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US Implements New COVID-19 Testing Requirements For International Travelers

Updated: Jun 07, 2023  | Tags: Travel Restrictions, COVID-19

COVID-19 Travel Restrictions have been lifted

Effective from 12:01 am Eastern Daylight Time on May 12, 2023, foreign individuals traveling on nonimmigrant visas or ESTA are no longer required to demonstrate that they have received a full course of an approved COVID-19 vaccine before boarding an aircraft bound for the United States. To provide some historical context, initial COVID-19 testing rules for inbound travel to the U.S. were implemented back in 2020, as a part of the early response to the global pandemic.

Readers who intend to fly to the United State in the near future must prepare themselves for stricter testing requirements. This comes after the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) announced earlier that the testing window for all global air travelers will be shortened from three days to one day.

For the past month, only travelers who have not been vaccinated had to be tested no longer than one day before their departure to the United States.

According to the latest CDC announcement, the aim with this shorter timeframe is to "provide less opportunity to develop infection with the omicron variant prior to arrival in the United States".

The Role of Your Airline

U.S. airlines have been requested to gather contact-tracing data from inbound travelers from overseas countries. This has to be sent to the CDC when requested. The information required includes names, email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, and dates of birth.

When will the new rules come into effect?

The new testing regime came into effect on Monday, December 6, 2021. It applies to all incoming international arrivals over the age of 2 who are flying into the United States from a foreign destination. What is important to note here is that your nationality* or vaccination status makes no difference*. Individuals who are able to deliver proof that they’ve had COVID-19 in the last 90 days and recovered are exempt.

What types of COVID-19 tests will be accepted?

All incoming travelers have to take a viral test. This has to include antigen tests plus nucleic acid amplification tests. Below are a few examples of the latter:

- transcription-mediated amplification (TMA) tests
- reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP) tests
- reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests
- helicase-dependent amplification (HDA) tests
- nicking enzyme amplification reaction (NEAR) tests

According to the CDC announcement, tests also have to be approved for use in the country where they were administered.

Even though PCR tests are very popular, it can take days before the results are released. Yale public health professor Albert Ko suggests that travelers should rather opt for rapid tests that are accepted by the CDC if they want to make sure that the results will not arrive too late. Ko added that, since testing options often differed significantly from one country to the next, he would advise people who wanted to travel to the United States to scope out the situation on the ground well before the time.

In some countries, rapid COVID-19 tests are offered at convenient locations such as pharmacies and airports. Ko warns, however, that although these tests might offer convenience, they are often also relatively expensive. He plans to visit Brazil within the next week and intends to take an at-home rapid antigen test in his luggage and use that before he flies back to the US. That, however, brings us to the next question:

Will the US accept all self-tests?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Not all self-tests will be accepted for entry into the United States. To qualify, the test has to be carried out in the presence of a telehealth proctor and it also has to meet a number of different requirements laid out by the Center For Disease Control And Prevention. Readers who want to get more information about their options as far as COVID-19 tests are concerned should first consult their airline’s website. Many airlines use their websites to provide the latest info on testing requirements and also about where one can find the nearest testing center when you are overseas.

Why does the new rule state ’1 day’ instead of ’24 hours’?

This was done to make the system more flexible. It will in many cases give travelers more time to do what has to be done. Those who want to embark on a flight to the US can, e.g., take a test on a Monday morning and then fly out on Tuesday evening. With a strict 24-hour rule this would not have been possible.

Are travelers required to undergo a second test after arrival?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all incoming air travelers undergo another viral test between three and five days after they arrive in the US. Unvaccinated passengers should go into quarantine for seven days after they arrive in the country.

Is it compulsory to wear a mask during the flight?

The answer here is an emphatic yes. The US federal mask mandate is still in place and will remain in place until at least March 18, 2022. It requires that travelers should wear masks not only on airplanes, but also on buses, trains, and in train stations and airports.

Should a traveler refuse to wear a mask, he or she could face a fine of anything between $500 and $3,000. The latter applies to repeat offenders. The only exemptions that will be allowed are for individuals with certain disabilities and those who are under the age of 2.

What if I have recovered from Covid?

Travelers who have had COVID-19 within the last three months and who have since recovered will be allowed to travel if they can provide documentary proof of this. Acceptable proof includes:

- A letter from a public health official or a licensed healthcare provider explaining that you’ve had COVID-19 and that you’ve now been cleared for travel and
- A sample or a positive COVID-19 test that is not older than 90 days

These rules apply to all incoming air passengers who are over the age of two and who want to board a flight from a foreign destination to the US.

Some country-specific rules still apply

Because of concerns over the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, and following advice from the CDC and the President’s Chief Medical Advisor, the US Government announced restrictions on travel from the following eight countries just before the end of November 2021:

South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini (the former Swaziland), Botswana, and Zimbabwe.

It has to be noted that these restrictions do not apply to permanent US residents, citizens of that country, and a few other types of travelers. Readers who would like to know more about this Proclamation should study the full text on the White House website.

Travel Advisories for all eight countries are Do Not Travel (Level 4). This is in line with the CDC’s THNs (Travel Health Notifications) and takes into account flight cancellations in many countries.