As we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic, the U.S. has implemented a new testing requirement for citizens returning to the country. As of Jan. 26, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires all international air travelers returning to the U.S. to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure.
Without a doubt, this latest requirement complicates international travel. If you fail to provide negative results — or end up testing positive — you'll want to know how to safely navigate international travel during the age of the coronavirus.
What you should know about the new international travel requirement
This new requirement affects all international travelers by air — including U.S. citizens and permanent residents — 2 years of age or older. You must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test result for all return travel from all foreign countries. Exclusions include U.S. territories and possessions, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The order went into effect on Jan. 26, 2021, with no clear end date. As vaccines are still in the very early stages of distribution, this requirement will likely last for the foreseeable future.
You must take a COVID-19 test within 3 days of your flight departure
What's especially tricky about this requirement is the testing window: The test must be taken three days before the flight's departure date. For example, you can take a test anytime on Tuesday for a flight departing on a Friday. Instead of mandating a 72-hour rule, the three-day testing window offers flexibility if you're unable to meet the testing requirement under the exact hour.
If your flight is delayed and causes your test results to fall more than 24 hours outside the three-day testing window, you must get retested before boarding the flight.
Testing requirement affects connecting flights, too
If you're merely passing through the U.S. for a connecting flight to a different country, you will still need to present negative COVID-19 test results before boarding your connecting flight. Similarly, if you have one or more connecting flights to the U.S., the test can be taken within three days before the departure of your first leg. Keep in mind that if your flight has multiple legs and incorporates one or more overnight stays in the U.S., you will need to be retested to satisfy the three-day testing window.
In the event that your connecting flight is delayed due to weather, a mechanical problem or other related circumstances, you will need to get another test if the delay leads to your test expiring outside of the three-day window by more than 48 hours.
Both rapid and PCR tests are accepted — so long as they're viral tests
The coronavirus test must be administered with a viral test, which checks specimens from your nose or with saliva. Thankfully, this definition is broad and encompasses many types of tests. Both the antigen test and nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) are acceptable, meaning that rapid tests are valid so long as it's a viral test. At-home test kits that are approved by the country's national health authorities will work, too.
Once you obtain your results, you can provide written proof of your laboratory test result with a paper or electronic copy. Your test results should display your name, specimen collection date and the type of test taken. It is the airline's responsibility to check your results before boarding.
Exemptions to this testing requirement
Besides children under the age of 2, who else is exempt from this requirement? The only other exemption is travelers who have tested positive within the last three months, as long as you don't have any COVID-19 symptoms. In this case, you can present "documentation of recovery" instead — which includes your positive viral test results and a letter from a health care provider or public health official clearing you for travel.
Even as more of the population gets vaccinated, this won't excuse you from taking a COVID-19 test. At this time, travelers with vaccines or antibodies from previous infection will still need to comply with this requirement.
In the event of an emergency, exemptions may be granted to forgo the testing requirement. But this will only occur in absolutely dire circumstances. Therefore, all international travelers must be ready to take a COVID-19 test before returning to the U.S.
After your arrival to the United States
Once you've successfully boarded your flight and have returned safely to your destination in the U.S., the CDC recommends all travelers to get tested three to five days after travel and self-quarantine for the full seven days. If you don't get tested, the CDC strongly urges you to self-quarantine for 10 days and monitor symptoms.
Tips on traveling internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic
The effects of the international testing measure are twofold: it's meant to curb the spread and reduce international travel. While this testing requirement can be tricky, there are multiple measures you can take to ensure a smooth travel experience. Here are some tips to help you navigate international travel during the pandemic:
Your destination may provide testing on-site
Beyond increased cleaning, mask-wearing and social distancing rules, the tourism industry continually adapts to these changes. To put travelers' minds at ease, many resorts have started offering tests compliant with the new testing guidelines. For instance, you can get a rapid antigen test for as little as $30 at the Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort or $220 for a PCR test.
Some resorts have gone further to offer free testing to incentivize travelers. The Palace Resorts in Jamaica offers free COVID-19 testing for up to two guests per room with results in just 30 minutes. You will need to stay for three nights minimum. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism offers free viral antigen testing to all travelers staying at hotels until March 31, 2021.
If you're staying at a hotel or resort while traveling internationally, it's worth checking to see if they offer complimentary or on-site testing for their guests. If not, they should be able to point you in the right direction on where to schedule a testing appointment.
Book your travel plans with a travel agency or tour operator
Before the pandemic, booking travel had never been easier with an endless number of cheap flight websites and online travel blogs.
Now, planning travel — especially international trips — can be tough to navigate. We recommend booking with a travel agency or with a tour operator located in the country in which you're traveling, as they'll be able to provide specific information related to the coronavirus. If there's a language barrier, it can be tough to find up-to-date information on curfews or travel restrictions.
Some destinations like Morocco are letting tourists into the country but require official travel plans and legal paperwork to travel between cities. Without the guidance of a tour guide, it would be almost impossible to get the proper documentation. A travel company can also schedule your coronavirus test appointment at the local hospital even before you arrive.
Purchase travel insurance
Many travel rewards cards come with complimentary trip cancellation and interruption insurance. However, when it comes to the coronavirus, you'll want to purchase additional travel insurance for COVID-19 coverage.
