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17 things you need to know about getting COVID-19 tested for US-bound international flights

Feb. 21, 2021
9 min read
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Editor's Note

Requirements have changed since this post was written. See our post about the <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener" data-schema-attribute="">stricter testing requirements for air travelers to the U.S.</a> for more information.

If you're traveling back to the United States from abroad, prepare to pack a negative COVID-19 test.

All travelers flying to the United States — U.S. citizens included -- need to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding. Travelers flying to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and those arriving via a land border like Mexico or Canada, are exempt.

“Testing does not eliminate all risk,” said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert R. Redfield in a statement. “But, when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer, healthier and more responsible by reducing spread on planes, in airports and at destinations.”

(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Before traveling to the U.S., all passengers are required to get a viral test within three days before departure. Airlines must confirm the negative result (or recovery from COVID-19) for all passengers before boarding. Those without documentation, either printed or digital, will be denied boarding. Flight crews are exempt from the rule.

"U.S. airlines have been strong advocates for a national testing standard set by the federal government," said the trade group Airlines for America (A4A). "Since the onset of this crisis, U.S. airlines have relied on science to help guide decisions as they continuously reevaluate and update their processes, procedures and protocols."

Here's everything you need to know if you have international travel planned soon.

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When did the order go into effect?

The order went into effect on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

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What kind of COVID-19 tests are valid?

There are several different types of coronavirus tests available with varying levels of accuracy. The current gold standard of COVID-19 testing is the PCR test, which detects active COVID-19 infections. But there are also rapid antigen tests to check for proteins on the virus’s surface and antibody tests (a blood test that can identify if a previous COVID-19 infection caused your immune system to produce COVID-19 antibodies).

According to the CDC, viral tests (those that detect SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid or antigens) are valid to enter the U.S. That means travelers should be able to take either a PCR or rapid antigen test, as long as written documentation of test results (paper or electronic copy) can be provided to the airline.

The CDC initially said at-home tests wouldn't be accepted but has since updated its guidelines to say that at-home collection kits tested in a laboratory "should meet the requirements."

When should I get tested?

You have to provide the result of a negative test taken no more than three days before your flight to the U.S. departs.

The CDC uses a "three-day period" rather than 72 hours to provide travelers more flexibility since you don't have to worry about the exact time of your flight.

For example, if your flight back to the U.S. departed on a Wednesday, you could board with a negative COVID-19 test taken Sunday or after.

How will airlines weed out fake tests?

Questions have been raised about the possibility of travelers faking negative COVID-19 tests. As a result, the CDC said air passengers will now also be required to confirm that the information they present "is true in the form of an attestation.”

The CDC said airlines are responsible for ensuring any translation accuracy and may not shift this responsibility to a third party.

What if I'm connecting in the U.S. but not staying?

If you're entering the U.S. for any reason -- even if you're passing through -- you'll need a negative test result. Additionally, if your flight to the U.S. is delayed, you will have to be retested if the delay causes your test to fall outside the three-day testing window.

What if I'm gone for less than three days?

If you get a negative test, travel and return within three days, the test you took before departing the U.S. will be accepted.

What if I recently recovered from COVID-19?

Travelers may also provide documentation if they have recovered from COVID-19 in the past three months. Acceptable documentation is a positive test and a letter from a healthcare provider stating that you're cleared to travel. The CDC doesn't recommend getting tested again in the three months after a positive result.

What if I've been vaccinated against COVID-19?

Even if you've been vaccinated, you'll need to provide a negative COVID-19 test, taken no more than three days before departure, before boarding.

What about domestic flights?

There’s been chatter in the industry about whether the Biden administration will require travelers to present negative COVID-19 tests for domestic flights.

According to reports, President Joe Biden is said to not be seriously considering a testing mandate for domestic travel.

Related: No domestic travel testing mandate from Biden for now, according to report

Are there any exemptions?

If testing can't be done before travel, the only exemption right now appears to be for emergency travel (such as a medical evacuation) to save someone’s life or if a person's physical safety is at risk.

The CDC said these exemptions may be granted "on an extremely limited basis," though it's unclear what agency is in charge of approving such exemptions.

Federal law enforcement officers may be exempt if they're working on a flight and if the urgent need to travel does not allow time to get tested for COVID-19. The CDC said diplomats and travelers with special visas are not exempt from the rule.

What if I'm visiting a U.S. territory?

If you're flying back from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, you are exempt and do not need to produce a negative COVID-19 test, the CDC confirmed to TPG. Here's the full list of U.S. territories:

  • American Samoa
  • Guam
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

What if I'm entering the U.S. by land?

You will not need to provide a negative test if you're entering the U.S. through a land border; however, nonessential travel across the border has been restricted since March of 2020.

Are children exempt?

All passengers 2 years of age and older traveling into the U.S. must provide proof of a negative test.

Where can I get a COVID-19 test?

Similar to COVID-19 testing in the U.S., you may encounter delays in testing abroad. That means you may want to line up a testing slot at your destination even before you leave home.

Several airlines said they're in the process of rolling out testing for U.S.-bound travelers. Airlines have long been working with local providers to help facilitate COVID-19 tests for travelers en route to destinations that require testing, such as Hawaii.

We wouldn't be surprised to see these programs expand, as two major carriers — United and American — have suggested they're working with the government to roll out testing to U.S.-bound international travelers.

"We look forward to working with the federal government on implementing this new order," United Airlines said in a statement. "As the first airline to offer [COVID-19] customer testing, we know it is key to unlocking international borders and safely reopening global travel."

And American Airlines said it's "working closely with U.S. authorities as it implements this new order."

COVID-19 testing at hotels and resorts has started to become more popular too. Several hotels and resorts worldwide offer COVID-19 testing, including:

  • Baha Mar and Atlantis in the Bahamas
  • Andaz Mayakoba in Mexico
  • St. Regis Maldives
  • Carlton Hotel in Dublin
  • Sofitel at London Heathrow

Related: Onsite COVID-19 tests may be the most valuable hotel perk of 2021 — these resorts have them

What if I tested negative, but I came into close contact with someone who tested positive?

The CDC said travelers who had close contact with a person with COVID-19 should not travel and should quarantine -- even if the traveler tested negative. If a traveler tested positive for COVID-19 and then tested negative, the CDC said that person should not travel, either.

Who will check my test results?

Your airline will confirm your COVID-19 negative test result before boarding the U.S.-bound flight.

Do I still have to quarantine?

The CDC says you should get tested again with a viral test three to five days after your trip and stay home and self-quarantine for seven days after you travel -- even if you test negative.

Bottom line

The travel industry has largely praised the new mandate, but the U.S. is still behind the curve on requiring negative COVID-19 tests for entry.

Dozens of countries worldwide, such as Aruba, Egypt and Zambia, all require a negative COVID-19 for entry. And some states have very strict entry requirements, such as New York, which rolled out testing requirements in early November.

Related: Americans can now visit 60+ countries and territories; a complete list

“With an international testing requirement in place, international visitors and returning residents would be tested at much higher rates than the general public and pose a much lower risk of transmitting the disease," the U.S. Travel Association told TPG.

But as CDC Director Redfield said, a negative COVID-19 test doesn't completely eliminate the risk of spreading the virus.

“As we’ve seen outside of the aviation industry," Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson Taylor Garland explained, "one negative test one day doesn’t negate a positive test the next, so you need to take a layered approach."

The Biden administration recently rolled out a federal mask mandate, which the CDC recommended and airlines have requested. And several airlines have banned travelers for not wearing masks.

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.