All international passengers flying into the United States who are age two and older—including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents—must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding, according to an order issued on January 12 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The move was reinforced by a presidential proclamation signed by President Joe Biden on January 21, requiring the negative COVID test from international travelers prior to entry.
Effective January 26, international arrivals must provide proof of a laboratory-generated negative COVID-19 test result procured no more than three days prior to departure, according to the CDC’s new rule. The tests must be either a viral antigen test or a nucleic acid amplification test, such as a polymerase chain (PCR) test, reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) test, or a transcription-mediated amplification test.
The test result must be either a paper or electronic document provided by a laboratory. It must include the passenger’s name, specimen collection date, and the type of test.
Airlines will be required to confirm the negative test result for all passengers before they board and must deny boarding to those passengers who do not have a negative test result. For those with a connecting flight, the test must be procured no more than three days before the initial leg of their journey (provided the layover is not more than 24 hours). Passengers will need to get retested if a flight delay causes the test result to fall outside of the three-day predeparture testing period by more than 24 hours or by more than 48 hours for a connecting flight.
Passengers under the age of two are exempt, as are airline crew members, federal law enforcement personnel, and U.S. military while on duty. Limited exemptions will be granted for those who have a medical emergency or are traveling because their health or life are in grave danger.
Those who have already had COVID-19 prior to their travels can show proof of a positive test result combined with a healthcare professional declaring that they have recovered from within three months prior to departure in lieu of the negative COVID test result requirement.
For travelers who test positive prior to their flight to the U.S., they will need to self-isolate in their destination and delay their travel until they have recovered from COVID-19 and can present a negative test result and/or documentation of recovery from a healthcare professional clearing them for travel.
The new federal COVID-19 testing requirement for international arrivals comes amid reports of new variants of coronavirus emerging in countries such as the United Kingdom and South Africa that have shown to have increased transmissibility.
“These new variants have emerged at a time when numbers of new cases in the United States have continued to increase at alarming rates. Additional new virus variants are also likely to emerge as the virus continues to evolve and mutate. Accordingly, further action is needed to help mitigate the spread of these and other new virus variants into the United States,” the CDC said in its January 12 order requiring the preflight COVID test for international arrivals.
For those who must change their flight plans due to the new policies, the vast majority of airlines currently offer passengers the option to change their flight without a fee—and to apply the flight credit to a future journey. The cutoff time for when you can cancel your flight and still get a flight credit may vary depending on the carrier.
A quarantine is currently recommended, not required
Biden’s January 21 executive order also stated that all travelers entering the U.S. from a foreign country will now be required to “comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.”
But during a January 26 media call, when asked about enforcement of the quarantine, Dr. Marty Cetron, director for the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said, “We’re not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders.”
The CDC recommends that international travelers get tested 3 to 5 days after arrival from abroad and stay home for 7 days after travel, pending a negative test result, or self-quarantine for 14 days with no postflight test.
The CDC’s guidelines for international travel are as follows:
- Get tested 1–3 days before your flight—make sure to have actual results (not pending results) prior to traveling.
- If you have a positive result, do not travel.
- Get tested 3–5 days after your flight.
- Stay home for 7 days after traveling, even if you test negative.
- If you test positive for COVID-19 after you travel, isolate yourself and follow public health recommendations. Do not travel until you are no longer considered a transmission risk—this includes your return trip home.
- If you don’t get tested, it’s safest to stay home for 14 days after travel.
- Avoid those who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 for 14 days, whether you get tested or not.
Cetron said that requirements for entry ultimately fall to state and local authorities—each state has its own set of rules and requirements (which can and do change), whether it is a testing requirement for arrivals, a quarantine, both, or neither.
Currently, travel into the United States remains highly restricted. Since mid-March, there’s been a ban on foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the European Schengen area, China, Brazil, and Iran. An executive order signed by President Biden on January 25 extends that ban and adds South Africa to the list.
Exceptions to the ban include U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as the spouses, parents, legal guardians, siblings, and children under the age of 21 of citizens and permanent residents. Also exempted are those traveling to assist the U.S. government in the containment of the pandemic, air and sea crew members, diplomats, foreign officials, some members of international organizations and NATO, and U.S. Armed Forces members (and their spouses and children).
This story was originally published on January 12, 2021, and was updated on January 29, 2021, to include current information.