Non-Essential Travel: What It Means and How It Applies to Canada and Mexico

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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries all around the world are temporarily halting all non-essential travel across their borders. But what is considered non-essential travel, and how will these new restrictions impact us here in the U.S.?

What Is Non-Essential Travel?

At a high level, non-essential travel refers to travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature. Unfortunately, this distinction is not always straightforward as official definitions vary around the globe.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (or DHS) released a list of some reasons for which travel is no longer allowed:

  • Travel and tourism
  • Dining across borders
  • Picking up packages or non-essential goods
  • Gambling
  • To attend cultural events

What Is Essential Travel?

To start, these new restrictions will not prevent U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from returning to the U.S. (and vice versa). These restrictions are put in place to limit unnecessary contact between individuals.

CBP San Diego Operations - San Ysidro u.s. mexico border crossing cars
Vehicle traffic to the U.S. from Mexico at the San Ysidro border port of entry. Image Credit: Donna Burton via U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The DHS has released a list of allowable reasons for travel:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the U.S.
  • Cross-border trade, including trucking to provide food, fuel, and life-saving medicines
  • To perform essential work, including work in the military, in the farming or agriculture industry, temporary foreign workers, and anyone with valid work responsibilities
  • To attend school
  • For other urgent or essential reasons, including receiving medical treatment

Click here to see the full list.

Why Are Closures Happening Now?

These latest restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 as cities and countries around the world are encouraging people to exercise caution by avoiding unnecessary contact with others and to stay home, when possible.

In addition, on March 19, 2020, the U.S. Department of State declared a Global Level 4 Health Advisory, warning that Americans should return to the U.S. immediately, “unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

Hot Tip: Note that air and sea travel is not affected by these restrictions. This only applies to land crossings.

These land closures also come after air travel restrictions were put in place for flights to/from the Schengen Zone, Iran, China, the U.K., and Ireland and other high-risk countries.

Land Border Restrictions

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, restrictions are being put in place for countries that share a land border with the U.S.

What Screenings Are Taking Place?

First, the Department of Homeland Security notes that they “continue to enforce U.S. immigration laws at all U.S. borders, including between ports of entry.”

Both the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican border agencies have reported increasing their questions about reasons for travel, any international travel history, and current health to curb the spread of the coronavirus. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (or CBP) employees are also using protective equipment, such as masks, in appropriate circumstances.

Bottom Line: If you do not have a proper reason or travel documentation, you will be turned away at the border.

If you are found to be attempting to bypass immigration and are apprehended at the border, you will either be quickly removed or repatriated to your country of origin. This is a change since individuals will no longer be kept in detention facilities. DHS notes that the processing of these individuals in “these conditions present a serious infection control challenge and are a risk to public health.”

Canada

On March 20, 2020, the U.S. and Canada issued a joint statement to restrict travel between the 2 countries. Specifically they “recognize it is critical we preserve supply chains between both countries.”

When Will Travel Restrictions Go Into Effect?

Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 12:01 a.m.

When Will the U.S.-Canada Border Reopen?

The restrictions will be reviewed after 30 days (or on April 20, 2020).

CBP Highgate, Vt., Port of Entry NEXUS lane
CBP Highgate, Vermont Port of Entry NEXUS lane. Image Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Mexico

On March 20, 2020, the U.S. and Mexico issued a joint statement to restrict non-essential travel between the countries. The note that this agreement includes “particular measures both to protect bilateral trade and our countries’ economies and ensure the health of our nations’ citizens.”

When Will Travel Restrictions Go Into Effect?

Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 12:01 a.m.

When Will the U.S.-Mexico Border Reopen?

The restrictions will be reviewed after 30 days (or on April 20, 2020).

Final Thoughts

As you can see, if you have a valid reason for crossing between countries, you will still be allowed to do so. These restrictions were put in place to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 by limiting unnecessary travel. These new restrictions will be in place for 30 days or longer, pending a review by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.


Frequently asked questions

What is non-essential travel?

In short, non-essential travel means travel for reasons like recreation, tourism, or travel. See our full list of DHS-designated reasons above.

What is essential travel?

Specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DHS has released a list of allowable reasons for travel:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the U.S.
  • Cross-border trade, including trucking to provide food, fuel, and life-saving medicines
  • To perform essential work, including work in the military, in the farming or agriculture industry, temporary foreign workers, and anyone with valid work responsibilities
  • To attend school
  • For other urgent or essential reasons, including receiving medical treatment

Click here to see the full list.

Can U.S. citizens and residents travel back to the U.S.?

Yes, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can return to the U.S.

Christy Rodriguez

About Christy Rodriguez

Christy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but lived in Texas the majority of her life. Now, work has her living in the Bay Area with her husband and yellow lab. Her first international travel experience was for a summer study abroad program in Italy. After that, she knew that she was destined to travel as much as possible. Luckily, her husband worked at Southwest Airlines, so they were introduced to the exciting world of “non-rev” travel.

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