Illustration: Fusion Medical Animation

Canada re-opened its borders to international students on March 26 but suggested students delay traveling here if possible.

International students entering Canada face extraordinary challenges including mandatory quarantine, closed student residences, no in-person advising services, loss of employment and social isolation.

Thousands of international students were caught in limbo by Canada’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Canada’s original ban on foreign visitors prevented anyone without Canadian citizenship or permanent residence from entering the country, other than essential workers such as nurses and truck drivers. Current international students away on spring break couldn’t return to the country and new students couldn’t arrive to begin their studies. The federal government exempted temporary foreign workers and foreign students from the ban last week, but didn’t actually open the border to them until March 26.

Though international students are now allowed to enter Canada, a government bulletin still discourages travel:

“With travel restrictions in place in many countries around the world and international air travel reduced during the COVID-19 outbreak, we don’t recommend that those who are exempt from travel restrictions immediately try to travel to Canada.”

Here’s what international students need to know about returning to Canada right now:


International students can travel to Canada by land or air if they have a valid study permit or an invitation letter from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) dated March 18 or earlier. Students who travel by air will be checked at the airport and prevented from boarding any flight to Canada if they show symptoms of COVID-19. In addition to a valid study permit or IRCC letter of invitation, most students also need the usual travel documents such as a Temporary Resident Visa (TRV) or an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA). Incoming international flights are now restricted to four cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.


Students must isolate themselves for 14 days after entering the country. That means they must go to their house or apartment immediately. They cannot buy groceries and they cannot use public transportation from the airport. Grocery delivery services in many parts of Canada are overwhelmed; do not count on being able to order groceries online. The quarantine order allows people to use an apartment balcony or a private yard, but those who are quarantined cannot step into the street.

The penalty for violating the Quarantine Act is a fine of up to $750,000 and up to six months in jail.

As of March 27, students who cross into the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island from another part of Canada must also isolate themselves for 14 days. The territory of Nunavut is restricting entry to residents of that province.


University residences are officially closed, though some institutions have allowed international students to stay while they look for another place to live. Some language programs report that homestay families have cancelled rooms for upcoming semesters.

Many hotels have closed, but some are keeping rooms specifically for people going into quarantine. In most cases, the hotel guest must stay inside the room for 14 days without going into the hotel hall, lobby or any public spaces. Food and fresh linens are left outside the room door.

Several provinces have passed new regulations making it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants during the crisis.


Most elementary schools and high schools across Canada are closed until at least April, and most are expected to remain closed for several weeks after that. A few secondary schools have resumed classes using online tools.

Most universities and colleges in Canada are finishing winter semester classes online. All on-campus classes are cancelled. Many final exams have been cancelled, and several institutions have replaced grades with a pass/fail system. Check your institution for details.

Universities and colleges are currently debating whether to offer spring, summer and fall courses on campus or online. Students should be prepared to attend classes using online technology. That will require a strong private internet connection. (Libraries, cafes and public spaces with wifi are all closed.) Some of the online technologies used by universities require an ethernet connection (hard wire, not wifi). Many laptops, such as MacBook Air, require an adapter to use an ethernet cable.


Most universities and colleges have closed their international centres, but continue to help international students by phone, email and through video conferencing. Most administrative offices, such as registrars, are also closed.

Online information provided to international students varies widely by institution. A random survey found that some universities, such as York University and University of British Columbia, were updating information daily online for international students. Others have outdated information about access to advising, immigration policies and university operations.


International students may still work according to the conditions listed on their study permit, but many will find that their jobs have disappeared. In general, full-time students may work 20 hours a week off campus during the academic term and full-time off campus during holidays and regularly scheduled breaks. If classes have moved online, a student may work 20 hours a week.

More than a million Canadians have lost their job during the crisis. As of March 27, both Quebec and Ontario have ordered all non-essential businesses to close; other provinces are expected to do so as well.


In normal circumstances, taking too many classes online, missing a term of school or studying part time can disqualify an international student from obtaining a Post-Graduation Work Permit after graduation.

IRCC has not changed the regulations, but it has published advice saying that courses moved online due to COVID-19 will not affect Post-Graduation Work Permit eligibility.

Bulletin from IRCC about travel during COVID-19

Source: IRCC

Colleges and Institutes Canada suggests on its website that other COVID-19 adjustments such as moving to part-time studies or interrupted studies also will not affect eligibility, but IRCC has not issued any bulletins to support that position.


Every province in Canada has declared a state of emergency or a public health emergency, but the emergency rules differ from province to province. Both Quebec and Ontario have ordered non-essential businesses to close, but the list of essential businesses is different in each province. Nova Scotia has closed all parks and recreation facilities and banned any gathering of more than five people, even in private homes, with $1,000 penalties for each violation. British Columbia has banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Vancouver has approved fines of up to $50,000 for businesses that ignore social distancing. Restaurants, bars, gyms, libraries and most malls are closed across Canada. Grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, but with reduced hours.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged everyone to stay home as much as possible to reduce the spread of the virus. People who are out in public are expected to stay two meters away from each other. International students should not count on being able to see friends or congregate for social support.

One significant difference between Canada and some other countries is the use of face masks. There is a shortage of masks needed by health care workers in Canada and experts here have advised the public that wearing masks for personal protection is ineffective. Because of the shortage in hospitals, people who wear a mask to shop, ride the bus or walk down the street may draw negative reactions.

The following links show COVID-19 cases, rules and information by province.







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