U.S. Will Replace Air Travel Bans With Vaccine Requirements for International Visitors

Delta plane flying near a COVID-19 testing sign

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. will replace international air travel bans with vaccination requirements starting in November, but land borders remain closed.
  • The requirements do not apply to U.S. citizens returning home from abroad, who may show a negative COVID-19 test result instead.
  • The U.S. will accept travelers with any COVID vaccine recognized by the World Health Organization.
  • Experts say the travel bans made no difference in the pandemic domestically.

The White House on September 20 announced that it will lift air travel restrictions on foreign travelers who are fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19 starting in November. 

The new rules will end the 18-month travel ban on 33 countries including the United Kingdom, Schengen countries in Europe, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.

U.S. citizens returning home from abroad will not be required to show proof of vaccination. However, they need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day prior to their flight home, and take another test once they’re back. Whether green card holders will be asked to follow the foreigner or citizen requirements is unclear.

“The virus is on both sides of the fence, so I don't know why you have a fence,” Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “We’ve got great technology that can minimize the impact of travel—meaning testing, vaccines—we know how to diagnose [COVID and] we know how to screen for it.”

What This Means For You

If you are a U.S. citizen flying home from abroad in November, you will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day prior to your departure. If you’re traveling to the U.S. from abroad, you will need to show proof of vaccination.

There’s no update on when land borders will reopen to foreign visitors. The current ban remains effective until October 21.

Adalja says “there’s no rationale” in keeping land borders closed while reopening air travel. “There’s enough COVID in this country that it’s not coming from people across the borders.”

He adds that he is skeptical about pandemic-based travel bans, since they often serve as excuses for upholding political agendas rather than public health regulations.

“We are restricting travel from other countries that have, in some cases, much less virus than we do, and higher vaccination rates than we do,” Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, tells Verywell.

Some experts say reopening air borders is a step in the right direction, but criticize the government’s decision to have placed travel bans in the first place.

Wen says she’s glad that the Biden administration is making this change, and that authorities should go even further to require vaccinations for domestic travelers as well.

On October 8, the U.S. said it will accept all vaccines recognized by the World Health Organization.

Policing the types of vaccines in addition to requiring proof of vaccination could be difficult and perhaps unnecessary, Adalja says. Making a decision based on whether the vaccines are working in other countries is better than relying on their approval status in the U.S., he adds. For example, the AstraZeneca vaccine, though unauthorized in the U.S., has seen successes in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Interagency discussions will take place this fall to work through unanswered questions, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference.

Airlines will also be required to conduct contact tracing for all passengers on incoming international flights and report this information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This should be a relatively straightforward process, as the airlines will have people’s contact information when they book the flight, Adalja says.

Willie Walsh, director of the International Air Transport Association, welcomed the decision to lift travel restrictions. 

“This is excellent news for families and loved ones who have suffered through the heartache and loneliness of separation,” he said in a press statement. “It’s good for the millions of livelihoods in the U.S. that depend on global tourism. And it will boost the economic recovery by enabling some key business travel markets.”

Walsh also urged governments to accelerate global vaccine rollouts and focus resources on unvaccinated travelers. “We must get back to a situation where the freedom to travel is available to all,” he said.

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.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.