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Updated: Canada's new PCR-test requirement for international arrivals

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Starting January 7th, 2021, anyone flying into Canada from any other country will not be allowed to board their flight to Canada until they've shown proof of testing negative for COVID-19 using a molecular polymerase chain-reaction test more, commonly known as a "PCR test", or a Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification ("LAMP test") taken within 72 hours of the departure of their flight to Canada.

Note that this means anyone with connecting flights needs to time their test based not on their first flight, but the departure of their flight landing at a Canadian airport.

EDIT: Jan 4 - I'm now in discussions with four different branches of the Canadian government, who all tell me they'll have answers 'as soon as possible'. I'll keep you posted.

EDIT: Jan 6 - I sat in on the multi-Ministry press briefing this afternoon, and I've updated where appropriate below.

Until Jan 14, anyone flying home from the Caribbean and South America has 96 hours before flight departure, up from the normal 72, to acquire their PCR or LAMP test. This is basically being done to help get through the backlog of people caught up by the rushed implementation of the rule.

Canada's government created this rule in a rush, leaving huge details unexplained even as the rule goes into effect. I'm chasing down as much detail as possible from the various Ministries responsible, and I'll share the answers here as I get them. I really hope they start publishing a LOT more detail on this very quickly.

Does this apply to everyone flying to Canada, regardless of citizenship?

Pretty much.

A negative laboratory test (paper or electronic proof of result) must be presented by the traveller to the airline or private operator prior to coming to Canada. The negative laboratory test result must include the following data elements:

  • Traveller name and date of birth

  • Name and civic address of the laboratory/clinic/facility that administered the test

  • The date on which the test was conducted

  • The method of test conducted (PCR or LAMP)

  • The test result

The government has published a list of exemptions:

  • children under five years of age

  • [airline] crew members

  • emergency service providers, law enforcement or border personnel

  • passengers of a flight that's only landing in Canada to refuel (known as a 'technical stop')

  • transit passengers (like Cancun-London via Toronto) who do not enter Canada, are exempt.

Does this replace the 14-day quarantine, or any other COVID prevention measures?

No, the PCR/LAMP-test requirement is in addition. The only exception is Alberta, where the pilot program to reduce quarantine time with additional testing after arrival continues.

All other measures, including temperature screening, mask requirements and health-check questions, remain in effect for the foreseeable future, for air travel to or within Canada.

What if I've got proof of COVID vaccination?

Doesn't matter, you still need the PCR / LAMP test. Transport Canada's statement reads "While a vaccine protects an individual from illness, further evidence is required to understand if a vaccinated person can still shed virus". Minister of Transport Marc Garneau has repeated this policy publicly.

Where can I get a PCR / LAMP test? Which tests are official / acceptable?

I believe Canada's vague answer on this is completely insufficient. The official statement says that the PCR test must be conducted by:

"a lab accredited by an external organization (e.g., a government, a professional association or ISO accreditation). Only written or electronic proof of a negative lab test result (PCR / LAMP test) conducted within 72 hours prior to boarding a flight to Canada will be accepted."

Canada has vaguely promised to provide a list of acceptable facilities, leaving it up to each traveller to figure out for themselves. At a press conference on Jan 6, Minister Garneau further noted that Canada may decide to issue a list of specific labs that must be used, but provided no timeline for when - or why - this might happen, or how much advance notice would be provided.

This opens a huge risk that travellers who've tried in good faith to follow the law, will still be rejected if there's an argument over whether or not their specific test provided was properly accredited.

For example, Dubai has required a PCR test for arriving passengers for months now, and Emirates have published a detailed country-by-country list of acceptable labs. I can't be sure that every lab listed by Emirates will meet Canada's requirement, but it's probably a good place to start looking.

UPDATE: on the website, some countries now include a list of testing sites. Click on the relevant country, then the "Health" tab, and look for a list of testing facilities. This is incomplete, for example the United Kingdom has a comprehensive list but Greece shows no list at all.

Who decides whether my test result meets the requirements?

That's unclear.

As of Jan 1, the published policy only says that "without a negative COVID-19 test, travellers will be denied boarding onto their flight", but since Canadian government officials are not stationed at every airport flying to Canada, it really looks like they're leaving this up to the airlines to check medical documentation, ensuring each passenger holds an acceptable, negative PCR / LAMP test result before allowing them to board.

In other words, the hourly employee of a foreign company contracted to check in passengers at a distant airport will be responsible for deciding whether you've provided the right medical documentation to allow you to return to Canada.

I want to be clear - this is not me being alarmist or click-baity.

I fly out of foreign airports on a regular basis, I know who's staffing the Air Canada counter in Amsterdam, Boston and Casablanca, and given how vague the published policy currently is, there's a lot of room for this to go badly wrong. Contract staff for Air Canada frequently get the airline's own policies badly wrong, and there's no evidence yet that this will be different.

I've been asking this question of Transport Canada, Health Canada and the Privy Council Office, and because New Year's Day creates a long weekend, I've been told not to expect an answer before Monday, January 4th, by which time we'll already be within 72 hours of this rule going into effect.

How much does a test cost? Who pays for it?

Obviously this will vary from one destination to the next, but generally speaking, I've seen this service listed as low as $52 CAD / $40 USD per person in Dubai, to as high as $165 CAD / $130 USD per person in Cancun.

In many locations, you can pay more to a private service and they'll come to your hotel to take the sample, rather than you having to go to a clinic. This generally adds about $25-50 CAD per person to the cost, but that can be pretty solid value if it saves you time and added exposure.

Passengers are responsible for covering all costs to get these tests, though the government website encourages you to check whether your travel insurance policy will cover the cost of such a test. This is certainly worth checking, but it's best to assume that your policy doesn't cover this, unless you've confirmed very recently in writing that it does.

What happens if I can't find somewhere to get a test that meets the requirements?

That's unclear.

As of January 7th, the entire list of countries in which the Canadian government believes tests to be unavailable, is two:

  • Haiti

  • the tiny islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon

  • that's the whole list.

If you're returning from any other country on Earth - Somalia, Tajikistan, the Federated States of Micronesia - Canada's official position is that tests are available and you'd better get one.

On December 30, Canadian Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc said "Travellers who are unable to procure tests before their flights home won't be stranded abroad", and the rules published December 31 state that "Persons who are travelling from a country where PCR testing is unavailable will be required to report to a designated Public Health Agency of Canada quarantine facility for the duration of their mandatory 14-day quarantine. Delays in obtaining test results does not apply."

Note the part where you'll have to quarantine at a 'designated facility'. I've asked for clarification, but based on previous use of that term during COVID times, assume that this means spending 14 days in a hotel room at your own expense.

They don't specify how they'll determine what counts as "a country where PCR testing is unavailable", and I don't want to speculate irresponsibly on how that might unfold, but if you're travelling to a remote area, I would start planning now for how you'll obtain the necessary test result, and don't forget to factor in how long it will take to get the results.

They don't specify how someone who's unable to obtain a test result will be allowed to board any flight to Canada, or who will be responsible for making that decision. Again, I've asked the Ministry of Transport for clarification and I'll post any details I get here.

If you do find yourself in such a situation, you may find yourself spending unexpected extra days at your destination. Plan ahead for this. Above all, seek out a flexible travel-insurance policy with trip cancellation provisions that cover acts of government. It'll be a lot cheaper than paying for extra hotel nights and rebooked flights. Some flights purchased from Canadian airlines include such a policy, but as these rules are subject to change, please don't just take my word for it, and ensure you read the rules *very* carefully before you travel. The following links were valid as of Jan 6:

What will happen if someone is caught falsifying test results?

I asked this question specifically, and I was directed to the line of policy stating "Violating any instructions provided when you enter Canada is an offence under the Quarantine Act and could lead to up to six months in prison and/or $750,000 in fines."

Suffice it to say that Photoshopping a test result would be a Very Bad Idea, and in my personal opinion this would be one of the stupider things a person could do.

Final Thoughts

Reading this, you might get the impression that I don't think much of this policy. I'm actually fine with Canada requiring this kind of testing, dozens of other countries have had similar requirements for months now.

My problem is with the way Canada's rolled out this policy, in a blind rush and without thinking through how it will actually be implemented. Canada's airline industry has said it was not consulted on this at all before it was announced, despite the fact that it looks like front-line airline employees will be responsible for 90% of the enforcement.

Canada's government needs to work out the details with the airlines onto whom it's dumping this responsibility, and make these details clearly and publicly available as soon as possible.


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