Travelling to the U.S.? The rules are still in flux

American tourists yearning to visit Canada received welcome news on Monday when the federal government announced it will soon reopen its doors to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens. 

However, some Canadians yearning to cross the U.S. land border felt short-changed, as no reciprocal agreement was announced. 

“I’m waiting pretty damn patiently. We are all waiting pretty patiently to have this border open,” said Leslie Beitel of Lethbridge, Alta. She owns a second home about 290 kilometres away in Columbia Falls, Mont., but can’t drive there because the U.S. land border is closed.  

“It would just be really nice to be able to have free access to our place,” she said. 

Here are the current rules for entering the U.S., including what’s subject to change. 

U.S. travel rules

In March 2020, Canada and the United States agreed to close their shared land border to non-essential travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

The U.S. decided to still let Canadian tourists enter by air, while Canada barred American travellers from entering by any mode of transport. 

It was widely assumed that — when the time was right — the two countries would announce a joint reopening of the land border. 

But that didn’t happen. 

On Monday, the Canadian government announced that, come Aug. 9, fully vaccinated Americans can enter Canada and even skip quarantine. The U.S. government, however, had nothing new to announce, except that it was continuing to review its current travel restrictions. 

“Every country gets to set its own rules about how it will keep its citizens safe,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference in Hamilton on Tuesday. 

WATCH | Canada to open border to vaccinated Americans starting Aug. 9: 

Effective Aug. 9, fully vaccinated Americans can travel to Canada without having to quarantine, rules which may extend to the rest of the world in early September. 2:32

A day later, the U.S. declared that, barring an amendment, its side of the land border will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Aug. 21 due to risks posed by the pandemic.

Even so, Canadians can still freely enter the U.S. by air. 

They must show proof of a negative molecular or antigen COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before their flight. 

When returning to Canada, travellers must show proof of a negative molecular test taken in the U.S. However, the Canadian government said that come Aug. 9, travellers can take that test when leaving Canada, and use it to both enter the U.S. and return home — as long as they’re in the U.S. for less than 72 hours. 

Birgit Heinbach, right, used to be able to walk to her husband Ian Geddes’s house in Blaine, Wash., in 45 minutes. With the land border closed, the trip now involves two planes and most of a day. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ she said. (Len Saunders)

Birgit Heinbach lives in Surrey, B.C., just seven kilometres from her American husband’s home across the border in Blaine, Wash. 

She used to be able to walk to her husband’s house in 45 minutes, but because Heinback can’t travel by land, visiting her husband has become a lengthy, expensive journey. 

“I have to fly from Vancouver to Seattle, hang around there, take the next plane to Bellingham. So it takes me three quarters of a day,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Why won’t the U.S. reopen its land border now?

Last year, the U.S. made noises about reopening the Canada-U.S. land border while Canada publicly opposed the idea. 

So why was the U.S. silent on Monday when Canada announced its reopening plans?

Foreign policy expert Edward Alden suggested the U.S. is waiting until it’s ready to reopen its shared land border with Mexico, which is also closed to non-essential travel. 

“It would be enormously awkward for this administration … to lift the restrictions on Canada without simultaneously lifting the land border restrictions on Mexico,” said Alden, a professor of U.S.-Canada economic relations at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

WATCH | Mexico’s ambassador to Canada on the land border closures: 

Following news that the U.S. will extend its land border closure with Mexico and Canada until Aug. 21, Mexico’s Ambassador to Canada Juan José Gomez-Camacho tells Power & Politics he thinks it’s logical for the United States to treat its northern and southern borders the same. 7:28

Alden suggested the U.S. isn’t rushing to reopen the border with Mexico because of the anticipated consequences: a flood of asylum seekers it can’t immediately turn back along with backlash from Republicans opposed to Biden’s immigration policies. 

“It’s mostly the political concern over the Republicans,” he said. “It’s also, I would think, just a [border] resources concern.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tweeted that it is “in constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably.”

Vaccine mixing concerns

It’s unclear at this point whether the U.S. will mandate that Canadian tourists be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 when they’re allowed to cross by land. It’s not currently a requirement for U.S.-bound air travellers.

If the U.S. does impose a vaccination requirement, it could cause problems for the more than 2.6 million Canadians who have mixed doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

The U.S. currently does not recognize COVID-19 vaccine mixing.

“The safety and effectiveness of receiving two different COVID-19 vaccines has not been studied,” Jasmine Reed, a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an email. 

However, the CDC says mixed doses of the two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, will be accepted in “exceptional situations,” such as when the vaccine used for the first dose was no longer available. That rule excludes the many Canadians who got an AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine and an mRNA shot.

Cruise line questions

Several cruise lines are following the CDC’s directive for their cruises departing from the U.S. where the passenger must be fully vaccinated. Norweigan Cruise Line is not recognizing people with mixed doses as being fully vaccinated. Princess CruisesCarnival and Holland America aren’t recognizing those who mixed doses of AstraZeneca and an mRNA vaccine.

“It makes me feel like I’m somehow a second class citizen,” said epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine, who got one dose of AstraZeneca and a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine said studies so far suggest that mixing vaccine doses is safe and effective, so the U.S. will likely at some point change its policy, which does not currently recognize them. (Lauren Winter Photography)

Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said studies so far suggest that mixing vaccine doses is safe and effective, so the U.S. will likely change its policy at some point.

“It has to change, because this is such a narrow kind of take on what is allowable,”  he said. 

“There are many countries mixing and matching different types of vaccines.”

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