U.S. Plans to Relax COVID Restrictions on International Travel Starting November 2021

Published: Sep 21, 2021, Updated: Sep 21, 2021 | Tags: COVID-19, Travel Restrictions

The White House announced on Monday, September 20, 2021, that it plans to reopen its borders to fully vaccinated airline passengers from 33 nations early in November. The list includes most European, ESTA eligible nations, as well as Brazil, China, and 5 other countries. Although unvaccinated individuals will no doubt be unhappy with the announcement, it was nevertheless widely welcomed because it rather unexpectedly eased the current tough US restrictions related to the pandemic.

The announcement was made by Jeff Zients, the official Covid-19 response coordinator at the White House. It represents a sudden shift for the current US administration after President Joe Baden last week still insisted that with Covid-19 cases increasing, now wasn’t the right time to consider lifting restrictions. The revised rules will mean that all foreign nationals who arrive in the US must provide proof that they have been fully vaccinated. Zients added that the new system would become operational early in November to give airlines and agencies sufficient time to prepare.

Status of Covid Restrictions

The news comes at a time when many other countries have already lifted similar restrictions. The move was widely welcomed by US allies because the current system effectively bars visitors from a major part of the world, including large numbers of foreign nationals who have business ties or relatives in the US.

According to this week's announcement, the US will from November allow access to air travelers who have been fully vaccinated from all the 26 Schengen countries in Europe. These include Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. Fully vaccinated air travelers from the following 7 non-Schengen countries will also be allowed to visit the US: South Africa, Brazil, Iran, India, Britain, China, and Ireland. The current US restrictions deny access to any non-American citizen who has visited any of the countries on the list during the preceding 14 days.

Former US President Donald Trump first imposed restrictions on non-U.S. citizens arriving by air from China in January last year. He later extended these restrictions to a long list of other nations without offering a clear pathway to when and how they will be lifted again. Although Zients failed to provide the exact date on which the new rules will come into operation, he did say that it would be in early November. A lot of the finer details of the revised policy will be finalized.

What are the implications of Monday's announcement?

The latest announcement from the Biden administration means that Covid-19 requirements will from November apply to virtually every foreign national who wants to fly to the United States - including individuals who are not subject to the current restrictions.

Under the revised system, travelers that are fully vaccinated will have to show proof of being vaccinated plus proof of a negative Covid-19 test that was done less than 72 hours earlier before boarding a plane. They will also have to provide an email address and phone number where they can be contacted if the need arises.

Unvaccinated Americans who have been abroad and who want to return home will face tougher restrictions than their vaccinated counterparts. Among others, they will have to provide proof that they tested negative for Covid-19 within 24 hours of starting their trip as well as proof of paying for a viral test that will be taken after they arrive in the US. Exceptions include kids that are too young to be eligible for vaccinations.

Following a science-based approach

Monday's announcement came on the eve of President Joe Biden's first speech at the United Nations General Assembly and at a time when he will be hosting leaders from Australia, Japan, India, and Britain. Addressing reporters on Monday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the announcement was not timed for diplomatic or PR benefits. If they wanted to make things as easy as possible for themselves, she added, they would have made the planned changes months ago when Biden embarked on his first overseas trip. She concluded that the current decision was purely based on science. Ever since the arrival of the Delta variant in June, the Covid-19 infection rate in the U.S. has been skyrocketing. Close to 29,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported on June 19.

In his response, the CEO of British Airways, Sean Doyle, described the American announcement as a "historic moment" that would provide a massive boost to the nation as it started emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would be a huge boost for trade and business, adding that it would be wonderful for friends and family members from both sides of the 'pond' to reunite again. Emily Haber, Germany's ambassador in the US, was equally upbeat about the American decision.

China will not benefit to the same extent since its citizens who travel overseas still have to quarantine for 14 days when they return to the country. International flights from China are currently down 98% from 2019 levels.

CDC To Decide Which Vaccines Are Acceptable

According to the White House, the CDC has the final say when it comes to which vaccines will be acceptable. When asked about the vaccines that will be acceptable on Monday, the organization's spokesperson, Kristen Nordlund, said it considered an individual fully vaccinated if he or she has been vaccinated with:

  • A vaccine authorized by the WHO (World Health Organization)
  • A vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the FDA

If either of these agencies should, therefore, add or remove a vaccine from their list it could also affect the CEC's list of approved vaccines.

The background

Over the last few months, international traveler's inability to enter the United States because of travel restrictions has caused a growing rift between the EU and the US. European leaders who were becoming increasingly frustrated at what they described as a lack of progress started to go public with their grievances. According to them, the American restrictions were harming EU-US ties.

In June this year, Europe decided to drop restrictions on American visitors, but last month they reversed the decision and once again removed the US from the list of nations whose citizens could visit Europe without having to be tested or go into quarantine.

Important Announcement: US Extends Pandemic-related Restrictions at Certain Land Borders

In a separate but related development this week, the US has announced that it was extending Covid-related restrictions that prohibit all non-essential travel, including tourism, at its land borders with Mexico and Canada until October 21. At this stage it is unclear whether the revised vaccine rules announced by Zients earlier this week will also apply to these overland border crossings.

Ever since the pandemic started in January 2020, The United States has been allowing foreign visitors arriving by air from over 150 countries. This policy was widely criticized as making little sense because the "green" list included countries with severe Covid infection rates while many citizens from other countries who had the pandemic under control were not allowed to enter the United States.

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