New travel rules: What Canadians can expect when heading to the U.S.

Travellers can expect more questions and security screenings as new U.S. regulations take effect. Photo from Getty Images

The new travel restrictions that went into effect today for travellers headed to the U.S. will affect everyone. But the rules are hardly a change from what Canadians have experience traveling into the U.S. for years.

The new directives affect every foreign flight coming into the U.S. and affects both Americans and non-Americans. Travellers can expect to have their electronics and carry-on luggage searched and be questioned about their baggage before they board the plane. As a result, some airline companies are asking travellers to arrive at least three hours prior to their flights.

For Canadian airline passengers, however, the restrictions are unlikely to affect them too much, says Joel Sandaluk, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer. “You’ve got to consider these restrictions in the context of the massive amount of human traffic traveling between the U.S. and Canada every single day,” he says. “It’s a more enhanced screening, that’s true, but it’s still going to affect a relatively small number of travellers. I don’t even really anticipate it really slowing the flow of traffic in a discernible way.”

However, Canadian travellers will certainly have fewer rights. “You don’t have a lot of rights,” he says. You can refuse to answer a question, but you won’t gain admission.”

Canadians traveling to the U.S. have been subject to clearance by American customs officials for years. The only real difference is that electronics and carry-ons may be more closely scrutinized. The suggestion is to pack light and keep your devices accessible for guards to check.

“All customers flying on Air Canada to the U.S. go through U.S. pre-customs clearance at Canadian airports, so they are cleared by U.S. customs before boarding our aircraft,” says a media representative from Air Canada. “The new measures have been incorporated into the existing steps.”

“At this time we do not expect there to be any immediate impact to our guests travelling to the U.S.,” says a media representative from WestJet.

One issue to watch out for though is Canadians from countries targeted by one of the Trump administration’s travel bans. Canadians born in Iraq, Iran, Syria or a number of other Muslim-majority countries have reported being denied entry to the U.S.

“There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence of what you would call ’empowered border guards’ along the American border. And it seems a number of Canadians from Pakistan, Iraq, Iran or other primarily Muslim countries, were stopped and asked lengthy, unnecessary and intrusive questions in examination that had made the news and that was problematic,” says Sandaluk. “And that, in a lot of ways, has had a chilling effect in seeking admission to the U.S.”

However, according to Sandaluk, Canadians still have more rights in airports than they do at land crossings because they’re legally still in Canada. “There’s only so much that foreign representatives can do on Canadian soil,” he says.

At land crossings, Canadians are on American soil, and so they can legally be detained by American customs officers. At airports, they can withdraw their application for admission into the U.S. if they don’t want to answer the customs officer’s questions. “As a traveller, you just have to accept that this is the reality,” says Sandaluk.

The new rules are an expansion of an earlier directive barring airline passengers from specific Middle Eastern airports from carrying laptops. And despite the sudden announcement, the new rules were revealed four months ago with airlines being given the interim period to meet the new requirements.