What it’s like to cross the Canada-US border during Covid
What’s it like to cross the Canada-US land border right now?
For most Canadians, it’s a moot point. The Canada-US border is closed in both directions, and only essential traffic is allowed.
I’m a dual citizen of the US and Canada, however, which means that I’m allowed to cross the border in either direction. So I thought I’d document the experience for anyone else thinking of doing the same thing, for Americans thinking of coming to Canada when the border opens to fully vaccinated Americans next week, and for people who are simply curious about what things are like for the US communities that normally depend on Canadian visitors (a subject I covered for The Verge.)
If you’re a Canadian who is waiting to visit the US, keep waiting. The US has yet to announce whether and when it will open its own border to Canadians— a somewhat ironic asymmetry, considering that Canadian Covid rates are much lower (and vaccination rates now higher) than they are in the States. Spoiler alert: My 13 hours in the US, and our experience crossing each border, gave me fresh insight into why we’ve seen this discrepancy.
Even as an American citizen, I had to wait a long time for this trip to be viable. After closing the border in March of 2020, the Canadian government announced that any Canadian returning home would need to quarantine for 14 days, and later, began enforcing a mandatory (and expensive) 3-day hotel quarantine for all returning air travelers. Since it would be hard on my family (not to mention logistically complicated) for me to spend two weeks in quarantine, and because I was very concerned about the high rates of Covid transmission on the other side of the border, I treated the US border as closed while those rules were in place.
In late June, however, the Canadian government announced that fully vaccinated travelers would be able to return to Canada without a quarantine as of July 5, as long as we had proof of full vaccination and of a negative Covid test taken within the past 72 hours. Even more important, mid-July is when my kids had their second Covid shots, at which point everyone in our household was fully vaccinated.
Between the policy change and our own household vaccination status, it suddenly became possible to imagine crossing the border. It also became somewhat urgent, because I had a banking procedure I had to deal with in the United States. (I’ll skip sharing the details to avoid identity theft.)
All of that meant that I needed to cross the border sometime in late July or early August — and also, I could do so without too much hassle. But I’m still a bit of an edge case (after all, only dual citizens can readily cross the land border), so it wasn’t too easy to figure out what was involved, even though the Canadian government has detailed guidance.
I was keen to sort out the process, because we had a very established routine for our cross-border runs before Covid: Every 4 to 8 weeks, we’d pop across the border to retrieve packages from our lockers at a border mailbox operation, then drive another 20 minutes to Bellingham (the location of the nearest Target, Trader Joe’s and US-based Whole Foods). This was a routine even before I became a strict ketogenic eater, but once I went keto, I became even more devoted, because there are a bunch of keto-friendly products I have been unable to find in Canada (or even ship here).
So once I realized I’d have to cross the border for this banking thing, I decided I might as well re-stock our freezer and pantry. A few weeks ago, I used up my last box of Whole Foods’ Perfectly Crisp parmesan crisps, which had been tenderly stored in our freezer since last spring, when I had a year’s supply couriered across the border in an operation that rivaled the expense and complexity of the landing at Normandy. Also crucial? Target macadamia nuts, which are much better than any other bag you can buy outside Hawaii (I’ve tried!), but since Target doesn’t ship to Canada, it’s been complicated and expensive to get them.
Most crucially, I had my heart set on a fresh supply of Trader Joe’s uncured applewood smoked bacon. I had about a dozen packages in the freezer when the border closed, which was enough to last a couple of months, but not nearly as much as I’d have socked away if I’d anticipated a global pandemic. Out Of Bacon was one of the distinct stages of grief in the early months of Covid, after which I resigned myself to trying every brand of bacon I could find in Vancouver.
I thought I’d put the loss behind me. But a few months ago, I found one last package of TJ’s bacon hiding in the freezer; after cooking it in the oven according to my favorite research-driven methodology, I regretfully concluded that there wasn’t a single Vancouver-based bacon that even came close. In the ensuing weeks, my longing for Trader Joe’s bacon somehow came up in a conversation with my main, New York-based client; the A/V tech setting me up for a corporate keynote; and the editor working with me on a forthcoming story. I realized I was in danger of becoming That Lady Who Can’t Stop Talking About Bacon.
