CANADA: Travel and Immigration Restrictions in the Time of Covid-19

Apr 6, 2020 | Global

The Canadian government, in line with its “speed over perfection” approach, adjusts and revises travel policies on a daily basis. The situation remains fluid. with many moving parts. Note that all individuals returning to Canada must self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of citizenship.

The following is effective as of Friday, March 27, 2020:

It is still unclear at the moment how and if visa-exempt workers, who would normally apply for their work permits directly upon arrival, will be allowed to travel to Canada. The situation for pre-approved individuals and those holding valid documents has been clarified:

  • Students who have valid study permits or an IRCC pre-approval letter (“letter of introduction”) dated March 18, 2020, or before, may travel to Canada by land or air.
  • Workers with valid work permits or pre-approval letters from IRCC (“letter of introduction”) may travel to Canada, regardless of industry.
  • New workers who will be employed in critical industries such as agriculture, food processing, health, transportation and emergency services may also travel to Canada.
  • Individuals whose permanent residence has been approved and who hold a Confirmation of Permanent Residence (COPR) issued on or before March 18, 2020, may also travel to Canada in order to activate their permanent residence. They must show the COPR upon boarding the plane.
  • Transit through Canadian airports is still allowed, provided the individual is not seeking to be admitted to Canada.
  • Canadian citizens with dual or multiple citizenship may exceptionally travel back to Canada on their foreign passports, provided they obtained an email from IRCC granting them special authorization.
  • Anyone, regardless of citizenship, returning from abroad must self-isolate for 14 days. Canadians being repatriated and landing at one of the four airports receiving international flights (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver) and who need to take a domestic connecting flight will be quarantined at one of the airport hotels for 14 days, before being allowed to embark on a plane to their final Canadian destinations. Accommodation and food will be provided by the government.
  • Severe penalties such as fines and prison sentences have been established under the Quarantine Act for anyone violating it. Foreign workers, students, and permanent residents could become criminally inadmissible if convicted of one of the more severe offenses under the Quarantine Act.

Immigration-related services in Canada are provided by various provincial and federal administrations, such as Service Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC); and provincial governments such as the Québec Ministry of Immigration. As companies were forced this week to transition to remote work and only “essential” services were allowed to stay open, all government offices have had to adjust quickly to allow their personnel to work remotely. Depending on the administration, some immigration processes still rely heavily on paper-based submissions.

So far, the following adjustments have been announced:


  • Permanent Residence and Citizenship applications can still be sent in hardcopy to IRCC, as their processing center in Sydney remains open.
  • Hardcopy submissions for visitor records, study permits, and work permits are discouraged and should be done online.

Service Canada:

  • Most agents are working remotely.
  • Service Canada will allow employers increased flexibility in reporting changes to working conditions (e.g., wage fluctuation, temporary layoffs).
  • Submissions for Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIA) can now be submitted by email, in addition to fax.
  • 12- and 24-month reviews for Labour Market Benefit Plans are suspended.
  • On-site compliance inspections are suspended.

Québec Ministry of Immigration (MIFI):

  • 95% of their personnel works remotely.
  • MIFI is expected to announce measures to streamline their operations regarding paper submissions soon.

Anticipated Developments

Clarification is awaited on the following elements:

  • Will IRCC emulate France, Australia, and New Zealand’s initiative and automatically extend status documents by 3-6 months?
  • Will MIFI allow electronic signatures and electronic submission of applications?
  • Service Canada is discussing labor mobility for in-Canada workers on closed work permits. Will workers be allowed to move and/or change employers more easily?
  • Will Service Canada ease recruitment requirements for LMIAs?

The following was effective as of Friday, March 20, 2020:

U.S.-Canada Land Border

  • All “non-essential” travel across the land border is prohibited. This includes, among others not yet defined, travel for tourism and recreation.
  • Exceptions exist for supply-chain workers to guarantee continued supply of goods, fuel, and medication in Canada and the United States, as well as for travel for essential work.
  • In the latest announcements, it was confirmed that individuals with valid work permits and study permits may also travel back to Canada.
  • No “flagpoling” for any visitor, foreign worker, or foreign student already in Canada. They must apply online to extend or modify their status.
  • This measure does not include or apply to returning Canadian citizens, permanent residents (PR), and First Nations, including their non-Canadian/non-PR/non-First Nations family members. Family members include spouses and common-law partners, as well as dependent children and their dependent children.

Air Travel to Canada

Airlines must deny boarding to certain travelers. The following is a summary:

  • All symptomatic persons, regardless of citizenship, and any foreign visitor traveling for non-essential purposes, will be denied boarding on airlines.
  • The following groups of people will be allowed to board, along with their family members (see definition above): Canadian citizens, Canadian permanent residents, First Nations, and Members of the Canadian Forces, provided they are asymptomatic.
  • Also allowed to travel by plane: flight crew members, diplomats, Canadian forces on official travel, and persons specifically authorized by Canadian consular officers, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Minister of Public Safety, and the Chief Public Health Officer.
  • Valid work and study permit holders are also allowed to board a flight to Canada, subject to whether they are asymptomatic.
  • It is unclear whether individuals who have not yet activated their work or study permits will be allowed to board. It is likely that airlines will not allow boarding to avoid noncompliance with Canadian regulations and potential fines.
  • Travel by plane for essential work in Canada is also allowed, but it is recommended to heavily document the necessity to travel, as airlines may be reluctant to allow boarding in practice.

Immigration attorneys recommend that temporary workers and students whose status expires in the next 6 months may wish to submit an application for renewal online, and remain in Canada for the foreseeable future and avoid all travel abroad, as they may face complications when re-entering Canada.

Imminent changes to the border closure policy:

  • Contrary to what was announced recently, U.S. citizens and individuals who have been residing in the United States in the past 2 weeks will no longer be able to travel to Canada by land or air for tourism or recreational purposes.
  • It appears that U.S. citizens with work permits to Canada will continue to be allowed into Canada, but will have to abide by the 14-day self-isolation period upon their admission.
  • Essential travel remains allowed to protect trans-border supply chains.

The following best practices are recommended for Canadian employers and foreign workers:

  • As noted above, work or study permit holders should remain in Canada. If they exit the country, there is a possibility that they may not be able to re-enter Canada.
  • Companies should review the expiration dates of all their temporary foreign workers (SIN starting with a 9). Processing times for in-Canada renewals are currently already at 89 days, and will likely increase further due to increased volume of applicants from inside Canada, and lower staffing at Immigration Canada.
  • Renewals should be initiated well in advance. Submitting a renewal application 6 months before the expiration date is recommended.
  • Layoffs of foreign workers may affect their immigration status, capacity to remain in Canada and renew their work permits, and companies’ ability to use the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in the future. Companies should attempt to re-hire laid-off personnel, including foreign workers, as soon as they are able to.
  • Companies that have received Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIA) usually must ensure that the subsequent work permit based thereon be activated within 6 months. In light of the current economic situation, the Canadian government has announced that companies can delay the arrival of the foreign worker, and the activation of the work permit, up to 9 months after LMIA issuance.
  • Many service providers who are essential to Canadian immigration applications—for instance, who issue police clearance certificates, provide immigration medical examinations, offer language testing in English and French, and issue educational credential evaluations—have temporarily ceased their operations. Immigration Canada said it will consider deadline extensions on a case-by-case basis. Notably, biometrics can now be completed in 90 days instead of 30, even if the templated biometrics letter states 30 days.

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