7 Problems With New U.S. Covid-19 Testing Requirement For All Arriving International Passengers

Effective January 26 the U.S. will require a negative Covid-19 test within 3 days prior to departure, or documentation of having already recovered from Covid-19, for all air passengers flying to the country (citizens and non-citizens alike).

Here are 7 problems with the new rule imposed by the Centers for Disease Control:

  1. Denying travel home to Americans violates rights. The U.S. cannot legally deny entry into the country citizens. They’re not turning away people at the border. They’re requiring airlines to deny travel to people without documentation, which is in effect the same thing. The CDC can require people to quarantine, they can require airlines to take measures to avert health issues on board (airlines content there are no such issues because of HEPA air filtration, downward air flow and masks). But effectively denying citizens a right to return..?

  2. Policy turns Americans into illegal immigrants. Americans who either cannot access tests or test positive prior to planned travel will be overstaying Visas or other immigration requirements of the countries they’re in. So CDC rules put citizens in the position of being outlaws.

  3. Testing rules lead to confusion. There’s no guidance on which tests are acceptable at this point. There’s two weeks before this goes into effect, but travelers abroad need to plan for testing to come to (or return to) the United States. Airlines are supposed to deny boarding to people without acceptable testing. Some countries and some states have published details of acceptable labs to handle testing, which creates its own challenges, but here there’s no guidance.

  4. Prior infection exception leads to confusion. There’s no guidance on what documentation is required to prove having had Covid-19 already and recovered. This documentation isn’t going to be in a standard format, or even likely in English in many cases.

  5. Still lets people with Covid-19 travel to the U.S. It’s still possible for citizens to fly to Mexico and then walk or drive across the U.S. border, so the rule doesn’t keep people out who may have Covid-19.

  6. Testing 3 Days In Advance Doesn’t Catch Some Caes. Testing three days prior to travel doesn’t mean someone hasn’t become infected – and infectious – in the time since then. The U.K. variant is already spreading in the U.S. And we don’t even know how widely because the CDC has been testing only 10 virus samples per stay every two weeks. Greater genomic surveillance, and FDA approval for widespread at-home self-administered tests with immediate results would do more to contain the virus than travel restrictions. The B.1.1.7 variant is here, and already expected to become dominant, barn door and whatnot (if the barn door itself had holes in it greater than the size of the horse anyway).

  7. Restriction may be tough to get rid of. There’s no announced standard for when the requirement lifts. Once put in place inertia alone makes restrictions tough to remove. We still have a ban on travel from China, in place since January, when the virus has been largely under control there for 10 months.

This new testing requirement isn’t going to control spread of the virus, which is already running rampant throughout most of the country. It isn’t going to stop entry of new variants of the virus, which are already here (and which we’re doing little tracking of in any case).

We need fewer barriers to low-cost at-home testing. We need greater tracking of new variants of the virus. We need more rapid approval and deployment both for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. A travel ban that applies internationally, but that does nothing to limit spread via travel within the United States, at what’s likely the tail end of the pandemic is purely cosmetic but may have long-lasting consequences.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Another issue. Medical evacuation needed for non covid related issues. The US government has effectively said that their citizens should risk death abroad vs being allowed back home immediately to a US hospital for a medical emergency from a remote area without covid testing facilities.

    Another issue – this ruling most heavily impacts immigrants and people of color within the US who will now be unable to make quick emergency trips back and forth to their binational families.

    Another issue – the biggest impact of this policy isn’t on US citizens, but the people in mexico and Carribean who will suffer immensely from lost jobs and deep poverty. This alone makes support of this policy extremely xenophobic and problematic.

    Another issue – this policy will simply encourage everyone towards domestic travel instead, further spreading covid all over US since in general vacations abrowd are at socially distant resorts and beaches, but domestic vacations are usually road trips with lots of touchpoints.

  2. I predict this policy will be relaxed to match Hawaii’s restrictions. Hawaii allows its residents to return home untested if they promise to self-quarantine. It’s not a perfect system, but it is proven not to be a disaster.

  3. Don’t know about testing in other countries, but here in US it typically takes 4-8 days to get results of the test. Self-testing mail-in kits also take at least 3-4 days to get results. So it would cut international travel about 95% down from current (low) level. Meaning airlines will effectively cancel most of the in-out of country flights.
    My best guess that new administration will cancel that requirement at the end of the month.

    Agree with Gary on illegality of that requirement. Citizens and legal residents should be always allowed to return home.

  4. I find it amusing that this was billed as a saviour for the airlines. I can’t imagine it being that way for all the vacation routes they are flying however and I doubt it will bring back much other international business also, in the near term.

    For me, and I admit this is completely selfish, I don’t want to take a test abroad if I am just going for a quick trip — it opens up too many cans of worms. It’s one thing if you go somewhere for a month and are staying with family, have a local connection, etc. It is another if you are going on a quick trip (vacation or even business — not that anyone is really doing the later currently). Sure, don’t get on an airplane back home if you have symptoms, but what happens if you test positive before you return home even if you have no symptoms? You are stuck where ever for an extra 21 days (the current airline policy).

