January 11, 2017 9:43 am

New travel requirements creating snags for people coming to Canada

Dual citizens and people with permanent residency are having trouble at checkpoints as they try to adhere to new travel regulations.

Canada Border Services Agency
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New entry requirements for travellers to Canada are apparently still causing headaches months after they were implemented, and the holiday season saw an unknown number of people stranded when they couldn’t board their flights.

Fionan McGrath says he was just one of several passengers trying to get on a plane in Amsterdam last week who were denied boarding after the computer system said they needed a special clearance document, known as an electronic travel authorization (eTA), to enter Canada.

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McGrath is an Irish national, but has permanent residency status in Canada. The official rules, outlined on Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s website, state that he should only have needed his passport and his Canadian permanent residency (PR) card to get on his plane to Montreal, but the computer system in Amsterdam believed otherwise.

“It comes up on the digital display when they scanned (his ticket), ‘Unable to board.’ So I was sent to one side, and there was a group of people who had been told they couldn’t board at this point,” said McGrath, who is a seasoned traveller.

“I was kinda panicked … because my immigration lawyer was asleep.”

Staff at the gate eventually found a workaround, deleting all the information scanned into the system from McGrath’s passport and PR card, and re-entering it manually. The system finally let him through. Other passengers weren’t so lucky, he noted.

Bumpy start

The eTA clearance system, which came into full effect last September after a six-month grace period, is designed as a form of pre-screening for passengers travelling to Canada from visa-exempt countries, like the United Kingdom and France.

It’s supposed to catch people who might pose a security risk or try to remain in the country longer than allowed.

READ MORE: Canada’s new passport requirements come into effect

The authorization costs $7 and can be obtained by filling out an online form.

McGrath’s sister, Aoife, was also home in Ireland for the holidays and was forewarned by her brother that he had almost been denied re-entry into Canada. Incredibly, she was able to get on a plane back to Toronto after applying for an eTA and being approved.

But McGrath acknowledges that his sister’s eTA never should have been granted because she has permanent residency status, just like him. McGrath’s own attempt to apply for a last-minute eTA at the airport in Amsterdam failed.

“We had vastly different experiences,” he said.

“I got (home), it’s fine … but it doesn’t seem to be well communicated and no one really knows what’s going on.”

The McGrath siblings are just the latest travellers to come forward with complaints linked to the eTA system. Others have included a British grandfather who missed a family gathering and a couple travelling from Vienna over Christmas.

Global News contacted the Canada Border Services Agency on Monday to check if they were aware of screening problems linked to the new system.

They referred us to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and a spokesperson for the department said that the department “is aware of cases where visa-exempt citizens have tried to apply for an eTA but experienced delays as a result of needing to resolve their permanent residency status.”

That still doesn’t explain what happened to McGrath and his sister.

“If permanent residents attempt to apply for one, the eTA system will recognize the person’s status in Canada, and the individual will not be eligible for an eTA,” the spokesperson confirmed.

As the apparent glitches in the eTA clearance program are ironed out, McGrath said he’d hate to see less experienced travellers getting trapped in airport limbo.

“If I was travelling with my partner and some parents and some children, and you find out at check-in at the airport that you need seven eTAs, it’s a nightmare.”

If you’re travelling internationally soon, here’s what you need to know about the eTA requirements:

Who needs an eTA?

Basically, any foreign national who is travelling to Canada by air and does not require a visa to enter the country now needs an eTA.

That would include residents of the U.K., Australia, Japan, and a bevy of European nations. Travellers can quickly determine whether they need a visa or an eTA to enter Canada by selecting their country of origin here.

Who is exempt?

Canadian citizens don’t need an eTA to re-enter the country. Neither do Americans. They’re exempt from the requirement even though they’re coming from a country that doesn’t require a visa.

Dual citizens are also exempt from the eTA but they must now carry a valid, up-to-date Canadian passport in order to enter Canada. There are no exceptions.

If you’re travelling from a visa-exempt country but you’re not flying (i.e. travelling by boat, train, bus, car etc.), you don’t need an eTA.

Permanent residents like the McGrath siblings are exempt from the eTA when flying to Canada, the department reconfirmed on Tuesday, but they still need to show their permanent residency (PR) card or equivalent document to enter the country. That applies no matter what form of transportation they’re using.

What if I run into problems?

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, permanent residents who encounter difficulties boarding their flight like McGrath did “should advise airline staff that they are a Canadian permanent resident, and produce evidence of their status – either a valid permanent resident card or a valid permanent resident travel document.”

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