U.S. Will Require All International Arriving Passengers To Have A Covid-19 Test

Starting 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 everyone arriving in the country (citizens and non-citizens alike). I told you this was coming two weeks ago.

Announcing the policy two weeks in advance gives travelers currently abroad time to get back to the U.S. or to organize required testing, and gives airlines time to set up procedures to verify documentation for all U.S. inbound travelers.

Air passengers are required to get a viral test (a test for current infection) within the 3 days before their flight to the U.S. departs, and provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (paper or electronic copy) to the airline or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19. Airlines must confirm the negative test result for all passengers or documentation of recovery before they board. If a passenger does not provide documentation of a negative test or recovery, or chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger.

This applies to air passengers only. Anyone who wishes will still be able to fly to Mexico for instance, and drive across the U.S. border.

Likely To Have Little Public Health Benefit

With the virus spreading rapidly in the community already, travel restrictions have only modest public health benefit.

  • Countries like Australia and New Zealand, which are containing the virus, need to continue to work hard to keep it out.

  • Adding incremental cases in the U.S., which is already seeing 200,000 or more positive tests a day, doesn’t materially change the course of the pandemic here.

  • However one fewer case may be one fewer person needing an ICU bed, in places where beds have become scarce. Yet the U.S. isn’t doing anything to limit domestic travel to those places.

U.S. travel restrictions were ineffective at the start of the pandemic because the CDC performed poorly. Testing requirements are enforced by airlines and more likely to be applied consistently as a result.

Even the new U.K. variant is already spreading in the U.S. However genomic surveillance is limited – with the CDC testing 10 samples per state, every other week. So we don’t even know how widespread it is. And the new requirement doesn’t go into effect for two weeks, during which time it’s likely more variants are coming here.

The vaccine rollout is the most important area that needs improvement to control the pandemic. That, combined with the immunity built up from the high cost of rapid spread of the virus, will likely bring Covid-19 under control. We are a few weeks away from having data on just how much vaccination limits spread, as opposed to just protecting the vaccinated against symptomatic Covid, however there’s confidence from vaccine manufacturers that this will be meaningful. BioNTech’s CEO at the end of January or early February.

The decision of the Trump administration to release all of the federal government’s supply of vaccine, advancing the timeline of a policy the Biden transition team announced it would pursue, should accelerate vaccinations and operate as a de factofirst doses first‘ policy – getting perhaps 80% protection to twice as many people. It’s unclear how long one-dose protection lasts, but the hope and expectation is that production ramp up will mean that while some second doses may get delayed they won’t be delayed for long.

Testing for all international arrivals isn’t ultimately how the U.S. can end the pandemic, and it isn’t how we can keep the B.1.1.7 strain (or South African strain or other mutations) from spreading.

The New Testing Requirement Is A Blow To Travel

Here’s why this testing requirement is going to be an impediment to travel.

  • Testing isn’t as widespread in much of the world as it is in the U.S. so access to testing becomes a limit on where you can go. The U.S. has conducted more tests per capita than 90% of countries including Hong Kong,, Spain, Italy, France, Norway, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Canada. Testing is scarce in Egypt, Mexico, and virtually non-existent in Tanzania.

    If you’re on an atoll in the Maldives, can you even get tested to return home? Some hotels will organize this. But uncertainty will cause many people to have to cancel their trips even though the country allows U.S. visitors with their own testing requirement.

  • Short trips become impractical since you need to spend time getting tested, and wait long enough to get results before flying home. This is going to eliminate most two- and three-day weekend trips. You might have considered flying to Cancun, arriving Thursday evening. Even if you could spend your day getting tested, you’re butting up against the weekend and may not have results back in time to fly home Sunday.

  • The added cost will eliminate most short leisure trips. Mexico is an attractive destination because it’s close and cheap, but testing may cost more than airfare. Doubling the flight cost makes it uneconomical.

You might think that required testing could give people greater confidence to travel, but for many of the trips that will see reduced demand it’s only a requirement for the flight home – you’re often traveling on the way out with people that haven’t been tested. So there’s not even the confidence-building that comes from testing to offset the inconvenience.

The problem is that this requirement is likely to remain in place for far too long, and that would mean a long-term drag on activity. The ban on travel from China, put in place in January, remains in effect even though the pandemic has largely been under control there for 9 months.

