Starting Jan. 26, the United States will require all international travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane to the U.S. – and that includes citizens returning home from a trip abroad.
Announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week with just two weeks notice, it’s a massive change for a country that has imposed few travel restrictions throughout the pandemic. And it has major implications for anyone planning to travel internationally in the coming weeks and months.
While the CDC has given guidance on who will need to get tested before flying to the U.S. (nearly everyone) and what tests will qualify, there are still massive questions about how it will affect international travel. Will airlines, airports, resorts, and hotels step up to provide testing options? Or will travelers be on their own to find a test abroad? What will travel insurance cover? And does this mean you should cancel your upcoming trip?
Here’s everything we know – and a lot that we don’t yet have answers to – as these new international travel restrictions unfold.
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Do You Really Need to Get Tested Before Coming Home?
This new requirement applies to all travelers boarding flights for the U.S., including citizens returning home from a trip abroad, according to the CDC’s order issued Tuesday. So whether you’re heading to Mexico, Costa Rica, Turkey, or all the way to the Maldives, you will need to get a COVID-19 test before returning to the U.S.
There are only two exceptions. Children under 2 do not need to be tested. And anyone transiting through the U.S. en route to their final destination (for example, flying from Europe to Mexico with a connection in the U.S.) is also exempt.
Does This Apply to Every Country?
However, in the coming weeks the CDC may grant some temporary exceptions for countries that have limited testing capabilities.
What if You’ve Already Had COVID-19? Or Been Vaccinated?
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the three months prior to your trip, no longer have symptoms, and have been cleared to travel, you may not need to get a test before returning home.
But travelers who have already had COVID-19 will need to present documentation of their previous positive test result and a letter from a health care provider stating you have been cleared to travel. If you tested positive more than 90 days prior to your return flight to the U.S., you will still need to get another COVID-19 test to fly home.
Unfortunately, there’s no such luck if you’ve already been vaccinated against COVID-19. There’s no exemption in the CDC order from these testing requirements for travelers who have received the vaccine.
What Kind of Test Do You Need?
You’ll need to provide a negative COVID-19 result from a test taken no more than 72 hours (three days) before your flight to the U.S. departs.
The CDC’s order states it must be either a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) or an antigen test to qualify. And it must have information to verify the results, including the name and contact details of the lab, clinic, hospital, or healthcare personnel that performed the test.
The CDC is leaving it up to airlines to enforce these testing requirements, so you’ll have to show your airline either a paper or digital test result at boarding. Without a qualifying test result, you will be denied boarding for your flight (and could face criminal penalties).
How About Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico?
While you may need to present a negative COVID-19 test to go to some states and U.S. territories, you will not have to take a test to return to the mainland U.S. That includes Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Should You Cancel Your Trip?
This is the big question on many travelers’ minds. And unfortunately, it’s hard to say right now.
News of this looming testing requirement just came out on Tuesday, and there’s so much up in the air surrounding the logistics of these testing requirements. We don’t yet know how foreign governments, hotels and resorts, and even airlines may respond yet.
So the best bet may be to give it some time as some of these details shake out in the coming days before making a final decision.
How Long Will These Requirements Last?
We don’t know for sure. But if we had to guess, it will be in place for a long while.
These new measures are meant to combat the spread of COVID-19 as vaccine distribution slowly ramps up. The CDC order states the testing requirements will be in place until federal authorities change it, until federal health officials declare the end of the public health emergency, or until Dec. 31, 2021.
In our view, that means these restrictions are likely to last for at least several months.
Where Can You Get Tested at Your Destination?
This is the big question that has many travelers reconsidering a trip abroad.
COVID-19 testing remains a problem throughout the U.S., and testing capacity can be even more limited abroad. Some popular destinations in the Caribbean or Mexico may not have the lab infrastructure to handle an influx of American visitors seeking tests.
It may take time for tourism-dependent nations to set up systems for adequate testing. It’s worth checking with your hotel or resort on whether they plan to provide testing options or can point you to a place to get a satisfactory test before your return to the U.S.
Will Airlines or Airports Step Up to Provide Testing Options?
This is unclear, too.
Some airlines already offer COVID-19 testing, but that’s focused on providing options for travelers heading for places like Hawaii or the Caribbean that require a test for entry. Still, that could provide a framework for airlines to more easily test travelers heading back for the U.S.
But airlines aren’t committing to that just yet. In a statement responding to the CDC order, American Airlines made clear that travelers are on their own to find a test before their flights home.
“Customers will be responsible for securing approved COVID-19 tests in accordance with the order,” the airline said.
Neither United nor Delta have committed to expanding testing options abroad, either. In a staement, United said it “actively working to introduce new technologies and processes to make navigating these testing requirements easier both for our employees and our customers.”
Expanding rapid testing at airports would be the best solution, but that will take time – and serious commitment. Airlines and airports alike will feel pressure to keep tourism alive and easier testing is critical for that, but it won’t happen overnight.
What Will a Test Cost?
It varies wildly.
In our experience, COVID-19 tests at your destination can cost anywhere from $50 to $250 per test. But the final price will depend on who is providing the test – and if the local government will subsidize any of the cost.
What Happens if You Get COVID-19 Abroad?
If you test positive for COVID-19 while abroad, you will be required to quarantine for 10 to 14 days – at your expense. In order to board your flight back to the U.S., you will need to be cleared for travel by a health professional and provide documentation to that effect.
Do You Need Travel Insurance? What Will it Cover?
There are a couple of things to consider when looking for travel insurance for COVID related complications.
Many travel insurance policies will provide medical coverage if you contract COVID-19 – and some destinations require you to have a health insurance policy for entry. If you want a policy that will reimburse you if you decide to cancel an upcoming trip, not just any travel plan will do: You need one with a “cancel for any reason” clause. And those can be expensive.
If you wind up stuck in your destination due to a COVID-19 infection, travel insurance may not help you cover the costs of an extended stay. Some policies offer a “quarantine indemenity allowance,” which could help cover some of those additional costs.
Now more than ever, it’s critical to read the fine print. Every travel insurance plan is different, so read the full policy and make sure you understand what you’re getting – and what you won’t.
Will Airlines Continue Offering Flexibility?
That remains to be seen.
Many major (and even minor) U.S. airlines have offered unprecendented flexibility to change and cancel any plane ticket purchased by the end of the month – and in some cases, as far out as April. As these new restrictions add more unpredictability to travel, we may see those policies extended further.
But already, airlines have responded to these new requirements to help travelers get home before they take effect. Both Delta and American Airlines are waiving the fare difference to change flights to return home by Jan. 25. That means for international flights scheduled through Feb. 9, you can get home sooner without paying a much heftier fare.
Should You Get Tested Before Your Trip, Too?
You may need to.
Many countries around the world have required COVID-19 tests for entry for months. Some destinations, like Mexico, have no restrictions on travelers arriving by plane.
Still, we encourage everyone to get tested before any travel – and keep in mind that a single test a few days before your flight does not mean you don’t have COVID-19. A multi-layered approach with testing and quarantining before and after your trip is the safest approach.
As it’s clear to see, there are far more questions than answers about the implications of these new testing requirements. It may take days, if not weeks or longer, for some of these questions to clear up.
Be patient, do your research, and make an informed decision about any upcoming travel plans.