There was only one cure, and it was uncured. I had to get me to TJs.
Once I committed to the Great Bank & Bacon Odyssey of 2021, I thought I’d turn it into a long-overdue weekend getaway with my teenager. But no sooner had I booked a Seattle hotel than Delta numbers started to spike; we decided it was better to make a surgical strike and keep our time in the US as short as possible.
Preparing for the trip
The Canadian government has quite a few requirements for returning to Canada, so I did my homework before I hit the road. (Happily, there is a government checklist that makes this easier to figure out.)
Our prep steps included:
- 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).
- Pre-registering with the testing lab that conducts arrival testing at Pacific Highway (where we crossed ) and Douglas (a.k.a. Peace Arch)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]
- 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.
- 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.
If that sounds like a lot of work for a banking errand and a little bacon, you are clearly not that serious about bacon.
Getting into the United States
If you are not a US citizen or permanent resident, and you don’t have an essential reason for travel, the land border is closed. (You can still fly to the US, however.)
If you are a US citizen, here’s what’s involved in crossing the border into the US: Drive up to the border. Show your passport. Enter the country.
Yes, it’s that simple. No vaccination or Covid test required.
I did wonder what would happen if I tried to bring my husband with me; unlike my two kids, who are also dual citizens, my husband has only one passport (Canadian). But I’d heard a rumor that spouses of US citizens could cross the land border if traveling as a family.
I asked the US border guard who welcomed us back to the United States if my husband would be able to cross the land border with us. No, she said — and apparently it’s a common misconception. She’s had to turn plenty of people away.
So if we wanted to re-enter the US as a family, I would have to put my husband on a plane, and then drive down with the kids to retrieve him in Bellingham or Seattle.
But traveling as a US citizen, with a kid who is also a US citizen, it was no hassle. We just drove up to the border in the Nexus lane — totally unnecessary, because there was ZERO traffic at the border, even though it was a holiday Monday. After years of slowly snaking through traffic at Peace Arch it was downright eerie to just drive down an empty road and right up to the border kiosk. I think there were maybe two other cars at the adjacent kiosk.
The border guard was very friendly and welcoming. There was no issue entering the country. The process took less than two minutes. We’d left our home in Vancouver at 8 am, and were across the border before 9.
Our day in the U.S.A.
We started our day at our parcel lockers, where we picked up the items that were waiting for us. I missed the friendly staff who used to be here during business hours, and felt strangely tearful to see the unboxing area cordoned off for the pandemic.
Then we drove to Bellingham, where we had a 10:30 Covid test appointment at Walgreens. But I figured they might be ok with us arriving early, so we just went directly to the drive-through line, which was empty. I gave the pharmacist our names and he handed us our Covid tests through a slot in the window.
The test was just a single long swab in a half-plastic, half-paper envelope. We tore open our swabs and as instructed, dipped it into each nostril three times, about halfway up. As a Covid test virgin, I didn’t find it as awful as I’d feared. Early in the pandemic, my teen got tested at a drive-through clinic in Vancouver, and they said that had been much more painful, because the person administering the test stuck the swab way higher up than the Walgreens pharmacist required.
We were done at Walgreens by 9:30 — literally ninety minutes after we’d left the house. “That was pretty easy,” I said. “Maybe we can start doing this regularly again. Maybe I only need a few weeks’ worth of bacon.”
We swung by Starbucks to get breakfast for my kid and take a bathroom break (washrooms were open and unlocked) and then went directly to Target so that we could do our non-perishable shopping early, before the store got crowded.
The Target parking lot was weird. Usually when you go to the Bellingham Target, half the license plates are from BC. Even though it was a holiday, every single car in the parking lot (other than ours) had Washington state plates. It was like all the Canadians had been raptured.
We went into Target, which was not at all crowded, but not completely empty either — even at 10 am on a Monday. There were certainly some customers who were unmasked, but it seemed like most customers (and all employees) were wearing masks. I had worried that the sight of unmasked Americans would freak me out, but it wasn’t as different as I’d expected. Now that I’ve been to a few restaurant patios, and even one inside restaurant, I’ve seen other people without masks on. So the occasional unmasked Target customer wasn’t too disconcerting.
We worked our way through Target’s fashion department, since my kid is very excited about getting a post-Covid back-to-school wardrobe after 18 months of being at home. (They start university next month.) We filled a shopping cart with clothes to try on; the fitting rooms were open, though only a handful — the main set of fitting rooms seemed to be closed for Covid, or perhaps just because it was a Monday morning.
My teen had scarcely started trying on clothes when I checked my email and discovered our Walgreens test results were in — barely more than an hour after we’d left the drive-through. They were negative, as expected. Phew! Plus now we knew we’d be able to return to Canada that evening. I took screen shots of the results so I’d have a record I could print out.
With our test results in hand and our clothing purchases selected, we were free to explore the rest of Target. It was wildly different: In a post-Covid America, there are masks and sanitizer bottles in every aisle, signs encouraging you to get vaccinated, and huge gun racks selling you self-protection for the end times.
Just kidding: America has not changed at all. Like, weirdly not changed. There is way more evidence of things being different when I go into Vancouver’s London Drugs (where the whole front section of the store is masks, soap and sanitizer) than there is at Target. The main thing that has changed in America is that they have finally come up with an actually desirable novelty Oreo flavor.
As well as one that is just disturbing.
At both Target and Rite Aid (where we stopped next, to pick up packages), I was surprised that there wasn’t more evidence that we are in a pandemic. But the main thing I saw at Rite Aid was evidence that Bellingham is in trouble without its Canadian customers: There was hardly anyone there, and loads of aisles were completely empty. At least one had been re-purposed as a post-vaccination waiting room but there wasn’t anybody there getting vaccinated.
By this point, we were ravenous. We had decided we didn’t want to take off our masks around other people, even outdoors, so that precluded eating lunch on a patio. Instead, we ordered lunch to go, from the online menu of our favorite all-day breakfast place.
Another thing that hasn’t changed? American portion sizes. I was glad that when I ordered my scramble (made with four eggs), I remembered to decline the three pancakes that came with it as a “side”. My teen was pretty overwhelmed by the size of their apple pancake. Pro tip: If you’re going to eat in your car, wear long pants. (That pancake was burning hot on my poor kid’s bare legs!)
After lunch, I asked my kid the crucial question: Did we want to do any more non-perishable shopping before we filled the car with parm crisps and bacon? Since Target had been so empty, we decided we were comfortable going back to the mall for a little more shopping.
We drove around to the main entrance so we wouldn’t have to walk through a department store to get to the smaller shops my teen wanted to visit. That meant entering the food court, where there were perhaps five or ten different tables occupied in an enormous space. I guess business must be slow all the time now, because the Starbucks had a sign announcing that they are closed for the foreseeable future.
We popped into a few (largely empty) stores before wandering into Macy’s and H&M. All the shops were business as usual, so when we got to H&M, we loaded our arms with items my teen wanted to try on. But the H&M fitting rooms are closed for Covid, it turns out; there’s a sign encouraging you to take clothes home to try on, and bring back anything you don’t want. Not really an option for us cross-border shoppers, so we improvised a fitting room in a discreet corner, and limited ourselves to items we could try on over existing clothes.
By this point it was about 5 pm, and we were ready to wrap up. We drove to Whole Foods, where my teen was excited to visit the neighboring Menchie’s while I shopped for parm crisps. Menchie’s had a no-sugar-added chocolate flavor with just 5 grams of net carbs (if you limited yourself to a one-ounce serving, aka three mouthfuls) so I actually got to have a teensy frozen yogurt with a ton of almonds and peanuts on top. What a treat! Plus I enjoyed having my Covid-free spoon handed to me with a set of tongs.
I headed to Whole Foods, where the nice grocery team had set aside two cases of parmesan crisps. (On Saturday, it suddenly occurred to me that they might not have enough unless I called ahead.) Not knowing how the border crossing would go, I’d decided to buy a 5-month supply: Enough to get me through to the end of 2021, even if the border closes up again or the Canadian government reinstates the 14-day quarantine.
