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In response to the current pandemic, the government of Canada recently said to:

Avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada

Other governments have made similar statements restricting travel.

So, if one is to avoid non-essential travel: What essential travel is allowed?

Below are some examples that came to mind but what are exactly determines if travel is in fact essential?

Things that come to mind:

  • Journalists going to where they want to investigate for a report.
  • Going to help isolated family members
  • Business meetings and factory visits, whether to establish policy or oversee measures that related to the COVID-19 or other task related to production.

Is any proper documentation needed to show that travel is essential? Or do we expect gate and border agents to evaluate on the spot based on your word?

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    Each country will have its own definition. They will surely overlap on several important points, but details on borderline cases will differ. Documentary requirements and standards to be used by border officers will be even more diverse. I don't think a general answer to this question will be particularly useful. – phoog Mar 23 at 14:56
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    When they say "avoid", that is usually not an actual legally-enforced restriction, just a (strong) advice, like avoiding war zones and the like. Also they rarely prohibit getting out of the country, but bans are either in place or soon will be, so even if you can legally get out of Canada, you may not be allowed into that many countries, if any. – jcaron Mar 23 at 15:51
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    It's deliberately left vague. If you have to ask you should assume it's not essential. – DJClayworth Mar 23 at 20:14
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    It's going to depend. 1. What are the journalists reporting on? Important news? Celebrity gossip? 2. Are the isolated family members capable of looking after themselves? What do they need help with? – DJClayworth Mar 23 at 23:46
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    There really should be a strict definition at least for a particular country like Canada. Laws to be validated have specific terms normally but I can't find anything specific in the related announcements. – Itai Mar 24 at 2:54
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Some examples that I have seen in the media:

  • a healthcare worker who lives in Windsor, Canada and works in Detroit, USA. There are thousands of such people and they cross the border every day. They are doing so to deliver an essential service (healthcare) so their travel is essential
  • a truck driver pulling a load of food, medical supplies or other essential goods. While in theory the delivery company could have the truck handed off to a different driver at the border, more realistically the truck and driver will be allowed in as essential travel
  • a patient returning to their home city to keep an appointment for needed surgery. Most elective surgeries, dentist appointments and such are being cancelled, but a person could have been away just before their scheduled surgery
  • farm workers from Central America are going to be allowed in to Canada because our farms can't function without them

What is not essential?

  • tourism
  • business or work that does not serve an essential purpose (making a movie, looking for new restaurant locations to buy or rent in another city, negotiating a big purchase business-to-business of something non-essential like bathing suits or makeup)
  • people who feel they would be less likely to catch this if they went to their second home in the country
  • people who prefer the weather in Ontario to the weather in Alberta at this time of year

If I was going to do some essential travel I would bring whatever proof I could, and I would prepare for a significant wait while my explanation was evaluated. I am tempted to say, if you have to ask, it's not essential. I personally have cancelled a followup CAT scan and MRI scan required by a clinical study I am in. Everything's been stable for a while, so I'm not going to the big city. It doesn't feel essential to me.

March 28th, the CBSA tweeted this image:

essential and non essential travel

Keep in mind that in many Canadian provinces, non-essential workplaces are closed, so where this image says "work" it means "essential work".

Also, this applies only to people without symptoms. People with symptoms, whether citizens returning home, truck drivers pulling essential supplies, anyone will be refused or (more likely) taken into quarantine until they test negative. Also March 28th people with symptoms will be refused boarding on domestic flights and trains, regardless of the reason for travel.

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  • It's interesting that they mention medication but not food among "essential goods." – phoog Mar 29 at 14:45
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    You can get food in Canada. You don't need to cross the border for food. But your meds might only be across the border, I guess. – Kate Gregory Mar 29 at 15:39
  • This graphics certainly makes the point! Good to know that 'work' in there in the general allowed category. – Itai Mar 30 at 2:11
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The definition is still quite open ended in Canada; use your own judgment, listen to local public health recommendations and obey them.

