Will booster shots be required for travel? Some countries already say yes

Dec 24, 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.

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In the U.S., you’re considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if it’s been two weeks since your final dose. But that’s no longer enough to be considered fully vaccinated everywhere in the world, especially as the omicron variant spreads. Several countries in the European Union, for example, are setting vaccine expiration dates, or requiring proof of a COVID-19 booster shot.

As travelers look ahead to booking trips in 2022, keep in mind that booster shots will increasingly be required for travel — and that you’ll need to keep a close eye on the date of your last COVID-19 dose.

What vaccine expiration dates mean for travel

Some countries have introduced rules that limit the validity of the COVID-19 vaccines needed to enter their countries without quarantine.

Croatia

According to the Croatian government, travelers entering the country must present a vaccine credential not older than 365 days if it’s a dose approved by European Union Member States or the World Health Organization. Initially, Croatia limited vaccine validity to just 270 days, or just under nine months.

Austria

In Austria, travelers arriving from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway need to be fully vaccinated and have a booster dose and show a negative PCR test starting Dec. 25. Everyone else is allowed to show proof of full vaccination or a negative test, but a booster shot isn’t yet required outside of the four aforementioned countries.

Additionally, vaccine credentials for two-dose jabs are currently valid for 270 days after the second or any additional dose. There must be at least 14 days between the first and second jab and 120 days between the second and third. The Johnson and Johnson vaccination is valid for 270 days, 22 days after the first dose. Travelers who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine will need a booster shot to enter Austria starting Jan. 3, 2022.

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.

European Union

The European Union’s “vaccine passports” will now be valid for nine months after the holder’s first dose, which means a traveler would almost certainly need a booster to remain in compliance.

EU states will be obliged to let fully vaccinated travelers across their borders without providing a negative test, so long as they have a valid European Union COVID-19 certificate starting Feb. 1. Seven EU countries (Italy, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Latvia, Cyprus and Austria) demand that all visitors provide a negative COVID-19 test, whether they are fully vaccinated or not.

However, the nine-month expiration window applies only to travel, as we previously reported. Governments will have the option of extending the duration of COVID-19 passes for events held inside their own countries.

When can you get a booster dose?

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.

If you are one of the millions of Americans who are fully vaccinated, when you should get a booster depends on which vaccine you received. The CDC says people who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are eligible for a booster six months after completing the primary COVID-19 vaccination series. For instance, if you received either of those vaccines in July of 2021, you would be eligible for a booster in January 2022.

Things are a little different for recipients of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. People who received this vaccine are encouraged to get a booster dose two months after completing the initial vaccine series. So, if you received a Johnson and Johnson dose in December 2021, you would be eligible for a booster in February 2022. Adults 18 and older can get any COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States, while teens 16 to 17 can get a Pfizer booster.

The first vaccines were rolled out to health care professionals in December of 2020, which means vaccine validity, at least for travel purposes to certain destinations, will have expired in September for some people. At this point, many Americans may find that it’s already been more than six months since they completed their vaccination.

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.

How to keep your vaccine credentials current

To keep your vaccine credentials current for travel, you’ll want to schedule a booster shot as soon as you’re eligible. That’s the easiest way to keep your vaccination status up-to-date. After completing the booster shot, travelers should update their vaccine passport or paper CDC card with their booster shot date and vaccine lot number.

COVID-19 vaccines, like others, lose effectiveness after a certain time but still protect against severe symptoms, according to several studies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were a whopping 84% effective at 13 to 24 weeks, or roughly three to 5.5 months. (The Johnson and 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.

Keep track of updates

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.”

The surge in positive cases fueled by the omicron variant has led states, cities and jurisdictions to impose new restrictions or vaccination requirements. Several Broadway shows in New York City were shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreaks. Due to the variant, Washington, D.C. and Chicago also recently implemented vaccine mandates for indoor activities.

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

“[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 this fall. “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.”

Bottom line

This is the reality of traveling during the pandemic: anticipating sudden (and often unannounced) changes and the possibility of your destination imposing new restrictions, such as vaccine expiration dates.

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.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by Morsa Images/Getty Images

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