Even if the vaccine rollout improves, and the U.S. gets its outbreak under control this summer, will testing still be required? Some will hail the decline in Covid-19 that would have happened naturally as a success of this policy and call to keep it in place to ensure Covid-19 remains in check.

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. No specifics of what “documentation of having recovered from COVID-19” entails? Can’t imagine that it would be hard for anyone to manufacture a qualifying document on their own.

  2. Let’s not forget to include inter-city passenger trains; long distance passenger trains.

    Given the weakness and vagaries of Amtrak’s Board, consisting of political appointees lacking the experience required by its enabling legislation (Railpax), Congress would be required to ensure acceptable oversight is provided.

  3. I’m rather legally ignorant but is there any legal issue with barring US citizens from returning home without additional legislation or executive order?

  4. I also don’t understand the logic of exempting previous COVID patients over vaccinated patients.
    If the CDC is asking previous COVID patients to get vaccinated, aren’t they placing a higher value on vaccination? So why do vaccinated patients still need to get tested?

  5. I have friends who are over age 65 who can’t wait to travel again after getting the vaccine later this month or next month. With this added test requirement not sure if they’d want to do any international leisure travel.

  6. “Air passengers are required to get a viral test (a test for current infection) within the 3 days before their flight to the U.S. departs, and provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (paper or electronic copy) to the airline or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19”.

    So what does providing documentation of having recovered mean? I tested positive a month ago (no symptoms but still quarantined for 10 days) and then was free/eligible to go back to work. They, like our son’s school, follows CDC guidelines which states that you don’t need to be tested again for 90 days if you are free of symptoms since dead RNA could still be detected. Basically, you can show positive test results but not be contagious. What is the airline going to accept for having been recovered?

  7. So my next trip I am in Mexico for 60 hours. Look like I can test before I go, within 12 hours of departure, and make my way back in under the rules. Got it!

  8. I have no travel currently booked myself, but for those who do, this is just awful and cruel – it turns travel plans from certainty (which most of us need to have) to a roll of the dice. And why now? Focus instead on the production and logistics of getting out the vaccines and end the pandemic.

    And I’m totally with Gary about the inert nature of gov’t regulations. With every layer that is added (think covid-tests, border closures, quarantine requirements, face covering requirements) a resumption of any kind of viable international travel for working people and families is just going to get pushed further and further into the future.

  9. This will be a huge clusterF just like all the other well intentioned efforts.

    Instead of leaving the country people will travel inside the US. Meaning more spread. Not less.

    Kinda like banning outdoor dining, resulting in everyone having indoor house parties. And a massive surge. Oops.

  10. So if an airline denies you boarding because you don’t have a COVID test, is that Involuntary Denied Boarding? If so , you get a big new payout.

  11. I tend to agree with the comments regarding unlawfulness for US citizens/permanent residents. I can’t imagine that this would be enforceable in US courts. Perhaps the government can require all to quarantine on arrival like Australia?

  12. “Anyone who wishes will still be able to fly to Mexico for instance, and drive across the U.S. border.”

    That won’t work. Because entry by land from MX to US is closed. And has been for many months.

  13. First, I was recently on an atoll in the Maldives and got a test easier than in the US.

    Now, where the heck I’m going to find a test in the Sinai in Egypt is going to be a challenge.

    Plus this requires a VIRAL test, not a rapid antigen test. If they require an RT-PCR test like most countries, good luck in finding one within 72 hours in most countries to get back to the US. This may be the final nail in international travel.

    I can GET to Egypt easier than I may be able to get BACK home.

  14. Legality issues aside, won’t the airline industry oppose this? If this is a requirement, and people are planning to visit places where it won’t be possible or feasible to get it done and cancel their travels en masse, how will the industry survive? Won’t this just result in even fewer people travelling? I would think (and hope) there will be pushback.

  15. As many other thing CDC does, this new regulation will accomplish nothing in terms of fighting the pandemic but would cause a lot of headache and unnecessary expenses. A better way to use the testing capabilities would be to regularly test teachers, workers in supermarkets, FAs, and everyone who interacts with a reasonable amount of people daily

  16. The airlines actually WANTED this rule to “encourage” int’l air travel, but I agree with you that it’s a deterrent. I’ve flown many times in the USA since the pandemic started, but I probably would have flown nowhere if I needed a Covid test first. Just too much hassle and expense.

