The Biden administration on Monday outlined new details of its plans to allow Covid-19-vaccinated foreign nationals to travel to the United States again starting November 8, including details on which vaccines will be permitted and who will be exempted from requirements.
The change will relax a patchwork of bans that had begun to cause fury abroad and replace them with more uniform requirements for inbound international air passengers. It will come as welcome news to the travel industry, which had been lobbying the federal government to lift some of the rules preventing international tourism, as well as airlines, hotels and hospitality groups.
On Monday, the administration released three documents specifically related to the forthcoming air travel requirements, including a presidential proclamation establishing the requirements, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orders on vaccines, testing and contact tracing, and technical instructions for implementation.
The new documents, a senior administration official told reporters, “will help airlines and travelers get ready for November 8, and ensure a smooth transition to the new system.”
The guidance for land border travel is also expected soon and will likely mirror the rules for air travel.
The administration defines “fully vaccinated” non-citizen, non-immigrant air travelers as those who have received US-approved or World Health Organization-approved vaccines. Per the CDC, that includes “vaccines currently approved or authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson [J&J]/Janssen COVID-19 vaccines)” as well as “COVID-19 vaccines that have been listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization (such as AstraZeneca/Oxford).”
The administration is “well aware” that there are other Covid-19 vaccines not on the list, a second senior administration official said, and some of those other vaccines are under review by the WHO.
Those travelers will need to show proof of vaccine status from an “official source,” per the White House fact sheet. The US will accept digital copies of vaccine certificates that align with US requirements, the second official said.
And children under 18 are exempt from the vaccination requirement, the second senior official said.
There are a few other rare vaccination exceptions, the White House fact sheet said. That includes “certain Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial participants, those with medical contraindications to the vaccines, those who need to travel for emergency or humanitarian reasons (with a US government-issued letter affirming the urgent need to travel), those who are traveling on non-tourist visas from countries with low-vaccine availability (as determined by the CDC), and other very narrow categories.”
That list of about 50 exempt countries with low vaccine availability is regularly updated by the WHO, the second senior official noted, and will require a “specific, compelling” reason for travel, per the first official. The list will be assessed quarterly. The medical exemption applies to those who have had “severe anaphylactic allergic reactions to a prior Covid vaccine,” the second senior official said.
Those with exemptions will represent, the first senior official said, a “very, very small number of actual travelers to US cities.”
The administration has also tightened its requirements for testing. Unvaccinated US citizens, legal permanent residents, and travelers “will need to provide a negative test taken within one day of traveling,” per a fact sheet from the White House. Children under two years of age do not need to test, the second official said. If a child age 2 to 18 is traveling with a vaccinated adult, they can test three days prior to departure.
The new guidelines, the White House said, will require all airlines flying into the US to keep contact information for contact tracing and turn it over “promptly” to the CDC when needed.
US travel bans were first imposed in the earliest days of the pandemic when then-President Donald Trump limited travel from China in January 2020. That step failed to prevent the virus from reaching the United States, but additional countries were added to the list as health officials pressed the White House to limit entry from places where case rates were high.
Trump added countries in the Schengen Zone — which encompasses 26 states in Europe, including France, Germany and Italy — along with Ireland and the United Kingdom. Brazil, South Africa and India were added separately. Land borders with Canada and Mexico were also closed.
President Joe Biden had maintained the strict bans on nonessential travel, even as vaccination rates in Europe ticked upward, citing the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the emergence of the Delta variant.
But the system proved infuriating to European governments, whose countries’ citizens were still barred entry to the United States even as those nations brought their case counts down amid successful vaccination campaigns. Countries with higher case totals that were not on the list were not subject to the rules.
Over the course of the past months, travel restrictions on people wishing to enter the United States had devolved into a major transatlantic rift. European leaders, frustrated at the apparent lack of progress, began taking their gripes public. They said the rules were damaging relations between Europe and the United States.
The new rules, the White House said, would be rolled out in a phased approach. The first phase will kick off in early November and will allow fully vaccinated visitors traveling for nonessential reasons, like visiting friends or for tourism, to cross US land borders.
The second phase will start in early January 2022 and will apply the vaccination requirement to all inbound foreign travelers.
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