Skip to content

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

April 14, 2021
7 min read
Travelers wearing mask at American Airlines check-in area
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

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 image by Passengers check-in for American Airlines flights at Los Angeles International Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2020. - US health authorities cautioned Americans on traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, as the coronavirus spreads out of control. The recommendation was issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government's health protection agency. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/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.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site

Rewards

3 - 4X points
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.

Intro offer

60,000 bonus points
Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

Annual Fee

$250

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees