So you’re dreaming of strolling the streets of Vancouver, enjoying some hot poutine, and showing your kids our northern neighbor. But is it a hassle to drive to Canada with kids? What’s it like to cross the Canadian border in 2021?
We drove from Seattle to Vancouver in September of 2021 with our 4 and 6-year-old kids as part of our Family Year Out. Here’s everything you need to know to help you successfully navigate crossing the Canadian border with kids in 2021. We cover what documents to prepare, to what to expect at the land border crossing as a US citizen.
Please remember, this is our experience only, we are not government authorities. Regulations are constantly changing. Please check and recheck border restrictions before attempting a border crossing.
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At the bottom of this post, download a free game of Would You Rather: World Edition to play on your next road trip!
Is the Canadian Border Open?
Yes, the Canadian land border is open to all vaccinated foreign nationals, as well as the unvaccinated children that accompany them. Unfortunately, at this time, the United States border is not open to Canadians (or other foreign nationals). It is open to all returning Americans, so US citizens should have no trouble crossing back into the US.
Who Can Cross into Canada from the US via a Land Border?
This Canadian government website has all the ever-changing details about who can cross the border, and what the requirements are. Basically, you must be vaccinated, or considered an essential worker.
We crossed at the Douglas land border in a car with two vaccinated adults, one child under 12, and one child under 5.
What Paperwork Do You Need to Drive to Canada?
You will need to download the ArriveCan app, register within 72 hours before your border crossing, and fill out all requested information.
You will all need your actual passports. The ArriveCan app will scan your passport as part of your registration, but you will still need the originals when you cross the border.
Fill out a quarantine plan on the app in case you test positive in Canada. Since we are visiting in part to see friends, we used their home address as our quarantine address.
Upload images of your vaccination cards to the app (the same image twice is fine to show two shots).
Everyone (over five years old) needs a PCR test within 72 hours prior to crossing the border. Our youngest, E(4) was exempt from this requirement. The app asks whether you have a negative PCR test, it does not ask you to upload the actual results, but you will need to show those at the border.
Planning to cross other North American borders? Check out everything you need to know about driving in Mexico.
How We Crossed the Canadian Border
We originally planned to cross into Canada just after visiting Glacier National Park in Montana. It made a nice, clean geographic circle to drive into Idaho, cross into Canada from Idaho, drive across to Vancouver, and then back into the US and down the West Coast.
This was our original plan when we designed our American Northwest Road Trip.
When we planned this road trip in May or 2021, it seemed highly unlikely that by September, the borders would still be so restricted, but as this section of our trip approached, the complications became clear.
Rerouting for PCR Tests
We originally planned to drive to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, have a quick lunch, then slide across the open border at Kingsgate Crossing. However, I could not find anywhere close by that would provide the required PCR tests, and guarantee the timeframe to get the test results.
The few testing places I found in Montana and Idaho: 1. Would not let us schedule a test a month ahead of time and 2. Would not guarantee the results within a certain timeframe. They all had vague wording about the timing being determined by the lab.
Based on our original plan, we didn’t have time to sit in Montana or Idaho waiting for results, so I knew we’d have to make some changes. I stumbled upon a blog post by 2 Ride the Globe that detailed one couple’s struggle to get tested in Montana in mid-August. After several sets of tests that were returned after the 72-hour deadline, they gave up and drove to Seattle.
So, determined to avoid their fate, we rerouted our trip from Montana, to Seattle, planned for testing there, and then crossed at Douglas (Peace Arch), before driving on to Vancouver.
Where To Get Tested in Seattle Before Crossing the Canadian Border
Once we shifted our plans to Seattle, we were able to find two major testing companies that specialize in testing for travel and would guarantee our results within the 72-hour timeframe.
There is testing at Sea-Tac Airport, but only if you have a flight booked, so it’s not helpful for overland border crossings.
US Biotek is drive-thru testing, with pricing based on the number of people in your car. For us, this would have been slightly cheaper than Discovery Health, but they are closed on weekends, and we needed to test on a weekend.
Discovery Health MD offers testing at some of its locations in the Seattle area on weekends and has several time frame options to choose from.
We opted for “Next Day” PCR tests, meaning that we were guaranteed to get results by midnight on the next day. “Same Day” results were available for an extra fee.
We tested on Sunday morning, got our results Monday evening, and crossed the border Tuesday morning. You can see how you will need to schedule your travel plans around when you can test and then plan to wait for the results.
All About PCR Testing for Travel Clearance
Discovery Health MD allowed us to book our appointments quite a few weeks ahead. There were only 2 appointments left for the time slot we wanted, so we booked two of us together, and then the third person five minutes later.
You then register each person in their portal before your test appointment.
Discovery Health MD contacted us about two weeks before our tests and needed to change our testing location. Their customer service via email was great, they rescheduled all three of us together. I had no luck trying to call them- their phone lines were overbooked and there was no way to leave a message.
When we arrived at the testing location we were through the testing (nasal, but not deep) in less than ten minutes. Results were posted to our portal well within the specified time.
From the portal, you can download a file showing your results for the border crossing, as well as an invoice to submit to your insurance company. There is no insurance billing code included, so it’s unclear whether our insurance will reimburse us or not.
Long lines the border? Make sure you have car-friendly activities for kids.
All About the Actual Canadian Border Crossing
When we approached the Canadian border, there was very little traffic. I think there was one car ahead of us in the customs line.
When we reached the booth, we handed over our passports, and the immigration official asked us a lot of questions. I’ve never been asked so many questions at the Canadian border in the past. Everything from what we do for work, to how we know the friends we are going to stay with. They are definitely being more thorough than in the past.
The officer did not ask to see our ArriveCan receipt but did ask for each of our negative test results, which we showed on my phone.
Unvaccinated children accompanying vaccinated adults are exempt from quarantine but need to provide Day 1 and Day 8 tests. Since we are only planning to stay for 5 days, we don’t need to worry about the Day 8 test.
When we crossed, the border official gave us 4 test kits- Day 1 and Day 8 for S(6), and one for each adult in the car (randomized testing). Had we been traveling without kids, we could have gone through with no additional testing, but we may have been selected for randomized testing.
Day 1 Testing at the Canadian Border
Once we had been given test kits, we were directed to a white tent that was staffed by Red Cross. We had the option of continuing on, and self-administering the tests, or doing them there. We opted to do them on-site where we could ask questions, and just be done with it.
We have done several pharmacy at-home tests, and this was a bit more complicated. First, you scan the test box and register on the app it brings up. This was a bit tricky with limited service, but if you ask the staff, they have a QR code that will give you WiFi.
Digital Registration of Test Kits
The app will request things like your passport number, your address in Canada, and your quarantine address. To make things easier, make sure you have that information available (including postal codes), as well as pens to write with.
It also helped to mark each test box with a sharpie to keep straight which box number was registered to which family member.
Next, you will fill out a paper form that will stay with your test, including the number generated by your app registration. You will also have to fill out a label for your test tube and apply it to the tube. You will then move your car forward to a new station before performing the actual test.
Perform the Test
You then administer the test while being watched by staff. This test involves swabbing both sides of your mouth and then both nostrils for 15 seconds. The swap then goes in a test tube, is packed in a bag, and handed out the car window.
The entire test process involved juggling boxes and bags and passports on our laps in the car, which was a bit chaotic. We were also trying to register the test box for S(6) who is not a big fan of testing, had just barely gotten through the PCR test in Seattle, and was now whimpering in the backseat.
The good news is that I was able to administer her test, though I wasn’t allowed to get out of the car to do so. She had a bit of a meltdown but got through it, and we were able to continue on. Altogether, the three tests and their paperwork took us about 45 minutes to complete after leaving the immigration booth.
We have a Day 8 test in case our plans change but can discard it if we cross back into the US before Day 8.
There You Have It: Crossing the Canadian Border
Crossing the land border between Canada and the US is much more complicated than it used to be, and at times, was a bit stressful. Trying to line up the testing, fill out the app at the right time, and be ready at the border definitely took mental energy.
However, I have every confidence that as time goes on and services are more readily available, it will be easier. Hopefully, all the steps we went through will help other people feel more confident and prepared for their land crossing.
And the best part is, now we get to enjoy Canada! We have already taken boat ferries out to Granville Island, trekked across a suspension bridge, and tomorrow we are going whale watching!