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US travel restrictions: Pre-departure tests and vaccination rules explained in full

People queue at a US airport
People queue at a US airport   -   Copyright  AFP
By Nichola Daunton  & Lottie Limb

All travellers arriving into the US now have to show a negative COVID-19 test. The test must have been taken within one day of departure.

This requirement applies to all arrivals, regardless of their vaccination status or where they have travelled from.

Previously, travellers had a 72-hour window to take the test.

The new rule is part of a raft of measures intended to stop the spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant within the United States. Omicron has already spread to around one third of US states, health officials confirmed yesterday.

US travel rules for pre-departure tests

Announcing the new rules, a White House statement said, "The United States will tighten pre-departure testing protocols by requiring all inbound international travelers to test within one day of departure globally, regardless of nationality or vaccination status."

The new rules will apply to everyone entering the US, whether they are foreign nationals or US citizens.

What kind of COVID test is required?

Airlines will be checking for proof of a negative viral test. This can be either an antigen (lateral flow) test or nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT).

It must be officially authorised for use in the country you are departing. So, for example, you could take a PCR test (which uses a NAAT technique) before you fly.

Home tests are fine, provided they’ve been overseen by a telehealth service that can watch you take the test, verify your identity and meet other federal requirements.

AFP
A COVID testing centre in the USAFP

Why is the testing window within one day rather than 24 hours of departure?

The new timing requirements have caused some confusion, as ‘one-day’ and ‘24 hours’ are often used interchangeably.

But the wording is actually designed to help travellers and ease the burden of testing. The US order states that the pre-departure test must be done within one day before departure in order to give travellers more flexibility.

It means you don’t need to worry about exact timings. Say your flight is at 7pm on Friday; you could board with a negative test that was taken anytime on Thursday.

What vaccine proof and other documents do you need to travel to the US?

Vaccination rules remain the same: travellers to the US still need to be fully vaccinated, with the last dose delivered a full 14 days before boarding your flight.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate and the UK’s NHS COVID Pass are both acceptable forms of digital vaccine certificates with QR codes. It’s a good idea to print out a copy of this to take with you, though you can also show it on your smartphone.

Some people are exempt from having to show proof of vaccination. Details are available here.

Travelling to the US with proof of recovery from COVID-19

If you’ve recently recovered from the virus, you can use proof of this instead of a vaccine certificate to get into the States.

As well as proof of a positive test within 90 days of departure, you’ll need to have a letter from an official healthcare provider confirming that your isolation period is over. This doesn’t need to refer to travel specifically - it could say that you are fit to return to work or school.

Finally, you’ll need to fill out an ‘attestation’, promising that all your details are true. There’s no need to get this document in advance, as airlines will distribute and collect them prior to boarding.

Who checks your documents?

It’s up to the airlines to check your COVID test result and vaccine documents. Passengers who have these in a language other than English are advised to check with your airline before arriving at the airport.

What are the rules for families travelling with children?

Under the new rules, children over two years old must also take a pre-departure test within a day of departure. Full details are available here.

Children under 18 do not have to show proof of vaccination.

The national public health agency has more advice for families here.

New domestic measures

It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the domestic measures for travelling within the US. The White House has announced that mandatory mask wearing on public transport will be extended until 18 March 2022.

All passengers, unless medically exempt, must wear a mask on all forms of public transport. The mandate was due to expire on 18 January 2022.