There are two new flavors of parm crisps from my favorite supplier (jalapeño, and a multi-seed), so I got a few of those to try, too. I also picked up our favorite Tillamook cheddar, which was located in the exact same spot in the exact same cooler where it lived when I’d last visited the store at the beginning of 2020.
Before we left the Whole Foods parking lot, I hit the website of our favorite Bellingham burger place, which now has a location right across from Trader Joe. I ordered a burger for pickup so it would be ready by the time we gassed up and drove across town. I’d planned to eat in the car, but there was a big yard outside the takeout window with picnic tables, and nobody else there. So I wolfed down a delicious burger and then hopped up to ask for a fork for my coleslaw (handed over without tongs, which only struck me as remarkable because of the Menchie’s thing).
Last but not least, it was time for Trader Joe’s. I had done my homework by reading up on the best new TJ’s products, but mostly I just accumulated a couple of carts full of our usual staples: riced cauliflower, Kerrygold butter, baked cheese bites, toasted slivered almonds.
Then it was time for the bacon aisle! As I approached the bacon I suddenly panicked: What if I needed to call ahead, the way I had with the parm crisps? What if they were out? What if they just didn’t have enough?
What is enough, you ask? Well, it’s a pretty specific amount. I make a big scramble every week that I parcel out each morning for breakfast, and each scramble needs one full package of bacon. That means I need about twenty packages of bacon to last until the winter holiday. I counted them into my cart, and then added a couple more packages for emotional emergencies that require extra bacon.
At the checkout, our cashier was very excited because we were the first returning Canadians she’d served. She’s had other Canadians who come in regularly (presumably, essential workers crossing the border regularly for work) but we’re the first people to come into the store after an extended absence. She agreed that the applewood bacon really is spectacular, and suggested that next time, I also try the Black Forest. (I will!)
Our purchase turned out to be the largest she’d ever rung up. It was the largest I’d ever made, too. On the advice of counsel, I decline to name the precise figure.
Somewhat shocked by our final bill, I had an epiphany on the way out of the store. “I think I just trauma shopped,” I told my kid. “I just shopped as if we are about to have an 18-month pandemic, but this time, I actually get to shop as if I know it’s coming.”
“No kidding,” they said, like it had been obvious to them from the moment I first started talking about the trip.
“Also,” I said, “I might have bought too much bacon.”
We drove back to the border, stopping once more at our parcel locker to pick up a few things that had been delivered that day. While I was retrieving the parcels, I had my teen add our additional purchase figures to our pre-printed spreadsheets. When we did our Target checkout, I’d separated our purchases into three categories, and paid for each separately: clothing, groceries and housewares. That made it very easy to do our border accounting — why have I never thought of this before? (In another genius innovation, I packed our Trader Joe’s freezables into bags that I just dropped into our chest freezer when we got home, which was so much better than having to unload groceries at midnight!)
With that, our American day was done. Time to get back into Canada.
Returning to Canada
Approaching the Pacific Highway border crossing to Canada was just as weird as Peach Arch had been 13 hours before: It was totally empty. Only two lanes were open, with one car pulled up at the border kiosk in each lane, and literally nobody else waiting. Since one lane had a sign saying it was for people using the ArriveCan app, that was the lane we picked. The car in front of us had California plates; the adjacent lane had a BC car.
Usually the border line moves briskly; if it takes more than 60 seconds for the border officer to wave the car through, you know something exciting is going on. But when we pulled up at the border, both those cars were already waiting….and it took five or ten minutes for the California car to move on and for us to approach the kiosk. That slower pace was our first sign that things had changed.
When we pulled up to the kiosk, the border officer wanted to know where we were based (Vancouver), why we’d been to the US (for my banking errand plus some bacon, while were at it), how long we’d been there (just the day), and how we’d been able to enter the US in the first place (dual citizenship). He asked to see our Covid test results; I had forgotten to print them out, but he was perfectly content to just see the screen shot. (And I was glad I’d saved it, so I didn’t have to make him wait while I accessed the results online.)