While "cancel for any reason" coverage is most likely not necessary for most people, it's a good idea to purchase travel insurance that offers emergency medical evacuation or assistance for COVID-19-related reasons.
Have a backup plan
If you test positive for the coronavirus while traveling abroad, you'll need to have a backup plan and be prepared to quarantine until you recover. You'll need to account for this additional expense to pay for your isolation period until it is safe to fly home. Again, purchasing travel insurance may help reimburse you for some costs if you do test positive.
Testing requirements for countries open to U.S. travelers
Even before this testing requirement, many foreign countries have already implemented entry restrictions and quarantine requirements for U.S. travelers. The CDC provides a detailed map with up-to-date information on international travel. You should cross-check here to assess your risk level for COVID-19.
Below, we've provided a list of some international destinations where U.S. citizens can travel without a formal quarantine. Although you may be able to enter these countries, you should further research any restrictions in the country. This information is accurate as of Jan. 29, 2021.
- Aruba: You will need to provide proof of a negative result from a molecular COVID-19 test taken 72 hours prior to departure. Children 14 years of age and under are exempt from this requirement. You will need to upload your results no later than 12 hours prior to your departure on your online embarkation/disembarkation form. You can find more information here.
- Costa Rica: Although there's no test required to enter Costa Rica, you will need to fill out an online Health Pass form 48 hours before boarding and purchase health insurance that will cover quarantine and medical expenses. You can find more information here.
- Dominican Republic: There's no test required to enter the Dominican Republic, although passengers ages 5 and over will be randomly selected to take a quick breath test. You'll also undergo a temperature check upon arrival. You can find more information here.
- Ecuador: You must present proof of a negative result taken from a PCR test no more than 10 days before entering the country. You can find more information here.
- Kenya: You must provide a negative PCR test result taken 96 hours prior to travel. The Kenyan Ministry of Health also requires outgoing travelers to obtain a negative PCR test result. You can find more information here.
- Mexico: A negative COVID-19 test result is not required to enter Mexico. You can find more information here.
- Morocco: All travelers entering Morocco must provide a negative test result from a PCR test taken 72 hours prior to departure. Children under the age of 11 are exempt from this requirement. You will also need to present official travel plans upon arrival, such as documentation from a Moroccan tour company or accommodation details. You can find more information here.
- Peru: You must present a negative result from a molecular or antigen test no more than 72 hours before boarding the plane. Children under 12 can present a certificate of health from a doctor instead. You can find more information here.
- Serbia: You will need to present a negative result from a PCR test taken 48 hours prior to departure. Children up to 12 years of age are exempt from this requirement. You can find more information here.
- St. Lucia: All travelers 5 years and older must present a negative result from a PCR test taken no more than seven days before arrival. Travelers above the age of 18 must complete and submit a Travel Registration form. You can find more information here.
Do you need a negative COVID-19 test to enter the U.S.?
Yes. If you fly from a foreign country to the United States, you will need to present a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding. The test must be taken within three days of your flight departure.
Do I need a PCR test to enter the U.S. from abroad?
No, rapid tests are acceptable in addition to PCR tests. It's worth noting, however, that many countries with entry requirements will require proof from a PCR test rather than a rapid test. While rapid test results can grant you entry back into the country, note that you'll likely need to take a PCR test to enter foreign countries.
What do I need to know about getting tested for COVID-19 before an international flight?
You must take a viral test three days before your flight departure and present the negative results at the airport. If your flight is delayed, you may have to retake your test if it falls more than 24 hours outside of the three-day window. Children under 2 are exempt from this requirement. Those who have recently tested positive in the past three months can substitute their positive test results and a letter from a health care official clearing them for travel. The CDC strongly recommends that you quarantine for seven days and take a test within three to five days of arrival — otherwise, you should quarantine for 10 days if you're unable to take another test.
Do I have to quarantine when I get back from traveling internationally?
Currently, a formal quarantine is not legally required after traveling internationally. However, the CDC strongly recommends that all international travelers get tested three to five days after travel and self-quarantine for seven days after travel. If you don't get tested, the CDC recommends self-quarantining for 10 days.
If I'm already vaccinated, do I still need to present a negative COVID-19 test when traveling internationally?
Yes. At this time, all travelers — even those who are vaccinated — will need to abide by this new testing requirement if traveling internationally.
If I've already had coronavirus in the past, do I still need to present a negative test when traveling internationally?
It depends. If you've tested positive for the coronavirus with a viral test in the last three months, you can present a "documentation of recovery" instead. You'll need to present these positive test results and a letter from your health care provider or a public health official clearing you for travel. But if you've had coronavirus more than three months ago, you will need to comply with this new testing requirement.
What happens if I test positive while traveling internationally?
If you test positive, you will be ordered to self-isolate and delay your travel until you can get tested again and receive a negative result. All international travelers should prepare ahead in case this situation occurs.
If you decide to travel internationally, it's important to fully understand what's required of you before returning home. Testing will become the new norm, and the Biden administration is even considering adding this requirement to domestic air travel, too.
Regardless, you'll want to prepare for the worst-case scenario — testing positive while abroad — as you'll need to isolate and delay travel until you test negative. Thankfully, the travel industry has been gearing up for this new requirement, making it easier than ever for travelers to access testing. You can check with your airline, airport, hotel or travel agency to plan ahead. It's also a good idea to invest in travel insurance that can protect you in the event of any medical emergencies.