Whether it’s countries throughout Europe or the New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Time Square, a mounting number of destinations and venues are requiring proof of vaccination from visitors and patrons, especially in light of the recent Delta variant–fueled surge of COVID cases.
For many people, the CDC-issued, 3- x 4-inch paper COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card may be all they have to prove that they are fully vaccinated. But a paper certificate can get lost and does not present some of the conveniences of having a digital version that is securely stored in our devices for easy access when needed for travel or entry into a theater, restaurant, or event space.
While the Biden administration has acknowledged that there’s mounting demand for some form of secure documentation that allows citizens to provide proof of their vaccination status—it has also said the federal government won’t be the one to provide it.
Some individual U.S. states have stepped in to offer digital vaccine certificates to residents, but others have done just the opposite, instituting outright bans on vaccine passports—meaning businesses are actually prohibited from requiring or asking for proof of vaccination status from employees or customers.
Many larger pharmacies, healthcare networks, and individual technology platforms now offer digital solutions for COVID vaccine documentation as well. Ultimately, it’s up to individual citizens to create their own vaccine passport. Here’s how to do it.
What is a vaccine passport?
In its simplest form, a vaccine passport is really just an immunization record, proof that a person has been inoculated against a certain virus or disease. And in our current pandemic reality, the disease in question is COVID-19.
In some ways the notion of a “vaccine passport” is a familiar one. Requiring vaccinations isn’t a new concept—frequent travelers probably have a yellow immunization card tucked into their passport carrier to show proof of yellow fever vaccination in the many countries that still require it. Now that we have been living with destinations requiring COVID-19 test results and/or vaccination proof for months, neither is the notion of access to travel and events on the basis of your health status.
What has changed since the mid-1900s when the World Health Organization (WHO) created the International Certificate of Inoculation and Vaccination (aka the ICV, carte jaune, or yellow card) is technology.
The 21st-century version of a vaccine passport is a tech-enabled solution that allows users to provide proof of their COVID-19 vaccination status digitally—often facilitated by a QR code that can be scanned for ease of entry.
There are now ample ways to get a digital COVID-19 vaccination certificate. The problem, however, is that the app or platform issuing the digital vaccine passport may not be compatible with the government or business requiring proof of vaccination status. So, it’s not that any old QR code or digital health pass app will work for the scenario you need it in. For instance, even if you have a digital record that was provided by your home state, that may not be recognized by a specific country in Europe, which has its own “digital green certificate” system for vaccinated residents. (For what it’s worth, most European countries asking U.S. travelers for proof of vaccination status have indicated that the CDC-issued paper certificate will suffice—for now.)
The best strategy when it comes to vaccine passports is a multi-pronged one. First, create a digital vaccine passport through your state, pharmacy, or healthcare provider so that you at least have something stored on your device that is verified and easily accessible.
Next, make sure you are aware of the vaccine requirements for any destinations you are traveling to or venues you plan to enter. Then, find out if that destination or business works with a specific app or digital platform through which you need to provide your vaccine information. You may need to download a specific program or app, or you may need to upload your documentation to an online portal, such as a travel declaration form. In other cases, whatever app or digital vaccine certificate you have may be fine to use. Airlines have also been working to help facilitate the need for digital health credentials by creating online resources for travelers where they can upload and store their COVID-19 vaccination or testing information if and when it is needed for travel.
Lastly, make sure you have your CDC-issued paper vaccine certificate with you when traveling in case the digital options fail you.
If you need or want to digitize your vaccination status, here are your options.
Get a vaccine passport through your state
There are 21 U.S. states in which vaccine passports are currently banned, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, which monitors vaccine mandates and bans throughout the country. Nevertheless, the number of states providing residents with access to more convenient digital vaccine records continues to slowly inch up. Many of them have developed the digital option using the Smart Health Card system, which has become one of the more common platforms for generating a digital record and corresponding QR code. These are the states that were offering digital vaccine certificates at press time:
In June, California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) introduced a new Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record for California residents, which they can access online. The digital tool pulls their record from the state’s immunization registry and provides a digital record of their vaccination status as well as a QR code that links to it.
