Back to the US: After travel ban lifts, how new rules for British visitors work

Six hundred days after a presidential proclamation from Donald Trump closed off the US to British visitors, the ban on arrivals from the UK has been lifted – for fully vaccinated travellers only. A similar ban on arrivals from dozens of other countries has come to an end.

President Joe Biden, who continued with the travel ban after taking office, said: “It is in the interests of the United States to move away from the country-by-country restrictions previously applied during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

His administration has changed from a geographic policy – where travel from certain nations is banned – to one based on the individual’s vaccination status.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new system. It based on studying all the available official online information, plus inferences – clearly indicated – based on existing policies and background conversations with officials and airlines.

How severe was the travel ban?

Visitors from the UK, Ireland and the Schengen Area (most of the EU plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) and several other countries were banned from travelling to the US for almost 20 months from mid-March 2020 to 7 November 2021.

Arrivals from these countries were said to threaten “the security of our transportation system and infrastructure and the national security”.

The travel ban has proved harsh for people with family or partners in the US, as well as causing damage to tourism. It has looked increasingly unjustifiable; the US remained open to arrivals from more than 150 other countries, many of them with more serious Covid concerns than Europe.

What changed?

The conditions for the restart were set out on 25 October by President Biden.

Fully vaccinated foreigners from anywhere in the world are able to visit, subject to complying with existing immigration regulations, including presenting a valid visa or Esta (America’s online entry permit). They need not quarantine on arrival.

At the same time, land travel from Canada and Mexico will open up for non-essential journeys; at present people can fly from either country to the US but cannot travel by road or rail.

What constitutes “fully vaccinated”?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC, the health regulator in the US) defines it as the traveller having had “all recommended doses in their primary series of Covid-19 vaccine”. The key term there is “primary series”. There is no requirement to have had a booster jab.

It adds: “You will need to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before you travel by air to the United States from a foreign country.”

Accepted vaccines include: Oxford AstraZeneca, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, as well as two Chinese vaccines: Sinopharm and Sinovac.

Travellers are permitted to mix vaccines as long as they are on the approved list, and so long as the two doses were administered at least 17 days apart.

How do I prove my vaccination status?

For people who fly to the US, the system is policed by the airlines. At land borders, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers will check paperwork.

The traveller must show a “record issued by an official source (eg public health agency, government agency) in the country where the vaccine was given”.

From a British perspective, the NHS Covid pass – available free from the NHS in the traveller’s UK nation – should suffice, and it is very likely that digital proof will also be accepted, but play it safe by printing out a copy.

The airline will be required to “match the name and date of birth to confirm the passenger is the same person reflected on the proof of vaccination” and verify that the traveller meets the CDC’s definition for being fully vaccinated.

Depending on where you are travelling, you may well need to provide the same proof for admission to venues once in the US.

Do I need a pre-departure test?

Yes, if you are arriving by air; for land arrivals a test is not necessary.

Airline passengers must take a Covid test on the day of travel or the day before. A cheap and rapid antigen (lateral flow) test is acceptable. It must be a privately purchased test, not a free NHS one.

There is no need to take a slower and more expensive PCR – though you might want to do so if you are flying to the US via Canada, for which a PCR or other molecular test is required. In those circumstances, you could use the same result for both countries, so long as you adhere to the timing rules.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether a test-at-home service is legitimate. While anecdotally many people say they have successfully reached the US with a cheap self-test, I do not recommend it.

America’s health regulator, the CDC, says: “The testing procedure must include a telehealth service affiliated with the manufacturer of the test that provides real-time supervision remotely through an audio and video connection.” A medically conducted and documented test is the best way forward.

You could take this at a local provider; Boots has a £30 option. Or you could take it at the airport prior to departure.

Collinson, which has testing centres at airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester has a deal for £40, and an arrangement with numerous airlines (such as the BA20OFF discount code for British Airways passengers) reduces that to £32.

As an alternative to the test, you can provide proof that you have recovered from Covid-19 in the past three months, for example by using the NHS online recovery pass.

But you must still show you have been fully vaccinated.

Must I fill in a form?

Yes. The “Combined Passenger Disclosure and Attestation to the United States of America” is required in paper form – you can complete the details online but you cannot sign it, so you must print it out.

It is at first glance a baffling form. But fully vaccinated adults should tick Section 1, Question 1 and Section 2, Question 1.

On behalf of unvaccinated children aged 2-17 travelling with them, the relevant parts are Section 1, Question 4; Section 2, Question 2, second option; Section 4, all boxes in the shaded section.

Then name, signature and date on page 5 of the form.

Any test on arrival?

The CDC recommends, but does not insist, that fully vaccinated travellers “take a viral test within three to five days of arrival in the US”.

The test can be a swift lateral flow (antigen) test, and there is no obligation for the test to be medically supervised.

For the avoidance of doubt, you cannot use a free NHS lateral flow test; tests for international travel must be paid for privately.

The CDC suggests you “find a US Covid-19 testing location near you” with a link to the US Department of Health & Human Services list of providers.

Prices tend to be high, even compared with UK prices. At Orlando International Airport, for example, a rapid antigen test with AdventHealth costs $65 (£47).

Alternatively you could buy lateral flow tests, for example from the giant pharmacy firms, Walgreens and CVS Health. A pack containing two tests typically cost $25 (£18).

