Key learning points
- All persons 2 years and older must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane to the US
- The CDC now requires travelers to take the test within a day of departure, rather than within three days, as was previously allowed.
- People who use transport services, such as planes and trains, must also continue to wear face-covering clothing until mid-March.
From December 6, all airline passengers traveling to the United States must show a negative COVID-19 test from one day before departure before boarding their flight.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened the testing window from three days to one. All travelers two years or older must present a negative test result, regardless of vaccination status or citizenship.
The one-day test requirement offers more flexibility than a 24-hour rule. For example, someone who wants to travel on Monday at 5 p.m. can submit a test on Sunday at 8 a.m.
“In general, the closer your test is to a specific activity you’re testing for, the more valuable it will be,” Amesh Adalja, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell. . “A test that is three days old is less valuable than the test that is one day old when it comes to detecting and preventing transmission.”
People who have recently recovered from COVID-19 can opt out of the testing requirement by presenting proof of recovery, such as a positive COVID-19 test within 90 days of the flight, and a note from a healthcare provider or public health official showing that they are free to travel.
Under the updated international travel restrictions introduced in November, the CDC is asking US airlines to collect contact tracing information from international travelers.
The Biden administration also extended a mask mandate for people traveling on planes, buses, trains and other transportation services until March 18, 2022. The original mandate was set to end in mid-January.
The stricter travel rules come about a week after the White House imposed travel bans on South Africa and seven other countries in the neighboring region over concerns about the Omicron variant. US citizens and permanent residents are exempt from the ban.
Which key to choose?
The CDC accepts many viral tests that are approved for use by the country where it is administered. Types of tests accepted include:
- reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing
- reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP) assays
- transcription-mediated amplification (TMA) tests
- nicking enzyme amplification reaction (NEAR) tests
- helicase-dependent amplification (HDA) assays.
Travelers can use rapid tests at home that have received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, such as BinaxNOW and QuickVue. These home tests should be administered under the real-time supervision of a telehealth provider affiliated with the test manufacturer. The telehealth provider must be able to confirm the person’s identity, observe him taking the test and confirm the test result.
While PCR tests are generally very sensitive, it can take anywhere from 24 hours to several days to receive results. Antigen tests, also known as rapid tests, can provide results in as little as 15 minutes.
When it comes to choosing the right test, Adalja said, “the fastest and easiest is the best to get.”
To know if a traveler is passing the virus on to others, antigen testing is enough, Adalja said. Individuals experiencing symptomatic disease should undergo a PCR test to know if they need treatment and self-isolation.
“If you’re just trying to ask, ‘Am I safe to be on an airplane, am I safe to be in this area, or am I safe to do this activity?’ then an antigen test is sufficient in an asymptomatic person,” said Adalja.
Rapid tests are available at many major airports, but they can be costly. Pharmacies, health clinics or supervised home testing can offer cheaper alternatives.
For more information on which COVID-19 safety protocol and requirements, you can also check the website of the airline you plan to fly with. Some international airlines provide information on where to get a COVID-19 test near the departure airport.
Other Safe Travel Considerations
The most important thing travelers can do to protect themselves and minimize the chances of spreading COVID-19 is to get fully vaccinated, Adalja said. Increasing vaccination coverage worldwide can also minimize the emergence of new viral variants.
“We can test, trace, isolate, it’s all important. But this problem of variants will always be there as long as there’s a part of the world that isn’t vaccinated enough,” Adalja said.
The CDC recommends that all people entering the U.S. from abroad be tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival. Unvaccinated people must remain in quarantine for a minimum of seven days, the agency said.
What this means for you?
If you’re traveling internationally, make sure to read the COVID-19 regulations of the airline you’re flying with. If you plan to fly to the US, you must take a negative test within one day of departure. As experts learn about the portability of the Omicron variant, you should be prepared for travel restrictions and requirements to change.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available as you read this. For the latest updates on COVID-19, please visit our coronavirus news page.