    Fortunately, I suspect two things will make this ruling largely moot. First, they will add some sort of vaccination passport. I can’t believe they would be so foolish as to require a negative Covid test if you’ve been vaccinated. Second, I would think we’d start seeing cheap, “do it yourself” Covid tests for something like 20 bucks. I’m far more willing to do that than find some clinic and hope I get the results back in time. That said, unless my hotel offered the service overseas, I’d be very reluctant to try to navigate a foreign heath system to get a Covid test that might not be easy or cheap to secure.

  17. Great. They’re only about 10 months too late and now they want testing before entry when it’s already EVERYWHERE in the US?

    Also they’re going to make the airlines do their dirty work and deny boarding to anyone who doesn’t have their pointless tests. And hey, it’s not the US government denying you entry, it’s the Airlines refusing to let you fly which is totally ok.

    What a clusterf***

  18. It’s never too late!
    * Testing will reduce new mutations.
    * Testing will reduce the chances of a fifth, sixth and so on wave.
    * Testing has helped Hawaii

    Non-essential travel during a pandemic is (as we re-learned) completely nuts. Yes, the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year wave predicted is very real.

  19. The horse has bolted, and now the barn door is being shut. Sadly the CDC is screwed no matter what they do because of the freedumbs crowd in the USA

  20. Seems enforcement is solely on “airlines.” Meaning the elite private jet crowd need not be bothered with this!

  21. To those saying that American citizens legally must be allowed back into the US, that doesn’t mean that they have to be allowed onto commercial airlines. Legally, those people could still fly private, or enter the US by boat.

  22. A testing requirement for air travelers approaches being public health security theater when a 72 hour in advance test requirement may only reduce the risk of an individual spreading the virus during a trip by about 5-9%. But a testing requirement does drive down travel demand of the sort targeted by such a measure.

    Just think about what would happen if the US testing requirement would require a pre-flight test within 24 hours of arrival to the country. That’s what Denmark has put in place for air travelers. That makes travel much more up in the air than the kind of testing requirement coming to the US later this month.

  23. Matt Pohl,

    Recognized US citizens at a US port of entry are always admissible into the US. It is illegal for the US to deny recognized US citizens entry on arrival to the US.

    As has happened all during this pandemic, recognized US citizens at US ports of entry — even those at the US ports of entry along the Mexican border — are being admitted back into the US. This is going to continue.

  24. What’s wrong with testing and quarantine (e.g., designated hotel, enforced self-quarantine) on arrival? Korea does this. It works well.

    This is this the problem with the US approach to public policy. The US creates mandates, but it does not roll up its sleeves to make things easy and effective. If you’re concerned about the spread, screen everyone at the border and enforce quarantine.

  25. Some unanswered questions with the new policy:

    If you test positive, how long before you can test again?

    Will the airlines be required to re-accommodate a passenger who was denied boarding?

    What happens with travelers whose visa expired and who MUST therefore return to the US?

    Will passengers who test positive be detained and quarantined in the country they are visiting (think about it as a jail with no yard privileges).

    Can we trust the accuracy of the tests in some countries? Or the integrity of the people performing them? Bribing is very prevalent in some courtiers.

    Do we even know how good the correlation is between the PCR test and the SARS-CoV-2 virus? The PCR may detect dead virus material and amplify it. It may also detect the RNA of other, non harmful Corona viruses.

    If this policy sticks, it may be the last nail in the international travel’s coffin.

  26. Hopefully they accept rapid testing. I realize PCR testing is the “gold standard” but it takes much longer and the rapid tests are getting very effective. Yes there is some false negative but it is 98-99% accurate. Also, much more convenient, cheaper and quicker (20-30 minutes usually). As tests improve I can hope countries would accept these results and then you could have quick test kiosks at airports to handle it before a flight.

    I frankly have no problem with testing required for ALL international travel through at least the remainder of 2021 provided they allow rapid testing. The current process, where results can take 48-72 hours to come back, just isn’t practical.

    My next international trip is Frankfurt in September. By then hopefully I’ll be vaccinated (with documentation) and either rapid tests will be approved or Germany can turn one around quickly. I read somewhere that Frankfurt airport was doing testing so hopefully getting results, if needed, won’t be a problem by September.

  27. “provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19”
    What would this be? A positive Covid test followed by a negative Covid test any time later? In my experience nobody gets a second test to verify the Covid is gone. They go by symptoms and just get an antibody test later.

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