Washington: More than a year and a half after COVID-19 concerns prompted the US to close its borders to international travellers from countries including Brazil, China, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and much of Europe, restrictions are shifting to focus on vaccine status.
Beginning Monday, bans on travel from specific countries are over. The US will allow in international travellers, but they must be vaccinated with a few exceptions.
The US is also reopening the land borders with Canada and Mexico for vaccinated people. Most trips from Canada and Mexico to the US are by land rather than air.
Here are some questions and answers about the changes:
Why are these changes happening?
The goal is to restore more normal travel while limiting the spread of COVID-19, the government says. The travel industry and European allies have pushed for an end to country-specific bans. Americans have been allowed to fly to Europe for months, and Europeans have been pushing the US to change its policies.
In 2019, before the pandemic, about one-fifth of the roughly 79 million visitors to the US came from Europe.
What are the main requirements?
All adult foreign nationals travelling to the US must be fully vaccinated before boarding their flight. Like before, travellers will still have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure to the US.
Everyone needs to be vaccinated?
Yes, with some exceptions. Children under 18 don't need to be vaccinated but they do need to take a COVID test. Kids of age 2 and younger are exempt from testing requirements.
What about adults who aren't vaccinated?
Since half the world remains unvaccinated, and vaccine distribution has been so skewed to rich countries, the Biden administration is leaving a loophole for people who live in countries where vaccines are scarce. That list includes about 50 countries where fewer than 10% of people have been vaccinated. Travellers from those countries will need permission from the US government to come, and it can't be just for tourism or business travel.
The US government says it will permit unvaccinated international visitors to enter the country if there is a humanitarian or emergency reason, such as an emergency medical evacuation. Those exceptions will be applied extremely narrowly and require approval from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. There could also be a medical exception, with documentation from a doctor.
What will Americans have to do?
Americans who are unvaccinated have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of international travel. If you're vaccinated, you need to take a test within three days of your departure, for both Americans and citizens of other countries. This does not apply to flights within the US.
Who is going to enforce the vaccine rules?
That's up to airlines. They will have to verify vaccine records and match them against ID, and if they don't, they could face fines of up to nearly $35,000 per violation. Airlines will also collect information about passengers for contact tracing efforts. There will be CDC workers spot-checking travellers for compliance in the US.
Which vaccines will let you in?
Most but not all of them. Any COVID-19 vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, which include the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines used in the US as well as most used overseas, such as AstraZeneca and China's Sinovac. Not currently allowed is Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, which is authorized in 70 countries. The WHO is reviewing Sputnik but hasn't approved it.
What if you drive in from Mexico or Canada, or take a ferry?
The land borders have only been open for essential travel. Now, anyone can come, if they're vaccinated against COVID. Be prepared to show proof of the shot to Customs and Border Protection agents. Children are exempt from the requirement.
How will this affect travel?
While the administration is characterizing this as a reopening, some people who were technically allowed to fly to the US earlier in the pandemic are now blocked because of their vaccination status. Other roadblocks to normal travel resuming are big delays in issuing US visas, which people in most countries need to visit the US for business and tourism, and restrictions in other countries that make travel difficult.
Even though people coming from China will now be allowed into the US, for example, not many are expected to travel because of restrictions at home. Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists were a lucrative market for the US travel industry.
Industry experts do expect a big influx in people flying from Europe, and hope that a broader recovery in travel follows as more people globally get vaccinated, US visa processing speeds up, other countries lift their own restrictions and people feel less scared about getting COVID because of travel.