Starting as of March 15, 2016, many travellers were supposed to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) before flying to Canada. However, according to a communication issued by Immigration Canada on March 3, 2016, while travelers are still expected to apply for an eTA - where one is required - the obligation to actually produce the eTA prior to flying to Canada will not be enforced until later in 2016. The reason for this transition period is that the rule requiring commercial carriers to verify eTAs before allowing individuals to board a plane to Canada will not come into force until later this year. For now, Canadian border agents will not require the production of eTAs from individuals who are otherwise required to possess them. Thus, the original March 15, 2016 deadline appears to have become a "soft deadline".

Review of the eTA Requirement

The requirement to have an eTA applies to citizens of visa-exempt countries who are coming to Canada by air, with the exception of U.S. citizens. In other words, visitors who are citizens of countries for which a visa is required must still go through a visa application process and do not need an eTA. However, those who have freely travelled to Canada for as long as they remember, such as citizens of France, the U.K., Japan, Australia and many other visa-exempted countries, are expected now to go through the eTA procedure before travelling, unless they fall within very limited exceptions (such as being a diplomat or a crew member of a means of transportation).  U.S. Green Card holders should have an eTA as well. Again, this obligation will be enforceable sometime in the fall.

Citizens of Mexico, Brazil, Romania and Bulgaria

An exception to the visa requirement has recently been introduced for citizens of Mexico, Brazil, Romania and Bulgaria. If citizens from these countries arrive in Canada by air and either have a valid visa for the U.S., or have been in possession of a visa to Canada in the last ten years, they must obtain an eTA. If these conditions are not met, citizens of these four countries will still need to apply for a visa and will therefore not need to obtain an eTA.

Holders of Canadian Work Permits

Visa-exempt citizens who currently hold Canadian work permits require an eTA in order to fly back to Canada. Those who hold work permits issued before August 1, 2015 should apply for an eTA. Those who hold work permits issued on or after August 1, 2015 are supposed to have been issued an eTA automatically; however, such individuals would be wise to proactively confirm that their work permit approval letter contains an eTA. One of the key exceptions to these requirements is if the individuals in question are returning to Canada after visiting only the U.S. Such individuals do not need an eTA because they did not travel outside the North American security perimeter that is guarded by the eTA requirement in Canada and the equivalent Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) requirement in the U.S.

Permanent Residents of Canada

Permanent residents of Canada are exempt from the eTA requirement and can instead travel on their Permanent Resident cards. This exemption, however, is not as ideal as it sounds given that there are often lengthy delays associated with obtaining permanent resident cards. At this time, delays of two months for first-card issuance and six months for renewed cards are common. If there are doubts as to whether the residency requirements have been met, delays can increase to more than a year. Furthermore, any new permanent residents who obtained an eTA before becoming a permanent resident cannot use their eTA after landing, since their eTA is automatically cancelled at the time of landing.

As a result, once the obligation to have an eTA before boarding a plane to Canada becomes enforceable later this year, those permanent residents who are citizens of visa-exempt countries and do not have a permanent resident card will be obliged to obtain another travel document at a visa post abroad before coming back to Canada.

The Process of Obtaining an eTA

An application for an eTA can be completed online and costs $7.00 CDN. Once approved, an eTA will be linked to a particular passport and will be valid for five years from the date of issue or until the individual's current passport expires, whichever occurs first.

The processing time for an eTA is supposed to be very quick  - the eTA should be issued within a few seconds of application. However, if any response made in the online application is deemed to be questionable (e.g.  a response casts doubts as to the purpose of the individual's visit to Canada or reveals potential grounds for medical or criminal inadmissibility), the online application will automatically generate more questions for the applicant. As a result, some individuals may face delays in obtaining an eTA. For example, we understand that some individuals are being required to submit to a medical examination before obtaining their eTA, even if they have never had to do so in the past. Part of the reason for this may be that the online system has been programmed to identify even the most remote risks and act accordingly.

Summary

As a result of all of the above, citizens of visa-exempt countries who are planning to travel to Canada (or to travel back to Canada if they live in Canada) would be well advised not to wait until the requirement is enforceable and to start the eTA application process as soon as practicable. We will update readers on further developments as they arise.