What to expect when transiting from Canada to the USA at Toronto Pearson International Airport

Late last year, I flew with Canadian carrier WestJet from Halifax, Nova Scotia to LA via Toronto. It’s a long journey – about as far from one side of North America to the other as you can get. And there’s no way to do it direct. You start off with a two hour flight from Halifax to Toronto on a Boeing 737-800. It was a comfortable journey, with USB and AC power in all seats, ensuring that you had entertainment the whole flight, and all the seats had movable headrests with side flaps. 

I had no problems choosing my preferred aisle seat, but it was an extra C$31.50 inc taxes to check in a single bag. This is par for the course with most North American airlines now, for almost all economy tickets. As with any of these airlines, it’s best to do this online before you head to the airport. I don’t think WestJet charge extra at the airport like some other airlines, but it does expedite the process once you are at the airport. 

Once we landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport, we were dropped off at the B Gates about 5 minutes late, and from there it was a lengthy walk to get to the A Gates, which actually required you to leave the secure area and start the process over. They offer no easy transfer for flights between domestic and international, at least if that international flight is to the USA. 

Because my flight from Halifax was slightly late, and they had given me such a small transfer window anyway, I was able to at least skip some of the queue for the initial security clearing (this may have required some sweet talking on my behalf though, rather than a given advantage). After security – and this is new – you scan your boarding pass and then if you’re a connecting passenger you actually have to wait *again*. They make you wait for your checked baggage to be re-checked by USA customs, which, should you have a tight connection, is ridiculous and not something I’ve ever had to do. 25 minutes before I was due to board it was still saying my bag was “waiting” for baggage processing, as I waited not just for my bag to be checked but for my name to appear on a screen in a room that felt as much like a doctor’s waiting room as it did a holding room at an airport.

And this is all so you could go through the final security check – which is clearing US customs on the Canadian side of the border. It makes it easier on landing, but it makes your tight connection a stressful one, especially with all these added security checks.

Once your name is called – and mine was about 20 minutes before boarding – you then have to go through another lengthy queue to clear US customs, where only one person was seeing through the vast majority of passengers. But the line moved quickly. Still, I got through well after boarding was due to have commenced (cue me running to the gate), but it was still 30 minutes before the flight was due to leave. And after all that the flight was delayed anyway – 45 minutes in the end. So I was able to grab a bite to eat and everything. 

For all the difficulties and delays at Toronto Pearson, I’ve never missed a flight because the airlines are aware of the short transfer times and the lengthy queues. They won’t leave if a big chunk of passengers aren’t on board. So as stressful as it can be, keep in mind they’re very unlikely to leave without you – but definitely ask for help where you can if you are starved for time. You won’t get it going through US customs (once I remember being told by a US customs official that it was my fault for not leaving at least 4 hours between my connecting flights – I mean does he not understand how airline bookings work? He works in an airport?), but elsewhere you may have more luck. 

And then, after all this was done, it was another 5 1/2 hours before I landed in Los Angeles. It was a long flight, and the delays were notable – but I made it, and though the connections process was frustrating and lengthy to say the least, the experience with WestJet ensured that my time in the air at least was a very pleasant one.

All this happened in October 2018. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be transiting through Pearson the other direction – from New York to Prince Edward Island via Pearson. They’ve given me a whole 75 minutes for a connection, so I’m going to be interested to see how that process compares. Expect a follow up piece in due time!

Photo by Andre Furtado. 

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.