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What are the Covid vaccine and testing requirements for travel to the U.S., and are there any exceptions?

By November 23, 2021COVID-19, News
doctor holding covid vaccine

Background

On November 8, 2021, the Biden administration replaced the regional Covid-19 travel bans that had required temporary travelers to the United States from the Schengen area, the UK, Ireland, India, China, Brazil, and South Africa to acquire a national interest exception (NIE) waiver before they could travel to the United States. In its place, the president instituted a vaccination requirement that applies to all nonimmigrants traveling to the United States by air. The new requirement applies worldwide to those flying into the United States.

As detailed in our earlier post here, the new vaccination requirement generally requires that those seeking to travel internationally into the United States be fully vaccinated. In this post, we look at the specifics of that requirement, and consider the few exceptions that may be available.

General Information About the Covid-19 Vaccine Requirement for International Travel to the United States

Who does the new vaccine requirement apply to, and who does it not apply to?

The new requirement applies to nonimmigrants who are traveling internationally into the United States (these individuals are called “covered individuals” in the government’s communications, and in this post). A nonimmigrant is an individual who is traveling to the U.S. temporarily on a nonimmigrant visa.

 

The new requirement does not apply to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or U.S. lawful permanent residents (those who have a green card). However, everyone traveling internationally into the U.S. who is two years old or older — including U.S. citizens and green card holders — must provide a negative Covid test result. Those who are fully vaccinated must provide a negative test result taken no more than three days before travel; those who have not been vaccinated must provide a negative test result taken no more than one day before travel.

As of November 8, 2021, what is the new requirement to travel internationally into the United States?

A covered individual who wants to travel into the United States by air must show to the airline proof that they are fully vaccinated. The airline will verify that the individual’s name and birthdate matches, that the document used to prove vaccination was issued by an official source (for example, a government agency or hospital), and make sure that the vaccination given was actually a “full vaccination” as defined by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and prevention (CDC).

What documents are considered “acceptable proof of vaccination”?

According to the CDC, airlines will accept verifiable digital or paper records (such as digital passes with a QR code), non-verifiable paper records (such as the CDC vaccination card), and non-verifiable digital records (such as a digital photo of a vaccination card).

For each category of documentation, the document must be sufficient for the airline to verify that the traveler meets the vaccination requirement. This means that the document must clearly show the traveler’s name and one other identifier (for example, birth date), the name of the official source that issued the record, and the manufacturer of the vaccine and when the individual was vaccinated. If the document is not in English, it is always a good idea to travel with a translation; the traveler may also contact the airline before traveling to confirm whether a translation is required.

What does it mean to be “fully vaccinated”?

The CDC will accept those vaccines approved by either the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the World Health Organization (WHO). The accepted vaccines are as follows:

  • Janssen/Johnson & Johnson
  • Pfizer-BioNTech
  • Moderna
  • AstraZeneca
  • Covaxin
  • Covishield
  • BIBP/Sinopharm
  • Sinovac

An individual is “fully vaccinated” a full 14 days after the last required dose – either one dose for a single-dose vaccine or two doses for two-dose vaccines. Two-dose vaccines can be mixed and matched, as long as both of the two vaccines are on the list above.

My child is a U.S. citizen. Do I still need to be vaccinated in order to travel into the U.S.?

Yes. Having a U.S. citizen child does not exempt or provide an exception to the vaccine requirement.

Information about Testing Requirements for International Travel to the United States

I have been fully vaccinated. Do I also need to provide proof of a negative test result?

Yes. Everyone traveling internationally into the U.S. who is two years old or older – including nonimmigrants, green card holders, and even U.S. citizens – must provide a negative Covid test result. Those who are fully vaccinated must provide a negative test result taken no more than three days before travel; those who have not been vaccinated must provide a negative test result taken no more than one day before travel.

What if I had Covid before? Do I still need to be vaccinated and provide a negative test result?

If you had Covid and have a positive test result that is no more than 90 days old, you do not need to provide a negative test result. Instead, you may provide proof of the positive test result and a letter from a licensed practitioner or official stating you are able to travel.

Exceptions to the Vaccine Requirement

Are there any exceptions to the vaccine requirement? Is there any way for me to travel into the U.S. without getting vaccinated?

