What to do if you’re turned away because you don’t have the right travel documents

Apr 14, 2021

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There’s nothing worse than arriving at a location and discovering that you don’t have everything you need to enter.

This has happened to me before — and it’s not fun.

Travelers today have to carry a lot of documents, from physical passports to vaccine cards to negative COVID-19 test results. But even with the most meticulous planning, you could arrive with the wrong information — or lose it during transit — and be turned away. If this happens, what should you do?

Here’s what to know if you realize you don’t have the right travel health documents — or you have the right documents but they are questioned as you try to enter an international gateway.

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What to do if you’re turned away

(Photo by mixetto/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, if your travel documents, such as your CDC COVID-19 vaccine card, aren’t accepted, it’ll be hard to prove validity unless you’re using a vaccine passport.

Part of the reason why it’ll be difficult to prove is that there’s no publicly, or easily accessible, U.S. database for who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t. Vaccine passports are supposed to be able to verify these travel documents but we’re nowhere near a universal system, so some border agents may get confused by these documents.

You can try explaining exactly what your card is if you’re abroad and get turned away for not having the proper documents. You might want to look up the exact document or card that country is giving to its vaccinated citizens, and compare it to that — if you receive questions.

Some country’s border agents may be more familiar with the yellow World Health Organization vaccine booklet. If you happened to have brought your WHO booklet to your vaccination appointment(s) and had the information from your CDC COVID-19 vaccination card added to it, you could show that document as well.

If all else fails, you should give the CDC a call at its 24-hour hotline: 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and ask for the Clinician On-Call Center.

Create a checklist

Before you even leave home, creating a checklist is an easy way to ensure that you have the correct documents — and that you don’t lose them. If you’re prone to forgetfulness, like me, you may want to create a physical list instead of a mental one. I write travel notes to myself in my iPhone notes app so that I don’t forget.

If you’re flying abroad, you’ll need a negative COVID-19 test (or proof of recovery) to re-enter the country. I suggest making that appointment before leaving home. You may also need a negative test to enter a destination — and some locations require specific tests.

For instance, while you’re able to fly back into the U.S. with an antigen test, you can’t fly into Antigua with one — the only test accepted there is an RT-PCR test. Make sure you follow the destination’s testing guidelines strictly to avoid any hiccups.

Other countries may also require proof of other vaccines. The yellow fever vaccination, for example, is recommended or required for entry into countries such as Liberia and Uganda, while the meningococcal immunization is required for travelers entering Saudi Arabia for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.

Digitize your documents

(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

After you have all of your documents, the next thing you’ll want to do is to make copies of them. Sure, you’ll want to make physical copies, but you should also take photos and store them in your phone’s cloud.

Destinations may soon require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, and streamlining that process is something the travel industry has been working on in the form of digital vaccine passports.

A digital health passport will host verified test and vaccine information, and several have already had trial runs on several airlines. These health passes are expected to be optional but will be vital to the travel experience moving forward.

Digital health passports, such as IATA Travel Pass and Clear Health Pass, will host verified test and vaccine information. Several health passport providers have previously told TPG that getting your vaccine status or negative test results onto their apps will be easy.

But, in the meantime, you should treat these documents like you would your credit card or driver’s license.

Related: Your guide to digital health passports

Don’t panic

(Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

If you realize that you don’t have the correct information, it’s essential not to panic. I’ve been there before.

In 2019, I flew to Liberia through TPG’s partnership with the PeaceJam Foundation. I was extremely excited to volunteer and visit a country I’d never been. I had a long journey, from New York to Toronto on an American Airlines flight, a layover in Toronto ahead of an overnight hop to London in British Airways Club World. I then had eight hours on the ground in London before a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca and then Monrovia.

At some point during that long journey, I lost my yellow card. The problem was that I needed that card to enter Liberia, as it was mandatory. I have no clue where I lost it, but I believe it was misplaced at some point while exploring London. Either way, I knew I was in trouble and could be denied entry.

After a brief moment of panic, I first called the travel clinic, where I received the yellow fever shot.

Unfortunately, I was several time zones away — and they were closed because it was the Thanksgiving holiday. I then realized that I had the receipt for the appointment, which the agent checking yellow cards ended up accepting. If you’re prone to misplacing things, you may want to have a backup to prove your health status.

I suspect that I dropped my yellow card after digging through my backpack. Before this happens to you, I suggest keeping your essential documents, like your vaccine card, COVID-19 test results or World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine card, in a safe part of your luggage.

Related: What to know about the World Health Organization vaccine booklet

Bottom line

It’s possible that you may arrive at a destination with the wrong documentation — or no documentation at all. But before this happens, make sure you have the correct paperwork and consider keeping multiple copies on your phone or your person.

Being upfront and honest with whoever is checking your documents could go a long way, but make sure you don’t try to forge documents or try to bribe your way into entry. They’re just doing their jobs — and you could be breaking the law.

Featured photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

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