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CDC: All Air Travelers Must Test Negative for COVID-19 One Day Before Flying to the U.S.

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Key Takeaways

  • All individuals aged 2 and older must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding a plane to the U.S.
  • The CDC now requires travelers to take the test within a day of departure, rather than within three days, as was previously allowed.
  • People using transportation services, like planes and trains, must also continue to wear face coverings through mid-March.

Starting on December 6, all air passengers traveling to the United States must show a negative COVID-19 test from within one day of departure before boarding their flight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened the testing window from three days to one. All travelers two years or older are required to show a negative test result regardless of vaccination status or citizenship.

The one-day testing requirement affords more flexibility than a 24-hour rule. For instance, someone who plans to travel at 5 p.m. on Monday can present a test taken at 8 a.m. Sunday.

“In general, the closer your test is to a specific activity that you're testing for, the more valuable it's going to be,” Amesh Adalja, MD, a professor of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell. “A test that is three days old is less valuable than the test that is one day old, in terms of detecting and preventing transmission.”

People who recently recovered from COVID-19 may opt out of the testing requirement by showing proof of recovery, such as a positive COVID-19 test from within 90 days of the flight, and a note from a health provider or public health official showing they are cleared to travel.

Per updated international travel restrictions implemented in November, the CDC is asking U.S. airlines to collect contact-tracing information from international travelers.

The Biden administration also extended a mask mandate for people traveling on airplanes, buses, trains, and other transportation services to March 18, 2022. The original mandate was slated to end in mid-January.

The stricter travel rules come about a week after the White House imposed travel bans on South Africa and seven other countries in the neighboring region due to concerns over the Omicron variant. U.S. citizens and permanent residents are exempt from the ban.

Which Test to Choose?

The CDC will accept many viral tests that are authorized for use by the country in which it is administered. Types of accepted tests include:

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

Travelers can use an at-home rapid tests that have received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, such as BinaxNOW and QuickVue. These at-home tests must be taken under the real-time supervision of a telehealth provider affiliated with the test manufacturer. The telehealth provider must be able to confirm the individual’s identity, observe them taking the test, and confirm the test result.  

While PCR tests tend to be highly sensitive, it may take 24 hours to several days to receive results. Antigen tests, also called rapid tests, can deliver results in as little time as 15 minutes.

When it comes to choosing the right test, Adalja said “the quickest one and the easiest one is the best one to get.”

For the purposes of knowing whether a traveler will transmit virus to others, antigen tests will suffice, Adalja said. Individuals who experience symptomatic illness should get a PCR test to know if they need to receive treatment and self-isolate.

“If you’re trying to simply ask, ‘am I safe to be on a plane, am I safe to be in this area, or am I safe to do this activity?’ then an antigen test is sufficient in an asymptomatic person,” Adalja said.

Rapid tests are available at many major airports, but they may be costly. Pharmacies, health clinics, or supervised at-home tests may offer cheaper alternatives.

For more information about what COVID-19 safety protocol and requirements, you can also check the website of the airline you plan to fly. Some international airlines provide information about where to get a COVID-19 test near the departure airport.

Other Considerations for Safe Travel

The number one thing travelers can do to keep themselves safe and minimize the chances of spreading COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, Adalja said. Increasing vaccination rates globally can also minimize the emergence of new viral variants.

“We can do testing, tracing, isolating, that's all important. But this problem of variants is always going to be there as long as there's a swath of the world that doesn't have enough vaccination,” Adalja said.

The CDC recommends all people who enter the U.S. from abroad be tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival. Unvaccinated people should quarantine for at least seven days, the agency said.

What This Means For You

If you're traveling internationally, make sure to read the COVID-19 regulations for the airline you are flying with. If you're planning to fly into the U.S., you need a negative test taken within one day of departure. As experts learn more about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, be prepared for travel restrictions and requirements to change.

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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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Documentation of Recovery from COVID-19.