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Canada exempts foreign workers from COVID-19 travel restrictions

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has released information on how exempt workers can enter Canada while coronavirus travel restrictions remain in place. Since March 18, Canada has had travel restrictions in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 from people entering the country.

The current travel restrictions expire on June 30th (although restrictions on cross-border travel between Canada and the U.S. are in place until July 21).

Work permit holders are among those exempt from the travel restrictions so long as their trip to Canada is for essential reasons (essential travel is defined as non-optional and non-discretionary).

Temporary workers who are exempt from travel restrictions

The following foreign nationals who are currently outside Canada are not subject to Canada’s travel restrictions if travelling to Canada for a non-optional or non-discretionary purpose:

  1. Foreign nationals who hold a valid Canadian work permit (including an open work permit) as defined in section R2.Document to present to the air carrier: The status document [IMM 1442] (the actual valid work permit document).
  2. Foreign nationals who received a positive decision from IRCC (documented by a letter of introduction) on a work permit application but whose work permit has not yet been issued. The foreign national’s purpose of travel must not be discretionary or optional. Consult Determining whether entry of temporary workers will be for a discretionary or optional purpose.Document to present to the air carrier: A paper copy or e-version of the letter of introduction.

Work-permit exempt foreign nationals seeking to work in critical occupations

Offices should prioritize the processing of these work permit exemption applications overseas and in Canada as these occupations were identified as critical for health, safety and food security reasons.

The following work permit-exempt foreign nationals are not subject to the travel restrictions and may not be subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period if they are described in Order in Council 2020-0260:

  • providers of emergency services under paragraph R186(t) for the protection or preservation of life or property (includes firefighters and medical service providers)
    • Foreign nationals who usually qualify for an LMIA-exempt work permit under exemption code C13 may enter Canada under the paragraph R186(t) exemption if their work is related to the protection or preservation of life or property related to the COVID-19 response and maintenance of critical infrastructure or services.
  • persons permitted to work as a student in a health field under paragraph R186(p), including as a medical elective or clinical clerk at a medical teaching institution in Canada, for the primary purpose of acquiring training, if they have written approval from the body that regulates that field
  • workers in the marine transportation sector who are essential for the movement of goods by vessel under paragraph R186(s)
  • persons who seek to enter Canada for the purpose of delivering, maintaining, or repairing medically necessary equipment or devices under paragraph R186(a)
  • persons who seek to enter Canada for the purpose of making medical deliveries of cells, blood and blood products, tissues, organs or other body parts that are required for patient care in Canada during or within a reasonable period of time after the expiry of the Order under paragraph R186(t)

No other foreign nationals who are work permit exempt under section R186 are allowed to travel to Canada at this time.

Note: Work permit applicants eligible for the Urgent referrals process for work permits should continue to be processed on a priority basis, where operationally feasible.

Foreign nationals who are work permit exempt must still undergo their immigration medical examination, if required. Consult

Applicants coming under these work permit exemptions must follow the instructions found in Temporary resident visas (TRVs) or Electronic travel authorization (eTA) when they apply.

Documentary evidence to be presented by work permit-exempt applicants to air carriers

At the point of boarding, foreign nationals can self-identify to airlines that they are exempt from the travel restriction by presenting alternative documentation to show how they meet the criteria. This should generally include

  • for emergency services providers, a letter of invitation from a relevant organization in Canada (federal, provincial or municipal government entity)
  • for health care students, a letter of invitation from a relevant teaching institution
  • for persons joining vessels, a letter from shipping agents

Those who are work permit exempt are required to satisfy the airline that they are exempt from the travel restrictions. Other acceptable documents may include letters of invitation and letters confirming recognition of credentials.

Determining whether entry of temporary workers will be for a discretionary or optional purpose

There are overarching exceptions to the travel ban exemptions. These exceptions include a prohibition on travel for an optional or discretionary purpose.

General rules

  • Before making any travel arrangements, if the foreign national has submitted a work permit application and has received a letter of introduction, the foreign national should confirm with their prospective employer that
    • the work location or organization is not subject to mandatory closure of non-essential businesses; if the business is closed, workers should not proceed to Canada at this time
    • if the business is open, they will be able to start their employment after the 14-day quarantine period
  • The temporary worker is expected to have planned how the 14-day quarantine will take place (where they will stay, who will provide them with groceries, medication, etc.).
  • If temporary workers do not meet the above conditions, they may not be allowed to enter Canada at the POE even if the airline allowed them to board the aircraft.
  • Temporary workers (including citizens of the United States) coming to Canada to work from the United States may be able to apply at the POE for a work permit, so long as they are visa exempt and otherwise eligible to apply at the POE under immigration regulations. The employer in this case should still be operating. Otherwise, the temporary workers may be turned back.

Example scenarios

The following are scenarios regarding foreign nationals who hold a valid work permit or received a letter of introduction from IRCC on their work permit application and are seeking entry at a Canadian POE.

