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.
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.
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.