Bank of lockers, many of them open, with a sign saying, “all lockers must be CLOSED”.
Like the lockers at my favorite parcel pick-up spot, the Canada-US border is not entirely closed.

What it’s like to cross the Canada-US border during Covid

On life, liberty, and the pursuit of bacon

“Fruity cereal” flavored KitKat bar
America’s relentless pursuit of scientific innovation is just one reason I was eager to return to the United States.

Preparing for the trip

I really appreciated the Canadian government’s handy checklist for daring cross-border travelers.
  1. Downloading the ArriveCan app that is used to process returning Canadians (with a lot of Covid questions) and filling out all our personal info and vaccination records (including photographic evidence) in advance, including our estimated return time of 10:21 pm August 2 (somewhat randomly chosen).
  2. Pre-registering with the testing lab that conducts arrival testing at Pacific Highway (where we crossed ) and Douglas (a.k.a. Peace Arch)
  3. Booking a free drive-through Covid test at Walgreens. After reading various threads on TripAdvisor and Reddit I concluded that I could book the ID NOW (rapid diagnostic test), which meets the Canadian re-entry criteria as a NAAT test. As of next week, Canadians will be able to take a test before leaving the country (as long as we plan to return within 72 hours), but they’re not covered by health insurance if they’re for travel rather than possible exposure, and they cost $150 to $200 at travel clinics. At Walgreens, the test is free; we just had to show ID on arrival. Test windows seem to be available three days in advance, and there is only one location near the Canadian border that offers diagnostic tests (including ID NOW) as opposed to antigen tests (which aren’t accepted as proof of non-Covidity). I checked the site for appointments twice a day for the week before our planned trip, which was kind of a pain, because you have to fill in a bunch of information every time before you can see if there are available appointments. We wanted a Monday morning test (so we’d have a hope of getting results by end of day), and I was able to nab those spots Thursday evening. Next time I’ll know to just look online 4 nights before the morning I want a test.
  4. Ordering a few (ok, maybe more than a few) things on Amazon.com that don’t ship to Canada. (Canadian Amazon has only a fraction of the products available on US Amazon, though it’s a much larger fraction than it was before Covid.) As per my previous cross-border routine, I had them mostly shipped to an Amazon hub counter (the Bellingham Rite Aid) in order to save on delivery fees, and when we got closer to our travel date, had a few more items shipped to the Amazon lockers at the Bellingham Whole Foods. I also had some things shipped to our border mailbox. Basically, most of northwestern Washington state was seeded with my trademark mixture of USB-C cables, Peets coffee pods and melatonin gummies.
  5. Creating a spreadsheet of my Amazon and online purchases by exporting my recent Amazon order history, subtotaling my purchases by category, and leaving space to add any same-day purchases. I also printed out all my online purchase invoices and attached them to my spreadsheet. This is something I’ve been doing for a few years now (or at least did before Covid) because it makes the Canadian border guards very happy when they have a concise record of my declared purchases and can easily figure out whether to charge me duty.
  6. Putting our Nexus cards, US passports, Canadian passports and vaccination records in a secure travel wallet so all our documentation was in one place. That wallet stayed with me at all times.
  7. Packing a fresh box of KN95 masks, so that we could put on a clean mask every time we masked up, instead of re-using our masks throughout the day. I’ve stopped doing that in Canada since getting vaccinated, but given the Delta figures on the other side of the border, decided to go back to a stricter approach for the day.
  8. Packing the van full of insulated bags, reusable shopping bags and my Amazon wagon. I bought this wagon on Amazon a few years ago, for the purpose of picking up Amazon packages. It is seriously so useful in these situations. Buying Amazon things that let you buy more Amazon things is what sent Jeff Bezos into not-actually-outer space, so don’t knock it. [Note: The wagon link is an affiliate link, so if you buy one, you will be helping me go to not-actually-outer space, too.]
  9. Polling my friends. In pre-Covid times, it was pretty common for Vancouverites to do regular shopping runs to Bellingham, so many of my Canadian friends have favorite products from Trader Joe or US Amazon. So I offered to pick up items for my friends who can’t yet cross the border.
  10. Packing an overnight bag. My read of online threads about Walgreens’ Covid tests suggested we were likely to get our results in an hour or two, but just in case, I wanted us to be prepared to stay overnight in a hotel while waiting for results.

Getting into the United States

Our day in the U.S.A.

Before Covid, I would bond with my fellow cross-border shoppers as we opened our packages and compared notes.
Drive-through Covid testing at the Bellingham Walgreens.
The parking lot at the Bellingham Target was a sea of Washington state plates.
screen shot of negative covid test
It’s negative!
The Rite Aid mask selection was not impressive, but you can’t beat the branding on this “Land of Liberty” mask.
Package of salted caramel brownie oreos
While the rest of us were worrying about vaccination acceptance rates and universal basic income, America figured out that what the world really needs is Salted Caramel Brownie Oreos. Who am I to argue?
A package of red, white and blue oreos “with popping candy”.
Sadly, by the time my mom promised not to share these America-flavored Oreos with my kids, I had already left Rite Aid. Now we will never know what America tastes like.
An empty post-vaccination waiting area at Rite Aid.
Starbucks sign indicating that the store is temporarily closed
The Bellis Fair Starbucks is closed for the pandemic.
Hand sanitizer on the Macy’s counter, along with a sign reminding patrons to keep a 6-foot distance.
Macy’s had lots of signs promoting social distancing, but happily, the fitting rooms were still open.
Mechie’s plastic spoon handed over with metal tongs
Menchie’s spoon: Now Covid-free!
cardboard box full of perfectly crisp brand parmesan crisps
This is what a five-month supply of parmesan crisps looks like. OK, I’ll admit it: This is what half of a five-month supply looks like.
Cooler full of cheese
In this ever-changing world, it is reassuring to find the Tillamook Extra Sharp White Cheddar in the exact same Whole Foods cooler.
A very large amount of Trader Joe’s bacon in a shopping cart
Thank God It’s Bacon.

Returning to Canada

Covid test kit with instruction sheets
The Covid test kit provided by Canadian Border Services comes with detailed instructions in both English and French, but if you take it on arrival at the border, a helpful human walks you through the process.
iPhone quarantine notification alert alongside screenshot of government website saying to ignore the notifications if you’re an exempt traveler
I was briefly alarmed by a phone notification suggesting I had to be in quarantine, after all…until I saw the note on the Border Services website advising that exempt, vaccinated travelers could ignore these notifications.

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Alexandra Samuel

Speaker on hybrid & remote work. Author, Remote Inc. Contributor to Wall Street Journal & Harvard Business Review. https://AlexandraSamuel.com/newsletter