The U.S.-Canada Border is Closed to “Nonessential” Travel. Is My Travel Essential?

By May 7, 2020 Coronavirus, Immigration


On March 18, 2020, the U.S. and Canadian governments announced the closure of the international border to nonessential travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  An announcement of the border closure was published in the Federal Register on March 24, 2020, in which the Department of Homeland Security noted that, consistent with the President’s declaration of a national emergency, the spread of COVID-19 within the U.S. posed a “specific threat to human life or national interests,” justifying the travel restrictions under 19 U.S.C. § 1318.  The initial closure was scheduled to expire on April 20, 2020, but was extended for an additional month, or until 11:59 PM EDT on May 20, 2020.  The notice extending the travel restrictions was published in the Federal Register on April 22, 2020.

The Notices limit travel through land ports of entry to “essential travel,” which includes, but is not limited to:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Canada in furtherance of such work);
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID–19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Canada);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

The Notices specifically exclude from the definition of ‘‘essential travel’’ individuals traveling for tourism purposes (defined as sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events).

Canadian citizens who need to travel to the U.S. for work should still be able to do so.  However, several states, including Maine, still have stay-at-home and quarantine orders in effect, which may limit the types of work activities in which an out-of-state traveler may engage to “essential services.”  Prior to departure, travelers should review restrictions that are in place not only at the border, but also at their intended destination.

Perkins Thompson has extensive experience advising U.S. and Canadian companies on cross-border travel issues, and will update this post as new information becomes available.  If you have questions, please send an email to Joe Siviski or call him at (207) 774-2635.