Nearly 300,000 Canadians waiting for Nexus approval as backlog grows

Canada’s backlog of Nexus applications has ballooned into the hundreds of thousands, despite a sharp downturn in applicants during the pandemic, prompting blowback from frustrated travellers as clogged airports continue to overflow.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) says 295,133 Nexus applications have yet to be processed due to ongoing office closures prompted by COVID-19.

Would-be cardholders in the program, which allows pre-approved Canadians to pass through separate, speedy lines when travelling to and from the United States, must be risk-assessed by both the CBSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The American agency reopened its Nexus enrolment centres for applicant interviews on April 19, but centres in Canada remain closed after shuttering in March 2020.

The resulting backlog means some Nexus members are struggling to book sit-downs before their cards expire, as Canadian residents hoping to renew their status can only schedule interviews in fewer than a dozen border community offices where slots are few.

Motorists wait to enter Canada at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey, B.C. The U.S. reopened its Nexus enrolment centres in April, but Canadian centres remain closed. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

‘Chaotic’ and frustrating

Travelling retirees are among those exasperated by the standstill.

“A lot of snowbirds go to the U.S. frequently. They often go back and forth, and a fair number of them would be Nexus card holders, including myself,” said Jill Wykes, editor of Snowbird Advisor, an online resource for snowbirds.

Wykes questioned why enrolment centres remain closed when many other government offices have been open for months.

“The airports are chaotic, and if you have Nexus you can get through so much more quickly coming and going, whether it’s at the border or the airport,” she said.

“The whole situation is very frustrating, that the government did not anticipate this pent-up demand, which as been anticipated for two years.”

The CBSA said in an email that Canada and the U.S. are in discussions about when to reopen Canadian enrolment centres.

“Although the extent of the backlog in 2019 is not known, I can tell you that the backlog has significantly increased over pre-pandemic levels due to the closing of the enrolment centres in March 2020 for public health reasons,” spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said.

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Meanwhile the Fast program for cross-border commercial truck drivers now sports a backlog of 11,018, the CBSA said.

“This issue has created challenges for many cross-border fleets across Canada. Although companies have learned to adapt their operations and manage their available drivers to mitigate these concerns as much as possible, the reopening of the centres is becoming increasingly critical,” Canadian Trucking Alliance spokesman Marco Beghetto said in an email.

Jacques Roy, a professor of transport management at HEC Montreal business school, says the Nexus backlog is affecting business and leisure travellers. It also adds pressure to airports already struggling with security staff shortages and endless queues.

“I really am having a hard time understanding why nothing was done or processed during that period,” Roy said of the ongoing office closures.

The CBSA said it continues to carry out risk assessments remotely within its standard 30-day timeline for new applicants or those seeking to renew a soon-to-expire card.

However, once both countries have pre-approved the application, “the onus is then on the applicant to schedule an interview at a Nexus/Fast EC [enrolment centre] using the online portal,” the agency said.

It has not set a date for when Canadian enrolment centres will unlock their doors.

Nexus memberships are typically valid for five years, after which they must be renewed. The process involves a risk assessment and a screening interview — for both first-time applicants and longtime card holders — the CBSA said.

Nexus membership declined by 170,814, or nine per cent, to 1.73 million enrollees between 2020 and 2021, according to agency figures.

Between 2018 and 2019,the number of new applications had risen by nearly a third to 262,125. They then plunged to 172,125 in 2020 and 29,705 in 2021. Nonetheless, with enrolment centres shuttered, the pile of partially processed applications continued to mount.

Long lines of travellers at Vancouver International Airport. ‘The airports are chaotic, and if you have Nexus you can get through so much more quickly,’ said Jill Wykes, editor of Snowbird Advisor. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)
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