  5. More geniuses playing with their xxxx again.

    Why does our government care if someone coming in is infected? We are the epicenter of Covid. We are the #1 s*6$# hole country.

    It makes sense for 1st world countries to ban us but unfortunately countries like Mexico are dependent on us as their major source of income and will not discourage travel at any cost of lives.

    Just a waste of ink- chasing our tails.

  6. @nsx…I don’t think there’s anything relaxed about Hawaii’s program. You have to have a specific type of test (NAAT PCR) from one of only 30 ‘trusted testing partners’ which is totally arbitrary by the state otherwise you have to quarantine for 10 days. And its not just a promise to quarantine, you sign an official legal order of quarantine and the State has to verify your phone number and where you’re planning to stay. If its a hotel, the hotel is only allowed to give you a one time use key and if you leave your room and get locked out, the hotel is instructed to call the police. Additionally, the local police and state agencies are actually checking in on those in quarantine by calling and doing in person visits. If you’re not there they’ll wait for you, or track you down and arrest you. I’d much prefer this loose, get whatever test you want within 3 days of departure program.

  7. @Ed – I think it is squirrelly I am not betting a court would rule against and I certainly don’t have the deep pockets to fund such a suit

  8. Great points Gary. Agree with all of the above.

    @Ed yes, lawsuits will be filed. But first someone has to be denied. Can’t seek a remedy before then.

    I recall when Trump tried denying entry to legal residents and others. Lawyers were lined up at the airport waiting to file. Outcome unknown, but it will be in the courts within 24 hours of the first instance.

  9. 100% to all of this. Like most government programs this will cause a ton of problematic unintended consequences while failing to help the thing it was intended to fix.

  10. You seem to confuse the issue of flying with immigration control. It seems fair, reasonable and appropriate to require a COVID test before you get on a long flight. The immediate and potentially irreparable harm to other innocent passengers negates your right to fly. Yes, tests aren’t perfect given the time lag, but they are a reasonable measure.

    The question is really what options are available to someone who is positive and wants to repatriate. There are medevac services that will repatriate you (at considerable expense, perhaps covered by travel insurance) and as Gary notes you can fly to Mexico and walk across (assuming the land border has re-opened). Both options do not risk infection of innocent flyers. We could also consider running special COVID flights from certain countries but I expect that might be difficult to coordinate.

    I agree that a quarantine solution would be preferable, but only if:
    (1) we could guarantee safety of other passengers,
    (2) we have proper protocols on arrival (see nigeria’s LOS airport for an example of how this is done) and not what we saw in March at ORD etc. where hundreds of arriving passengers were jammed into an immigration and customs area
    (3) strict enforcement of quarantine a la Singapore, Australia, even Hawaii.

    Now query whether it makes sense to impose a requirement for a 1-2 hour international flight but NOT for a 5-6 hour domestic flight (or connections). Maybe the requirement should be expanded…

  11. I am currently in Cancun, Mexico, set to fly back on Feb 7. I suspect it is going to be very hard to get a covid test because I doubt the local labs here can support the thousands of people flying back to the US daily from here. I can only imagine how difficult it will be for people flying from Asia and Africa to get a valid test.

  12. I’m more interested in the criteria for people like me, who have proveably been sick with Covid months ago (positive PCR test) but no longer are.

    Or people like my friend who has been vaccinated…..

  13. @Bob
    Brah, as always… don’t like it? don’t come. Super simple.
    Btw, I just came back from LV, took my PCR test at Worksite Labs/Main Street casino (one of the “arbitrary” SoH trusted partners). Got my (-) result in a mere 13 hours. It’s all in tude… Aloha

  14. “Just another failing idea from the current administration….” WRONG! This goes into effect after he’s out of office. You going to tell us the new administration is gonna stop this? ha! This is the glorious celebrity TV doctor Fauci unrestrained after January 20.

  15. Gary – #7 is dead on except for change “may be” to will. Not only this, but every other restriction in place or those yet to come. All this money to the airlines, and now whatever hope they had is taken right from under them.

  16. @Rob: immunity wanes, your being sick months ago means nothing today. And vaccinated people can still carry the virus and spread it, even more so because they have no symptoms.

    There is no basic human rights to go vacation abroad. If you go (despite widespread recommendations not to travel) don’t whine about the consequences. We’re not here to support your egocentric lifestyle.

  17. @Chris – antibodies wane, that’s not the same thing as ‘immunity’ waning, we do not yet know how long immunity will last (see for instance https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/health/coronavirus-immunity.html) but for most people on average it surely lasts at least a year via t-cells

    Vaccinated people likely ‘can’ carry the virus, we’re a few weeks from getting data on this but it’s highly likely that they spread it much less than the unvaccinated, we just don’t know how much less yet.

    Let me reframe “no basic human rights to go vacation abroad” there is a basic right to travel, and to re-enter the U.S. as a citizen.

