U.S. Welcomes Back Foreign Travelers—As Long As They're Vaccinated

departures board at airport

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Key Takeaways

  • As of November 8, fully vaccinated foreign travelers can fly into the United States.
  • Both vaccinated American and foreign travelers need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of travel. Any unvaccinated travelers need to show proof of a negative test within a day of travel.
  • Increased travel could mean increased exposure to COVID-19. Protect yourself by getting vaccinated if you haven’t already, and wearing your mask at airports and during flights.
  • Rules could change if cases of COVID cases increase in the U.S. Whether you are traveling overseas yourself or expecting company, look out for emails from your airline, which will alert you if any regulations change. 

As of November 8, foreign travelers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are welcome to enter the United States by plane. 

Travelers will need to adhere to guidance issued by the White House, U.S. Department of State, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Protective measures include mandatory COVID-19 testing before the flight and recommended testing after landing.

U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents do not need to be fully vaccinated before flying from a foreign country into the United States, but will need to take a COVID-19 test within a day of departure. 

A limited number of unvaccinated individuals from other countries—such as people from nations where under 10% of the population has been vaccinated—will be allowed to enter, but will also need to follow preflight testing rules. Visas for these unvaccinated travelers won’t be issued for business or leisure trips. The State Department issued a narrow list of qualifying situations, like coming to the U.S. for lifesaving treatment or accompanying someone who is.

The White House calls the rules “stringent, consistent across the globe, and guided by public health.” Both health and immigration leaders applauded the regulations.

“[These regulations] get at the idea that there is the need for social and economic life,” Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH, the chair of global health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, tells Verywell. “It’s impossible to achieve a risk-free situation. Life is full of risks. The goal should always be to minimize [COVID] risk, not to aim for removing all risk, because that’s impossible unless you don’t interact with anyone.”

Here’s a recap of what the rules include.

Foreign Travelers Must Be Fully Vaccinated

Beginning November 8, non-citizen, non-immigrant air travelers to the U.S. must be fully vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination in order to board a flight. They must also have an ID that matches their personal vaccine information.

The definition of “fully vaccinated” is vaccine dependent. Recipients of the Johnson & Johnson, for example, only need one dose, while Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Either way, a traveler must be at least two weeks past the date of their final dose in order to fly to the U.S.

The U.S. is welcoming recipients of any COVID-19 vaccination that is authorized or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the World Health Organization (WHO). Sputnik V, a Russian vaccine, is an example of a shot that wouldn’t make the cut because it is not recognized by the FDA or WHO.

All Travelers Need to Test

Slightly different testing rules apply depending on whether a traveler is vaccinated or unvaccinated. 

If you are fully vaccinated, you’ll need to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of your departure date along with your proof of vaccination. This test can be either a viral test, like a PCR test (the gold standard at most testing sites), or an antigen test (often called a rapid test). 

If you’re unvaccinated, you’ll need to show a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of your flight.

If you have recently recovered from COVID-19, you will need to show a record of a positive test result within the past 90 days and a letter from a licensed healthcare provider or public health official confirming you’ve been cleared to travel.

Post-Travel Testing Is Encouraged

While the U.S. is not requiring post-travel testing, the CDC does recommend it both for U.S. and foreign travelers.  

For fully vaccinated travelers, U.S. or foreign, the CDC advises: 

  • Get tested with a PCR test 3 to 5 days after travel.
  • If your test is positive, isolate yourself to prevent others from getting infected.
  • Self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms; isolate and get tested if you develop symptoms.

For unvaccinated foreign or U.S. travelers: 

  • Get tested with a PCR test 3 to 5 days after travel AND stay home and self-quarantine for a full 7 days after travel.
  • Even if you test negative, stay home and self-quarantine for the full 7 days.
  • If your test is positive, isolate yourself to protect others from getting infected.
  • If you don’t get tested, stay home and self-quarantine for 10 days after travel.
  • Avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness for 14 days, whether you get tested or not.

What About Children?

While travel rules could change given that vaccines for children age 5 through 11 are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, for now, the U.S. rules for foreign travelers exempt anyone under 18 from the vaccine requirement “given both the ineligibility of some younger children for vaccination, as well as the global variability in access to vaccination for older children who are eligible to be vaccinated,” according to the White House.

As for testing, kids ages 2 through 17 have to take a predeparture test. Kids traveling with a fully vaccinated adult can test within three days before a flight, but if traveling alone or with an unvaccinated parent, will have to test within one day of the flight.

Who Gets an Exception?

There is a very limited set of exceptions from the vaccination requirement for foreign nationals, including: 

  • Children under 18
  • Certain COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial participants
  • People who can document a medical reason for not taking the vaccine (such as an allergy to it or its components) 
  • People traveling for emergency or humanitarian reasons (with a U.S. government-issued letter confirming an urgent need to travel)
  • People traveling on non-tourist visas from countries with low vaccine availability—such as Afghanistan and Senegal—based on a list that will be regularly updated.

People granted exemptions will have to sign an attestation that they will comply with public health requirements. The CDC also recommends but doesn’t require that foreign travelers who are planning to remain in the U.S. for more than 60 days get a COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S.

Contact Tracing Procedures Are in Place 

Airlines are required to collect U.S. contact information for travelers and hand the information over to the CDC if it’s determined that a traveler was infected during a flight or exposed to someone who was.

Travel Is Still Up in the Air for Students

The timing of the new regulations should work well for foreign students and scholars who hope to get to the U.S. in time for the spring semester, says Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at the National Association of International Educators, in Washington, D.C. However, Banks tells Verywell she is concerned about the backlog of visas that already exists. In a call with reporters last week, state department officials noted the delay.

The Room for COVID-19 Risk Remains

While the new regulations do bring an element of risk, that should be seen as a reasonable tradeoff, says Keri Althoff, MPH, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “There is an increased risk of new strain or more people coming in infected, but no one coming in is not sustainable,” Althoff tells Verywell. “In order to resume travel, we have to take the next step of figuring out how to lower risk.” 

Althoff says the new travel rules for foreigners should serve as one more reason to get vaccinated, whether you’re an American or not. 

“It’s also why it’s so important for everyone to continue precautions such as masking and social distancing, especially at airports, which are likely to be much more crowded now.” 

For now, masking in airports and on airplanes is determined by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Mask mandates are in place through January 18, 2022, and could be extended. 

In a statement, the American Immigration Lawyers Association called the White House announcement “welcome news” and noted that “businesses, families, and communities have suffered from the points of entry being closed. Cross-border travel is a key part of how we will build back from the pandemic's impact.”

What This Means For You

The lifting of travel restrictions is one step closer to “normal.” But an influx of travelers means it’s more important than ever to keep up your guard against COVID-19. Vaccinations, precautionary testing, and masking during travel are all measures you can take to keep yourself and others healthy.

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 Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.