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U.S. Will Require COVID-19 Tests for International Flights, Even Returning Citizens

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Nearly a year into the pandemic, the United States will finally require international travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane to the U.S. – including all citizens returning from a trip abroad.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed Tuesday that starting Jan. 26, it will require all travelers heading for the U.S. to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. And unlike other testing requirements worldwide, even U.S. citizens returning home must provide a test before flying back to the states.

Tests must be taken no more than 72 hours before departure, and be provided to the airline in paper or electronic form. Only children younger than 2 and travelers transiting through the U.S. en route to their final destination will be exempt. The Wall Street Journal broke the news earlier Tuesday.

Travel to Hawaii and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are, of course, exempt from these new requirements.

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The CDC is also urging travelers to get tested again within three to five days of travel and to self-isolate for at least a week upon returning. The agency says these measures are meant to curb a COVID-19 outbreak that continues growing by the day.

“Testing does not eliminate all risk, but when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer, healthier, and more responsible by reducing spread on planes, in airports and at destinations,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement announcing the new policy.

The pandemic has brought air travel to a screeching halt, and international flights have been hit hardest. Many countries around the globe have required foreign visitors to provide a recent negative COVID-19 test – or still ban international travel outright. Airline industry groups have repeatedly stressed that robust testing and vaccination is the key to restarting travel.

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But the U.S. had resisted similar restrictions while banning most foreign visitors from Europe and China. The Trump administration even lifted a requirement for a temperature check and health screening on international arrivals this fall. As fears of an aggressive strain of the virus mounted, the U.S. only recently made testing mandatory on flights from the United Kingdom.

That will soon change with this new testing requirement. But mandatory testing for even returning citizens goes farther than most countries, introducing an extra hurdle that may limit additional outbreaks but could also throw a wrench into Americans traveling internationally.

For countries that currently allow American travelers with a negative COVID-19 test, it will require them to get tested on both ends of the trip. And in places like Mexico which have no testing requirements, Americans would be forced to find a COVID-19 test in destinations that may be ill-equipped to test additional foreign residents.

Some airline industry leaders welcomed the news of widespread testing requirements.

“We believe a well-planned program focused on increasing testing of travelers to the United States will further these objectives in a much more effective way than the blanket travel restrictions currently in place,” Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio said in a statement.


What This May Mean for Travelers

COVID-19 testing in the U.S. for travel has become more accessible in the last few months. But it remains complicated and difficult for many travelers.

Travel restrictions for destinations around the world vary greatly and constantly change, making travel in the near future confusing and complex. Adding an additional requirement for testing before returning to the U.S. will only add to those worries.

Many countries around the world have upped their testing, but it remains spotty elsewhere. Will travelers have to find testing for themselves in order to come back home? Will airlines step up to provide options, as they have for flights to Hawaii and the Caribbean?

That's unclear, too. And the answers to those questions will be critical in determining how this affects international travel.

Read More: What We Know (and Don't) About New COVID-19 Test Travel Requirements

Bottom Line

While this long-overdue step should slow the spread of COVID-19, this new testing requirement will add another layer of complication for travelers heading abroad, putting what little international travel remains in limbo until a vaccine.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

19 Responses

  • So before traveling , I imagine one should see what covid testing options might be at their destinations in order to get home…

  • We flew from LHR to MSP at the weekend. It was a bit of a scramble to get tested and definitely something to plan for in your budget as the price to get tested ranged from 80-120 GBP per person. On a side note, MSP baggage claim was the busiest place we have been at in many months.

  • With “At-home testing kits” becoming more and more available and “fda emergency” approved, would this be an accepted alternative?
    I’m thinking of heading to the Maldives soon and I highly doubt they do testings on the islands prior to departing flights heading back to the US….

    • The problem would be shipping that at-home test back to a U.S. lab for processing. I’d recommend reaching out to whatever resort you may stay at and inquire about possible testing options.

  • I realize it is premature at this point, but wondering whether proof that one has received the Covid-19 vaccinations will preclude one from having to be tested.

    • Yes, according to CDC all passengers are required to provide the negative test result regardless of vaccination status. (FAQ section CDC site)

    • You will need to get tested before returning to the U.S. Reach out to your hotel or resort to see if they have any information that can help you.

  • and if you have been given a vaccine, how does that work? How come no mention of vaccines in this discussion? They never mention that and we have two different companies providing vaccines all over our country. What about the faulty pcr test that CDC says exists widely?

  • You likely don’t have an answer for this yet? Any thoughts/info for people who have recovered from COVID, but may test positive for 90 days or longer without being contagious and have travel plans within that 90-day window?

      • Thank you very much. Will a negative test will be required 72 hours prior to boarding a flight in MSP bound for PVR after 26Jan21?

        • A negative test w/i 72 hours is required for your flight from PVR to MSP if it’s after Jan 26. No test is required for entry into Mexico. However, it is a good idea to take measures before your trip to ensure you don’t have COVID-19 including getting a test and quarantining if possible. There are plenty of free testing sites in MN including at the airport.

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