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Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on March 21, 2020.

Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press

We’re returning home soon to Nova Scotia after a winter in Florida – we got vaccinated while down here – and we would like to avoid the expense of having to quarantine at a government hotel if we fly. Would we face problems at the border if we drive? We flew to Florida, so would it make financial sense to purchase a used car here and drive home? We’d sell the car in Canada once we return. – Peter

If you’re a snowbird, you don’t need wings to get home.

“So if you’re a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, they will absolutely let you into Canada at a land border without questions,” said Mark Belanger, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer. “That way, you’d avoid the hotel quarantine and could just quarantine at home.”

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Since February, Ottawa has required an up-to-three-day hotel quarantine for most people flying into Canada from abroad.

Depending on the city, that hotel stay can cost $2,000 or more for two people. For instance, one hotel at Montreal’s airport had a normal posted rate of $124 a night for two adults last week, but their quarantine rate, which includes food, is $400 a night. With $360 in tax, that comes to $1,960.

But while the Canada-U.S. land border has been closed to non-essential travel since last March, there are exceptions, including Canadians coming home, foreign citizens with immediate family here, essential workers and international students with visas, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said.

Looser rules?

If you drive, you don’t have to quarantine in a hotel, but you do need to make a 14-day quarantine plan using CBSA’s ArriveCAN app.

You need to have had a negative molecular COVID-19 test within 72 hours of crossing. Border officers give you two more test kits – one for when you get to your quarantine location and a second one to take on your tenth day of quarantine.

“To be frank with you, the border has been quite porous,” Belanger said, “At first, it wasn’t, but they’ve made a lot of exceptions and loosened the rules.”

That doesn’t work in the other direction, Belanger said. While Canadians are free to fly to the U.S., the U.S. land border is generally closed to Canadians, he said.

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Between March 21, 2020 and March 23, 2021, nearly 3.3 million non-commercial travellers crossed the land border into Canada – a 93 per cent drop from the 50 million in the same period the year before, CBSA said. In that same period, the drop wasn’t as steep for commercial truck drivers: 5.2 million crossed the border, compared to 5.6 million in the same time the year before.

If you drive into Canada, you could still end up in a quarantine hotel if officials aren’t satisfied with your quarantine plan or your ability to travel directly to your quarantine site without stopping, CBSA said.

Flying south, driving north?

If you flew to the U.S. and didn’t ship your car down there with you, there are still options.

First, you could fly to somewhere near the border, take a taxi or rideshare to the border, and then walk across, Belanger said.

“I haven’t spoken to a lot of people who have navigated this yet,” Belanger said. “I personally think people are waiting [in the U.S.] as long as they can to see what happens.”

CBSA said taxis and rideshares are generally allowed to drive you across the border – drivers are typically considered essential workers so they don’t have to quarantine. Uber didn’t respond to questions and Lyft said they don’t allow cross-border trips.

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CBSA also allows you to cross in a U.S.-plated rental car, as long as you can show that it will be returned to the U.S. While some companies allowed U.S. rentals to be returned in Canada before COVID-19, they may not be allowing it now. Hertz, for instance, said they only allow Canadian drop-offs in “very limited circumstances and mostly only with contracted corporate business.”

Not worth the hassle?

So what about buying a car, importing it to Canada and selling it here to avoid that $2,000 hotel stay?

That might not worth the cost and hassle, said Ricky Haroon, a Montreal-based car importer and exporter.

“Importing vehicles is possible, but it’s a hectic thing,” Haroon said. “If you don’t import through a broker, you’re doing all that paperwork at the border.”

If you bought in Florida, for instance, you’d have to pay six per cent sales tax there, $225 for registration, and insurance.

When you import it at the border, you’ll have to pay $325, plus tax, to the Registrar of Imported Vehicles (RIV), on any car that’s less than 15 years old.

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There’s also a $100 air conditioning tax. If it wasn’t built in North America and is less than 25 years old, you may have to pay six per cent duty. Plus, there’s GST at the border, provincial sales tax when you register the car here and then federal and provincial inspections.

Then there’s the issue of value – right now, because of the high exchange rate, there’s generally not much demand for U.S imports in Canada unless they’re rare or high-end cars, Haroon said.

So a beater that cost you US$1,500 (C$1,875) in Florida, for instance, will probably sell for less than that here, Haroon said.

“I used to import, and now I became an exporter – I export 600 trucks to the U.S. a year,” Haroon said. “We still import a few, like Ferraris, from down there, but not Camrys or Impalas.”

Special exemption?

Although you need to import a car to sell it in Canada, you don’t actually have to import it to drive it across the border – but there are limits on how long it can stay here.

Generally, Canadian residents can keep a U.S.-plated car in Canada for 30 days – or 60 days if in special circumstances – without registering with RIV or paying taxes or duties, CBSA said.

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Last March, that time limit was suspended because of COVID-19. The suspension is still in effect, but it only applies to cars brought into Canada between March 2020 and February 2021.

So, if you come home in a car with U.S. plates now, you’ll have to import it if it stays longer than 30 days, CBSA said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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