The European Union is moving ahead with its plan to reopen to vaccinated travelers, including Americans, paving the way for a return to travel in the weeks and months ahead.
Top European ambassadors officially agreed Wednesday to reopen their borders after banning most travelers for more than a year, the Washington Post reports. That decision has been in the works for weeks, ever since the EU's top official first floated the prospect of welcoming back American tourists this summer in a New York Times interview.
While the timeline is still up in the air and there is still a final vote in the days ahead, countries could begin opening their borders soon. The Post reports it may happen “within days of the final signature.”
And some countries have beat the rest of Europe to the punch. Though it's not part of the EU, Iceland was the first country in Europe to reopen in March to fully vaccinated travelers. Croatia and Greece followed soon after, opening to travelers with proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Italy is open now, too – but only if you arrive via specific “COVID-tested” flights.
Entry requirements are still being finalized, including a long-awaited vaccine passport system dubbed the “digital green certificate” that would allow vaccinated travelers to easily prove their status. Travelers who have received their final dose of Pfizer, Moderna, or the solo shot of Johnson & Johnson at least two weeks prior to arrival are expected to be allowed.
The EU is also reportedly considering a list of countries with COVID-19 under control from which travelers would be allowed regardless of their vaccination status. Whether the U.S. makes that cut is unclear.
But traveling soon, you may not find the Europe you remember. Though an initially sluggish vaccination campaign has picked up steam across the continent, many countries still currently have strict nightly curfews in place. Dining in many popular spots is closed or restricted to outdoor seating, and many major attractions remain closed or open with limited capacity.
Still, the broader reopening of Europe is a major milestone for tourism and the global battle against COVID-19.
When Will Europe Reopen?
This is the big question. And while it's still unclear, it could happen soon.
The proposal, which was agreed to Wednesday and set to come up for final approval later this week or next week, recommends that all 27 member countries of the European Union resume allowing travelers who have completed their vaccinations. Once approved, each country can decide whether or not to implement those changes.
And that's a critical point: The EU simply makes recommendations. It's up to each individual country to follow along, stay closed, or add additional safeguards or entry requirements. Some could require additional testing or even quarantines upon arrival, at least initially.
That means the current non-essential travel ban could fall away fairly soon – especially in countries like Spain and France that are eager to welcome back travelers. Elsewhere, it could take longer.
And European countries could hit the pause button once travel resumes. The EU's proposal includes an “emergency brake” that would allow countries to slow or halt inbound travelers from countries where COVID-19 cases are on the rise, especially where new variants of the virus are emerging.
Who Can Get In?
The EU's proposal recommends allowing entry to anyone who has received their last dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days prior to arrival. All three vaccines in use in the U.S. meet those requirements: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. AstraZeneca, which is being distributed in Canada, is also accepted.
“This will enable free movement and the travel to the European Union,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen previously said in an interview with the Times, noting that all three vaccines being distributed in the U.S. have been approved by Europe's pharmaceutical regulator. “Because one thing is clear: All 27 member states will accept, unconditionally, all those who are vaccinated with vaccines that are approved by (the European Medicines Agency).”
Some countries could also require a negative PCR test on top of proof of vaccination. But the proposal states it should waive a testing requirement for foreign visitors if that country doesn't require a negative test result from its own residents.
And keep in mind: As of today, the U.S. still requires a negative COVID-19 test before boarding your flight back to the U.S. … regardless of your vaccination status.
What About Vaccine Passports? What's a ‘Digital Green Certificate'?
Eventually, Europe may have its own version of a vaccine passport, allowing travelers to easily prove their vaccination status.
Europe has been working on its “digital green certificate” for several months. And that work is still underway. The EU plans to eventually require inbound travelers to submit their proof of vaccination in advance for clearance, with aims of getting it up and running sometime next month.
But the Post reports that will be initially in place only for fellow Europeans traveling within the continent – not for travelers visiting from outside Europe. Until it's also in place for foreigners, a standard Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) card should suffice.
“Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, Member States should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity, and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data,” the proposal states.
What About Kids?
Children under 12 still aren't approved for the COVID-19 vaccine, which has left families eyeing trips in the lurch. We've got good news there.
The EU's proposal specifically states that children who can't get the vaccine can accompany their vaccinated parents by providing a negative PCR test result taken no more than 72 hours prior to arrival.
Countries could require additional testing or requirements upon arrival.
What If You Haven't Been Vaccinated?
For the last year, the EU has restricted unvaccinated travelers to a small (and shrinking) number of countries where COVID-19 case rates are low like Australia. That has left the U.S. out in the cold.
The EU plans to loosen those standards: It would allow non-essential travel from countries with a COVID-19 rate of 100 per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, regardless of their vaccination status. Currently, the EU only allows case rates of 25.
COVID-19 case rates are trending in the right direction in the U.S., but Americans would still currently miss the cut by this metric. The EU plans to expand that list and revisit it regularly, so that could eventually change.
Some countries like Spain and France have signaled they'll allow both vaccinated travelers and travelers with a recent negative COVID-19 test. Neither country has officially reopened yet. Others like Greece and Croatia are already accepting travelers with proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
Finally. After a year of being unwelcome and watching as a summer trip to Europe became less and less certain, there's clear hope for a return to Europe in 2021. And now we know much more about what that may look like – and how soon it could happen.