California’s Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record was developed in conjunction with the Smart Health Card platform. The Smart Health Card QR codes are recognized by apps like Clear and CommonPass. A growing number of businesses are working with the Smart Health Card system so that they can scan users’ QR codes.
Colorado is giving residents access to digital COVID-19 vaccine records through the myColorado app. Users can set up an account using their Colorado driver’s license or state-issued ID. Once an account is created, they can access the myVaccine Record function that creates a digital image of their CDC-issued vaccine card. The app will also generate a digital Smart Health Card and corresponding QR code that residents can use to show or scan their vaccination status at businesses or establishments that ask for it.
This fall, Hawaiʻi made a digital Smart Health Card available to Hawaiʻi residents, which they can access through the Hawaiʻi Safe Travels Digital Platform. After uploading a photo of the physical CDC-issued vaccination card and entering their vaccination information, residents will receive a QR code that they can use to enter businesses and venues that require proof of vaccination.
The state also has a digital vaccine certificate program in place to help facilitate its Safe Travels program, which allows vaccinated domestic arrivals to bypass the state’s otherwise mandatory pretravel COVID-19 testing requirement. Vaccinated Hawai‘i-bound travelers as well as Hawai‘i residents traveling interisland can upload their vaccination certificate to Hawai‘i’s Safe Travels portal. Hawai‘i also accepts digital vaccine certificates from Clear and CommonPass.
Illinois has created an online portal for residents called Vax Verify. Once residents register, create an account, and verify their identity, they will get a digital certificate that contains their vaccination information.
The LA Wallet app, which gives Louisiana residents digital access to their driver’s license, has created the ability to add digital verification of COVID vaccination to an individual’s account, complete with a Smart Health Card–generated QR code.
The state of Michigan has developed a Michigan Immunization Portal, where all residents 18 and older can access their entire vaccination history, including when and which COVID-19 vaccines they received.
Minnesota is offering residents digital access to their immunization record, including their COVID-19 vaccination, through an app called Docket, which provides a PDF of the record that can be downloaded to a mobile device or computer, as well as a QR code.
New York was the first U.S. state to create a digital vaccine certificate option—with corresponding QR code—for its residents, the Excelsior Pass. It was developed in partnership with IBM.
The pass offers access to both vaccination status and testing results. Numerous labs have committed to reporting COVID test results to the state health department’s Electronic Clinical Laboratory Reporting System (ECLRS), which gives Excelsior Pass users access to results.
Users can also access the Excelsior Pass in multiple languages and can share the information via a smartphone wallet or by printing out the information.
The Docket app being used in Minnesota and New Jersey is also available to Utah residents who want to obtain a digital copy of their COVID vaccine certificate.
Those who were vaccinated in Virginia can obtain a digital vaccination record online, complete with a QR code developed by the Smart Health Card network.
Residents of Washington State can get digital access to their COVID vaccination status through WAverify.org, which will give them a Smart Health Card–generated QR code.
Get a vaccine passport through these pharmacies, health networks, and apps
To use Clear, just download the free Clear mobile app. The app’s Health Pass feature has a digital vaccine card option, which allows users to upload their vaccine certification information alongside a profile photo for additional verification. It’s easiest to do with an existing QR code, such as one provided by a state health department, but Clear is also synced up with numerous pharmacies and medical institutions that store patients’ COVID vaccine data electronically. In addition, users can upload a scan of their paper vaccine certificate. The resulting digital vaccine card includes both a QR code as well as the vaccination details—which shots were administered and when. The app also recently implemented the ability to add COVID-19 booster shot information to the Health Pass.