Non-optional or non-discretionary travel for a temporary worker may include

  • A foreign national has a valid work permit and ordinarily resides in Canada. Whether the foreign national’s employment still exists or if they are currently laid off is not determinative in this case. What is determinative is that the foreign national’s primary residence is in Canada (suggesting their travel is not optional).
  • A foreign national has a letter of introduction for an open work permit, holds a valid job offer and will be able to work once they enter Canada.
  • A foreign national has a letter of introduction for an employer-specific work permit, holds a valid job offer and will be able to work once they enter Canada.

Optional or discretionary travel for a temporary worker may include

  • A foreign national has a letter of introduction for an employer-specific work permit, but the business of their prospective employer is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • A foreign national has a letter of introduction for an open work permit, has not secured a job contract and is simply planning to search for work opportunities in Canada.

Context-specific scenario

Foreign nationals who are accompanying family members of work permit holders where the spouse has a letter of introduction for an open work permit or meet another exemption from travel restrictions. The decision of the border services officer will be context specific. In a situation where immediate family members are ordinarily residents of Canada, a border services officer may allow entry as travel would not be optional. In a situation where the temporary worker is coming to do work that is critical for the Canadian economy, border services officers may examine the motivations for travel of any dependents at this time, particularly as schools are not open.

For example, for family members who are joining a spouse or parent while they are working in an essential job in Canada (work permit), the purpose of the trip may not be discretionary if the family is relocating to Canada. The exemption from travel restrictions likely would apply if this is a relocation move. Child care may also be a consideration. For example, the spouse of the essential worker may be required to move to Canada to care for their children, given that schools are closed.

The Orders also exempt foreign nationals whose travel to Canada is authorized in writing by an officer designated under subsection 6(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) or by a Global Affairs Canada (GAC) consular officer for the purpose of reuniting immediate family members (for example, a temporary worker is in Canada but their spouse and children went home to visit family and now cannot come back). For guidance on required documentation, consult Family reunification.

International Experience Canada (IEC) work permit applicants who received a letter of introduction and are outside Canada

Effective May 8, 2020, and until further notice, the only International Experience Canada (IEC) candidates who border services officers should allow entry to Canada are those who received a letter of introduction and have an offer of employment with an employer who is still operating during the COVID-19 outbreak (because they are allowed to do so under provincial restrictions).

The applicant must still meet all admissibility requirements under the immigration legislation. This would apply to foreign youth in the 3 IEC categories:

  • Working Holiday
  • Young Professionals
  • International Co-op (Internship)

Processing of work permits

Applicants outside Canada can continue to submit work permit applications. Provinces and territories may have additional travel restrictions; applicants must verify with their employer or provincial or territorial authority before making travel arrangements. Any person who is outside Canada at the time of application should apply online. This also applies to applicants who are normally allowed to apply at the port of entry as per subsection R198(1), as the exemption to the travel restrictions for foreign nationals arriving from a country other than the U.S. applies to holders of a work permit and persons approved for a work permit.

To benefit from the exemption to the travel restriction when arriving from a country other than the U.S., the foreign national must have their letter of introduction beforehand if they are travelling by air. Foreign nationals who are presenting themselves at a land border may still apply upon entry as per subsection R198(1) and insofar as they are not prohibited from entering Canada on the basis of the Minimizing the Risk of Exposure to COVID-19 in Canada Order (Prohibition of Entry into Canada from the United States).

For applicants who are outside Canada, a daily report is being pulled for all approved applications and a push notification letter is being sent by the Client Experience Branch advising applicants of the required documentation to present to the air carrier and the 14-day quarantine instructions.

Applicants can also continue to submit applications to extend or to change conditions on their work permits from within Canada. More instructions will follow.

Certain in-Canada applicants may still apply using paper applications if they meet one of the exemptions from the mandatory e-application requirement. They must clearly write “COVID-19” on the envelope.

Requests for additional information on open applications

Until further notice, offices may continue to request any necessary additional documents or impose regulatory requirements for processing in relation to temporary residence applications in Canada and abroad, including police certificates, biometric enrolments, passports and medical examinations, as follows:

  • When additional documentation is required to make a decision on the application, processing officers should send a request letter and allow 90 days for the applicant to respond.
  • If a request for additional documentation was previously sent but the applicant was unable to comply within the deadline, processing officers should bring forward the application and allow an additional 90 days for the applicant to respond.
  • Until further notice, applicants will not be refused for non-compliance.

Prioritizing work permit processing for critical occupations

Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) will prioritize the processing of Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) for the following National Occupational Classification (NOC) codes related to agricultural, agri-food and truck driving occupations. Where operationally possible, we encourage officers to prioritize work permit applications for these NOCs, in addition to health-related occupations, as these occupations have been identified as essential and critical for Canada.

A daily report is being pulled by the Operations Planning and Performance Branch (OPPB) and distributed to the International and Centralized Networks to ensure the following NOC codes related to work permit applications are prioritized.

