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Flagpoling to Activate a New Work Permit in Canada

Flagpoling is a completely legal process to activate a new Canadian immigration status. The process involves leaving Canada, being refused entry into the USA and then re-entering Canada.

If you already visiting or working in Canada and have been approved for a new work permit (or even Permanent Residency), flagpoling is the easiest way to activate it without leaving Canada for a trip elsewhere. Those wanting to activate an IEC work permit can also flagpole.

If you’re like me and wary of border crossings, the idea of flagpoling can be intimidating. Here’s everything you need to know to get the job done quickly and (hopefully) painlessly.

Nov 2021 update. Please note that flagpoling has become a little trickier during the pandemic. Some people have been asked to complete ArriveCan. Others have been asked for Covid tests and/or quarantine after activating a work permit at the Canadian border. This post has not been updated to reflect current arrival restrictions in Canada.

How flagpoling works:

Flagpoling is quite straightforward once you have your head around it.

  1. Travel to the Canadian border. On reaching the border booth(s), advise the USA border official that you are flagpoling to activate a Canadian work permit.
  2. They will give you ‘referral’ piece of paper (usually orange) and instruct you to go inside the US immigration office.
  3. In here, you will complete a Refusal of Admission form. They will then send you back to the Canadian side. Follow the directions given.
  4. To activate your new work permit in the CBSA office, you will need to have all your documents to hand.

IEC applicants should have their proof of funds and insurance plus printed POE. 

A requirement of the IEC is to have health insurance covering the length of your stay when activating the permit. Those who flagpole without this, may receive a shortened work permit and/or be refuse one altogether.

IEC flagpolers will need insurance that specifically starts outside their own home country such as policies offered by True Traveller (EU citizens, including Brits) and World Nomads (over 140+ nationalities).

Important things to know about flagpoling:

  • Flagpoling doesn’t count as being officially being refused entry. It is an administrative refusal which will not impact any future travel to the USA or anywhere else
  • It is not possible to ‘flagpole’ or activate an IEC work permit at an airport unless flying into the airport from an international destination
  • Border crossings are found across the country. Note that some of the smaller crossings close at night
  • A good option for flagpoling from Vancouver is Point Roberts. This border is accessible via public transport and is also generally quiet, which means a quicker crossing.
  • The busiest Southern Ontario (Queenston, Niagara Falls, Rainbow Bridge and Fort Erie – Peace Bridge) and Quebec crossings (Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle and Saint-Armand/Philipsburg) only allow flagpoling on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
  • Be aware that land border officers are, in general, less familiar with the IEC program than their airport counterparts. Read on for my own experience!
Canada Work Permit - Flagpoling process to activate

An alternative to Flagpoling – my experience crossing the USA border

When it came to activating my second IEC work permit, I was living on Vancouver Island, BC. It’s a beautiful place, but not super convenient when it comes to border runs. Any route to Washington from the Island involves a ferry and is difficult to do in one day.

For this reason, I decided NOT to flagpole and make a trip of it instead. We had a great week in Washington exploring the tunnels beneath Seattle’s streets, hiking through the wettest place in the USA and getting a little freaked out by the Twilight fandom in Forks.

Arriving back in Canada at the Belleville border in Victoria, I was the only person from our ferry directed into the CBSA office. I was asked for my POE, proof of funds and insurance.

The border officer asked where I lived and what my occupation was. He was doing everything by the book. All was fine until I spotted the date of expiry he had entered on my work permit.

The border officer had dated my work permit to only last five months, not the full year it should have been. Awkward. I started to explain that the expiry date on my POE was a year after it had been approved, not the expiry date of my intended work permit. He read through my POE twice and then got a supervisor.

Twenty nail-bitingly long minutes later, they called me over to check my new work permit. The date was correct! To avoid this tense situation for yourself, read up on my IEC arrival advice.

