The Snowbird Conundrum: Paying to Go Home?

Feeling stranded? Confused? Uncertain if and when you can return to Canada and what you’ll have to do to get back to the northern side of the border?

It hasn’t been made any easier by Ottawa’s new plan to require Canadians flying home to quarantine in selected hotels for up to three days (at an estimated cost of $2000) while their PCR COVID tests are assessed, then complete the remainder of the 14-day quarantine period at home. At this point the hotel quarantine option is still being developed so it may be some weeks before it is operational, but it does not presage an easing of border rules any time soon.

How long can you stay?

You can stay out of Canada indefinitely and still retain your citizenship. But US law allows Canadian passport holders to remain in the country only up to 182 days per every rolling 12-month period—so long as the visit is for leisure purposes: no work, no doing business. That 182 days can be an accumulation of short trips or one long, uninterrupted one. So if you went down to your condo in September and haven’t returned home since, you’re getting close to the mark. To make sure of your status, count back 12 months (365 days) and tally up all the days you have been on US soil. Count even part-days when you crossed the border for just a few hours.

And bear in mind that Canadian and US border agencies share entry/exit crossing data, so they know more about your travels than you think they do.

If you’re close to the mark, and you’re sure you want to delay your return to Canada, you can file a 1-539 for an extension with the USCIS. Certain contingencies have been added to allow people who can’t get back home because of COVID restrictions to have an extension, but that will be judged on a case-by-case basis so be prepared for some paperwork. You’re also expected to apply at least 45 days before the extension is to begin, so this is no sure thing. There will likely be quite a lineup.

Out-of-province restrictions

There may also be a provincial issue to consider. All provinces require you to be physically present for at least a given period (most specify five months in a year, some six) to remain eligible for your provincial health insurance. And physical presence means just that. This may be a little harder for provincial agencies to track, unless you have a particularly prying neighbour, or you have filed too many out-of-province medical bills over the past few months.

Remember too that “out-of-province” does not refer only to visits to the US—it also means visits to other provinces or other countries. So that too is a calculation to keep in mind. Loss of provincial residency status carries a heavy penalty as it takes three months (without coverage) to regain eligibility for your government health insurance. Fortunately, there are private insurance plans designed specifically to fill those gaps.

Can you extend your travel insurance while you are out of the country?

In most cases you can extend your insurance to cover your additional days of travel so long as you have made no claims, or your medical condition hasn’t changed since you applied. But you must call your insurer and have that done as soon as you know how much of an extension you’ll need. There may be consequent adjustments to your policy so make sure you understand what your extension entails. You should also be aware that since you left for your trip the conditions of coverage may have changed as coverage for COVID-related issues has been added to many policies. Have a thorough discussion with your insurer on these points.

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