Clear has linked up with Hawai‘i’s Safe Travels program, as mentioned above, as well as with numerous sporting and entertainment venues, such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and live music venue the Independent in San Francisco; and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Since September, those making restaurant reservations through the OpenTable app in cities such as New York and San Francisco where vaccine passes have become mandatory for indoor drinking and dining will find a link to Clear on OpenTable. That allows users to create a digital vaccine card with the Clear Health Pass, if they haven’t already, which can then be accessed for dining.
Bars and restaurants on the OpenTable platform can also now list “proof of vaccination” on their restaurant profile page to let diners know whether proof of vaccination is required.
The CommonPass app allows users to scan or import a Smart Health Card QR code. It does not, however, accept uploads of CDC-issued vaccination cards.
Destinations and airlines that have partnered with CommonPass provide passengers and visitors with a six-digit invitation code that allows them to create a digital vaccine pass specifically for that flight, state, or country. (CommonPass is currently working with Hawai‘i and Aruba, for instance.)
Even without the code, users can create a general CommonPass digital vaccine pass that includes a QR code and digitally stored vaccination details.
Most major healthcare providers had already been on the path to providing patients with digital access to their health records long before the pandemic. Many of these large hospitals and patient care centers have partnered with Smart Health Card to offer digital vaccine certificates, including American Medical Center, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Kaiser Permanente, UCHealth, and United Healthcare Services, Inc.
Pharmacies and grocery stores
Many of the country’s larger pharmacies and grocery chains that have been administering vaccines also provide access to digital vaccination records, including Costco, CVS, Duane Reade, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Walmart.
How to protect your paper vaccination certificate
For those who can’t or don’t want to digitize their vaccine credentials, or for those who simply feel it’s prudent to safeguard the physical vaccine certificate in addition to having one (or several) digital versions, there are a few things you can do to better protect and preserve that CDC-issued card.
Take a picture (it’ll last longer)
As soon as you’re fully vaccinated and have the vaccination certificate to prove it, “the most important thing is number one to take a photo [of the certificate],” says Dr. Shira Shafir, associate professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, where she specializes in epidemiology and community health sciences.
Shafir advises saving that image to your storage cloud and wherever you store digital documents, whether that’s in your smartphone wallet, Google Docs, etcetera. For iOS users, the Notes app has a document scanner function you can use, which allows you to take a photo, resize it, and save it to any folder on your phone or send it to yourself.
To laminate, or not to laminate
While laminating the card “certainly does help keep it a little more secure,” notes Shafir, COVID-19 vaccine cardholders should also consider the fact that additional booster shots need to be recorded on the card.
If you prefer to get the card laminated and end up getting additional doses, “it’s not a huge problem,” says Shafir, adding that you can always get a new card upon getting the booster.
Her solution for her yellow card—the International Certificate of Inoculation and Vaccination created by the WHO that many international travelers already have to prove they have been vaccinated for yellow fever—is to keep it in a “flexible but durable plastic sleeve.”
In fact, you can purchase COVID-19 vaccine card protectors that are already designed to fit the 3- x 4-inch cards online. They look like something you get at a conference to put your name badge in and attach your lanyard to.
Store it in a safe place
Whether you decide to keep your vaccination certificate on your person or leave it at home, you should be thinking about it the same way you do all other important documents, including your passport, driver’s license, and birth certificate. Know where you are going to keep it so that you don’t misplace it, of course, and so that you can access it quickly and easily should the need arise.
What if you lose your paper COVID-19 vaccine certificate?
First off, do not panic (easier said than done, we know). If you had your vaccine administered by a larger pharmacy, such as Walgreens or CVS, a grocery chain, a health network, or a medical facility, your vaccination status has been documented by that network and you likely have access to it via the online account you used to register for and receive your vaccine appointment.
If you got your vaccine at a pop-up location, such as a mass vaccination site, the entity through which you made the appointment should have a record of your vaccination status. In most cases, this is your county or state health department. It may not be an easy process, but this would be the place to track down your records and find out about how to get a replacement card.
This story was originally published on April 6, 2021, and has been updated to include current information.