If there is any way to become fully vaccinated prior to traveling to the United States, that is clearly the recommended option. It not only helps ensure you face minimal obstacles when entering, but also protects your health and that of the community.

There are several limited exceptions to the general requirement that covered individuals be fully vaccinated. As noted above, the vaccine requirement does not apply to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents; the testing requirements described above apply to all travelers to the U.S., including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Remember that those who receive an exception to the requirement may need to comply with stricter testing requirements and/or vaccination requirements – in general, as noted in this post, they must provide a negative test result within one day of travel, and they may be required to be vaccinated within 60 days of their arrival in the U.S.

Exceptions to the vaccination requirement are available for the following individuals:

  • Children under 18 years old.
  • Certain individuals participating in clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccinations.
  • Individuals who have formal documentation that the Covid-19 vaccination is contraindicated (medically harmful) for them.
  • Certain individuals who have received a humanitarian or emergency exception from the CDC. The CDC has stated that it will only issue such exceptions “only when an individual must travel to the United States to preserve health and safety (e.g. emergency medical evacuations) and is unable to become fully vaccinated before travel.” Individuals who believe they are eligible are instructed to contact their nearest embassy, which will then contact the CDC.
  • Those who are traveling on a passport from a country where less than 10% of the population is vaccinated, and who are not traveling on a B-1 or B-2 visa. Those who live in a country with a low vaccination rate but are not traveling on that passport do not qualify. A list of those countries on the list can be found here.
  • Individuals who are members of the U.S. armed forces, along with their spouses and children.
  • Diplomats who have an A, C, G, or NATO visa and who have an official letter from their government or the U.S. government.
  • Those traveling under a United Nations request or legal obligation, and who have a letter explaining the purpose of their travel.
  • Certain airline and sea crew members and who have an official letter from their employer explaining the purpose of their travel.
  • Individuals who have an official letter from the U.S. government stating that their travel is in the national interest.

I received a national interest exception waiver (NIE) before. Does it still apply?

No. The NIEs that were issued before November 8, 2021 no longer apply. The “national interest” exception under the new vaccine requirement is not the same as the national interest exception waiver that was in place before November 8, 2021, and that gave relief from the regional Covid travel bans.

How can I get a national interest exception to the new vaccine requirement?

The standard for receiving a national interest exception to the vaccine requirement appears to be extremely strict, and the government has issued little guidance on what is required to apply for or receive such an exception. It will likely be far more difficult to receive a national interest exception to the vaccine requirement than it was to receive an NIE to the regional Covid bans before November 8, 2021.

 

Both the U.S. Department of State (DOS, which oversees the consulates) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS, which oversees border officers) appear to be deferring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for determinations of when an exception should be granted. This is in contrast to the process before November 8, 2021, when national interest exceptions were typically decided and granted by either consulates or border officials.

 

By replacing the regional Covid travel bans with the vaccine requirement, the government’s policy is now much more closely aligned with the recommendations of health experts and focuses on vaccines as “the most important measure for reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and for avoiding severe illness, hospitalization, and death.” As a result, it is expected that the CDC will only grant exceptions to the requirement in extreme circumstances where a traveler’s purpose of travel truly outweighs the risk of permitting unvaccinated individuals who do not otherwise qualify for an exception to enter the United States.

Is there a religious exception?

No. No exceptions will be made for individuals based on their religious or moral convictions.

I am unvaccinated and received an exception. What are the additional testing and vaccination requirements?

In general, those who enter the U.S. and are not vaccinated must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 within 60 days of arriving in the U.S. This requirement does not apply to, among others, children and those for whom the vaccine is medically harmful.

 

As noted above, those who have not been vaccinated must provide a negative test result taken no more than one day before travel.

Entering the United States by Land

What about land border crossings?

Starting on November 8, 2021, those who have documentation showing they are fully vaccinated will be able to enter the U.S. whether they are traveling for essential or non-essential travel. Essential travel is permitted for those who are not vaccinated – essential travel includes, for example, those traveling for work, education, or for medical purposes.

Starting in January 2022, proof of full vaccination will be required for those traveling into the U.S. by land, regardless of whether they are traveling for essential or non-essential travel.

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