  18. @Rob – you need to have had Covid *within the last 3 months* and recovered to be exempted. And vaccination at this point isn’t an exemption.

  19. Gary Leff says:
    January 13, 2021 at 2:16 pm
    @CHRIS – how can you make this about Joe Biden when the policy is being rolled out by the Trump administration?

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists issued the testing requirements and Joe Biden is on the record as saying he will follow the science.

  20. The USG has gotten commercial airlines to stop flying US citizens back to the US unless presenting an acceptable passport or passport-substituting document acceptable to the USG, and that’s not been ruled illegal. The USG adding a requirement on airlines to demand a COVID-19 test of sort would be just as legal as the WHTI rules put in place by the US Government that ended my ability to fly commercially to the US from Mexico with just my regular driver’s license and certified US birth certificate copies.

    Overstaying in a foreign country due to documented sickness is often subject to being viewed as not being an illegal overstay. Covid-19 positive test result is often being accepted as grounds for being lawfully waived from illegal overstay classification.

    Think about would happen if the US copied Denmark with its 24 hour testing requirement to fly to the country.

  21. Look at the very bottom of the CDC edict. This is in effect until Dec.31, 2021 or until rescinded. Like that’s going to happen. Biden told us he was going to crackdown with a national mask mandate and more lockouts and that5whathe has ordered.

  22. Susie,

    Biden can’t order much of anything with the USG in this regard until he’s President. And regardless of your Lord Trump’s wishes, Biden only becomes President upon noon on the 20th of January 2021.

  23. Dear God – reading these comments threads leads to the unavoidable conclusion that this country is screwed, regardless of COVID. People chill the eff out…

  24. I’m not sure I see the point of getting the vaccine soon anymore. I wanted it to travel. Now it is pointless. I don’t care about anything. At this point, nothing matters. I hate living in this godforsaken nation. I could drop dead of covid for all I care. Damned cdc. No enticement for a vaccine. No help for us who had covid and didn’t test because our family had it, we were sick too and knew what we had so we just isolated too. Idiots. hell in a handbasket. That’s the usa.

  25. I suppose it’s not a bad idea; a lot depends on the tests. A negative PCR needs to run to full forty cycles and takes up lab space and expertise. In the best case, that’s half a day, and with lab traffic, you need to block 48 hours. Antigen test are five minutes but not as reliable. Which, however, is safer for air travel: a PCR two days before departure or an antigen test two hours before?
    The three-month rule is sensible. Antibodies can be detected at least out to six months, and how long immunity remains needs to be seen. So we have high confidence in 90 days, plus it’s short enough to discourage people trying to catch the disease instead of the vaccine.
    As an aside, I had to change my routing the other day, as AMS claims to require a PCR within 72 hours of arrival. Flying from the US on a Sunday, I couldn’t find any lab that would see me Friday and deliver results Sunday. The result? I now have an 8-hour layover in CDG.
    Way to go, coordinated European response.

  26. Denmark put in a 24 hour testing requirement and it’s causing some people to fly on more flights (including more flights within Europe) to go to/from home/work than would have otherwise been the case.

    But even as testing requirements can cause some shift in patterns that are counterproductive in slowing down the spread of a virus and/or new strains of a virus, the testing requirements do reduce travel demand in the aggregate.

  27. Putting to one side the utter absurdity of burdening our right to travel to prevent importation of a disease that is already firmly established here, this plan is completely illegal on several different grounds, not the least of which is that the Rule violates the Federal Administrative Procedure Act in that it exceeds the CDC’s delegated authority without notice and public comment. It is also a clear violation of International Law and US Law in barring U.S. Citizens from their own country . . . the saving grace is that maybe it’ll give us a basis to seek asylum someplace that still follows the rule of law and doesn’t abandon it in a fit of panic or for political expediency.

    Somebody above said that this is no different than requiring US Citizens to enter without a valid passport, but there is actually no such law purporting to do this and US Citizens without valid passports (due to expiration, theft, or losing one’s documents) able to demonstrate their citizenship are allowed to board aircraft heading to the US and sort out the paperwork issues on arrival, and there are procedures in place allowing airlines to board you.

  28. You raise some very good points Gary; thank you for posting this.

    The Canadian Government implemented something similar with 1 week notice to travelers and airlines (but no exceptions for those who have recovered from COVID) after several high profile politicians and health care leaders told people to stay home but traveled south during the holidays. One has to wonder how scientific this is and how political it is. It did make the people who were angry about Christmas being cancelled happy though.

    It’s been very interesting to hear many Americans complain about how Trump handled the pandemic while enjoying more freedoms than the places they think handled the pandemic better.

    It will also be interesting to see how long this lasts but from experience, once something is in place, good luck ever dialing it back, even if the science supports it.

  29. #4. All it takes is a >doctor’s note< (from any doctor) to say that you've had CV19 and you don't need the test? I've been reading that "everyone" will test, private and commercial passengers, vaccinated or not. Only exemptions listed by CDC are law enforcement and airline employees. No?

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