Canada expands its list of ‘visa-free’ countries: ‘This is a sea change in the way we do travel’

Certain travelers from 13 countries have been added to Canada’s “visa-free” list and will be able to come to this country without obtaining a costly visitor visa.

On Tuesday, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced an expansion of the electronic travel authorization — better known as the eTA program — to the Philippines, Thailand and some Caribbean and Latin American countries, to make it easier for “known travelers” from those countries to come here for fun and business.

“This expansion not only enhances convenience for travelers, it will also increase travel, tourism and economic benefits, as well as strengthen global bonds with these 13 countries,” Fraser told a news conference in Winnipeg.

Starting immediately, visitors from these countries are no longer required to have visitor visas and only need an eTA — so long as they have either held a Canadian visa in the past 10 years or currently have a valid United States non-immigrant visa.

The countries added to the list include: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Costa Rica, Morocco, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Philippines, Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and Uruguay.

The known travelers from these countries can save a lot of money as a result of the visa exemptions, Fraser said. A visitor visa currently costs $100 per person and $500 for a family of five or more, but an eTA only costs $7 per person and is valid for as long as five years.

Canada has traditionally relied on data and benchmarks to determine if a country should be exempt from the visa requirement.

However, through new technologies and the ability to use digital information, immigration officials can now identify individual travelers who have been through the screening process recently in Canada or who have been through a similar process in the US

“This is a sea change in the way that we travel to Canada,” said Fraser. “We have faith that they’re going to be able to satisfy the requirements of the visa process in Canada.”

The expansion of the eTA program is built on the success of the pilot program offered to Brazilian, Bulgarian and Romanian visitors in 2017.

“We’ve seen a major uptick in the number of travelers who came from Brazil. But we’ve also seen the caseload at our processing office in Sao Paulo decrease by almost 60 per cent over that period despite a much higher volume of travel,” Fraser explained.

“With this expansion of the program, our visa officers are now going to have more time to dedicate their efforts towards processing existing visa applications, study permits or work permits to speed up the process not only for those who benefit from today’s announcement, but for everyone who’s waiting to have an application process.”

Almost 20.9 million eTAs have been issued since the program was first introduced in 2015. Officials expect the expansion of the program will bring in 200,000 or 20 per cent more visitors from the 13 countries. Within a decade, it’s estimated, increased travel from these countries will bring almost $160 million in additional tourism revenue.

While travelers with valid Canadian visas can continue to use it to travel to Canada from these countries, those who are not eligible for an eTA or who are traveling to Canada by car, bus, train and boat as well as cruise ships will still need a visitor visas.

Travelers can visit to find out whether they’re eligible for an eTA and how to apply for one.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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