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Kamal Vadla

Thursday 20th of January 2022

Hi Gemma, Currently i am on multiple entry Visitor Visa landed in Vancouver in December 2021. I have applied for SOWP in a week after landing. My spouse is on Closed work permit. While landing in canada, Immigration officer stamped in my passport the date of exit, i.e for 6 months only. can i go for flagpoling at nearest border to get the Open work permit while my SOWP application is in process.

Advice on this will be appreciated

Gemma

Thursday 20th of January 2022

Hi Kamal,

No, I don't believe you could. Flagpoling can be only used to activate a work permit after an application from outside of Canada was approved. I don't believe you would be able to apply for your SOWP at the border either since you are not visa exempt (see 'Eligibility requirements if you apply when you enter Canada at a port of entry' here)

San

Friday 14th of January 2022

Hi Gemma,

I'm in Vancouver on a tourist visa. I applied for a start-up visa, on the other hand and I applied for online work permit but after 50 weeks I did not receive any answer from cic. Do you think it is a good idea for me to go flagpole or wait and submit inside work permit?

thank you San

Gemma

Saturday 15th of January 2022

Hi San,

I am not familiar with the Start-Up Visa program and would not want to misadvise you. Sorry I can't help!

Matthias

Friday 3rd of December 2021

Hi Gemma! Thank you for you article on flagpoling! I have one question, currently I am in Canada on a tourist visa (temp.resident status, just tourist) and my Open Work Permit application got approved. Can I do the flagpoling thing? Or do I really need to leave the country? Thanks! Matthias

Gemma

Sunday 5th of December 2021

Hi Matthias,

It sounds like you're wanting to activate a new work permit, which is one of the main reasons for flagpoling (the other is activating Permanent Residency, but now there is an online way to do that!)

Aoife Roisin Mehegan

Tuesday 16th of November 2021

Hey, thanks so much for this extremely helpful post. I’m currently working in Vancouver on implied status and have been granted my second IEC visa. My question is, as I am working full time I have full health insurance with my company. Wild this be accepted as insurance at the border do you know? Thanks, Aoife

Gemma

Thursday 18th of November 2021

Hi Aoife,

The requirements for IEC health insurance are listed on the IRCC website -

Your insurance must cover:

medical care hospitalization and repatriation (returning you to your country in the event of severe illness, injury or death)

When you arrive at the port of entry, you must have health insurance valid for your entire stay in Canada. Having a valid provincial health card is not enough. Repatriation is not covered by provincial health insurance.

It is unlikely that your company's health insurance will cover repatriation.

Cam

Sunday 7th of November 2021

Hi Gemma,

I am doing a ski season in whistler where I got a job starting soon. I flew into Vancouver and entered with a eTA to then tried to explain that my intention was to work but my work permit hadn't come through yet. I applied for my work permit mid september and am expecting it to be approved soon. The CBSA recommended that I flagpole when it arrives. Where do you recommend to flagpole from Vancouver airport? As I was looking and point roberts seems like the closest? Do you know whether you have to have a covid test shortly before? And can you simply walk through the border after getting public transport to the border? Finally, As I am only looking to activate my work permit do I need to get an ETSA to enter the US as I would if I was visiting?

Many thanks,

Cam

Gemma

Monday 8th of November 2021

Hi Cam,

As the current situation changes so often, I'd highly recommend you join my O Canada IEC Discussion and Support Facebook group. We have members reporting on flagpoling experiences often. This way, you can get the most up to date info and read personal experiences. We have a 'flagpoling' topic tag so you can easily find recent posts. Point Roberts seems to be a good choice for flagpoling recently and it is easy to get to on public transport as well (you can just walk up to the border). Peach Arch is another option.

No, you don't need an ESTA. ESTAs are only used for flying into the USA. The testing question is a little more complex as it seems to depend on the border officers (as per the experience of group members). If you're in a vehicle, it seems more likely that you're OK without a test. On foot, some people have been asked AND requested to use the ArriveCAN app before their return to Canada!