & Johnson (which is a single-dose) are admissible.  A negative COVID-19 test result is not required on top of vaccination.

Starting in January 2022, the vaccination rule will apply to both non-essential and essential travelers at land crossings or ports of entry as well.

What type of test/vaccine is needed to get into Canada?

To get back into Canada by any means, all entrants aged five and over will need to bring proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test specifically (from within 72 hours), which unfortunately costs more and has a longer turnaround time.

Any NAAT or NAT test (preferably PCR), or reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP) test will be accepted.

There is also a list of 16 other less common, but still acceptable test types for entry, including ribonucleic acid (RNA), next generational sequencing (NGS) or whole genome sequencing (WGS).

Canada also recognizes natural immunity from COVID-19 infection in place of a negative test result, stating on its website that "if you are now symptom-free, you can provide proof of a positive COVID-19 molecular test when crossing the border instead of a negative one," so long as the test was taken at least 14 and no more than 180 days before either the departure to come to Canada or the scheduled entry into Canada.

Incoming passengers must answer some questions through Ottawa's ArriveCan app before entering, and need to be vaccinated to avoid mandatory quarantine and a COVID-19 test after eight days.

Starting Nov. 30, Canadians will need to be fully vaccinated to get on any flight or train in Canada, even when tripping domestically. 

Air passengers may also be subject to a randomized COVID-19 test upon arrival at a Canadian airport.

Where can I complete the requisite COVID-19 test before traveling to the U.S.?

Rapid antigen screening for travel into the U.S. can be completed privately at clinics and pharmacies such as select Shoppers Drug Mart locations, where they cost $40 and have a turnaround time of about 20 minutes. Passengers will need to call and book in advance.

Most major airports are also offering pre-booking for rapid antigen testing prior to departure, though prices vary.

Tests are also available through other companies, such as LifeLabs, which administers antigen screening at various locations through its FlyClear program.

It costs $60 plus tax for a rapid test from FlyClear. Serology (antibody) tests for prior infection and PCR tests with various turnaround times are also available from anywhere from $75 plus tax to $200 plus tax, though are not necessary to go to the U.S.

Provinces such as Ontario have also made it clear that they will not cover the costs of COVID-19 testing for travel, so passengers cannot go to a standard COVID-19 assessment centre for a test for this purpose.

Centres are reserved only for certain groups, such as those who have been exposed to an active case, are showing symptoms of the virus or who work in certain settings.

Where can I complete the requisite COVID-19 test before traveling back to Canada?

It is worth noting that while rapid antigen testing is easy to come by in America, getting a PCR test is harder and will need to be scheduled in advance.

Chains with pharmacies, such as CVS, Walgreens, RiteAid and Walmart, offer various types of testing to be booked in advance, and for free, to boot. The turnaround is usually within 24 to 48 hours, and some are drive-thru and even self-administered.

Be aware that these spots can fill up quickly, so try to schedule early unless you are prepared to drive to a further location than planned.

Also mind the fact that some companies (such as Walmart, which is done through third-party Quest Diagnostics) may require a social security number to access results — an issue that this writer learned firsthand can be resolved by calling or emailing customer service during weekday business hours.

If you end up extremely pressed for a test result, there are far pricier options with far quicker turnaround times at private clinics.

Some will even come to your place of stay and return results, such as COVID Check Today, which delivers mobile PCR tests in some locations, and can send results within 24 hours for $199 U.S., or within six hours for the painful price of $350 U.S.

Bringing your test results

It is advisable to carry both an easily accessible digital and physical copy of your test results on you when arriving at the airport (or one of the two at the very least) to show airline and/or customs personnel.

Many airlines, such as United, also require that passengers upload proof of a negative test before they can check-in and get their boarding pass.

Patients must be asymptomatic to take tests in these settings for travel purposes in the first place and, as noted, locations and costs vary by company and province/state.

As for the proof-of-vaccination, residents of all provinces should be well aware of how to access and save and/or print that documentation by now.

Lead photo by

JC Gellidon


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