Know the 6 Month Rules for Snowbird Travel Insurance

With Canada’s historically brutal winter just about over (we hope), some snowbirds have asked how long they can stay in the U.S. sunbelt next year and how much travel insurance they can buy.

To answer that you need to look at two different sets of regulations: 1) how long the United States allows you stay in the country as a visitor, and 2) how long your provincial government allows you stay out of your province before you lose your eligibility for government health insurance (medicare). These are two distinct sets of rules, made up by different governments, and they do not always coincide.

Generally, the U.S. immigration service allows Canadians to stay in the U.S. up to six months less a day each year under the B2 (visitors) visa. The B2 is not usually applied as a written document, it’s just the category under which Canadians are allowed in. This has not always been strictly applied because entry and exit documentation has been patchy. But with the onset of better individual tracking technology and the ultimate need for passports (at some time in the future), it’s best to stick to the rules. (Click here for further details about the U.S. regulations)

Most provincial governments allow you to be out of your home province for up to182 days a year (Ontario allows 212 days) before you technically lose your “residency” status, and with it your coverage for provincial health care. I say “technically”, because transgressors are not always detected. But those are the rules, and if you lose that status, you have to re-establish it by living in your home province for three consecutive months.

As for how much travel insurance you can buy: you need to understand that most private out-of-country health insurance sold in Canada requires you to have valid government health insurance. It is supplementary insurance designed to cover what your provincial plan doesn’t—which is most of the costs of medical emergencies sustained out of the country. So long as you have valid government insurance, you can find private travel insurance (health and other conditions permitting). The exceptions are expatriate or student insurance plans for Canadians living abroad for extended periods. For them there are special products.

The fact that the U.S. and most Canadian provinces have established six month thresholds (seven in Ontario) is purely coincidental and one set of rules has nothing to do with the other. So if you are foolish enough to confront a U.S. border agent with the argument that Ontario allows you to be out of the province for 212 days and you intend to use every one of those days, don’t expect a warm welcome.

The bottom line is never ever argue with a border agent. Listen, be polite and do what he or she tells you. Border agents have a lot of discretion in permitting entry into the U.S., notwithstanding the six months rule. And if asked, it’s up to you to prove that you have the financial wherewithal to stay in the U.S. for any given period, that you will remain a visitor and not seek unauthorized work, that you are a true resident of Canada with a home to return to, and that you are not using your status as a visitor to set up unauthorized residence in the U.S. or go “underground” once you cross the border. Chances are you’re never going to be challenged. I know a lot of snowbirds and 99 percent of them have never had a border problem.

So do you homework. Get the best insurance you can from an agent that specializes in travel insurance, and don’t leave these important arrangements for the last minute.

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