The Centers for Disease Control has announced a new requirement for all air passengers entering the United States. Beginning January 26, all travelers will need a proof of a negative Covid-19 test result in order to arrive in the country. Yes, that includes U.S. citizens returning home from abroad.
Travelers have been navigating confusing waters for nearly a year now, with many borders closed and others highly restricted. Triple-checking entry requirements is par for the course, with today’s traveler checking while planning a trip, again when making a booking and once more before boarding a plane. Restrictions and testing requirements can (and have) changed on a moment’s notice.
While providing two weeks notice will hopefully allow all travelers already abroad to arrange testing, there’s no question this will put kinks in carefully made plans. Finding testing at home is hard enough in many places. Finding testing in another country where you aren’t familiar with the language, infrastructure or process is even harder.
An entrepreneur based in Washington D.C., Gabby Beckford is currently in Dubai and will be subject to the new restrictions for her flight home. For her, it’s not a problem: Covid-19 testing is widely available in Dubai at a cost affordable to her. Emirates Airlines even publishes a list of approved laboratories with a few exclusive rates for partnering labs to make it easy for travelers.
For others, testing is likely to prove too complicated or inconvenient to bother. Numerous travelers reported wanting to avoid the issue entirely. One traveler has already rescheduled a trip to this weekend in order to squeeze it in before testing requirements take effect. Another was working with the airline to come home early. Presumably other travelers will be similarly discouraged and choose to forego their intended international vacations.
There will still be a population of determined travelers, though, whether for business, personal or leisure reasons. If you expect to travel later this winter, here’s what you need to know.
Covid Testing Requirements At a Glance
Effective January 26, all air passengers arriving in the United States will need to obtain and provide documentation of a negative viral test result within three days prior to their flight departure.
Travelers who were infected and recovered from Covid-19 within the last 90 days may instead provide proof of recovery. In this case, they need documentation they’ve been cleared to travel by a medical professional.
Digging Deeper: Frequently Asked Questions About the CDC Covid-19 Testing Requirement
Who Does This Order Impact?
All travelers over the age of 2 arriving in the United States by air are subject to this order. This includes:
- Foreigners arriving in the United States for a temporary visit
- Citizens and other residents returning home
- All travelers connecting through the United States on their way to another destination
Only flight crew on official duty are exempt from this requirement.
When Does This Requirement Take Effect?
The testing requirement begins with all flight arrivals on January 26 and is scheduled to remain in place through the end of 2021. There are no exemptions for travelers who began their travel prior to this date.
When Do Travelers Need to Be Tested?
To be accepted, all tests must have been collected within three calendar days prior to departure.
If you’re a connecting traveler, timelines are based on the flight segment directly arriving in the United States. For example, someone traveling Nairobi-London-New York would need their testing to be within three days of the London to New York flight.
That said, passengers flying through multiple countries may actually need to comply with two or more sets of testing requirements, one for each flight segment. In some cases, a single test may qualify for the entire trip (as long as it fits the most stringent requirements). On some lengthy journeys, it’s possible that travelers will need to test again en-route to meet all timelines, which adds another complicating factor for travelers.
What Types of Covid Testing Are Accepted?
The two main types of viral testing (molecular tests and antigen tests) are both accepted for travel. No blood draw is required. Instead, travelers should expect a nasal or throat swab, although in some cases a saliva sample may be collected instead.
Molecular testing, more commonly known as PCR or NAAT testing, is considered the most accurate, but typically requires a few days processing time. In many countries, 72 hours is a tight turnaround for molecular testing. Travelers should schedule their test appropriately to comply with CDC guidelines.
Antigen testing provides results more quickly and is often referred to as “rapid testing”. These may be more convenient for travelers since results can be delivered in a few hours or less.
The third type of testing, antibody testing, confirms prior infections but not your current health status. Although travelers who had and recovered from SARS-CoV-2 are allowed to travel, they can only do so with documentation showing they’ve been cleared for travel by a licensed healthcare provider or public health official. An antibody test alone is not sufficient for travel.
