Some countries are setting vaccine expiration dates for travel

Aug 30, 2021

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Before you book your next trip, you may have to consider another factor: when you received your last COVID-19 vaccine dose.

At least two countries — so far, anyway — are saying it must be less than 270 days since a traveler received his or her second shot to be considered fully vaccinated. More are talking about or considering imposing expiration dates on vaccine credentials.

Travelers used to have to worry about passport expiration dates or making sure they took their COVID-19 test within a specific time before departure. But now, international travel may get even more confusing.

Expiration dates on vaccines are likely to make it a bit harder to travel at will. Even as destinations reopen to tourism, countries have tightened restrictions to curb the highly transmissible delta variant.

While countries introducing vaccine expirations for travel is a new development, putting expiration dates on vaccination credentials is not. New York state’s Excelsior Pass vaccine passport is currently valid for 365 days, but the state also said that the validity was subject to change based on guidance from health experts.

You are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the United States if it’s been 14 days since the final dose. Unfortunately, even being vaccinated (and having the proper credentials) might not be enough to travel abroad if it’s been too long since your last dose.

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What vaccine expiration dates mean for travel

(Photo by Goran Safarek/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Two European Union countries — Austria and Croatia — have introduced new rules that limit the validity of the COVID-19 vaccines needed to enter their countries without quarantine.

The new rules could further complicate already difficult travel planning, as vaccine credentials that may be accepted to visit a bar or restaurant in the U.S. may not be sufficient to travel to certain international destinations. And those vaccinated in clinical trials or ineligible for a booster shot (yet considered fully vaccinated in the U.S.) may have a more challenging time proving their status for travel.

According to the Croatian government, travelers entering the country must present a vaccine credential no older than 270 days, or just under nine months.

For Austria, the vaccine certificate is valid for 270 days after the second dose for two-dose vaccines. The rules are slightly different for people inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is valid after the 22nd day for 270 days. Under the rules, fully vaccinated travelers — even those eligible to enter other EU countries — would be treated as if they were unvaccinated unless they also got tested upon arrival.

In this case, what will matter is exactly when travelers got their coronavirus shot. Like pre-travel testing, time will determine whether travelers are still considered fully vaccinated.

According to The New York Times, more than 4.6 million shots were administered on April 10, the highest reported in one single day. If you were one of the millions vaccinated on that date, you would still be covered under the 270-day time frame through at least early January 2022. The first vaccines were rolled out to health care professionals in December 2020, so even those people would be covered through the beginning of September without a booster.

The people most likely to be affected by the rule are those vaccinated in early clinical trials, which date back to the summer of 2020. These people would, ostensibly, need to get a booster shot to travel to certain destinations like Austria. But booster shots are currently only available to immunocompromised Americans; the U.S. will begin offering Pfizer and Moderna (not Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to all Americans in mid-September.

But don’t worry: You can still enter Austria or Croatia even if the clock has run out on your vaccine credential. Travelers entering either country from the U.S. only have to show a negative COVID-19 test, a vaccine card or proof of past infection. But testing is at your own expense and can get pricey, especially if you’re traveling as a family.

If you’re still worried that you may be affected by a vaccine credential expiration date, there are at least a few options, even if you are fully immunized.

Keeping your vaccine credentials current

The first is to schedule a booster shot as soon as you’re eligible. That’s the easiest way to keep your vaccination status current. After completing the booster shot, travelers should update their vaccine passport or paper CDC card with their booster shot date and vaccine lot number. These credentials would, in theory, reset the clock.

COVID-19 vaccines, like others, lose effectiveness after a certain time but still protect against severe symptoms, according to several studies. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were a whopping 84% effective at 13 to 24 weeks, or roughly three to 5.5 months. (The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not included in the study.)

Keeping your vaccination status current is not the only consideration for travelers. There is usually a waiting period after a final dose for a person to be considered fully vaccinated, and travelers may also want to consider potential side effects. No one wants to get a booster shot, hop on a plane and feel under the weather for the first few days of vacation.

(Photo by Peerapas Mahamongkolsawas/Getty Images)

And for some destinations, like Thailand, even travelers who received booster shots wouldn’t be able to hop on a plane straight away. Thailand’s rules require “Phuket Sandbox” travelers to be at least 14 days after the final dose. This relatively new restriction hadn’t been rolled out when the program first launched in early July.

These rules are complicated for even the most seasoned travelers, but travel agents say they’re prepared to adapt to yet another change when planning trips during a pandemic.

“[Travel] is a very fluid situation,” said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, one of the largest traditional travel agency companies. “What one country or one destination might have as a policy today could change tomorrow, and it can change very rapidly.”

Indeed, even destinations that flung their doors wide open for tourists early on have since introduced new restrictions to combat the spread of the virus.

The surge in positive cases fueled by the delta variant has led states, cities and jurisdictions to impose new restrictions or vaccination requirements. While New York City fully reopened earlier this summer, it now requires proof of vaccination to participate in many indoor activities and attend Broadway shows.

Hawaii earlier this month put restrictions on indoor and outdoor activities, and its governor recently implored tourists to stay home.

That means travelers should expect, or at least be prepared for, entry requirements to change without notice.

“[Vaccine certificate expiration] is a relatively recent development, but it’s not a crisis if all involved parties are paying attention,” Lindsay Taylor-Lauer, the director of Coastline Travel Advisors, told TPG through email. “The first and most important thing that travel advisors can do to ensure trips aren’t interrupted is informing clients of these policies as written by the governments issuing them, and advising accordingly.”

The biggest concern, Taylor-Lauer noted, was the unknown.

None of the countries with vaccine expiration dates have been explicit about precisely what happens after that validity period ends. However, Lovell says that travelers should look at their trips as an investment. Proper preparation (such as working with a professional who knows the country you plan to visit) means that you’re covered if your travel plans have to be postponed.

“The best thing you can do,” he said, “(is to) work with somebody that knows what’s going on in the destination or product that you’re looking at. They will steer you in the right direction, and they’ll be there every step of the way.”

Bottom line

This is the reality of traveling during the pandemic: having to anticipate sudden (and often unannounced) changes, and destinations imposing even more restrictions, such as vaccine expiration dates.

The pandemic may be one of the most logistically challenging times for U.S. travelers, who likely have never had to keep track of so many credentials to enter a country. While the rules can seem daunting, you can avoid some stress by keeping track of exactly when you received your final COVID-19 vaccine dose, scheduling a booster shot as soon as possible and, most importantly, monitoring the entry requirements for your destination.

Featured photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

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