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'Super easy': How Canadian travellers are getting free COVID-19 tests to return home from U.S.

TORONTO -

Despite the Canada-U.S. land border now being open, some travellers say the mandatory negative molecular COVID-19 test required to return to Canada, which can cost more than the equivalent of C$150, has them continuing to forgo trips.

Currently, anyone entering Canada must show proof of a negative molecular test for COVID-19 taken no more than 72 hours before their arrival at the border.

Those tests, such as the PCR test, are to be taken at the traveller's expense, and while the costs of these tests vary, they often carry a price tag anywhere from $150 to $300. Rapid, antigen tests, which are less expensive, are not accepted to return to Canada.

Yet some Canadians have found an affordable option, with select U.S. clinics and pharmacies offering free molecular tests through a government-funded program across all states. However, they stress that planning ahead is necessary to obtain these tests for free.

Kenda Martin, of Moncton N.B., travels to New York City every September for the U.S. Open tennis tournament. She told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Thursday that she did "about seven hours of research" before the trip to make sure she would be able to get back to Canada with the proper test results.

After looking into her options, Martin opted for a free PCR test for her return trip through New York City Health and Hospitals.

While the test was free to Martin, it was actually funded by the U.S. government as part of a program to offer low- or no-cost COVID-19 tests to everyone in the U.S., including those who don't have medical insurance.

Upon arriving at the testing site, Martin said she had to wait in line for about 45 minutes, before a woman took down her information including listing her hotel when asked to provide an address, and checking her passport. Martin says the process took about 15 minutes and she was not required to provide any insurance information.

"We were tested probably at three o'clock in the afternoon, and by the time I woke up Sunday morning at 7 a.m. my results were in my email," Martin said. "It was really quick and didn't cost me a dime. It was super easy."

Martin added that she faced no issues when flying back into Canada with her results.

While it seems simple, clinics and pharmacies do warn that Canadians may not get their test results in time for their return, as the PCR results can take up to 72 hours.

Tami Watson, of Southport, Man. also recently took advantage of free PCR testing offered by the state of North Dakota when visiting her boyfriend. Watson told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Tuesday that her test results came back in about 28 hours.

Watson had to call ahead to provide her information with Grand Forks Public Health and register with MyChart, an app where the test result are made available, before going to the facility to get tested.

"Once you've done those two things, you can come and go as much as you want," Watson said.

Watson says she did not have to show insurance or ID at the testing facility and was "in and out within five minutes." She added that she had no issues driving back through the Canadian border with her results.

Watson said she plans to use the free testing program when she returns to North Dakota in two weeks, and noted that these tests are not a part of some "loophole" to secretly help Canadians to reduce travel costs.

"They openly are telling people that they're offering this free to Canadians. They want us back," she said.

The federal government lifted the global advisory asking Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside the country in October, but is continuing to advise against travel on cruise ships.

Canada opened its borders last month to non-essential international travellers who have received both doses of a Health Canada-approved COVID-19 vaccine, and fully vaccinated Americans have been allowed to cross the border into Canada since August.

The U.S. government reopened its land border to non-essential Canadian travellers on Nov. 8., while air travel to the U.S. has been allowed with certain conditions.

Andrew D'Amours of Trois-Rivières, Que. opted for a self-administered free Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT), which is listed as an accepted test by the Canadian government, at a Walgreens pharmacy during his last two trips to the U.S.

D'Amours, who is the co-founder of the travel information website Flytrippers and has written about this topic for his site, told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Thursday that the process "really couldn't be any easier."

D'Amours said travellers have to book these tests, which the chain calls ID NOW tests, online through the pharmacy's drive-thru testing site. He says these tests can also be found at CVS clinics through a similar process.

Upon arrival at the site, D'Amours said he was only asked for his name and date of birth, having input his information online beforehand. He added that he left the insurance section of the online form blank.

D'Amours said he did not have to show identification, insurance or provide a payment method.

"The NAAT is super convenient because you get the results in a few hours, usually three, four hours but they say within 24 -- that's the maximum," D'Amours said, adding that he was "mind blown" at how quick and efficient the process was.

D'Amours said the NAAT is a "game changer" for Canadian travellers looking to head to the U.S. for a vacation.

"You don't have to stress out about getting the results in time and especially with it being free, [it] was very, very easy," he said.

However, D'Amours said travellers need to plan ahead if using this method as the tests need to be booked in advance online, and not all states offer the NAAT, only PCR. He suggests Canadians plan a vacation around those states offering NAATs to make for a smoother trip.

D'Amours added that Canadians should also be prepared to pay for a test should the U.S. federal program subsidizing these tests abruptly end with little notice.

Anne Hodgen-Loohuizen, of Exeter, Ont., travelled to West Lafayette, Ind. last week with her family for a business conference. They all took the NAATs offered through a nearby Walgreens testing site to return to Canada.

Hodgen-Loohuizen told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Tuesday that they had to book online ahead of time and provide Canadian identification at the drive-thru.

"We self-administered the tests… gave [the samples] back to them and went on our way," Hodgen-Loohuizen said. "About an hour later our results were emailed to us and on our phones."

She says she plans to use these tests when travelling to the U.S. again in December and then in February, if the program is still available.

Hodgen-Loohuizen said Americans are happy to welcome Canadians back, and noted that the cost of a free molecular test is likely minor to the U.S. government compared to the hit the tourism sector has taken during the pandemic.

"We're not scamming the system or anything," she said. "You tell them you're travelling and you need the test to go home and they're fine with it. It hasn't been a big deal and we've had no problems."

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