Crossing the U.S. border by land: What you need to know

Once the border opens on Nov. 8, fully vaccinated Canadians—including those with mixed vaccines—will be allowed entry.

Mariyam Khaja, Chatelaine
The border crossing from St. Stephen, New Brunswick to Calais, Maine. (Photo: Getty Images)

The border crossing from St. Stephen, New Brunswick to Calais, Maine. (Photo: Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article was published on October 27. As the border situation is always evolving, please check with Canadian and U.S authorities’ sites for the latest information before travelling.

On Nov. 8, the U.S. reopens its land border, welcoming fully vaccinated Canadian travellers. While Canadians have been able to fly into the U.S., this marks the land border’s first reopening since its closure at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Here’s everything you need to know about the border reopening and what risks are involved with travel.

What do I need to cross the land border into the U.S. from Canada?

Only fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed entry into the U.S. This includes anyone who has received FDA and WHO-approved vaccines, including both doses of the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, at least two weeks prior to crossing the border. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it will also allow entry to vaccinated Canadians who received two doses of different vaccines.

Unlike when flying into the U.S., you won’t need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test when driving across the border. You will also need your usual travel documents, including a passport.

READ: COVID vaccines for children are almost here. How well have we protected the kids so far? 

What do I need to return to Canada?

Fully vaccinated Americans or Canadians returning to Canada by land or air will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of crossing the border. This also applies to unvaccinated kids over the age of five.

There are several accepted COVID-19 tests that can be used to cross the border into Canada, including a PCR test, RT-PCR test, nucleic acid test (NAT), Nucleic acid amplification test (NAATs) or a Reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP) test. Rapid antigen tests won’t be accepted. Pharmacies in the U.S. like Walgreens, RiteAid and CVS offer COVID-19 testing for travel, including PCR tests, usually with a turnaround time of less than 72 hours.

If you’ve had COVID-19 and recovered, you may continue to test positive despite not showing any symptoms. To cross the border in that case, you’ll need to show proof of a positive COVID-19 test between 14 and 180 days prior to travel. And, even if you’re fully vaccinated, you may be selected for randomized COVID-19 testing at the border upon arrival back to Canada.

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How are land and air border requirements different when travelling to the U.S.?

When flying to the U.S., travellers over the age of two will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, taken within 72 hours of travel. This requirement isn’t in place for those driving into the country. And similar to land border requirements, on Nov. 8, only fully vaccinated travellers will be allowed to board planes flying into the U.S., “with only limited exceptions.”

Airlines entering the U.S. accept antigen tests, which are cheaper than PCR tests and often have a quicker turnaround. COVID-19 antigen tests for travel can be purchased at Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart locations across Ontario and Alberta for $20 and $40, respectively. Private pharmacies in other provinces may also offer antigen tests.

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Will my unvaccinated kids be able to cross the border? What happens when they return to Canada?

Kids under the age of 12 who aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine will be able to cross the border into the U.S.

If the child is asymptomatic and returning to Canada with fully vaccinated parents or guardians, they won’t have to quarantine. But they do have to adhere to public health guidelines for 14 days upon arrival, according to requirements outlined by the Canadian government. These include avoiding contact with seniors or those who are immunocompromised, staying home from school, camps or daycares and avoiding spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. Kids won’t be forced to stay at home though: they are able to visit public parks or go for walks outside provided they’re wearing a mask.

Kids over 5 will also need to get tested before and upon arrival, as well as eight days after returning to Canada.

READ: COVID-19 has drastically affected Canadian travel spending 

Is it safe to travel? What can I do safely in the U.S.?

Canada only recently lifted a blanket advisory warning against all non-essential international travel. But, irrespective of the precautions you take—getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing—travel exposes you to others, increasing the risk of getting COVID-19, says Brenda Coleman, an infectious disease epidemiologist based in Toronto. Certain behaviours, of course, will increase your risk, such as driving across the border with friends who are not in your social circle or stopping at multiple busy places along the way. If you’re flying, Coleman says it’s also important to consider what airline safety precautions are in place and whether you’re able to take a direct flight rather than stop over at a busy airport.

Once you get to the U.S., your risk of getting COVID-19 also depends on what you’ll be doing there—going to casinos, bars or using public transportation are all high risk. “Any activity that’s considered high risk here is going to be higher risk in the U.S.,” said Coleman. “They have lower rates of vaccination and higher rates of COVID-19 infections compared to Canada.” Before deciding on what to do, she says it’s important to consider if the space is well ventilated, whether you’re able to physically distance, wear a mask, wash your hands often and avoid large crowds. Which state you visit can also impact risk—Florida or Texas have higher rates of infection than states like Maine, for example.

And as for snowbirds looking to the south, Coleman says that if you’re planning on staying in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, you need to plan for what might happen in the event of another outbreak and changes to Canada’s border policies.