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Canada’s visaless entry system crashes, leaving many travellers stranded

The collapse of the website that processes Canada’s Electronic Travel Authorizations (eTAs) has caused missed flights, stress and financial pain to many travellers trying to reach Canada.

This week, Canada expanded the number of countries eligible for the eTA system, which replaces a full visa requirement for countries whose citizens are considered at lower risk of overstaying. Travellers from these countries pay a $7 Cdn fee and fill out an online application in a process that would normally take just minutes.

“This exciting development means that more individuals from around the world can now embark on unforgettable adventures, explore our diverse landscapes, reunite with family and friends, and immerse themselves in our vibrant culture without the hurdle of visa requirements,” said a statement from Sean Fraser, minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), which oversees the eTA system. 

But the immediate effect of the change was the opposite.

A man with dark hair and a beard wearing a white button-down shirt gestures while standing in front of a podium that reads 'visa-free travel' in English and French, as a man and woman wearing suits watch him speak.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, flanked by Rechie Valdez, MP for Mississauga, Ont., and Kevin Lamoureux, MP for Winnipeg North, announces the expansion of Canada’s visa-free travel program in the Winnipeg airport on Tuesday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

A predictable surge, not predicted

IRCC appears not to have anticipated that adding 13 new countries with a combined population of over a quarter of a billion people would lead to a sudden surge in applications, but that’s what happened. 

A spokesperson for IRCC said the biggest spike in applications came from the Philippines.

Servers were overwhelmed and the collapse of the system affected not only applicants from the 13 new countries, but from others that were already in the eTA system.

British citizen Amy Monerawela was scheduled to travel to Toronto with her family from London, England, but they were unable to get through the eTA site. 

“We’ve had four people working on it since this morning,” she told CBC News on Friday evening from her London home. “And I mean sat around this table working on it from different devices, with different operating systems and different browsers. None of us are technophobes, we know what we’re doing, and we’ve not been able to crack it.”

A man wearing a suit and a woman wearing a dress sit at a table positioned in front of a painting. They are posing with two young girls wearing matching peach dresses.
Amy Monerawela, together with her husband and two daughters, missed a flight from London, England, to Toronto as a result of the eTA system crashing. She says the missed trip will cost them thousands of dollars. (Submitted by Amy Monerawela)

“We got through to the payment page once, and when we went to put the card details in, it refreshed the page and kicked us out.”

Users reported several different problems with the site, including crashes, freezes and various error messages.

Cancellations come with heavy costs

Monerawela says that between their non-refundable Air Transat flights and a prepaid Airbnb, her family will lose thousands of dollars. They will also miss the chance to see family in Canada for the first time since the pandemic began.

One of their daughters is wheelchair bound and has other medical issues that make travel very difficult, she explained. The family had already paid to forward some medical items their daughter needs to Toronto.

Gabriel Contreras already missed his flight from Spain to visit a sister who lives in Canada. He was refused boarding on the first leg of the trip from Madrid to Amsterdam because of the eTA issue. 

He said that even if the problem were fixed tomorrow, he and his travel partner would have to buy two new tickets for 970 euros each. The new flights would end up costing him more than $2,700 Cdn. 

“That’s way too much for us,” said Contreras, who noted that since he only has one week off for travel, he’s decided to cancel his visit rather than rebook. 

“The whole process has been jarring,” he told CBC News, saying his impression of IRCC was “really bad” and that “We’re a bit mad about the whole thing.”

Contreras says he will try to recover the lost money from travel insurance.

Lack of communication from IRCC, travellers say

Some travellers complained about the lack of communication from IRCC, noting that it had failed to respond to phone calls or tweets. 

According to passengers, the eTA site stopped working properly on Thursday. IRCC posted a tweet around noon on Friday acknowledging the problem:

“Online service for eTA applications is currently intermittently available. Please try again later. We appreciate your patience. Travellers are still required to have the appropriate travel documents to travel to or transit through Canada.”

“How can this still be required if it’s impossible to access?” responded one frustrated traveller.

Other responses included: “My 17 year old brother’s eTA hasn’t come back and we fly in 9 hours ?!?!?!?!?! What do we do, such bad customer service – no response from your webform!”

“Because of this my friend was not allowed on his $1,000 USD flight,” wrote another. “We had to cancel all our other flights and plans in Canada, costing us another $500 USD. The Canadian embassy said the online application is the only way. You should have a back-up in case this happened.” 

A screen that appears on the eTA application website.
An error screen that appears on the eTA application website. (Government of Canada website)

“The hardship you caused to travellers is immense,” wrote another person. “All the pain just to collect $7.”

Some of the passengers who missed flights said they weren’t even planning to stay in the country, but were merely transiting through Canada on layovers to other destinations such as Australia.

“Embarrassing that you even need a visa to transit through Canada,” one person complained.

‘I think they don’t care’

Some travellers also expressed annoyance to CBC News at IRCC’s unwillingness to waive the $7 fee, allow people to complete the forms on arrival, or offer any kind of alternative that would have saved their travel plans.

“I tried to contact them over the phone,” said Monerawela. “I got sent to a webpage. They haven’t tweeted back to anybody. I think they don’t care, that’s how it feels. They don’t care how this is affecting people’s lives, people’s finances.”

On Friday evening, some passengers attempting to obtain eTAs reported receiving a message in response suggesting repairs might not be coming for days.

A screen that appears on the eTA application website as of Friday night.
A screen that appears on the eTA application website as of Friday night suggests repairs to the system may not be coming for days. (Government of Canada website)

A note explains that IRCC will “perform updates to its online system” from 12 am to 5:30 am on June 13. 

“The eTA application will not be available at that time. We apologize for the inconvenience. To apply for an eTA, please return after 5:30 am on June 13.”

CBC News was seeking clarification from IRCC on the precise meaning of that note at the time of publication.

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