Millions of travellers will soon face another layer of red tape when they try to visit Canada.
Starting Saturday, Ottawa will start accepting applications for electronic travel authorization (eTA) from people who wish to travel to Canada by air.
Prospective travellers have until March 15 to submit their biographic, passport and other personal information through Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s website for pre-screening or face being denied entry when the border enforcement kicks in.
The new measure — part of the harmonization with the United States’ travel security system — will apply to most air passengers, including all applicants for study and work permits, as well as those who come from countries that currently do not require a visa to come to Canada.
“Providing the information required by these amendments will allow Canada to determine the admissibility of foreign nationals before they arrive at the border and whether their travel poses migration or security risks,” the immigration department says.
The eTA system will “enhance data-gathering capacity, improve intelligence, close the gap on the lack of information that is provided for commercial aviation inbound traffic, and more generally to enforce the visa program.”
The enrolment period aims to give travellers time to learn about eTA and to obtain their authorization before it becomes mandatory in March.
Critics view the initiative as another attempt to block refugees from arriving on Canadian soil and raise concerns over the use of the data in storage.
“It aims at screening such people out and it looks to us as part of the broader government agenda to stop refugees before they are able to come,” said Josh Paterson of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
The eTA application costs $7 in processing fees and a positive eTA is valid for five years or when the traveller’s passport expires. Both the United States and Australia already have similar programs.
Groups exempted from the eTA requirement include: a member of the Royal Family, American citizens and green card holders, commercial aircrew members, visitors with valid visas, passengers in transit through Canada and French citizens who are residents of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Exemptions are also granted to those who arrive on flights that stop in Canada unexpectedly owing to an emergency or unforeseen circumstances.
However, a Canadian border officer may also cancel an eTA if the traveller is deemed inadmissible.
Officials said an eTA application asks for the applicant’s name, date and place of birth, gender, address, nationality and passport information. Visitors from countries where visa are needed are already required to provide such information to Canadian embassy or consulate staff before travelling here.
According to the immigration department, visa-exempt foreign nationals, excluding U.S. citizens, represent about 74 per cent of foreign nationals who arrive by air in Canada.
The latest statistics in 2013 showed the total number of visa-exempt travellers who arrived in Canada and were deemed inadmissible for entry at airports was 7,055.
Reasons for refusal include membership in terrorist organizations, espionage, alleged participation in war crimes or crimes against humanity, criminality and health threats such as tuberculosis.
Officials said the belated detection resulted in significant expense, delay and inconvenience for these individuals, other travellers, the airlines and government officials.
The new eTA system costs taxpayers $165.7 million due to initial upfront investment costs and the ongoing processing cost, which officials said would be offset by the fee revenue and savings from not having to process an average of more than 4,500 otherwise inadmissible visitors to the country.
Immigration officials have launched a short video to help travellers learn about the program.