On March 18, 2021, the Biden administration extended ongoing travel restrictions along the United States-Canada and United States-Mexico land ports of entry through April 21, 2021. The restrictions, which were previously set to expire on March 21, 2021, prohibit all “non-essential” travel from entering the United States to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These restrictions have been in effect since March 21, 2020.

As outlined in the latest update published in the Federal Register, the notice of restrictions “does not apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel” between the United States and Canada and/or Mexico. [Emphasis added.] However, the border restrictions are still in force for “passenger rail, passenger ferry travel, and pleasure boat travel” between the United States and Canada and/or Mexico. Most importantly, travel for “work” is considered “essential” for the purposes of the restrictions.

“Essential” and “Non-Essential” Travel Defined

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) defines “essential travel” as the following:

  • “U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Canada [or Mexico] in furtherance of such work);
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Canada [or Mexico]);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.”

Conversely, CBP defines “non-essential” travel as travel for “tourism purposes (e.g., sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events).” In its press release, CBP also defines “non-essential” travel to include visiting family and friends, entering the United States to buy items easily found in Canada or Mexico (e.g., groceries and fuel), and picking up or dropping off mail.

Impact on Employers

Travelers seeking to enter the United States for work purposes, and who hold valid nonimmigrant work visas (e.g., L-1s, H-1Bs, etc.), are eligible for admission, although additional screening is possible. Individuals who are traveling for non-work-related purposes, including dependent family members of those individuals already in the United States, may experience enhanced screening or possible denial of admission. To reiterate, these travel restrictions do not affect air travel into the United States.

The travel restrictions have been in effect for over one year at this point, and while adding certain levels of stress for various travelers, travel into the United States from Canada and Mexico has remained relatively constant throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, travelers planning to enter the United States through a land crossing port of entry may want to prepare for additional screening measures and questions related to the nature and purpose of their travel in the United States. To date, no specific COVID-19 testing requirement has been implemented for travelers entering the United States via land crossing, passenger ferry, or passenger rail.

According to an order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all international air passengers 2 years of age and older entering the United States, including U.S. citizens, are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result , or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days. The test results must be from a COVID-19 test taken within three calendar days of the date of departure.

Ogletree Deakins’ Immigration Practice Group will continue to monitor developments with respect to any policy changes and will post updates on our Immigration blog as additional information becomes available. The firm will also continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.