Shocked you’ve suddenly got to fill out something called an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) in order to come to Canada by air, even though you’ve entered many times before Visa-free? Not sure how to answer the eTA questions? Refused entry to Canada because of an eTA, even though you've been welcomed many times before? You’re not alone.

What is an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA)?

It’s been less than a year since the Government of Canada in November 2016 imposed the eTA requirement on nationals of all Visa-free entry countries (over 50 states), other than Americans. Although the Government seems to have promoted eTAs as not a big deal, in many ways these are mini-Visas, with all the attendant risks, hassles and delays that Visas entail. Supposedly 3.5 million people a year will be applying for eTAs. Previously, only a tiny fraction of those were asked the eTA's probing questions after arriving at a Canadian air port of entry. 

Canada Border Services Agency Officers have the right to ask foreigners seeking entry to Canada all manner of probing questions, but airports are busy places, and most people never were asked questions about things like prior arrests. Now, all foreigners (other than Americans) get asked through the eTA.

While you don’t need to apply for an eTA if arriving in Canada by land or sea, how many people actually do that other than Americans? Canada is not an easy place to get to unless you fly. 

What's the Difference Between a Visa & an eTA?

The main difference between an eTA and a Visa, other than cost and waiting period, is that the eTA is a self-reporting tool that is computer screened. Only if an applicant answers YES to particular questions, or is otherwise flagged in an electronic database, will the eTA application be escalated to human review. By comparison, all Visas supposedly get some human attention (some more than others). 

What's Risks Do eTAs Pose for Travellers?

While the Government of Canada rightly points to the fact that eTAs are only screening for the admission criteria that always applied to any foreigner seeking entry to Canada and which were already tested for in Visa applicants, detailed screening of another 3.5 million people a year is sure to result in thousands of additional refused entries to Canada.

While the government touts the huge numbers of eTAs successfully issued, what is not focussed on is the number of people refused entry because of an eTA. The most common reason for refusal is likely because of disclosure of minor criminal records that the Government of Canada would not otherwise have known about were it not for the eTA questioning. But refusal for health reasons, for being unable to financially support yourself while in Canada, or for being unlikely to leave Canada all also pose refusal risks.

How Should I Answer the eTA Questions?

If you only had to fill out your name, birthdate, address and purpose of visit, the eTA would be easy. But instead, you’re faced with questions like “Do you have a serious health condition for which you are receiving regular medical treatment?”

ou might be wondering, what qualifies as “serious” and what is meant by “regular” or even “treatment"? Good question! There are a lot of important nuances in that one question alone. You don't want to minimize a condition, and then be accused of lying. But you don’t want to unjustifiably exaggerate a condition, and then be refused entry when in fact your condition wasn’t all that serious, and your treatment wasn’t particularly regular. 

In future blog posts, I’ll deconstruct the ways to approach each questions. 

The Government of Canada has produced a 22 page guide on how to fill out the ETA: 

http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/pdf/eta/english.pdf

While the guide is helpful, in some ways it raises more questions than it answers, like in response to the medical question it states: "Select YES if you are receiving regular, ongoing medical treatment for any mental or physical condition.”

But note that the guide's "clarification" isn’t using the same question that was asked in the eTA. The word “serious” has disappeared. The word “ongoing” has appeared.” And mental as well as physical conditions have now been added, leaving one to wonder does taking a low dose anti-depressant need to be disclosed? To me, it certainly doesn’t qualify as “serious health condition” and “regular medical treatment,” but it might qualify as ongoing treatment for a mental condition, especially if some psychotherapy in thrown in. My take would be to follow the wording of the actual question, and not the wording of the guide. But you can hopefully see how confusing this can get, and how easily it might lead to misunderstandings leading to entry to Canada problems.

Three Guiding Principles for Filling out eTAs

For now, I offer you three guiding principles for completing an eTA:

  1. Don’t Lie - a "misrepresentation" can bar you from visiting, working or studying in Canada. The misrepresentation may be considered to be far more serious by the Government of Canada than the thing you were trying to hide. Even if you think the government will never find out, you can't be sure about what database access the government might have. I worked for the government for years, and I was never sure. You can be sure that eTA applicants home countries will share more data with Canada than will Visa-required countries, because the eTA countries tend to be close allies of Canada.
  2. Don’t Answer Yes Without First Obtaining Legal Advice - these are all loaded, legal questions. If you're asked one of them in person at an airport, you aren't going to be able to have the opportunity to obtain legal advice. But with an eTA, you can talk to a lawyer. A lawyer local to where you live won't be much good to you, because it's unlikely he or she will be qualified to give advice on Canadian law. 
  3. Don’t Book Travel Prior to Obtaining an eTA - they’re good for five years, and only cost 7 dollars. So this should be the first step of your trip planning. 

We offer “eTA Quick Legal Consults” (eTA QLC) for those faced with filling out an eTA, and who have concerns about how questions should be answered based upon their personal facts. And on how to resolve eTA refusals. 

The Government of Canada hasn’t changed any of the entry rules to Canada. Reasons for refusal remain the same as they have been. But with eTAs they’ll now have a lot more information on everyone, so you need to treat the eTA document as seriously as you would a Visa application to another country or a passport application in your own country.