My experience entering Israel as a vaccinated tourist
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Update (11/29/2021): Israel has closed its borders to all tourists for at least two weeks due to the Omicron variant. As we learn more information about the variant and Israel’s reopening plans, we’ll update the story below.
The last time I visited Israel, I was locked in my hotel room for 36 hours.
On Dec. 11, 2020, I arrived at an eerily quiet Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Of the handful of passengers who flew on the 318-seat United 787-10 Dreamliner with me, most were Israelis returning home from a visit to friends and family abroad.
I was one of the few foreigners who had received special permission from the government to enter the country. I was about to fly on the historic first commercial flight between Tel Aviv and Dubai, and had planned a 36-hour layover in Israel to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.
I stayed at one of the only open hotels at the time, the Intercontinental David Tel Aviv, and had three entire floors to myself. It was just me and some airline flight crew. Across the street from my hotel was a government-run quarantine hotel, where most inbound passengers were forced to stay for two weeks. I could see them waving at me from their balconies.
It was a strange time — especially compared to my last “normal” visit to Israel in October 2019 — but one that I’ll never forget.
In fact, it was those memories of my 36-hour quarantine that made me even more excited to visit Israel as soon as it reopened to the world.
As a Jew, it felt weird to be shut out of Israel, “my” country, for nearly two years. When I learned that Israel was officially reopening on Nov. 1, I knew I needed to get there.
How would the country change? And what would it take to pull off a mid-pandemic trip? You’re about to find out.
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Requirements to enter Israel
Tourists who would like to visit Israel must satisfy certain criteria to be eligible for entry. This includes being either fully vaccinated (with a booster dose, for most people), or providing proof they have recently recovered from COVID-19 (excluding those who’ve recovered in the U.S.).
There are many intricacies and additional conditions to entry, all of which I cover in my detailed guide to visiting Israel as a vaccinated tourist.
Be sure to check it out as a refresher, and continue reading for what it was like to actually travel to and enter Israel.
Entering Israel as a vaccinated tourist
My journey to Israel began at New York’s JFK Airport with a flight on American Airlines.
The first (and only) document check I had was at the check-in desk in New York. There, I was asked to present my entry declaration form, along with my negative PCR test and green pass.
Israel requires all inbound travelers to present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure. Additionally, you must fill out an online entry form with your health information and travel itinerary.
After completing the entry declaration, you’ll receive a email that contains a confirmation of submission, along with a green pass that you’ll use to enter indoor restaurants and attractions once in Israel. (Note that I discuss these documents at length in my reopening guide.)
After the check-in agent confirmed with her supervisor that these documents were sufficient, she printed my boarding pass — and none of these papers were checked again.
In fact, my vaccine card was never checked throughout the process.
At the gate and on the plane, the only items that were needed were my passport and boarding pass.
The same was true once I landed.
The first stop was to clear passport control, which had been relocated since my last visit through Ben Gurion Airport.
There are now individual border entry kiosks located at each pier of gates that require a scan of your passport photo page and a quick picture. You’re then issued an entry permit in the form of a small card, which replaces a stamp in your passport.
Once you receive an entry permit, you’ll walk down the ramp and into the arrivals area — the same process as before the pandemic.
The old passport control counters are still in use for foreigners, who will need to stop here for a quick interview where you’re asked the purpose of your trip and other travel details. (No questions were asked about my health or vaccine status.)
My interview lasted mere seconds, and I was issued a blue “gate pass” which allowed me to proceed into the baggage claim area.
Nothing had changed at baggage claim and customs. Throngs of people still searched for their bags around the carousels.
After I cleared customs, things finally started to look different.
The arrivals hall was closed to the public. All passengers were funneled directly into a COVID-19 testing site, which was located a few steps away in a massive banquet tent.
Those who didn’t prepay for their tests were required to stop at the cash register first. Everyone else could proceed directly into the testing site.
Even with over 70 stations for the tests, it was still a balagan – a mess. People didn’t know where to go or what to do.
