Travel has slowly but steadily crawled back from the depths of the pandemic. For nearly two years, travel restrictions at home and abroad have kept a full comeback out of reach. But something is changing…
As the worst of the pandemic fades and COVID-19 case counts plummet after a winter surge, countries around the globe have been dropping or relaxing travel restrictions. Now, all eyes are on two longstanding policies in the U.S.: The federal mask mandate for air travel and the requirement to get a COVID-19 test to fly back to the states after any international trip.
President Joe Biden's administration dealt flyers eager to ditch their masks inflight a blow earlier this month with a monthlong extension to the federal mask mandate, pushing it out through April 18. Meanwhile, the ongoing U.S. rule requiring a negative test to fly back to the U.S. from abroad – regardless of vaccination status – continues to frustrate travelers. And as countries from Canada to the United Kingdom have dropped testing requirements for most travelers, the U.S. rules increasingly look like an outlier.
Could it end soon as the U.S. enters a new phase of the pandemic? Or will concerns about another, fast-spreading Omicron sub-variant prolong that requirement?
Here's a look at what's at play.
International Testing Requirements Up in the Air
Despite several extensions, there's always been an official expiration date on the horizon with the federal mask mandate on planes and in airports. That's not the case with testing requirements.
There's no published end date on the requirement to get a negative COVID-19 test in order to fly back to the U.S. from abroad. The latest order from the CDC putting those requirements in place does not have an expiration date. That means it will remain in place until it's rescinded – or when health officials declare the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
But as travel takes off from spring break into the summer of 2022, it's clear the ground is shifting. It may only be a matter of time before this testing rule is pulled back.
But for now, those requirements remain in place. All travelers, including fully vaccinated Americans, flying to the U.S. have been required to provide a negative COVID-19 test since late January 2021. As the Omicron wave swept across the world, it got even tougher: You now need a test just one calendar day before departure. Previously, travelers had a three-day window to get a test.
Nothing has kept international travel at bay more than this testing requirement. The stress of finding a test abroad – and, most importantly, the prospect of being forced to quarantine for a week or more in a foreign country – has scared many travelers off from a big international trip.
A year ago, mandatory testing to get home seemed like a reasonable tradeoff for travelers considering many countries around the world remained closed to international travel and COVID-19 vaccinations had not yet taken off. But there's been a 180 in recent weeks.
- From France to Italy to Switzerland and even the United Kingdom, many European countries have dropped pre-travel testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers
- Iceland, Ireland, Norway, and Denmark have recently dropped all their entry restrictions outright
- Canada will drop testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers, while travel to Mexico has continued with no entry requirements from the very start of the pandemic
- Even countries throughout Asia have begun reopening their borders, including Vietnam, Bali in Indonesia, and South Korea come April
Fortunately, the U.S. has given travelers plenty of options to get a test by also allowing rapid antigen tests. That includes select at-home COVID test kits, so long as they include a supervised telehealth appointment.
Read all our tips on the best ways to track down a COVID-19 test abroad!
Calls for Change
As other countries drop travel restrictions, the U.S. is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world – especially in requiring even fully vaccinated citizens returning home to get a test.
Getting a test to fly back to the U.S. feels more and more redundant, with so many Americans either vaccinated or protected against COVID-19 through prior infection – and therefore eligible to skip the required testing with proof of recovery.
For weeks, major U.S. airlines and business groups have been calling on the White House to drop the testing rule.
“Surveys of air passengers indicate that pre-departure testing is a leading factor in the decision not to travel internationally. People simply are unwilling to take the chance that they will be unable to return to the U.S.,” the groups wrote in a letter, according to Reuters. “Clearly COVID is widespread throughout the U.S. and attempts to control its importation via air travel under today’s circumstances are unlikely to change that fact.”
Biden and his administration have not commented on the policy for months nor responded publicly to that letter.
The Biden administration may be looking at the track record of its own testing requirement – and the results are mixed.
Despite tightening testing requirements to stem the flow of the new, faster-spreading Omicron variant back in December, a pre-travel test did not stop the flow of COVID-19 into the U.S. Omicron quickly became dominant, causing the largest spike of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations recorded throughout the pandemic. Of course, that testing requirement might have helped tamper an even worse outbreak.
After weeks of declining COVID-19 cases and calls to return to normal, concern is growing about yet another variant – in this case, the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron. Some initial data shows it may spread even faster but lead to less severe outcomes than what we went though in January and February. Germany, the U.K., and other countries throughout Europe could provide an interesting test case: After loosening COVID-19 restrictions, cases are on the rise there again. Will it force them back into stricter policies or will it mark a turning point in how countries tackle the pandemic?
Whenever the White House drops its testing requirements, it may not ditch them altogether. The Biden administration could change the rules to exempt fully vaccinated Americans and visitors from testing, but still require unvaccinated travelers to get a test.
That would mirror the actions other countries have taken in recent weeks. And it's a tact the Biden administration has taken before: Before the Omicron surge, the CDC briefly imposed a one-day testing window for unvaccinated Americans flying home from the U.S. while fully vaccinated citizens still had three days to get a test.
Whatever course they take, the days of testing in order to fly back home to the states may be numbered. Whenever it happens, it will be a landmark moment for travel.
We're not public health officials and we're certainly not employees of the federal government. There's no telling exactly when these changes that many travelers have been waiting for will take place. Will it be a matter of days, weeks, or still months away?
The pandemic is not over, but it's undeniable which way the wind is blowing as countries around the globe drop or decrease travel restrictions.