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Americans should consider safety factors beyond COVID-19 when traveling this summer, State Department says

April 26, 2022
6 min read
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As we head into what is expected to be a busy summer travel season, the U.S. Department of State detailed changes to its travel advisory process, encouraging travelers to take a holistic approach in evaluating whether to travel to a country by incorporating concerns beyond those related to COVID-19.

Outside of its international travel recommendations, the agency provided updated processing times for U.S. passports, ultimately advising travelers to apply within six months of passport expiration or travel.

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Relationship between State Department and CDC travel warnings

Aligning with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision last week to significantly reduce the number of countries given Level 4 designations, its most severe COVID-19 health notice, the State Department's travel advisories no longer automatically correlate with those issued by the CDC as of this week.

"As the CDC was taking a look at how their travel health notice process could be more reflective of conditions in each specific country, we noticed that by having our travel advisories linked directly, it was in some ways masking the other concerns and considerations that travelers should be aware of," said Douglass Benning, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. "We're hoping this will help U.S. citizens make better-informed decisions about international travel and to allow our travel advisories to better reflect safety and security considerations other than COVID-19."

(Screenshot from the State Department)

Although Benning said travelers should still take note of the number of new COVID-19 cases in a given country in the past month, the criteria used by the CDC in issuing its travel health notices, the State Department says travelers should take a three-prong approach to international travel as more and more countries transition into an endemic stage.

"COVID-19 is obviously still a consideration, but we wanted to sort of lift the COVID-19 veil from our travel advisories to better reflect separate considerations," confirmed Benning.

According to the most recent travel health notices updated by the CDC on Monday, most countries are currently at Level 3, signaling a "high" level of concern due to COVID-19.

In addition to the weekly warnings issued by the CDC and State Department, travelers should consult the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad for a more granular view of what is happening in a country in real time, such as enhanced safety concerns arising from current events.

For example, the State Department currently lists the majority of countries at a Level 2, including many that had previously been called a Level 3 or Level 4. Although a lower designation is generally a good sign for travelers, Level 2 warnings still ask travelers to "exercise increased caution" reflective of overall safety concerns.

"Here are the things we’ve seen happening in a country related to crime, the ability of a country to provide medical services or other types of support in the case of a medical emergency, or other issues related that affect travelers," said Benning.

At any given time, there are places around the world where the U.S. has limited or zero diplomatic representation, and therefore is limited in the ways it can help visiting U.S. citizens should they run into an issue and need assistance from the government.

"What we’re trying to say is we are not there so if you are there and in trouble, there is very little we can do for you," explained Benning.

Although travelers can expect to see fewer and fewer countries designated Level 4 by both agencies, travelers should continue to pay attention to countries the State Department warns against traveling to.

"When we say 'Level 4: Do Not Travel,' that is our strong advice, we really do mean do not travel," Benning said. "We are very serious about that but we also know that U.S. citizens will make their own determinations sometimes putting themselves in difficult spots, but at a minimum we want people to have the most information they can."

(Screenshot from the State Department)

Current passport processing times: 2-3 months

The agency also gave TPG an update on waiting times for passports.

If you have a passport that expires this year, the six-month mark is a good indication as to when you should submit your passport renewal application.

"When you see that your passport is going to expire at about the six-month point, that's a good time to go ahead and renew it," according to Benning, who noted that the published processing times represent an average, so travelers may actually receive their passports sooner than the estimated processing times for standard service.

Even so, Benning said "people should not plan for that" and instead assume they will receive their passports within the current time frame.

"The current processing time for routine passport service is 8-11 weeks and for expedited service is 5-7 weeks," according to an advisory released by the State Department on April 25. "These processing times do not factor in mailing times to and from our offices and begin the day we receive an application at a passport agency (not the day a customer applies for a passport at an acceptance facility or drops an application off in the mail), and they end the day we issue the passport."

(Screenshot from the State Department)

Although applicants with urgent travel within five days can make an appointment at one of 26 regional passport agencies across the country, Benning does not recommend relying on that service.

"Don't rely on the fact that we have an effective urgent travel service because if everybody did that, then nobody would be able to do that," he said.

It's also worth noting that many countries require six months of validity for the passports of noncitizens, including tourists.

"It's a good practice because many countries require that when coming in," he said.

Bottom line

When it comes to planning international travel, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, travelers should plan ahead to factor in enough time to consider all of the relevant information that goes into making an informed travel decision.

"We know that many U.S. citizens are considering international travel right now and we really want to make sure people are making informed decisions and of course, as early as possible," Benning said. In doing so, travelers should "say to themselves, 'OK, I now have the information to decide whether I should go to this country or not.'"

From there, the choice to travel is yours, but do note that guaranteed services available for U.S. travelers abroad vary by country.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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