What Is Considered Proof of Testing?
Travelers will need to provide a paper or electronic copy of their test results, such as the official PDF you receive by email after testing. All documentation must include your name, testing collection date and the type of test.
Some airlines, such as Qatar Airways, may request to retain a copy of your test results so if at all possible, travelers should strive to have one or more paper copies of their results just in case.
Is Proof of Vaccination an Acceptable Alternative?
At this time, vaccination is not accepted in lieu of testing.
How is Testing Verified?
Airlines are required to confirm proper testing paperwork before passengers are allowed to board. Travelers should be prepared to produce results at check-in and/or during boarding or they will forfeit their seat.
Since paperwork will need to be manually verified, online check-in for flights may not be available. Allow extra time at the airport to check-in with an airline representative.
What Happens if You Don’t Have the Proper Test?
Passengers without proof of testing (or with invalid documentation) will be denied boarding by the airline. Travelers will then need to arrange proper testing so they can rebook flights.
What Happens if You Test Positive?
Travelers with a positive Covid-19 test result will be denied boarding, even if they are asymptomatic. They will need to make arrangements to stay at their current destination until they have recovered and can provide either a negative test result or medical documentation they’ve been cleared to travel.
Given the risk of testing positive, travelers should have a back-up plan in place for where to stay, how to fund medical expenses and a potentially lengthy quarantine plus how to take care of home and work responsibilities during the delay.
Are There Ways to Avoid This Requirement?
What Other Measures Does the CDC Recommend Upon Arrival?
Only a viral test prior to departure is a legal requirement for entry to the United States.
However, the CDC recommends a second test three to five days after arrival to check for infections that may previously have gone undetected. They also recommend a home quarantine for seven days post-travel to account for slow-incubating infections and/or possible exposure while in transit.
Some states and/or private employers may have additional testing and quarantining requirements. Travelers should check with all regulations to ensure they’re complying with local regulations.
This Sounds Too Complicated. Can I Cancel My Trip?
Travelers who haven’t begun their trip yet might prefer to cancel, change or postpone travel instead. Most airlines are waiving change and cancellation fees on previously booked travel, which provides passengers with extra flexibility.
These fee waivers are not the same as a free ride, though. Changing to a different travel date may require you to pay the difference in ticket cost if the fare has gone up. Currently, Delta is the only airline to announce free date changes for travelers attempting to arrive in the USA before the January 26 requirements take effect, although others may follow suit.
Most cancellations are processed as vouchers for future travel credit and can come with strings attached. Our full guide to coronavirus change and cancellation policies has more details.
Is Testing Required for Domestic Travel Within the USA?
Right now, domestic travel guidelines are set by each individual state. At this point, numerous states have restrictions in place to discourage travel, which may include lengthy quarantines and/or negative testing requirements. Some states are fully open to travelers, though, and traveling within the borders of a single state is usually allowed without restriction.
International Travel Isn’t Impossible, But Travelers Need to Be Prepared
Precaution is the name of the game for travel in 2021 and not just by wearing masks and distancing as much as possible. In most cases, international travelers should expect to be tested multiple times throughout their travel experience, both to arrive at their destination and again to arrive home.
Destinations are slowly starting to account for this, with airports like those in Istanbul and Frankfurt offering paid testing on-site (testing centers may be landside, though, meaning transit passengers can’t access the facilities). Other destinations, like Cancun, rely heavily on tourism dollars and some resorts are offering on-site testing as a new guest amenity.
For the foreseeable future, international travel is likely to be limited to those who either have no other choice or the most determined of leisure travelers. Of course, that’s exactly the point. The CDC—and other countries around the world—are doing what they can to slow the spread of the virus and protect citizens at home. Testing requirements accomplish this both by catching contagious individuals before they can infect others and by discouraging travel altogether.