(AFAIK) Each province sets its own travel restriction, in Québec, my place of residence, it is highly advised not to travel between regions.

From today (23h59) every non-essential businesses are closed, and corollary, a list of essential business allowed to stay open; so everything else is closed, so that limit the need to get out of home to travel (locally or regionally).

Business meetings can and should be be done by phone/video-conferences, factory visits should be postponed.

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First off, the advisory that you linked is a travel advisory. This means that it is just that: Advice that you should not currently travel without an important reason.

As there is no prohibition, you don't need an exact definition, as everyone makes the decision for themselves.

Let's look at the types of travel restrictions that you can currently face:

Travel advisories

Almost any government on the planet currently has a travel advisory similar to the Canadian one. A travel advisory means that the government strongly suggests that you shouldn't travel, but they won't stop you if you decide otherwise.

For many bookings a travel advisory is also valid grounds for a cancellation. Also, it will be virtually impossible to buy insurance (including travel health insurance) after the advisory is in effect.

Non-essential travel in this context means mainly tourism, but could also extend to business trips that you can cancel without negative repercussions.

Travel prohibitions, outgoing

It extremely rare for a western country to prohibit their citizens to travel. An example is the travel restriction for North Korea that the US imposes on their citizens. Even in this case, they do not actively seek to stop visits, but simply declare their passports invalid for travel.

I know of no western country that currently prevents their citizens from leaving due to COVID-19.

However, some countries in Africa (like the DR Congo) have put a complete lockdown in place, cancelled all incoming and outgoing flights and banned all travel -- this affects their own citizens as well as foreigners.

Entry restrictions

A growing number of countries has restrictions on who may enter. Some do no longer allow travellers from areas with active outbreaks, others (like Germany) have closed their borders to all travellers without an "important reason".

Again, I know of no western democracies who prevent their own citizens from entering. However, some have enacted restrictions for arrivals (e.g. Canada apparently disallows you to arrive by air with COVID-19 symptoms, and other countries may force you into quarantine if you arrive from certain areas).

Some countries apply their restrictions even to transit passengers, which makes travel even more difficult.

If a country bans entry, the airline will not allow you to board unless you can demonstrate that you'll be let in.

Internal restrictions

Some countries have restricted domestic travel. In France and Italy you may only leave your home for urgent reasons, and internal travel is essentially prohibited unless you meet one of the exception criteria.

These countries still allow their own citizens to enter and travel to their residence, but will not allow touristic travel by foreigners.

Practical restrictions

Most affected areas have heavily restricted public life. Most shops are closed, and hotels are often not open for tourist visitors.

And, even if you are legally allow to travel somewhere, many flights are cancelled and public transport may operate on a reduced schedule or be suspended.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, there is no easy answer to your question, as it all depends on where you come from and where you go.

In general, it is currently a good idea to not travel at all.

Even though the Canadian government will allow you to leave, there are many destinations that you can't reach and you may easily get into a situation where it is difficult, expensive or outright impossible to get back home.

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    Whats with the downvote within 15 seconds of posting this? You could a least read the thing ;-) – averell Mar 28 at 17:43
  • I won't speak for your downvoter, but you posted this after I updated my answer to include a tweet from the Canada Border Services Agency that they will not let you in if it's not essential. The whole "don't worry it's just an advisory no one can stop you" isn't even accurate - and wouldn't be useful if it was accurate. – Kate Gregory Mar 28 at 17:49
  • @KateGregory That's why I broke down the different types of restrictions you can face. A travel advisory is about outgoing travel, and not legally binding. The tweet is about the entry restrictions, which apply to foreign citizens (as in: non-Canadians, including US citizens, which is explained behind the link the OP included). Also at no point did I say "don't worry no one can stop you". But that depends on several factors, and there is no single hard and fast rule. – averell Mar 28 at 18:31

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