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CDC Imposes COVID Testing Requirement for All International Travel to the United States

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered that starting January 26, 2021, airline passengers boarding flights to the United States from abroad will only be permitted to board an aircraft if they have received a negative COVID test result within three calendar days prior to departure, or if they can provide documentation of recovery from COVID and clearance for travel.

The new requirements expand on a similar order issued in December requiring testing for travel from the United Kingdom. Both orders have been issued in response to increased concern regarding new variants of COVID-19 and the global status of the COVID public health emergency.

The CDC order expires on the earliest of the following: 1) the end of the COVID national public health emergency as determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services; 2) revision or rescission of the order by the CDC; or 3) December 31, 2021.

Who is subject

Airline passengers ages two and older, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, are subject to the new requirements. Exemptions exist for some airline crew members and aircraft operators, as well as some federal law enforcement personnel.

The order

Starting January 26, airline passengers must comply with the following in order to board an aircraft departing any foreign country for the United States —

  • Travel in possession of:
    • a negative COVID-19 viral test result obtained within three calendar days of the flight’s departure (if arriving via a connecting flight, each connection must be less than 24 hours and booked as a single passenger record); or
    • “Documentation of Recovery,” meaning written or electronic documentation of a positive viral test result that occurred within the prior three months (90 days) confirming previous COVID infection, and a letter from a licensed health care provider or public health official stating that the passenger has been cleared for travel; and
  • Provide an attestation prior to boarding an aircraft that the passenger has received a negative test or has recovered/been cleared for travel as detailed above. The airline will provide the attestation template, which may be incorporated into an online check-in process.

The CDC states that the “Documentation of Recovery” option is being provided because the agency does not recommend retesting for COVID-19 within three months after the date of symptoms onset (or after the date of diagnosis, if the individual was asymptomatic).

Travelers must retain their testing and recovery documentation for potential review by the airline or a government authority. Airlines are required to retain passenger attestations for two years and to ensure that all passengers meet CDC requirements for boarding. Both individual passengers and airlines are subject to criminal penalties for noncompliance with the CDC order.

No impact on regional COVID-19 public health bans for certain foreign nationals

At this time, the COVID-19 regional public health travel ban restrictions remain in place for certain foreign nationals who have been physically present in specified countries within 14 days prior to travel to the United States. Currently, there are regional bans in place for travel from Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, the Schengen Area, and the United Kingdom.  

Foreign nationals subject to these bans must either spend more than 14 days in a non-banned country prior to travel to the United States, or obtain a national interest exception to the regional COVID ban. If they satisfy one of these options, then they must also satisfy the CDC testing requirements set out above in order to board an aircraft to the United States.

After travel

The CDC frequently updates its guidelines for quarantine and activities after travel, which can be located on the agency website. Guidance includes recommendations on post-travel testing and self-quarantine.

State and local requirements may also apply after international or domestic travel; travelers should frequently check any rules in place for their destination U.S. State or local area.

What it means

The CDC order will require travelers to engage in additional advance planning in order to ensure they are permitted to board an aircraft for travel to the United States.

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