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Canadians Are Accustomed to “Free Trade” in Travel

With the US/Mexico/Canada (USMCA) free trade agreement settled, now might be a good time to reassess the non-political dynamics that keep our countries emotionally as well as economically linked through travel.

In 2018, Canadians made more than 33 million trips of a least one overnight stay to the US: more than 2 per cent higher than the previous year. That’s getting very close to averaging one trip for every person living in Canada, and almost 25 million of those trips were for leisure purposes—tourism, visits with family, shopping, sunning, beaching, golf, watching sports events, you name it. That’s as close to being “free trade” in travel as you can get.

And according to the Conference Board of Canada, there seems to be only one variable influencing that trend: the relative value of the Canadian dollar. But as Canada’s tough, resilient snowbirds have proven over the years, even a droopy loonie is not going to permanently or severely stem the flow of tourism.

What stimulates that cross-border traffic is the generous reciprocal cross-border agreements between our countries that allow Canadians to effectively “reside” in the US for up to 180* days (give or take a couple) per any consecutive 12-month period. Nations other than Mexico and Canada are limited to a maximum of 90 days on their tourist visas.

*Let’s explain: US immigration laws have been cobbled together from many different pieces of legislation—some referring to “six months” others to “180 days,” still others to “182 days.” Generally, six months means what the border control agent says it means and what is stamped into your passport (even though your passports aren’t really stamped anymore). I suggest you stay to the basic 180-day maximum just to keep your travel plans consistent, and also so that in case of an emergency you can have an extra day or two to make your way back home. And note that the rules all agree the 12-month period means “within the previous 365 days.” It doesn’t reset at the end of a calendar year, i.e., January through December. You can’t hook the last 180 days of 2019 to the first 180 days of 2020.

And more about that 240-day visa

In recent years we have also heard a lot—probably too much—about a proposed 240-day special visa for Canadians 50 years and older who are prepared to buy homes or commit to long-term rentals in the US. The proposed visa is part of a JOLT Act bill pushed hard by the US tourism industry and a good number of Congresspeople from both parties. “JOLT” stands for Jobs Originated through Launching Travel, an act that was first introduced in 2013 and has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since.

Though there has been no major opposition to this bill in Congress so far, it’s just not a high enough priority to work its way through the internecine US legislative system. And according to Congressional rules, bills that don’t pass in one session must be reintroduced in the next.  In this case, that will be January 3, 2021. Given that 2020 is an election year, and the legislative calendar is already overloaded, there is very little chance the JOLT Act will see any substantive attention… again.

So, enjoy your 180 days in the US if that’s where you intend to travel, but don’t overstay your allowance. Also, keep track of your out-of-province travel, as too much time away from home can leave you ineligible for your own provincial health plan. And make sure to understand all the terms of your private travel insurance plan before leaving Canada on any trip—even a two-hour hop over the border for shopping. Neglect of that coverage can cost you dearly.


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