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Canada grants travel exemption to international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Canada will exempt international students from travel restrictions that currently prevent foreign travellers from entering the country
  • The exemption will apply to all students that held, or had been approved for, a Canadian study permit as of 18 March
  • The effective date for the exemption is still pending and so students are advised not to travel to Canada until this date has been officially announced

On 16 March, Canada announced that it was closing its border to all travellers, except for Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and, for a brief time, American citizens. On 18 March, the US-Canada boundary was closed as well, effectively sealing the country’s borders to all but returning citizens and permanent residents.

Those new travel restrictions are of course part of the growing global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, as with other such limitations on travel around the world, they have been accompanied by new levels of uncertainty for students, both those already in Canada and those planning to begin their studies in the coming months.

The significance of this is underscored by Canada’s growing prominence among the world’s leading study destinations. No other country has seen its enrolment grow more quickly over the past five years. With a foreign student base of more than 640,000 as of December 2019, Canada is now behind only the US and Australia on the global table – and essentially vying with the UK for third place – among the world’s top host countries.

It was therefore a significant development last week when Canada announced a major exemption to its current travel restrictions. In a 20 March statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said that, “Exemptions to the air travel restrictions will apply to foreign nationals who have already committed to working, studying or making Canada their home, and travel by these individuals will be considered essential travel for land border restrictions.”

There are two important qualifiers to this new guidance:

  1. The exemption applies only to international students who held a valid study permit, or had been approved for a study permit, when the travel restrictions took effect on 18 March. The exemption will not apply to those whose study permit applications were approved after the border closures fully came into effect on 18 March.
  • The timing of the exemption is not yet clear and students are advised to not make travel plans right away. A supplemental advisory from IRCC notes that, “Students who haven’t [already arrived in Canada] should not travel yet. We’ve announced exemptions but they’re not in place. Travel restrictions are still in effect for these groups.”

IRCC has indicated that it expects to announce an effective date for the travel exemption imminently, and perhaps as early as this week. We will update this post right away once further details are available.

For the moment, we can also advise that exempted students will be subject to mandatory health screening protocols upon boarding and departing their flights, and will be required to self-isolate for a period of 14 days immediately following their arrival in Canada. “Our government will continue to take the measures necessary to protect the health and safety of Canadians, including putting in place social distancing, isolation and travel restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

Especially with those provisions in place, the news has been welcomed by Canadian educators, and particularly as they look ahead to the resumption of regular campus programming for the coming academic year.

Students already in Canada

In a related development, IRCC has also confirmed that international students already in Canada, whose studies have been disrupted by campus or school closures and who may be unable to return to their home countries because of travel restrictions abroad, can still apply to extend their study permit status in Canada as needed.

A recent update from the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) adds that, “IRCC has been clear that, as a basic principle and to the extent possible, clients who are currently in Canada should not be adversely impacted as a result of circumstances beyond their control.

All temporary residents who are already in Canada and unable to depart are encouraged to apply for an extension so that they may maintain their temporary resident status in Canada. Once the application is submitted, the client will benefit from implied status and may remain in Canada until a decision is rendered on their application, or the required documents can be submitted.”

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