What about children who have not been vaccinated?

Under-18s who travel to the United States with a fully vaccinated parent or guardian need not be vaccinated. However, the parent or guardian must fill out this attestation, completing Section 1 part 4 and Section 2 part 4.

As the latter requires, there must be arrangements for “testing with a Covid-19 viral test three to five days after arriving in the United States, unless such person has documentation of having recovered from Covid-19 in the past 90 days.”

This applies to children between the ages of 2 and 17 who arrive by air.

As noted, proof of recovery from Covid-19 within the past 90 days is acceptable instead of the second test, but at present the NHS is not issuing such proof for international travel for under-16s.

Once in the US, unvaccinated children aged 12 or over could face problems actually enjoying activities because of restrictions imposed by individual cities or states.

Can unvaccinated adults get in with just a test?

Not unless they qualify for one of a very narrow range of exemptions.

In the presidential proclamation that confirmed the reopening on 8 November to arrivals from the UK (and many other nations) President Biden talked of “an air travel policy that relies primarily on vaccination”.

Entry is suspended for almost all “unvaccinated noncitizen nonimmigrants” – who, in plain English, are prospective foreign visitors to the US who have not been fully jabbed.

The main exemptions for unvaccinated non-American adults comprise air or sea crew; people with diplomatic, UN or armed forces accreditation; arrivals from countries with limited vaccination programmes (clearly not the UK); those with medical contraindications to vaccines; and people who have participated “in certain clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccination”.

The last of these appears to apply only to “US-based AstraZeneca or Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trials” rather than those conducted elsewhere.

If you believe you qualify, you will need to assemble evidence to the satisfaction of your airline, which will require “official documentation (eg clinical trial letter, participant card, or modified vaccination card) of clinical trial participation” and confirmation you had the full sequence of vaccines, rather than a placebo.

Anyone who is given permission to enter because they qualify for one of these categories must take a test no more than one day before travelling to the US, rather than three days.

(This stipulation has been used by some to suggest that any unvaccinated foreigner will be admitted with just a test; this widely circulated assertion is false.)

Must I complete a passenger locator form?

Not until you return to the UK. But outbound you can expect a few more questions from your airline. While passenger locator forms are common across the world, to allow health authorities to keep tabs on travellers, the US is doing things differently.

The CDC has issued a “Contact Tracing Order” that requires all airlines flying into the US to collect contact information “that will allow public health officials to follow up with inbound air travellers who are potentially infected or have been exposed to someone who is infected”.

Your airline will need:

  • Full name, date of birth, email address, address while in the United States, primary contact phone number and a secondary or emergency contact number.
  • Airline name, flight number, city and time of departure and of arrival, and seat number.

What is happening to transatlantic air fares?

In many cases, they are significantly higher than in January 2019, the last “normal” time. Typically if you paid £400 return last time, expected £500 or £600 next time.

Even in the lowest of seasons – late November and early December 2022 – British Airways’ lowest London-New York fare is £391 return – though there may be promotions that undercut this. In addition, look out for business-class bargains as airlines struggle to fill the front of planes.

Can I enter the US by land or sea from Canada or Mexico?

Yes. At the same time as arrival from the UK and many other countries was lifted, so was the long-standing ban on non-essential travel to the US via a land point of entry (POE) or ferry port.

Once in the US, what Covid rules are in place?

Some regulations apply across the US. The CDC says: “Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth is required in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) traveling into, within, or out of the United States and indoors in U S transportation hubs (including airports).”

Airlines are doing their best to enforce rules. For example, Frontier Airlines passengers are obliged to agree: “In accordance with federal law, I will wear a face covering over my nose and mouth throughout my journey, including at ticket counters, gate areas, and onboard our aircraft.

“If I am eating or drinking, I will wear my mask between bites and sips.”

But just as the four nations of the UK have their own Covid rules, so do the 50 American states – and, in addition, hundreds of individual cities have imposed individual policies.

Vaccine take up, at just 63 per cent on 18 January 2022 , is significantly lower in the US than in the UK, and many measures are harsher.

New York City, for example, has a “Key to NYC” policy which stipulates that for indoor dining, museums, aquariums, zoos and performance venues, “people 12 and older are required to show identification and proof they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

In San Francisco, the city’s mayor that “businesses in certain high-contact indoor sectors, such as those that serve food or drink like bars, restaurants, clubs, theatres and entertainment venues” must have proof of vaccination from patrons aged 12 and above.

In many other locations, proof of being fully jabbed is necessary for access indoor venues from burger joints to museums and galleries. That is a serious concern for families with teenage children who haven’t been fully jabbed.

Mask rules vary dramatically. In Chicago, masks are mandatory in all public indoor settings for everyone aged two or over, and in bars and restaurants they can remove masks only “when they are actively eating and drinking”.

Hawaii requires all visitors to complete an online form with their personal details, and may require quarantine.

But in Florida, very popular with UK visitors, the Republican governor (and likely presidential contender) Ron DeSantis has granted a “categorical, statewide, 60-day reprieve for any individual or business that has been or could be” prosecuted for violating local Covid-19 restrictions – mainly mask-related.

And Alaska has dropped its travel restrictions and also offers free vaccines to arriving travellers “at a participating airport or any community vaccine clinic” as well as free Covid tests on arrival.

What about coming home?

You need to complete a passenger locator form and book a test in advance of arrival.

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