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Leading indicator of cross-border traveller volume, March 2020

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Released: 2020-04-14


The number of Americans and Canadians crossing the border by automobile fell drastically in the second half of March.

In March 2020, the number of Americans entering into Canada by automobile through 111 land ports declined nearly 60% compared with the same month in 2019.

Over the same period, the number of Canadians returning from the United States by automobile through these ports dropped by 45% compared with March 2019.

Restrictions of non-essential travel at the border in March dramatically altered the pattern of cross-border travel by automobile between the two countries.

Americans entering and Canadians returning

Most foreign travellers entering the country on any given day are from the United States (US) and arrive by automobile. Likewise, most Canadians returning from the US also do so by automobile.

This release provides counts of US residents entering Canada through the automated Integrated Primary Inspection Line (IPIL) ports in US-licensed automobiles, and Canadian residents returning from the United States through IPIL ports in automobiles licensed in Canada.

With the introduction of international travel restrictions as measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the number of Americans entering Canada by automobile via 111 IPIL ports in March 2020 was almost 60% below that recorded during the same month in 2019. This decrease was driven by large declines in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, which collectively recorded almost 450,000 fewer Americans arriving by automobile at 111 IPIL ports.

Similarly, the number of Canadians returning from the United States by automobile through these same IPIL ports dropped by 990,000 or about 45% in March 2020 compared with March 2019. Ontario and British Columbia accounted for 86% of this decline. Quebec accounted for less of a decrease because of an earlier March school break that preceded the restrictions.

The IPIL data exclude travellers who cross the border using a NEXUS card, those who cross through ports that are not equipped with the IPIL system, and those whose crossing is recorded only on a paper E-62 Entry Tally used for buses, trains and passenger ferries. The IPIL counts also exclude US travellers in automobiles with Canadian licence plates and Canadian travellers in automobiles with US licence plates.

As such, the IPIL data represent a subset of Canadian and US residents entering Canada by automobile. In 2019, for example, the 111 IPIL ports covered by this indicator captured approximately 80% of cross-border automobile traffic between Canada and the United States.

COVID-19 and the Canada–United States border

One of the most visible effects of the COVID-19 outbreak has been increasing restrictions on travel across international boundaries. Canada and the United States (US) share an undefended border of 8,891 kilometres with more than 100 legal land crossings.

On March 16, 2020, the Government of Canada announced it was closing its international border to people who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, with certain exceptions that included American citizens.

During the same announcement, the Prime Minister cautioned all Canadians travelling outside of the country to return home. Then, as of March 21, 2020, there was a 30-day restriction placed on all non-essential travel across the Canada-US border.

The daily counts from the Integrated Primary Inspection Line from January 1 to March 31 illustrate the impact of these restrictions on flows across the border. Prior to these restrictions in 2020, movements had been following a similar pattern to that of 2019.

American residents entering Canada by automobile during the first quarter of 2020 closely tracked the 2019 pattern until the March 16 announcement. In mid-month the number entering began a steep decline before leveling off just prior to the March 21 closure.

Similarly, Canadian residents returning from the United States by automobile during the first quarter of 2020 mimicked the 2019 pattern. However, the number was beginning to rise in mid-March and then jumped for a short period following the March 16 announcement.

The flow of returning Canadians then tapered until the March 21 closure. The large spike of returning Canadians seen in 2019 did not occur in 2020 as March break travel did not happen in most provinces, notably Ontario.

Infographic 1  Thumbnail for Infographic 1: Residents of the United States entering Canada in automobiles licensed in the United States, first quarter 2020
Residents of the United States entering Canada in automobiles licensed in the United States, first quarter 2020

Infographic 2  Thumbnail for Infographic 2: Canadian residents returning from the United States in Canadian-licensed automobiles, first quarter 2020
Canadian residents returning from the United States in Canadian-licensed automobiles, first quarter 2020

  Note to readers

Data indicating cross-border travel by automobile through 111 land ports equipped with the automated Integrated Primary Inspection Line (IPIL) system are now available by the traveller's state or province of residence and by the province of entry into Canada. A traveller's state or province of residence is estimated from the licence plate of the automobile used to enter Canada.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) uses various data sources to collect information on travellers entering the country. One of the CBSA's sources, the IPIL system, yields data in an electronic format that requires less processing. These data account for the largest share of travellers entering Canada by automobile.

Starting with the October 2016 release, data are available in formats that provide more detail on the entries of persons from each US state. Monthly data in these new formats for the period starting in January 2015 are available upon request. Data on the number of Canadian residents returning from the United States were introduced in January 2018.

Since data from the IPIL system are unadjusted, data users making comparisons between February 2019 and February 2020 are advised to note that February 2019 had 28 days, while February 2020 had 29 days.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; or Media Relations (613-951-4636;

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