Only one gentleman was on hand to control the crowd, yelling at folks to go to the next available counter. Families and groups approached the counters together, so I went searching for one without a line.
It didn’t take me long to arrive at counter 44. The nurse instructed me to take a seat and pull up my payment confirmation barcode.
He then scanned the barcode, verified my passport information and collected two swabs — both were taken from the mouth and then inserted in alternating nostrils. Thankfully, this wasn’t the type of test that tickles your brain.
He then broke the swabs into a test tube, sealed the package and dropped it into a bin that had, by my count, at least 30 other swabs in it.
The nurse then put a paper bracelet on my right wrist and told me to expect results in about a day.
I stopped for a second to get a sense of the volume that this testing site handles — I counted over 40 passengers entering the tent in the course of one minute.
Assuming that pace continues for an hour (and it did for the 10 minutes I waited), that’s 2,400 PCR tests per hour.
The final step was showing my bracelet to the guard stationed by the terminal exit. From there, I was free to enter Israel and head straight to my quarantine location.
For a country that locked its borders for over a year and a half, the entry process was seamless. The online pre-travel forms were self-explanatory and the entry process moved quickly.
It took me under 45 minutes from the moment the plane door opened until I was in the taxi on the way to my hotel.
As mentioned, the most surprising part was that none of my health documents were examined after checking in at JFK. (Israel notes that it performs “random document inspections” upon arrival.)
What it’s like in Israel
After leaving the airport, I headed to my hotel in Tel Aviv, where I’d spend (at most) the first day of my trip.
Israel’s quarantine regulations require that all inbound travelers isolate for 24 hours or until receipt of a negative result from the PCR test taken at the airport.
My test was conducted at 6:39 p.m. local time, and I received the (negative) result in my email the next morning at 6:18 a.m. This 12-hour turnaround time was much faster than the stated 24-30 hours. I’ve heard from friends and other travelers that the Ben Gurion testing site is consistently underpromising and overdelivering on turnaround times.
Armed with my negative result, my first order of business was to walk around Tel Aviv – exactly what I longed to do as I stared out at the Mediterranean Sea nearly a year ago to the day.
My five-mile walk took me past some of Tel Aviv’s most popular attractions, including the Azrieli Mall, Sarona Market, Dizengoff Square, Rothschild Boulevard and the old city of Jaffa.
The streets were teeming with activity. Israelis were out in full force.
It was rare to see someone wearing a mask outside. More people wore them indoors, but the majority of patrons were unmasked.
All other major COVID-19 regulations have been suspended as long as you have a green pass (tav yarok), which you’ll receive when filling out the online pre-departure form, as mentioned above.
Israel limits all indoor activities to those who’ve been vaccinated, recovered or recently tested negative through the country’s green pass system.
To access the indoor space at restaurants, museums, gyms and any other cultural institutions or attractions, you’ll need to present a valid green pass, along with photo identification (a foreign passport will suffice).
Though my green pass was checked at most restaurants I visited, I was only asked to show my passport at one establishment.
I’ve only been in Israel for two days, but I’ve been surprised at how few tourists I’ve seen. Places that would usually have long lines of tour buses (like the Carmel Market) were filled with locals and the occasional foreign family or group of friends.
I was especially surprised since nearly every flight I’ve monitored over the coming weeks from New York to Tel Aviv has been operating close to full capacity. Perhaps there’s more pent-up demand from VFR traffic (visiting friends and relatives) than there is from tourists.
Either way, the country is alive and ready to welcome you, as hotels, shops, restaurants and cultural activities have all reopened.
What a difference a year — and three vaccine shots — can make. When I last visited Israel in late 2020, I was confined to my hotel room for my entire stay.
Israel officially reopened to tourists as of Nov. 1 with a multi-step process to enter the country. The quarantine period has been shortened to 24 hours (at most), and I was out exploring Tel Aviv within 12 hours of landing.
While the process might sound daunting on paper, I found it easy to follow.
Follow my how-to guide and planning a trip to Israel can once again become a reality.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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