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CDC Now Requires Negative COVID-19 Test Result From International Travelers

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 Hugo Lin / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • The CDC now requires all incoming travelers from abroad to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding their flight.
  • The announcement comes at a time when new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are spreading from places like the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa.
  • Some airlines are offering at-home testing services and resources to help passengers understand testing requirements at their destinations.

With more than 100 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is taking new steps to limit infections from abroad.

On January 26, the agency implemented the new guidelines. Now, all passengers traveling by air to the U.S. from abroad must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation showing recovery from the disease.

People must be tested no more than 3 days before their flight and show a negative COVID-19 test result to the airline before boarding, or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 (proof of a recent positive viral test and a letter from a healthcare provider or a public health official stating that they were cleared to travel). The CDC says the rule applies to all people older than 2 years, regardless of citizenship status.

U.S. territories are not considered to be foreign countries—this means that people traveling from American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands will not be required to provide proof of a COVID-19 test to fly. The documentation does not have to be in English, but the order states “airlines and other aircraft operators must be able to confirm the test result and review other required information.”

Though the rule is strict about who may board a flight, there are no strict guidelines for self-isolating or re-testing upon arrival in the states. Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pulmonologist from Florida who also runs an international travel clinic, tells Verywell the rule is a necessary step for limiting COVID-19 exposure from overseas.

“We should have had this rule a long time ago,” she says.

What This Means For You

If you are planning to travel internationally, you must now provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than three days before flying. To stay as safe as possible during the flight, experts recommend wearing surgical or multi-layer masks, choosing a seat away from other passengers, and limiting the number of times you move about the cabin.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The new rule builds off a CDC order issued on December 24 requiring COVID-19 tests for passengers flying into the U.S. from the U.K. and echoes similar travel restrictions implemented in countries across the world.

"Testing of travelers, in general, is controversial but becoming commonplace," Henry Wu, MD, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia, tells Verywell. "Its benefits and pitfalls depend largely on what your goals are."

Overall, experts believe this testing requirement will reduce transmission of the virus on airplanes, and may help curb the spread of new variants from one country to another.

"Pre-travel testing requirements will certainly reduce risks of transmissions on aircraft, though the baseline risk appears very low to start with, especially with masking mandates," Wu says. "Requirements could reduce the introductions of new, more transmissible or virulent strains—this is the intent of the U.S. rule. However, there would be minimal or no benefit if a strain is already common in the U.S."

However, there may be some potential drawbacks to this rule as well. "There are concerns that travelers from low resource countries could use up limited testing resources locally," Wu says. "Also there is a concern that returning U.S. travelers with COVID-19 could be stuck in countries with poor healthcare resources, and receive poor care if they develop severe illness."

Despite this, Wu believes the test is beneficial. "I personally think testing requirements and travel restrictions are warranted at this time since we do not have a good sense of how common these emerging strains are in the U.S.," he says.

Choosing the Right Test

The CDC says it will accept any viral test that is authorized for detection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by the country in which it’s administered. This includes reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and antigen, or rapid, tests.

However, not all COVID-19 tests have the same level of efficacy. Antigen tests are known to be less reliable and have incidences of false negatives.

"Substandard testing is always a concern, as well as counterfeit lab reports or false healthcare provider letters to document recovery," Wu says. "We have always known about fake yellow fever vaccine certificates, and I’m sure there will be a market for fake COVID-19 test reports."

Additionally, if a person has recovered from COVID-19, PCR tests may indicate they are still infected with the virus weeks later, making it challenging to discover and prove that they are no longer infected.

“Because of the fact that the rapid test can give false negatives, the masks and social distancing at the airport continue to be important because there is a possibility of an infected person getting onto the plane,” Mavunda says.

Ways to lower your risk of COVID-19 while flying.

Hugo Lin / Verywell

If a person receives a positive test result before their flight, they won’t be able to board the plane and must quarantine and recover before returning to the U.S.

Traveling Safely

A report published in October from the Department of Defense, Boeing, and United Airlines claims that there is minimal risk of catching COVID-19 from flying. Despite the apparent efficacy of airplane air filters and ventilation systems, experts warn that the risk of exposure increases when considering human factors like removing masks to eat and drink and sharing common bathrooms.

To stay safe while flying, Mavunda recommends limiting your exposure to other passengers by choosing to sit in a window seat away from the aisles and minimizing time spent in bathrooms, and moving about the cabin. If possible, she says it’s best to be among the last people to board and the first to exit the plane to limit the number of people who pass you.

Experts say it’s also a good idea to carry a personal supply of hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes to disinfect airplane seats, tables, and other high-touch surfaces. It’s also important to make sure your face mask provides adequate protection.

“If you have multiple layers of cloth masks, that's better than a single layer," Mavunda says. "But definitely, the surgical masks are better."

How Airlines Are Adjusting

Some airlines are offering services to make it easier for travelers to understand the guidelines in the U.S. and abroad, and to comply with the CDC order.

American Airlines, for example, recently launched an app called VeriFly. According to a company statement, the app will allow users to understand testing requirements at their destination and upload negative COVID-19 results and other documents.

Delta Airlines will soon sell at-home testing kits that passengers can use before a flight or pack to take with them on their trip to be tested before returning. The company also offers resources for customers to find testing sites abroad while traveling, Adrian Gee, MA, senior coordinator of corporate communications at Delta Airlines, tells Verywell in an email.

American Airlines also began selling at-home testing kits in December, before the new CDC rules were implemented. 

Weighing the Costs of Travel

With the new regulations, travelers may have to factor in additional costs and time to receive COVID-19 tests and await results.

And as has been true throughout the global pandemic, choosing to travel typically puts a person at greater risk of infection.  For example, if you are on a flight that is mid-route and a nearby passenger refuses to wear their mask, it may not be possible to relocate to a safer location away from the exposure.

“When you're at home you have control over your environment,” Mavunda says. “Unfortunately, when you travel or when you're on a plane, you may get into a situation that's not good and you might not be able to get out.”

Wu agrees. "Don’t travel, internationally or domestically, unless it is absolutely necessary," he says. "While COVID-19 is highly prevalent throughout the U.S., the specter of emerging strains that are more dangerous and possibly not as well controlled by our vaccines is a major concern. Furthermore, travelers are generally prone to more situations that put them at risk for exposure or infecting others, so staying home when you can is going to help us control this pandemic."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Recovery from COVID-19 for All Air Passengers Arriving in the United States. Updated February 3, 2021.

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  4. TRANSCOM/AMC. Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Tests. August 2020.

  5. American Airlines. American Airlines Is First US Airline to Introduce Health Passport for All International Travel to US. January 14, 2021.