The New COVID International Travel Rules
International travel over the last year and a half has been heavily restricted with a myriad of rules and regulations, formal and informal, that have frustrated international travelers. Starting November 8th, there is a simplified set of rules for international travelers to follow.
The Biden Administration has shifted much of the responsibility for determining international travel rules and regulations from the Department of State to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Up to date information from the CDC can be found here. Always consult the CDC website before traveling during the COVID pandemic.
The Rule: Vaccination is Mandatory
In general, the majority of people traveling into the United States starting November 8, 2021 must be fully vaccinated with a vaccine recognized by the CDC (generally, those vaccines that are approved by the U.S. FDA or the WHO). Travelers must present proof of vaccination to the airline when traveling. Fully vaccinated usually means that at least 14 days have passed since the final dose of the vaccine was received.
A negative COVID test within 3 days of boarding the plane to the United States is still required even for vaccinated travelers. People who have recently recovered from COVID may be able to bypass this requirement. The CDC has authority to update this requirement at its discretion.
Wearing a mask during travel is also still a requirement for vaccinated travelers. The CDC also has authority to update this requirement at its discretion.
This rule supersedes other various travel restrictions and country-specific restrictions that have existed over the course of 2020 and 2021, which means that travelers who have already obtained national interest exceptions or other permission to travel may not rely on those NIEs or permissions because they are subject to the new vaccination rule.
Some Limited Exceptions Exist
There are some exceptions to the general rule. The vaccine mandate will not apply to the following groups of travelers:
Children under 18 years old.
Those with medical needs for an exemption as recognized by the CDC.
Citizens of foreign countries where the availability of COVID-19 vaccination is limited, and the limited availability is acknowledged by the CDC (currently, countries with less than 10% vaccination rate qualify). Note that B1/B2 visitors from these countries will likely still be denied entry until they are able to obtain the vaccine. A current list of countries can be found here.
Participants in certain clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines.
Anyone granted an exception from the CDC for humanitarian or emergency reasons.
Members of the United States Armed Forces or their spouses or children.
Crew members of airlines or aircraft operators as long as they are adhering to all industry standard protocols (which may include vaccination anyway).
Certain A, C, G, NATO, and a very limited group of E-1 visa holders.
Sea crew members on C-1 and D nonimmigrant visas.
Certain travelers traveling under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement or traveling because of a United States legal obligation.
Any noncitizen or group of noncitizens whose entry would be in the national interest. Note: Some people still hold unexpired National Interest Exceptions (NIEs), but those NIEs are no longer valid because the rule that created them is no longer in effect and has been replaced by the new November 8th travel rule. To apply for entry under this exception, a new NIE application will be required.
Additional Note: Asylum applicants and those seeking the protection of the United States to continue making their applications according to established procedures.
At this time, religious exceptions are not generally recognized and are not a separate reason on this list.
Even if a person is admitted to the United States under one of these exceptions, they are subject to stricter rules than vaccinated travelers. These stricter rules are:
Test within 1 day of boarding the plane (children under 2 years old are exempt from the testing requirement);
Quarantine for 7 days; and
Get another COVID test 3-5 days after entering the U.S.
These requirements may be updated, so travelers should check the CDC website before traveling.
There is also a requirement in the Executive Order establishing this new travel rule that anyone admitted to the United States must agree to become vaccinated within 60 days once they are here in the U.S. There are some exceptions, such as for those only staying briefly, minor children, participants in medical trials, people who need a medical exception, etc. Travelers should be aware that vaccination is expected even if they are admitted to the U.S. under one of the exceptions, unless vaccination is impossible for a reason recognized by the CDC.
Visa Stamping Will Resume
The new rules only apply to international travelers, and they expressly do not affect visa issuance. This means that the issuance of visa stamps will no longer be stopped for applicants that do not qualify for national interest exceptions. Consular operations may still be impacted by limited staffing, so operations may not be fully back to normal. For those people who had visa interviews over the last year or so but never received their visa, those backlogged visas should start to be issued. Consultations with Waypoint Immigration are available for any visa applicant who needs assistance in getting the visa process moving after a long wait.
This article provides a summary of the law and generalizes some of the provisions in order to make the rules easy to read and understand. There are nuances in the law that are not fully captured here. For anyone that believes an exception applies to them and intends to rely on that exception, Waypoint Immigration recommends consulting with an attorney. The same is true for anyone who believes that they cannot travel because they do not see an exception applying to them in this article. Additional possibilities may exist in rare circumstances.