  • NOC 6331 – Butchers, meat cutters and fishmongers – retail and wholesale
  • NOC 7511 – Transport truck drivers
  • NOC 8252 – Agricultural service contractors, farm supervisors and specialized livestock workers
  • NOC 8431 – General farm workers
  • NOC 8432 – Nursery and greenhouse workers
  • NOC 8611 – Harvesting labourers
  • NOC 9463 – Fish and seafood plant workers
  • NOC 9617 – Labourers in food, beverage and associated products processing
  • NOC 9618 – Labourers in fish and seafood processing
  • NOC 9462 – Industrial butchers and meat cutters, poultry preparers and related workers

It is expected that most licensed health professionals will come under the work permit exemption for providers of emergency services for short assignments. However, in the event that licensed health professionals seek to enter Canada on a work permit, they will be required to apply abroad and wait for approval.

Those who are travelling by air from somewhere other than the U.S. will have to present a letter of introduction to the air carrier to board the flight unless they already have a valid work permit in their possession.

OPPB will also pull statistics on the following NOC codes for health-related work permit applications to ensure they are prioritized:

  • NOC 3011 – Nursing co-ordinators and supervisors
  • NOC 3012 – Registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses
  • NOC 3111 – Specialist physicians
  • NOC 3112 – General practitioners and family physicians
  • NOC 3124 – Allied primary health practitioners
  • NOC 3125 – Other professional occupations in health diagnosing and treating
  • NOC 3131 – Pharmacists
  • NOC 3211 – Medical laboratory technologists
  • NOC 3212 – Medical laboratory technicians and pathologists’ assistants
  • NOC 3214 – Respiratory therapists, clinical perfusionists and cardiopulmonary technologists
  • NOC 3215 – Medical radiation technologists
  • NOC 3217 – Cardiology technologists and electrophysiological diagnostic technologists, n.e.c.
  • NOC 3233 – Licensed practical nurses
  • NOC 3234 – Paramedical occupations
  • NOC 3413 – Nurse aides, orderlies and patient service associates
  • NOC 4411 – Home child care providers (LMIA-required in-Canada applicants)
  • NOC 4412 – Home support workers, excluding housekeepers (LMIA-required in-Canada applicants)

Note: While applications in certain sectors are being prioritized based on NOC codes, this does not preclude an officer from prioritizing a case (should all processing requirements be met and operational capacity allow) where there is a demonstrated urgent need for the worker in Canada and the worker would be fulfilling an essential job during the pandemic.

Offers of employment and LMIAs

Given the current exceptional circumstances, we may see an increase in the suspension of LMIAs and the withdrawal of offers of employment in the employer portal. Officers are reminded to verify that the offer has not been withdrawn and that the LMIA has not been suspended before finalizing the work permit application. For more details, consult:

For LMIA-required work permit applications, officers are reminded to review the IRCC notes in the LMIA under the Employment Details tab to make sure that there has been no change to the name of the foreign national in the LMIA for which the officer is assessing the application. Workers such as truck drivers are expected to arrive in Canada and be able to perform the job. Most training facilities are likely not in operation at the moment. In addition, ESDC will issue LMIAs with a 9-month validity as opposed to 6 months to provide more flexibility.

Asymptomatic foreign nationals who do not meet an exemption at the POE

For asymptomatic foreign nationals who do not meet an exemption listed above, border services officers shall explain that they are subject to the prohibition and not allowed to enter Canada in accordance with the Emergency Order under section 58 of the Quarantine Act.

The border services officer is to offer the traveller the option of withdrawing their application to enter Canada. Should the traveller withdraw their application to enter Canada, the border services officer is to follow existing protocols related to section R42 and choose the most appropriate allegation in the Global Case Management System (GCMS).

Agricultural workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Agricultural Stream (non-SAWP)

Specific instructions have been developed for agricultural workers given their importance in our labour market to ensure Canadian food security. The following guidance has been drafted to facilitate the processing of agriculture-related work permit applications as well as the workers’ arrival in Canada.

Existing and new applications

Given that missions abroad are currently down to essential staff only, the Rapid Response Operations Centre (RROC) will provide support for the processing of online applications. All new applications will be processed in cooperation with the responsible office. Standard operating procedures have been established between each mission and the RROC, taking into consideration office- and caseload-specific factors.

Employers and agricultural stakeholders have started to organize chartered flights in order to bring workers to Canada given the current limited availability of commercial flights. This practice is expected to continue while flight options remain restricted during the pandemic.

Once admitted to Canada, workers must quarantine for 14 days before they start working. For more details, see ESDC’s page:

Immigration medical examinations

Follow regular guidance on who must submit to an immigration medical exam.

Changing employment

A temporary public policy has been issued on the exemption from certain requirements when a temporary worker is changing employment. See Public policy on exemptions to work permit conditions when changing employment: COVID-19 program delivery.

Learn more: