A Guide to the New Covid-19 Testing Rules for Travel to the U.S.

The CDC now requires passengers to show proof of a negative preflight test as cases continue to soar and new strains of the virus emerge

Travelers flying to the U.S. from abroad now have to show proof of negative Covid-19 tests before boarding their flight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said preflight testing is necessary as Covid-19 cases continue to soar and more-contagious strains of the virus emerge around the world. President Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 21 affirming the new testing requirements and directing agencies to consider additional travel-safety measures.

Here is what you need to know about the new protocols before you take a trip.

Who does it affect?

The order applies to everyone traveling to the U.S. on international flights, including U.S. citizens. You will need to show negative test results even if you are flying on a private jet or charter flight. There are exceptions for children under age 2, airline crews and federal law-enforcement agents and members of the military traveling for duty.

What countries are covered?

All of them. Passengers need to show proof of a negative test when traveling to the U.S. from any country, including Mexico and the Caribbean. The CDC won’t be granting any temporary waivers for countries where testing capacity is lacking, as it had originally planned: “With the U.S. already in surge status, the testing requirement for all air passengers will help slow the spread of the virus as we work to vaccinate the American public,” the agency said.

The universal testing requirement went into effect Jan. 26. People arriving from the U.K. had already been subject to similar testing requirements that went into effect in December, following the emergence of a new coronavirus strain there.

Airline executives have said they expect some short-term hiccups as the new policy goes into effect but say they believe testing will help restore confidence in travel in the long run. United Airlines Holdings Inc., for example, has said it is working with partners to increase the supply of tests in places like Mexico, where the new requirements have put a damper on appetite for trips to beach resorts.

“We are going to work really, really hard to make sure it’s really, really easy to travel with United even with the new testing requirements,” Toby Enqvist, United’s chief customer officer, said.

What kind of test will I need, and when? What happens if I don’t have my results?

U.S.-bound air travelers must get tested no more than three days before flying and bring written or electronic proof of the results. Airlines can accept both PCR and rapid antigen tests. The CDC has said home diagnostic kits that are analyzed in a lab should qualify, if the kits have been approved by national health authorities.

If you don’t have the documentation with you, airlines won’t allow you to board, according to the CDC’s order.

Finding a test is your responsibility, and lack of supply won’t be an excuse. The rules are strict, and exceptions will be rare. The CDC says passengers who can’t find tests in the country they are flying from might need to arrange to travel to a second country to be tested before heading to the U.S. Embassies also won’t be providing tests, the State Department says.

Hotels and resorts are starting to offer tests on-site, and airlines are also looking to help customers find out where to get tested. United is adding information about local testing options to a digital hub on its website and app. In the coming weeks and months, United said its customers will be able to use that tool to book tests at sites around the world. Delta Air Lines Inc. DAL 2.59% has also launched a website where customers can find approved testing sites in cities where the airline flies.

To streamline the verification process, airlines including United and American Airlines Group Inc. AAL -1.48% are launching health passports where passengers can upload documents such as negative Covid-19 test results.

What if my test is positive?

If you test positive for Covid-19 while you are abroad, get ready to extend your trip. Some carriers have said they will let passengers rebook only after 14 days, and will require proof of recovery. Government officials are warning travelers to think through how to handle work and child care if this happens. The costs of finding a place to stay and obtaining medical care will fall to you. Some hotels and resorts are offering complimentary space to quarantine, but make sure to check.

“If you cannot easily access a Covid-19 test or if you test positive, you will end up overseas for much longer than you planned,” said Ian Brownlee, acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “All travelers should have a Plan B.”

What if I have been vaccinated?

Even if you have been vaccinated for Covid-19, you still will need to show proof of a negative test.

What if I recently had Covid-19 and got better?

If you have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past three months but no longer have symptoms, the CDC doesn’t recommend getting tested again. If you are in this group and have met the criteria to end isolation, the CDC says you can travel as long as you have written permission from a health-care provider or public-health official. Bring your positive test result and the doctor’s letter to show the airline in lieu of a negative test result.

Does this mean the U.S. has lifted bans on most travel from Europe, the U.K. and other countries?

No. Mr. Biden rejected a last-minute effort by former President Donald Trump to lift those travel restrictions on Jan. 26, citing the worsening pandemic and more-contagious variants of the virus emerging around the world. That means people who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents generally can’t come to the U.S. from most of Europe, the U.K., Brazil, China and Iran, with a few exceptions. South Africa is also being added to that list due to concerns about how a new coronavirus variant discovered there will respond to vaccines. Likewise, many countries don’t allow travelers to enter from the U.S. or continue to impose lengthy quarantine requirements on arrival.

What if I need to change my travel plans now?

Airlines already have done away with most international change fees and are adding more flexibility for people who need to adjust their plans in light of the new testing requirements.

Do I need to get tested again or quarantine when I get back to the U.S.?

The CDC recommends people get a second test three to five days after travel and stay home for seven days (or 10 days without a second test). Testing on its own isn’t a substitute for social distancing and wearing face masks, CDC officials said.

President Biden has said he believes people arriving from abroad should be required to self-quarantine; his executive order says air travelers will be required to follow the CDC’s guidelines, including self-isolation recommendations, “to the extent feasible.” It isn’t yet clear how that might be enforced, and the order doesn’t specify. The order also directs federal agencies to develop a plan for ensuring compliance with CDC guidelines and to consider other public-health measures, including consideration of additional testing immediately before departure.

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