The officer asked if I was bringing back any goods, and I handed him our spreadsheet with all the printed-out invoices and receipts attached. He wanted to know how I had a print-out if I lived in Canada; I explained I had printed all this out before leaving, then just added today’s purchases in pencil. I am pretty sure that if Canadian Border Services gave an award for outstanding citizen performance in Excel, I would have won it right then and there.
There was a small hitch in pulling up our ArriveCan records; it turned out that when I’d re-accessed our filled-but-not-filed arrival application an hour earlier, I’d forgotten to hit submit. But I was able to click through all my responses and hit submit in about fifteen seconds. Weirdly, our arrival time was almost exactly what I’d anticipated — I’d said 10:21, and it was 10:20 when we pulled up at the kiosk.
Once our ArriveCan record came through and the officer had seen our test results on my phone, he handed us a couple of Covid test kits (much larger than the skinny swab at Walgreens), and told us to pull over to the testing tents — but warned they might be about to close. I hadn’t realized the on-site testing had limited hours, so in future I would make a point of arriving before 10 pm. You can take your test kit home, but then you have to quarantine until you do your test; it’s easier to do on arrival.
A yellow-vested official directed us to a parking space beside the tent, where a masked (but not uniformed) employee had us open the outer envelope on our kits and begin the process of filling in the form. I mentioned that we had preregistered for the tests on the lab site, and he was delighted: We were the first returning Canadians he’d encountered who’d actually followed that instruction! (Yes, we won Covid border crossing.)
Thanks to our advance paperwork, all we had to do was add the specific unit number for our Covid test to our on-site pre-registration, along with our name and test location. (I accidentally selected the wrong option. “Pacific (Douglas)” is the official name of the Peace Arch testing location; scroll down to get to Pacific Highway.) Thankfully our helper guided us through the whole process, which took about ten minutes, including filling in the label we then stuck on our test vials, and figuring out what to do with my incorrect location submission. (The test site supervisor said she’d just change it on her computer.) I could hear someone else being told that testing was now closed for today, which I guess meant being sent home with the kit.
Once we finished the paperwork portion we just had to wait a moment for our testing turn. I asked the yellow-vested commissioner if this was a busy night (after all, it was the end of a holiday weekend.) On the contrary, he told me: It was uncharacteristically quiet. Now that the border is closed to just about any recreational traffic, there is more traffic on business days than on weekends.
We were soon waved into the tent, where we rolled down our windows while keeping our masks on. A masked, shielded, gloved and gowned Red Cross employee directed us to open the swabs in our kit. I brilliantly unscrewed the bottle that I assumed held my swab, thereby dousing myself — and worse, my freshly filled form — with medical preservative. Fortunately there was some left in the bottle, and my form was still legible.
My teen pointed out the skinny envelope with the swab in it. I tore it open, and under Red Cross supervision, swabbed my cheeks (three twirls each side) and then my nose (15 twirls per nostril, counted out by the medical staffer supervising our test). It was a much more thorough test than what we’d be directed to follow at Walgreens.
Once the swab was complete, were were instructed to break it off at the snapping point and put it in the bottle. We sealed the vials, and then placed them in a little bubble wrap pouch that was in our kits. The pouch was then sealed with two little lab-branded stickers to ensure integrity. Then that envelope went inside a bio-hazard bag. Finally, we were instructed to take our test forms and stick them in a pouch on the outside of the plastic bio-hazard bag. The medical pro then held out a foam cooler for us to drop our boogers into.
With that, we were done! It was so thorough and professional — especially compared with our quickie US test — that it gave me fresh appreciation for the effort and expense the Canadian government has put into limiting the spread of Covid. At the same time, I felt somewhat humbled that the Canadian government was subsidizing our cross-border expedition with a multi-person team of medical professionals.
“I wouldn’t feel good about doing that every month,” I told my kid. “I’m glad we got five months’ worth of bacon.”
“Mom!” they exclaimed. “You have spent the entire day talking about bacon. How much, whether it’s too much, whether it’s not enough.”
“I’m just saying, I’m glad it all worked out. I got exactly the right amount of bacon.”